The Importance of Being a Learning Organization and Some Pitfalls on the Way There

In our work with schools and systems, much of our efforts center on working with leaders to build capacity for organizational learning.  It's a core principle: the systems and schools we work with have it in their best interests to be learning organizations that respond and adapt quickly to complex, unpredictable, and fast changing contexts. 

HBR - Click to read the original article.

HBR - Click to read the original article.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats, looks at organizational learning, and, perhaps more importantly, at what failure to learn looks like in organizations. Their focus is of course, business, not education, but we tend to think of all organizations as being fairly similar when we're talking about professional culture and social capital—the ways in which humans work together in organizations to accomplish complex tasks. 

This assumption around similarity is backed up Gino and Staats. For them, organizational learning is key to staying competitive in the current marketplace. As educational consultants, our take on organizational learning is similar, but in addition to competitiveness, we often talk about relevance. Schools have to be learning organizations to remain relevant to their students, families and communities, and remain relevant in complex, fast-changing environments.

But there are many elements that block organizations from learning. In talking about the impediments to organizational learning, the authors point to four "biases"—people focusing too much on success, moving to action for action’s sake, trying too hard to fit in, and depending far too much on external expertise—that limit the organization's ability to learn.   

The authors say these biases represent “deeply ingrained human tendencies” that “interfere with learning” in any organization. They then offer ideas on how leaders might counter them. We think a close look at these four biases as a way for leaders to think about the culture of learning in their school or system.

The first bias has to do with an orientation toward success, which is quite understandable: who doesn't harbor a desire for success? But this desire often blinds us to learning from the actual challenges inherent in doing complex work. To counter this, say the authors, organizations should accept inevitable failures as opportunities to learn, encouraging their people to take reasonable risks, and they should emphasize Carol Dweck's growth mindset, constantly encouraging people to seek growth opportunities to better themselves—and by extension, improve the organization.

The second bias, like each bias the authors describe, seems counterintuitive on the surface: the bias of action.  Getting things done is crucial to any endeavor, but the authors are really talking about action for action's sake.  The problem with this bias is that it leads to some very predictable outcomes, the most obvious being exhaustion. Add to this the fact that the state of constant action also impedes the very important activity of reflection. The authors advise being careful to give people time to think and the encouragement of reflection after completing complex tasks.

A third bias, the bias toward fitting in, has to do with a natural inclination of people in any organizational setting - they want to fit in with peers or what they perceive as the professional norms within the organization. But here's the problem, and we can sometimes see it in educational settings: for Gino and Staats, when everyone is conforming—not standing out—what may actually be happening is that people are not fully using their talents and strengths. Problems may arise that can be dealt with by talented individuals within the organization but aren't for a lack of empowerment: when an obvious problem or incident occurs and everyone in the vicinity reacts by saying, "it's not my problem..." we see this bias at work.  If we want to utilize and maximize the human capital in our organizations we have to, first, understand the talents of our people, and second, engage our people, maximize their strengths and talents and encourage them to sometimes standout and take responsibility for making positive change.

The final bias, a bias toward experts, takes aim at the notion that the catalyst for improvement and innovation lies with the expert, the consultant, the coach, the facilitator, and the like. But, say the authors, what is taken for expertise is often too narrow, especially if the organization is relying on superficial indicators of experience such as titles, credentials, years on the job, and degrees. 

In reality, the makeup of organizational expertise is not so simple.  For instance, time spent on the ground with customers—or in front of students—counts as a particular and important form of experience. The authors suggest that it's possible to utilize the vast expertise of those people in the organization to generate ideas for improvement and solutions to complex problems. The positive byproduct of this is ownership in the process: when people feel empowered to bring their experience to bear on organizational issues, they own whatever ideas and solutions they contribute and as such, have a stake in the successful outcome of their work.

As we mentioned above, we tend to think that, when it comes to human relationships, all organizations are similar. The application of this bit of organizational theory seems particularly apt. Schools and educational systems should indeed see the inevitable failure as an opportunity for learning, should embrace growth mindsets, should make sure that people are not doing the work for works sake, and that their people have time to reflect. They should know the talents and passions of their workforce and beware that compliance to perceived norms might indicate that human capital is being squandered. And schools and systems should see the keys to improvement and innovation to be located in their own people.