by David A. Garvin

Book Excerpt: Learning in Action

Apr 02, 200715 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Your lack of leadership skills may be hindering the development of your knowledge workers. This book by David Garvin aims to help.

Creating a learning organization sounds good in theory. Try to find an executive who wouldn’t like more collaborative, innovative and knowledgeable workers, and a backbone of clearly defined, cost-cutting best practices. But putting the learning organization theory into practice is difficultespecially when it comes to leading this type of sweeping enterprisewide change. So how does one even begin creating the learning organization?

In his new book, Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work, Harvard Business School Professor David A. Garvin examines the challenges facing executives as they move toward creating and sustaining the learning organization, and offers real-world techniques and tools to help managers implement these new processes. Though Garvin notes acceptance of the learning organization model has been high, progress toward achieving the end has been slow. “Learning organizations have been embraced in theory but are still surprisingly rare.” What to do? “If executives hope to build learning organizations, they too must become more open to divergent views, more aware of their personal biases and more comfortable with raw, unfiltered data. “Otherwise,” Garvin explains, “they will never be able to lead others in learning.”

Today managers and leaders are considered to be very different. Managers are action oriented; they spend their days doing, delegating and deciding. Their eyes are on the present, and they measure success by skilled execution and effective implementation. Consistency and stability are the primary goals.

Leaders, on the other hand, focus on the future; they spend their time setting targets, developing strategies, communicating vision and aligning individuals and departments. Change is the primary objective, and the challenge is to get all parts of the organization moving in the desired direction at a rapid enough rate. Clearly, companies need both managers and leaders to succeed, for together they ensure attention to both short- and long-term goals.

Yet enduring success requires that both groups broaden their horizons. Both need to add a new goal, “improving organizational learning,” to their already lengthy agendas. Superior intelligence gathering, experiential learning and experimentation are all required. Otherwise, atrophy and drift are inevitable. The challenge is great and becomes ever more pressing with time.

It is for this reason that learning is the key to long-term survival and growth, and that organizational effectiveness is so intimately linked to adaptability and flexibility.

Scholars have responded to the need for adaptable, flexible learning organizations by suggesting that executives devote more of their time to teaching. As one expert put it: “An organization cannot become a learning organization without first becoming a ‘teaching’ organization.” To that end, executives are urged to share their distinctive perspectives about their companies’ strategies, purposes and values. They are told to develop a “teachable point of view” that captivates and enlightens, communicating it to employees through stories and parables. They are instructed to lead management development sessions in which they share their own successes and failures and diffuse their favored approaches throughout the organization. Such prominent CEOs as Roger Enrico of PepsiCo, Jacques Nasser of Ford and Andy Grove of Intel have taken up this challenge, spending weeks of their time in face-to-face meetings with direct reports and other high-potential managers. There, they tell war stories, describe their personal philosophies and teach others to use their favorite tools and techniques.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching puts the instructor front and center. Concepts and ideas flow from the top down or the center out, and the focus is on knowledge transfer. Teachers are the experts; their role is to deliver content, communicate clear messages and instill better ways of working. Students are regarded as novices; their role is to absorb and accept. The effectiveness of the process is usually measured by the degree to which important information makes the trip from the first group to the second without distortion or loss.

A process designed to foster learning is quite different. New ways of thinking become the desired ends, not facts or frameworks. Discussion and debate replace ex cathedra pronouncements. Questions become as important as answers. And success, to use a currently popular phrase, is measured by the degree to which students “learn how to learn.” Because the focus shifts from transferring knowledge to developing organizational skills and capabilities, executives’ roles must change as well. They become shepherds of learning, responsible for creating supportive environments, probing for insights and deeper thinking and constructing settings where employees can collect, interpret and apply information. This, in turn, requires a significant shift in mind-set and attitudes.

Learning, after all, is simply another organizational process, not all that different from strategy formulation, product development or order fulfillment. Like other processes, it unfolds over time, has inputs and outputs, involves diverse departments and levels, and consists of interconnected activities and steps. And like other processes, it must be crafted and led. The concept of a “process owner” is as relevant to intelligence gathering, experiential learning and experimentation as it is to better-known operational and business processesand for many of the same reasons: lack of attention, diffused responsibility, fragmentation and inefficiency. According to one expert on reengineering: “Why did we design inefficient processes? In a way, we didn’t. Many of our procedures were not designed at all; they just happened.”

There are three primary tasks to developing the learning organization. First, leaders and managers must create opportunities for learning by designing settings and events that prompt the necessary activities. Second, they must cultivate the proper tone, fostering desirable norms, behaviors and rules of engagement. Third, they must personally lead the process of discussion, framing the debate, posing questions, listening attentively, and providing feedback and closure. Done properly, these three tasks go a long way toward building an organization’s enduring capacity for learning.

Creating the Opportunity

Today’s managers and employees are inundated with work. They have far too much to do and far too little time to do it. Head counts are down, while workloads continue to rise. Products and services are proliferating, markets are globalizing and technology is forcing radical changes. The pressure to produce is high and unrelenting. In such settings, the urgent frequently drives out the important, and learning becomes an unnecessary frill. It is easily postponed in the face of more immediate demands.

To raise its visibility, executives need to create learning forumsassignments, activities and events whose primary purpose is to foster learning. Think, by way of analogy, of the ancient Roman forum, a central gathering place where citizens discussed the great issues of the day. Organizations are equally in need of public and private settings where they can wrestle collectively with difficult questions.

Learning forums can take many other forms. They include systems audits, which review the health of large, cross-functional processes and delivery systems; internal benchmarking projects, which identify and compare best-in-class activities within an organization; and study missions, which dispatch employees to leading organizations around the world to better understand their performance and distinctive skills.

In more formal terms, executives must shift from a pure performance orientationin which results are all that matterto one that balances performance and learning goals. According to scholars, when people find themselves in settings such as the classroom or the workplace, they typically display one of two orientations. Some focus primarily on performance; their goal is to gain favorable evaluations from superiors and perform well relative to peers. Others focus primarily on learning; their goal is to increase their competence and skills and develop increased mastery of the task at hand.

While the two orientations are to some degree ingrained, they also reflect the surrounding environment. Psychologists have found that when teachers focus exclusively on results, respond negatively to errors and praise students for their innate abilities, they tend to encourage a performance orientation. When they pay attention to personal development, use errors as opportunities for improvement and praise students for their effort and hard work, they tend to encourage a learning orientation. The analogy to management should be obvious. Just as teachers are responsible for the environments of their classrooms, leaders are responsible for the climates of their organizations. For both short- and long-term success, they must attend to more than results alone. A performance orientation remains vitalotherwise, employees will engage in activity for activity’s sake, with little direction or designbut its impact can be magnified when coupled with efforts to stimulate more of a learning orientation.

Setting the Tone

All of these examples also show the importance of setting the proper tone. Learning is a difficult and delicate process: it will flower only if the climate is right. Participants face considerable uncertainty and risk. Politics and gamesmanship often impede the smooth flow of information. Partisanship can easily derail discussions. Learning, after all, is seldom an unmixed blessing. There are normally competing interests at stake, and some parties will benefit at the expense of others. Executives must therefore work hard to encourage objective, open-minded inquiry. Otherwise, even the best-designed forums will produce only limited insight.

There are several requirements, however. The atmosphere must be one of challenge, skepticism and doubt, so that easy, pat solutions are not accepted until they have been subjected to careful scrutiny. Participants must feel a sense of security so that they can stretch themselves in new directions without fear of failure, and incentives must support experimentation and risk taking. A sense of fairness must prevail, with no group feeling that its ideas are getting short shrift. And the rules of engagement must encourage the sharing of knowledge so that information is pooled and becomes common property. Cultivating such climates requires special sensitivities: extraordinary attention to context and tone, the ability to draw people out and a deep familiarity with the forces that drive learning.

This does not mean that executives should strive to create “warm and fuzzy” cultures that lack tension or pressure. Learning must be channeled and directed; otherwise, “the result is likely to be a series of random walks to personal enlightenment that do little for overall performance.” Ensuring that employees deal with difficult business issues is a vital part of the leader’s role. But challenges must be framed in ways that encourage inquiry and foster a learning orientation. Tough questions can be raised, but they must be framed in ways that draw participants into the problem. Neither stinging critiques nor fiery speeches are necessary. Instead, effective interventions typically take one of three forms: (1) tentative, partially developed proposals that stimulate discussion; (2) novel, unexpected questions that prompt new thinking; or (3) changes in processes and procedures that introduce contrary, dissenting views.

Challenge alone, however, is not enough to guarantee learning. Individuals also need a sense of security if they are to throw off old ways of thinking and acting. Fear of failure creates personal risk and vulnerability; both make it difficult to move forward. Some level of support is therefore required if the process is ever to get off the ground. Here, senior executives play a vital role, for they can personally shape the environment in ways that provide protection and support.

Leading the Discussion

Once leaders have created the desired climate, learning can begin in earnest. Whether the focus is intelligence gathering, or learning from experience or experimentation, some discussion is usually involved. In fact, virtually every example in this book involved intensive discussions at several points along the way. Findings were seldom self-evident. Meaning often had to be constructed, and participants usually found it necessary to engage actively with the material and with one another, debating alternatives until they reached a decision or conclusion.

Such discussions seldom proceed smoothly or of their own accord. They can easily derail, resulting in entrenched positions, superficial debate, finger-pointing, miscommunication and an inability to move forward. For real progress to occur, considerable shaping and direction are required. Someone has to lead the process. Skilled executives recognize that this is one of their primary responsibilities.

Three Keys to Discussion Success

To succeed at this process, executives need skills in three broad areas: questioning, listening and responding. All are tools of effective discussion leaders. And all can be used equally effectively in corporate settings.

Questions, for example, are enormously powerful tools for leading learning. They are the motive and force that gives shape to inquiry. Unfortunately, managers often treat questions as second-class citizens and regard them as a badge of ignorance. They prefer bold assertions and strong statements because they convey a sense of mastery and control. Yet questions are vital for moving groups forward. Good questions get to the heart of a matter; they force deep thinking and reflection. They must therefore be formulated with care and applied with a deft, sensitive touch.

To begin, it is important to recognize that not all questions are alike. They come in many forms and play diverse roles. There is no single best type of question; the preferred form depends on the situation and current needs. Questions can be used to frame issues, offer instructions, solicit information, probe for analysis, draw connections, seek opinions and ratify decisions.

In a similar fashion, questions should be designed to draw out assumptions and ensure that people are talking to one another rather than past each other. Discussions often founder needlessly because of unstated differences in meaning. Especially when groups span geographies or are composed of members with diverse backgrounds and experiences, even the simplest communication presents a challenge. Common problems include different uses of the same terms and different reference points. Lucent Technologies, for example, had considerable difficulty with a large software development project because programmers in New Jersey and Massachusetts used the word test so differently. Lucent is hardly alone. Misinterpretation is distressingly common.

The one thing people tend to take for granted when talking to others is that they understand each other. People often think they disagree when actually they simply are not talking about the same experiences. In such cases they do not draw each other out far enough to realize that, although they are using the same words, they are thinking about different experiences.

Such problems would disappear if discussion leaders, as well as participants, probed more actively for the roots of differing positions. Of course, skilled questioning is not enough to ensure that discussions are productive. If real learning is to occur, there must also be active listening. The two go hand in hand, like the blades of scissors.

Perhaps the most important is practicing patience. All too often, managers interrupt before others have finished, short-circuiting the learning process. They jump to conclusions, assuming that they have understood someone’s position before receiving a full briefing. Or they project so much of their own thinking into the conversation that the original message is lost.

In the same spirit, executives must learn to listen for “disconnects” during discussion. Effective communication requires a strong link between source and receiver. But these connections take work, as well as empathy and rapport. Members of a group must be willing to suspend their preconceptions long enough to internalize what others are actually saying. Here, a useful technique for leaders is to insist that participants repeat what they have just heard and then to ask the original speaker to verify that his or her point has been correctly stated. Only after participants have agreed that the message has been heard is debate allowed to begin.

If leaders did no more than ask questions and listen for answers, many discussions would eventually bog down. Executives must also be able to respondusually, on the spot and in real-time. An issue is raised, an opinion is ventured, an argument breaks out and all eyes turn to the most senior person in the room. How should she react if she hopes to stimulate learning? There are an almost infinite variety of choices and many paths to success. But there are also a few practices that should be avoided at all costs because they are extremely damaging.

Two of the most pernicious practices are “depreciation of the learner” and “drowning of the learner.” The former asserts an executive’s superiority by dumping cold water on anyone else’s comments; the latter asserts his expertise by responding to simple queries with prolonged, mind-numbing lectures. In both cases, further contributions are unlikely to be forthcoming.

From organizational to individual learning:

Without individuals who learn, there can be no learning organizations—they are, of course, essential for success. For executives, the first step in building a learning organization is a personal one. They need to develop these four skills as learners:

1. Openness to new perspectives

Openness requires that leaders accept the provisional nature of knowledge. Even long-established truths must eventually be revised and replaced. To remain current, they must continuously seek out competing concepts and evidence, wrestle with surprising and unfamiliar ideas, and consider new and unpopular points of view.

2. Awareness of personal biases

A second requirement for effective learning is an awareness of one’s personal biases. These biases may appear as distinctive cognitive styles or as pervasive learning disabilities. The former are unique to individuals, while the latter are common to all.

3. Exposure to unfiltered data

Leaders need a greater contact with raw, unfiltered data. Many executives are distressingly detached from the realities of their organizations. They need to tour factories, drop in on service centers, meet with disgruntled employees and talk with customers.

4. A sense of humility

Finally, if they are to progress as learners, leaders need to develop a sense of humility. They must recognize that they do not have all the answers. They must acknowledge that superior insights lie elsewhereoutside their offices, and at times outside their organizations. Learning, after all, is a profession of faith in the future, an admission that progress is possible.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Copyright 2000 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; all rights reserved.