How Do I Create a Learning Organization?

Advice from The Sherwins for December 2018

Stacking Knowledge Image


Hey Sherwins!

I work at a small startup in the Bay Area, and we’ve finally gotten to the point where we have solid funding and a few years of runway ahead of us. Since we aren’t freaking out about money all the time, our founder is starting to think more long-term. He’s decided that for 2019, along with our big product goals, we should be thinking about being more of a “learning organization”. I’m in charge of figuring that out… whatever that is. I have a few guidelines, but really, I’m just asking for help. I have no idea how to think about this in a way that doesn’t sound like bullshit.

B, Pretty Close to San Francisco

Hi B, thanks for writing to us. And congrats on your company being stable enough to think about the future.

You have come to the right place. First off, we love helping people bridge the gap between the fuzzy strategic and the concrete tactical stuff. (Translation: We hate bullshit too.) Second, we’re teachers, so learning is near and dear to our hearts. So we’re going to give you a few specifics to work with that will give you some room to maneuver over the next few months.

But first, a note about learning. Anything that you’ve learned in your life has two important characteristics. It influences how you think or act, and it can be built upon.

When we talk about influence, we mean that unless it changes how you think or act, whatever you’ve uncovered isn’t learning. It’s just information.

When we ask people about things they’ve learned, what we often get in response is a kind of vague gesturing with faint praise. We hear things like “I learned about hard work from Wes.” For us, this really isn’t learning. The first step is being able to describe what Wes does that signals “hard work” to you (and which is also valuable to Wes). The second step is mapping that to your own behaviors and making changes, even if the change is just doing more of what you already do.

The building half of learning is the trickiest, but probably the more relevant characteristic for what you’ve been tasked with, B. Within a corporate context, building on what you’re learning requires a shared sense of curiosity and initiative. Building requires others. Here’s a thing that you learned. Where does that point you? What’s the next step? Who would benefit from what you’ve learned? To build a learning organization the company must understand that the concept of value, when it comes to what is learned, shifts from person to person. It’s not necessarily valuable to the person who acquired it first. It’s dangerous to assume what’s useful and beneficial to others without asking them.

Keeping the above in mind, here are three specifics to get your new learning organization off to a great start next year.

1. Add learning to your job descriptions

We rarely see job descriptions that talk about learning. No “continually improve skills around <fill in the blank>”, no “develop and maintain a learning plan for professional growth”. Nothing. Without this as part of your role and responsibilities, companies can send the message that they’re only interested in potential employees right now as a peg for a hole. It can also send the message that the company doesn’t really have a career path for you.

That’s not to say that these companies don’t have org charts and stuff like that. You can clearly see where you’re going, so long as you’re looking at titles. Today you’re a “Junior Whatever You Are Now”, but soon, you’ll be a “Senior What You Were Before”, maybe even a “Director of What You Were Before”. But titles aren’t career paths. They’re just titles.

With learning in the job description, people know before they walk in the door where the company stands. Even if your title doesn’t change, you are expected to grow professionally. It’s not just about software or processes. It’s less “learn Maya better”, and more “increase the effective knowledge of the company around our competitive space, then leverage that knowledge effectively in our projects”. Specifically, how will each employee learn that information and integrate it into their work? And how will they demonstrate what they’ve learned to their managers? Stick the answers to those two questions together, slim it down, and stick it in your job descriptions.

For bonus points, you can even add requirements around teaching others or the transferring of knowledge to a team. Which leads us to our second point…

2. Make hoarding knowledge against the rules

Hoarding knowledge is a terrible thing. Keeping knowledge that one has acquired from others provides a false sense of indispensability to employees. And because the group that controls knowledge also controls growth, hoarding limits the overall growth of the company. The longer it takes someone to find what they need in order to make a critical decision, the longer it takes for others to act. Not so good for startups, or any team really. (Of course, we’re talking about internal knowledge here, not blasting out company secrets on Medium.)

As a side note, maintaining the exclusivity of knowledge—the need to keep it secret—eventually overshadows the value of the knowledge itself. There’s a handful of politicians, a few dozen rom-coms, and several million teenagers available as examples to prove this.

If you want to reduce knowledge hoarding, you’ll have to increase cross-functional communication. But don’t just have a slew of unfocused meetings about what each team has learned. Some places have sharing meetings if their schedules allow, but most people don’t want another meeting. Instead, add a space within your existing rituals to allow for people to share what they’ve learned and to ask how others might utilize it. It can be an extra question during critique, a single slide during presentations, or an additional thirty seconds to a retrospective. Anything to spark discussion and convey to people that learning happens all the time, not just during a magical time on Tuesdays.

How can you encourage sharing without people making arbitrary decisions about what’s useful and what’s not for others? This goes back to the concept of value that we talked about earlier, and relates to our next point…

3. Have a place and a process for the capture and transfer of knowledge

We ask teams that we work with: If an employee needs to learn something, where do they go? The response usually falls in one of two camps. They mention a person by name, or they mention an internal website.

It is not enough to have a knowledge-keeper. The human brain is a remarkable thing, but for retaining corporate know-how, it’s a ticking time bomb. Your organization is one amazing offer (or one car accident) away from losing that person. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the size of the time bomb is related to seniority. It isn’t. Trust us. The quicker you can develop a system for capturing and transferring information, the easier it will be to reduce the knowledge impact of a departure.

It is not enough to have an internal website. It’s also not enough to send an email to all employees saying, “Look, we have an internal website.” Again, that’s just information. You can’t just tell people to fill out a form when they finish a project. You need to give people a reason to go to that website, a way to use what they find there, and a way for them to report to others that using the website was worth it. Without those things, people are not going to contribute to it. It’ll feel like doing a book report, except that it only benefits the principal. You can only get so far asking people to do things “for the good of the company”.

If your team is eager enough, and adventurous enough, have them ask how others can use information presented in your rituals and meetings. It will take time to get good answers, mostly because people don’t get asked this very often. Think of this as your research to find out how other people in the company learn, how other teams utilize the work of others, and how to build a system that everyone can contribute to and benefit from.

Make sure that every team, in every function, is doing this sharing equally. Don’t let developers or engineers or designers or marketers say that what they’re doing is either so complicated or so different from what others are doing that it’s not useful. They don’t get to make that decision. After all, that’s just another way of hoarding knowledge. Besides, not telling other people how you’ve learned from the work of others is also hoarding. When others understand how you learn and what you need in order to learn, the easier it is for them to help you.

What we’ve given you here, B, is enough to get a good foundation in place. It will take time. It’s inspiring that your organization wants to take this on—there aren’t many we’ve encountered that are willing to change how they work in order to reap the benefits of being a learning organization. But employees are ready for it. They’re ready to not have their work reduced to ashes because they couldn’t find the latest research on their intranet. They’re ready to see that they have a role in their own growth rather than feeling like a cog in a machine that just grows additional teeth with age. And like you, they’re ready to see that the phrase “learning organization” can be more than just a cheesy platitude.

And though this is coming at the end of the year, know that you can help your company make these changes whenever you want. It’s just like resolutions for the New Year. Anything worth resolving doesn’t need a date attached to it. You just need a motivation.

For you, B, right now, it’s the founder. But soon, you might find your own internal motivation. Learn from the work you do for him, and build on it to do the work you need for you.

Happy holidays and have a fantastic new year,
The Sherwins

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