How to Become a Learning Organization (An Interview with Michelle Ockers)

Learning Organization Image

We’ve written before about what a learning organization is and what are some of their traits, and we’ve even talked about how to integrate safety departments into learning organization efforts (see this Safety & Learning Organizations article or this recorded Integrating Safety into Learning Organizations ASSP webinar).

But we thought we’d shoot big and talk to an expert in the field to learn what organizations can do to become learning organizations: Michelle Ockers.

Michelle very kindly shared her time and knowledge to help us get up to speed. If you’re interested in knowing what a learning organization is, or if you’re looking for some simple steps to move along the path, this is a great place to start.

The video of the discussion is immediately below. We’ve also typed it up for you if you’d rather read–just click the MORE button to read on. 

Steps to Becoming a Learning Organization

Convergence Training: Hello, everyone, this is Jeff Dalto of Convergence Training, and we’re back with another of our semi-regular audio/web/podcast series.

Today we have a guest from the world of learning & development. I’m pretty excited, we have Michelle Ockers, who is an independent learning & development professional in Australia (learn more about her at her website). And Michelle will be talking about learning organization theory.

So I’ve been following Michelle for quite some time. She’s a great source of information and I think you’ll really enjoy this.

And with that, let me say hello to Michelle. Hi, Michelle.

Michelle Ockers: Hey Jeff, thank you for inviting me to talk with you today.

Introducing Michelle Ockers

Convergence Training: Yeah, and thank you. I’m really excited to have you on and I really appreciate it.

So we’re going to talk about learning organizations, being a learning organization, what it means, how to be one, and more in just a moment. But before we dive into all that, maybe if you could tell us a little about yourself and your professional background, that would be great.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, absolutely.

In brief, I’ve got a lot of background in logistics, in both the aviation industry and in manufacturing. I worked with the air force for sixteen years, I’ve worked in a manufacturing environment. I’ve also worked in a white-collar environment as well, but heavily in that manufacturing and aviation space.

And these days I work more at a strategic level. Normally I work through learning and development teams, sometimes directly with business leaders, looking at making sure that what we’re doing with learning in organizations has an impact on performance. I’m very business focused–I always ask “What is the business need?” and “What’s going to make a difference to performance?” and “How do we make sure we’re doing things and lining things up in a way that will make a difference?”

So a lot of the work I do is around strategy and operating models for learning organizations and directly building the capability of learning and development teams.

What Is a Learning Organization?

Convergence Training: Alright, great.

So we’re here to talk about learning organizations. I wonder if you could start by telling us what the heck that means?

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. I wish there was a simple answer to that question. I’m going to try to demystify the whole concept of a learning organization during the course of today, giving people something simple enough that they can use it and get their heads around it, making it actionable and practical, but it’s not so simple that it doesn’t do the job of building organizations that are adaptable and innovative, which at the end of the day is why we want to be a learning organization.

But it’s really about adaptation to whatever is changing within the organization.

So one of the resources that I like is a book that was recently published by Nigel Paine called Workplace Learning. And one of the things he does is he does a bit of a history about the thinking around a learning organization, which has really evolved since the early 1990s. And what is clear, if you look at it, is it’s just not straight-forward. We’re all still figuring out how to build a learning organization and what makes for a learning organization.

And so a lot of people may recall Peter Senge, he wrote a book in the 1990s called The Fifth Disciplinewhere he talked about a learning organization being about a group of people who work together, collectively. So it was about people working together, using that collective knowledge and learning to build capabilities and that that creates results that they care about.

Now Senge was quite high-level. He was kind of visionary in his day. But people struggled to implement his ideas because it wasn’t actionable enough, and it was just a bit too complex….too many disciplines, too many rules, and hard to actually do it.

But in the 1980s, at the Harvard Business School, there was a guy named David Garvin, who gave a far more practical definition. And he basically said, look, “a learning organization is an organization that is good at creating knowledge, acquiring knowledge, and transferring knowledge” and then using both the knowledge that’s being shared as well as what’s been created to be able to change their behavior appropriately. So again, there’s that idea of adaptation.

And what’s common, throughout all the history of all the people we’re talking about, about what a learning organization is, is this whole idea of being able to challenge assumptions, challenge the way we think, and the way we work. Technically, it’s called double-loop learning, but it’s really just about not taking as a given the frameworks and the way we look at the world.

So let me give you an example to show what that might look like to make it a bit more real life if that’s OK?

One of the challenges we can have if we become really good at something is that we can develop blind spots. Because we think our past experience is a good predictor of the future. And we can make poor decisions. Basically, it’s about blind spots.

And so, for instance, Polaroid had a blind spot to digital video technology. And ultimately, they fell off the radar, right? They didn’t keep up because they failed to see that digital was the way of the future because they were so expert at old-fashioned ways, or at producing photos and videos.

And here in Australia, there’s a bank called ING, who are asking its staff and leaders to think more like technology companies than like a bank. You’ve probably got online-only banks in the US. And they’re actually digital companies first, rather than banking companies.

I think we’re seeing that a lot. And there are a lot of organizations starting to realize they need to be in the digital space, and they’re asking their people not to think traditionally about their industry, but to adopt this different mind set.

So a learning organization can look at what is happening in their environment, and kind of start making sense of it. It can have a flow of conversation, a flow of knowledge, a flow of experience within the organization to figure out how do we respond to this and adapt to this and build new capabilities.

Does that make sense?

Convergence Training: It does.

And I’m glad that originally you talked about reacting to changes within the organization, but I’m glad you also mentioned reacting to changes that happen externally.

I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan (in the US), and we had these auto companies, right? And now maybe they’re becoming tech companies in the way you described. And their competitors are Google and Amazon and not just Ford and Chrysler and GM.

I wonder…a couple of other things. Could you show us that Nigel Paine book again that you talked about so everyone will know how to find that?

Michelle Ockers: Oh, this is on video, as well, is it? Here you go…Nigel Paine, Workplace Learning.

But there was actually a guy before him who wrote a book called The Learning Organization–named Bob Garratt–in 1987 in the UK. So Senge and Garratt were working on this around the same time, independently, and they didn’t credit or acknowledge each other’s work. But where Senge was too complicated, Bob Garratt was probably a little too simple.

Convergence Training: So I just learned about this Garratt guy a week or two ago, so that rings a bell. I had the same thought about Senge, that it seemed kind of abstract and there was no obvious way to apply it, even if a lot of it was good. And your touchstones–Garvin as well as people Garvin worked with, like Gino and Edmonson–that all sounds familiar to me.

Great intro. So if that’s what a learning organization is….and again, could you repeat the Garvin definition? Do you have that written down?

Michelle Ockers: I do. I’ll read it out–it’s from a 1983 article in the Harvard Business Review called Building a Learning Organization, and I’ll read it out verbatim: “An organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

Convergence Training: Great. And I’m sure we’ll touch on this, but that second part is really important–modifying behavior.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, that’s essential.

Why Be a Learning Organization?

Convergence Training: OK, so that’s what a learning organization is. Why would I want to do it? Why is it a good idea for an organization to be a learning organization?

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. Are there things changing in your environment? Are they changing quickly? Is the pace of change accelerating? You know…digital disruption, technology is moving on, our customer’s expectations are shifting. We need to be able to respond to all of these things for our businesses to thrive.

So being a learning organization is about being able to adapt. To see what’s going on around us. To make changes in not only how we engage with customers, for instance, and in the service and products we offer, but how we work internally to bring that all to life and to make sure we can deliver something new, something more appropriate, something more effective. So we’re bringing the whole power of the organization and often, and we’ll talk a little bit about the examples of hack-a-thons, right, often it’s about going beyond the boundaries of the organization and bringing in knowledge and experience from outside the organization to create some momentum that allows us to change so we can do a better job of serving our customers, remaining profitable and competitive. So it’s all about adaptability.

Convergence Training: Alright, great.

So classic examples would be things like the taxi industry being Ubered or Lyfted…

Michelle Ockers: Absolutely. So here’s a couple of examples I wanted to share. And one is about driverless cars, right? So there are quite a few organizations working on autonomous vehicles now, and Mercedes-Benz has this interesting concept car that they call the F 015. And one of the interesting things about it is that they’re not just saying “well, it’s about a car being able to move around without a driver,” but they also thought about the space inside the car. Because if people aren’t driving, what are they doing? So they’re setting it up to create a space that can be used for business meetings and for socializing, right? So they’re thinking ahead to that. What kind of technology can we put inside the car, so that all of the sudden it has a very different purpose. And so that’s a good example of adaptation and thinking outside of the traditional mindset of what does it look like.

And WestJet, they’re a Canadian airline. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them–they’re about 20 years old. And aviation has been a fairly traditional industry for a long time. But more and more, aviation is going digital and thinking about and servicing customers more effectively using digital technology and innovation.

Side note: Here’s a link to an article about the Westjet hackathon

So they had a hack-a-thon last year to look at solutions for their premium travelers, and how to provide better service to their premium travelers. They had 120 people from 17 different technology companies come in…they had people from Facebook, from Amazon, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, SnapChat. You know, they have nothing to do with the aviation industry, really.

They also had about 37 staff and about a dozen customers, so they’re bringing the customers into the process.

And they basically had this hack-a-thon saying, “given what we know about the structural limitations of our industry, we’re heavily regulated, we will continue to be heavily regulated, safety is critical, but what can we do to better service our premium customers?” That’s the question they worked on.

And they came out of that experience reframing themselves as a digital company that happens to fly aircraft. So there’s a shift in thinking, right, and a challenging of fundamental assumptions, seeing things differently, and pulling knowledge from all over the place to adapt.

Convergence Training: I don’t know if you have Blockbuster video stores there, but clearly you must have had brick-and-mortar video stores, am I correct?

Michelle Ockers: We had Blockbuster video stores. We don’t have them any more.

Convergence Training: We have one left. It’s 200 miles south of my home in Bend, Oregon. But that’s another example of an industry that got disrupted by technology, and a cautionary tale that organizations have to be careful so it doesn’t happen to them.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. Real estate is another example of an industry that’s completely changing through technology, right? And the range of services that are now being offered in real estate is quite different.

There’s a lot of reframing that organizations have to do and seeing themselves differently.

Convergence Training: Yeah. I don’t want to drag us too far offline, but I have heard the discussion of what will people be doing inside of it, and the article I read suggested a lot more hanky-panky, but I like your notion that we should design something for people to do, because drivers used to be busy and soon they won’t be, and it’s a nice tie-in to design thinking.

So if we know what a learning organization is, and we know why an organization would want to be a learning organization, can you give us a bird’s-eye view of some of the characteristics of a learning organization and what they might be?

Characteristics of a Learning Organization

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, sure.

And you can kind of go cross-eyed, trying to figure that out, with all of the different frameworks and points of view. Because we’re still learning about this, we’re still figuring things out, and it’s not simple.

But what I’ve done is, I’ve pulled a framework from Harvard Business Review which was published in 2008, so it is a little dated, and I’m going to talk about making some updates to it to make it more relevant and current for today’s world. So it was developed by David Garvin, who we mentioned before; by Amy Edmonson, who I’d like to talk about a little more in regards to her work on psychological safety and setting up safe environments for people in organizations and teams, and Francesca Geno did this work based on 30 years of research around organizations and thinking about adaptability in organizations and learning organizations (see Is Yours a Learning Organization? at the Harvard Business Review). And they put together a self-assessment tool.

One of the nice things about their framework is it covers quite a bit that’s in their self-assessment tool, and it gives you a framework for figuring out “OK, where are we at and what might we focus on as a starting point?” But they also say that all three of these building blocks, because they’ve organized it into three building blocks, they say all of them have got to be in place. It’s not as simple as saying “OK, we can work on one and then look at the others,” they’ve all got to be in place.

So they talk about:

  • A supportive learning environment
  • Concrete learning processes and practices, and they give specific processes and practices, and
  • Leadership that reinforces learning

So I think that’s quite useful as a starting point. But I would also overlay some of the thinking from Nigel Paine’s book which I shared with you a moment ago, when he talks about the critical components of a learning culture. Because an organization has a culture. So it’s a slightly different concept.

So he talks about things you have to have in place or you won’t be able to create a learning organization. He talks about:

  • Trust
  • Collaboration
  • Purpose
  • Sharing

Now I think three of those four elements are adequately covered in the Harvard framework, but the one I want to call out and maybe discuss a little more is the idea of purpose and why that’s important in a learning organization.

Convergence Training: Great. I like that addition of the fourth (purpose), which, as you mentioned earlier, hearkens back to what Senge said as well.

I do have a question before we go on. I know we are going to drill down into each of those four points in just a second, but the Harvard Business Review article you’re talking about, by Gino, Garvin, and Edmonson, which I think is called Is Yours a Learning Organization?, has a self-assessment in it, which I think is a really cool idea, but I’ve never been able to make that work correctly, like it seems like there’s something wrong with the scoring on it or something. Am I wrong? Should I go back and try it again?

Michelle Ockers: I think it is. But I would caution people against using it in its current form. I would suggest it as a starting point, because it’s from 2008 so it’s eleven years out of date and I think there have been some subtle shifts since then. But I think it’s a great place to start with a set of dimensions and questions you might consider looking at. But I would create my own, off the back of that, and maybe update it a little.

A Supportive Learning Environment for Learning Organizations

Convergence Training: Alright, great.

So then, let’s dig deeper into each of those. The thing one is a supportive learning environment, and they had different examples of what that meant.

Could you tell us what, in your mind, what does that mean–a supportive learning environment?

Michelle Ockers: So nowadays, we tend to use the word learning ecosystem, which is a bit jargony, but if you see talk about learning ecosystems and performance ecosystems, that’s kind of the same thing. And I think there are three key elements in a learning environment.

One is resources; another is people; and thirdly, the underlying environment–technology, talent management, for instance.

Often people think that these learning environments are based all around technology, and a lot of vendors of platforms have kind of hijacked the idea that “If you just put our platform in place–voila!–you’ll have a learning environment.” But it’s actually not true–it’s much bigger than that. The idea of a learning environment is that you’re reducing friction, to make it easier for people to learn and in particular to make it easier for people to learn, and in particular to learn while they work. And I’ll talk a little bit more about that when we move on.

So it’s about enabling people to learn continuously, to have a more fluid sharing of knowledge, to be able to access the resources they need, in the flow of work and to be able to do their job.

So there’s a really big question now, revolving around how we can enable individuals at work to own their own learning, and I think that question wasn’t such a big question in 2008. But we recognize now, with the pace of change, and this idea of helping people to be lifelong learners, is really important. So creating an environment in which they are able to take charge of their own learning.

Now, I’m not going to cover every element noted for a supportive learning environment, but there are two I’d like to call out that are particularly important.

The first is this idea of psychological safety. Some people may have heard about it. It was popularized by some work that Google did with a project they called Project Aristotle. I think they started the work in 2012 and it took three years for them to do this piece of work. And they wanted to figure out what are the ingredients that make a high-performing team. And they spent a couple of years, internally, trying to figure out what it was: was it diversity? was it experience? And they just couldn’t come up with anything.

But then they figured out that the secret ingredient was this thing called psychological safety. But they didn’t invent it–Amy Edmonson came up with it (see Edmonson’s book The Fearless Organization and our article on psychological safety) and she identified it, I think, in 2002, looking at cultures in a hospital system.

And I’m going to talk a little bit about hospitals and aviation, because we can learn from them in terms of creating environments where people can learn and adapt and share knowledge quickly, in a moment.

But basically, psychological safety is about people feeling that they can speak up, that they can share information about what does and doesn’t work, that they can ask questions, they can give feedback, they can discuss problems and disagreements, and that mistakes can be viewed as opportunities to learn and none of this will be held against them.

So they are not going to be judged to be incompetent because they’re asking questions. People are not going to respond defensively, there’s going to be open discussion around the questions, and the issues, and the concerns that they raise. So it’s kind of related to learning from failure as well, in a way. Creating an environment in which it’s safe for people to ask questions or to admit that something didn’t work, and that’s critical.

Now, Edmonson’s published a book recently, which I think you’ve read, Jeff, called The Fearless Organization.

Convergence Training: Right. I just read it and I’ll have a blog post about it soon.

Michelle Ockers: And I haven’t taken a good look at it yet. It’s got some good reviews. It’s got a tool kit for leaders, so if people are looking for something actionable to help create an environment of psychological safety, it’s a help.

If you look at the Google research, a lot of the Google research talks about leaders being vulnerable and being willing to say “I don’t know,” or ask a question, or even just share a little bit about themselves. When they do that, it almost grants permission for others to do the same. That was really important, to building high-performing teams.

Convergence Training: Right. Especially that “I don’t know.”

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. And these days, things move so fast. I don’t know if you’ve heard the term “the half-life of knowledge,” that half of what we know in a particular field, it turns over much more quickly. And so it’s no shame to be saying “I don’t know, but I know how to figure it out,” or “I know how to find people”. And this is the whole idea about the people element of a learning environment: I know how to find people who can help me with this. I know how to find people I can work with and collaborate with, right? That’s really critical.

Convergence Training: Right. The whole thing about continual learning, lifelong learning, working out loud outside your organization–even what you and I are doing now.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, absolutely.

And the third element I want to touch on briefly, but it’s a really big one–it’s reflection, and making time for reflection.

We’re so caught up in business, and this idea that activity equals productivity, but you’ve got to make time to sit back and think about what we are doing, both on an individual level and at a team level, and what you are learning from that and how to improve that.

And there are lots of ways you can build in learning moments in an organization, and let me share just a couple that I think are quite relevant to a manufacturing environment in particular.

One is just looking for natural points in the workflow where questions can be asked about learning. So, a shift change in a manufacturing environment, for instance. You know, normally there’s some sort of handover meeting, at the very least between team leaders, often at the start of a shift. You know, there will be a toolbox talk, people will come together to have a conversation about what’s happening. This is a great opportunity to say “here’s what’s happened on the last shift, here’s what we did, and here’s what we learned from that,” or have a little reflective discussion.

Side note: Check out this article about holding pre-job pre-mortems to learn on the job in the way Michelle’s talking about. 

Root-cause analysis in maintenance activities. You know, if you’re having trouble figuring out some sort of problem with your equipment, your operations, and there’s a process around root-cause analysis, you can really dig into what’s going on here and the diagnostic processes. These are fantastic moments for reflection, so long as you capture the knowledge and what you’re learning out of it to think about “what can we change,” so you’re closing the loop and adapting, so I think that’s a really good example.

Side note: Check out this article on conducting a root-cause analysis and this article for a similar exercise called a learning team (or this one for learning teams and operational learning) to get an example of what Michelle’s talking about.

And I’ve got a story from WD-40. You know how a lot of organizations–I know you do a lot of safety work–a lot of organizations have safety moments  built into their meetings. So they’ll often share a point about safety, or have a reflection on safety, as part of the meeting structure. WD-40 has built learning moments into their meeting structure as well. So in a lot of their recurring meetings, they’ll have a short share on “what did you learn this week?” and they just quickly go around the table. And so that’s kind of a pause, a reflection moment.

Convergence Training: Yeah. Well I’m glad you  brought up that third point of reflection, which I think is really important but also really hard to do in a fast-paced life, and in particular the importance of capturing that knowledge and sharing it, which I think is a really big challenge. Even if you capture that knowledge, and it gets to one or two workers, that’s nice, but if you can somehow find a way to spread it to the entire organization, that’s a real benefit.

In terms of safety-specific issues, you mentioned a root-cause analysis, I mentioned earlier that there’s kind of an alternative safety field which in many ways goes back to Australia with a guy named Sidney Dekker, and people who practice Safety Differently or Safety II or HOP  often use an alternative to a classic root-cause analysis that they call a learning team. And it’s a great team-based learning structure in order to do just that, to reflect. And really to value the expertise of the workers and to recognize that, so the safety manager finds out what they really do on the job as opposed to work as imagined, really find out about work as performed. And you can use that for safety incidents, you can use it for quality incidents, and you can even use it for successes, but I think reflection is important and it’s hard to build into the workplace.

Michelle Ockers: It is. And to really make the most of reflection, and we’re talking about it at an organizational level instead of an individual level, which is a different discussion about lifelong learning anyway, you have to have some kind of mechanism to close the loop.

So the Australian army has a knowledge management team, and after every military operation or exercise, there’s something called an after-action review that is done, and people look at “what did we learn from that,” right? That’s probably a term that’s familiar to people. But this knowledge management team captures all of that output, and they have what they call a lessons implemented register. Not a lessons learned register. So they will follow up, after every one of those review processes–part of what did we learn is what are we going to do to implement it. And this team follows up, and asks “did that get implemented?” and “how did that go?” So they ask the second question, “what did we learn from implementing it?”

And I think in terms of being a learning organization, thinking about simple processes that we can use around the structure of existing work to ensure we are deriving learning from it, that we’re adapting and making changes, to improve productivity not only today but also to gain insight for the future.

Convergence Training: I like that idea of having some sort of process for implementing what’s been learned. And of course, I liked your comment about the after-action review; you’ve probably heard of its cousin the before-action review or something similar called the job pre-mortem.

Those are all good opportunities for reflection, but I love that emphasis on sharing it and putting it to work and making sure other people benefit from it as well.

So I created a little list. We talked about access to learning, sharing learning, being a continuous learner, having ownership of your own learning, lifelong learning, about Amy Edmonson and psychological safety….and something you said caught my attention there. I just read that book, and when you’re in an organization and you feel free to share your opinion about what’s working and what’s not, I thought it was also important that she said you need to also believe that something might happen as a result of your speaking up and sharing. So even if it’s all cool to share your problems, if nothing ever happens as a result, people are going to stop sharing their problems eventually. And then reflection.

So, good list. Thank you.

So if that was supportive learning environment, the second characteristic you pointed out was concrete learning processes and practices. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Concrete Learning Processes and Practices for a Learning Organization

Michelle Ockers: Again, there’s actually quite a long list in the Harvard model on this. And I’m just going to pick up on a handful of them.

This is about creating processes for things we can learn today to make us more productive and to improve our performance today as well as what’s called generative learning, or learning that will prepare us for the future. That’s about exploring the future and different ways of working, or different products. It’s more about the discovery process.

So, for example, learning for today can include training, it can include access to performance support resources (you know, job aids for instance), it can include team-based continuous improvement activities with whatever methodologies people have in place in their organization for continuous improvement.

Side note: For example, see this article on kaizen events

Learning for tomorrow can include things like teaching people critical thinking skills and those skills that allow us to challenge assumptions, to identify the underlying assumptions and frameworks we’re using and to then change our thinking, to process new knowledge or different points of view more effectively.

That’s a core skill to build into people and into the organization. It can include things like the hack-a-thons we talked about, getting groups together to look at disruptive innovations and how they might impact your business model, things like that.

And General Electric, I think it might have been in the 1990s, had a process called “break your business,” where they used to get groups of people together to ask how can we break our business model? If we were our competitor, trying to kill our business, what would we do?

So it’s that kind of group-based inquiry process which can be really useful. And you know, a lot of these practices, we don’t call them learning practices, we call them innovation practices or continuous improvement practices. And I would update the language in that Harvard model from “concrete learning processes and practices” to “integrated working and learning practices.”

Because increasingly, it’s about “how can we learn from work while we work?” Because that’s what people do. It’s not all about a training course.

Convergence Training: I like the emphasis on innovation and continuous improvement there.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. So, what do we need to do to innovate and to improve? We need to run experiments. Experimentation is a key process here. And there’s a nice quote from the Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos who says “if you double the number of experiments,  you double your inventiveness.” You have to try new things.

So, learning from failure, and having a failure-friendly culture is something that’s important. You know, when you’re experimenting, it’s kind of OK to fail. When you say “I’m running an experiment,” it makes it OK, to try something and maybe have it now work.

Now, when a genuine mistake is made in an operational environment, sometimes it’s not OK to fail. And there are a couple examples of industries where they truly DO learn from failure, and aviation is probably the key one. And you know, if there’s an incident or an accident, an investigation team comes in, globally, and all information on incidents and accidents in aviation is shared freely and openly between all parties in the aviation industry, so everybody gets to learn from everything that’s going on.

And so there are many models and practices around incident investigation in aviation, and it’s all around learning, and it’s really driven by being a remarkably safe industry, right? Because of its open sharing and learning.

Hospitals have learned a lot, as well. They’ve modeled a lot of their practices after aviation in creating a safe environment.

The legal industry is probably an example of one that’s missing some things, and they have a lot of blind spots. When DNA testing first came in and was available, and there was an opportunity to go back to a lot of cold cases, or a lot of cases where people were being put into jail, when people were found guilty of crimes and the evidence was still being stored, there was an opportunity to go back and do DNA testing to test the veracity of the verdicts in those cases. And there was so much resistance, even in the face of the evidence, the DNA evidence showing that wrong decisions had been made. There was so much resistance to the idea–from lawyers, from judges, from the system as a whole, to the idea that they had made a wrong decision. Because the consequences for them are so significant of having made a wrong decision.

So it’s all around finding a way in an organization–obviously, repeated mistakes and repeated failures are not OK, and there are performance standards to maintain–but finding a way to systematically learn from mistakes and build that into your learning.

Something I will mention that’s missing from the Harvard model, and which is becoming increasingly important, is listening to customers and using data and data analytics. They do talk about measuring, but I think we’re so much more sophisticated now with what’s available, in terms of data analytics, that using that well and building up that capability within your organization is pretty critical, and it’s part of a learning organization. And there’s so much focus on customer-centricity. Customers have so much choice now, they have a stronger voice now than they did ten years ago. To adapt and improve, we need to be closer to our customers, we need to invite them in to learn how they operate and how we can better service them. This is really critical, so I’d add that to the list.

We haven’t talked much about knowledge sharing and networking, but breaking down silos in an organization is the other thing. So if you kind of pull this list together, this list of things, for people in an organization wondering “how do we do all of this?,” I would be thinking about setting up cross-functional teams if you’re not already using cross-functional teams to look at opportunities and issues, to run experiments cross-functionally. To look at some of this customer voice data and do this customer listening, to say what do we learn from this and to do that, to bring people together from different disciplines. It’s really important–you get different insights, right?

Convergence Training: Yeah, I agree. That’s a great idea. I think something as humble as the Friday lunch and learn can be a good way to do that.

I like the idea of using cross-functional teams to study the voice of the customer. The voice of the customer idea has always been big in lean manufacturing, which has a big emphasis on learning.

And what you said aligns with a lot of what I’ve found as well, in safety, it seems like the people in the vanguard of this Safety Differently/HOP movement often are in aviation and health care, and what you’re talking about when people recognize “oh, there’s an incident,” people have to have that psychological safety to be willing to report it or talk about it with their manager, and they have to know they won’t get blamed, and the emphasis will be on learning something, so in this case the safety manager can’t be looking to blame employees but instead to figure out what happened systemically, and that’s what you’re really trying to learn especially through this alternative to the traditional root-cause analysis that they call a learning team.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, a really good example.

And I like that you brought up something as simple as a lunch and learn. And that’s an example where you can have some reflection, and people asking questions, and learning from each other or trying to solve problems together as well.

I worked at Coca-Cola Amatil for about four years, and one of the things we did was set up communities of practice. Groups of people across the organization who were working on things that had strategically important capabilities. So, for example, Maintenance Planners was one community we set up. And once a year, we would bring them together…in addition, we’d do a whole set of stuff online, exchange information, asking questions, helping each other to solve problems…but we’d also bring them together and we’d do what we called an “Unconference.” So the idea was you’d come and we’d figure out the agenda on the day. We wanted everyone to talk about their most burning issues, the things they most needed to improve, the barriers getting in their way of doing a better job, with maintenance planning and managing a plant in their factory, and then we would form little teams and run a process around sharing knowledge and problem-solving. And, you know, you didn’t solve everything in a day, but then we’d continue those discussions over time. And it’s a really nice example, because it wasn’t a training session, it was a “bring your problem and challenge” event. And we also used to run as part of those–we called it a demo fest. It was like a show and tell–talk about something you’ve made improvements in. Show what you’ve done and share it with the others.

So those type of things are really, really useful.

Convergence Training: I love all those ideas, including the cross-functional teams where people get together to break down silos.

I think it’s also important that you remember not just to break down departmental silos, but also break down the hierarchy as well, so it’s not just managers from various departments having those kind of meetings, but also the workers, who often times know more about the managers on certain kinds of things.

And then I totally agree with you, I think there’s a lot of marketing buzz when solution providers will tell you “we’ve got a learning platform or a learning ecosystem for you right out of the box that will make you a learning organization with the click of a button.” But I do think this is a case where in addition to something as humble as a Friday lunch and learn, some kind of technology to help you access and share information can be helpful as well.

Michelle Ockers: It can be pretty simple as well. And I think a good place to start is by looking at the tools you’ve already got in your organization, or, if some of us are OK with issues around privacy and confidentiality, you can consider tools like WhatsApp, setting up groups in WhatsApp. We found at Coca-Cola Amatil something they were already using, that they were very comfortable sharing with to help each other out, to essentially hold up their hand. I mean, we had a learning intranet, most organizations these days will, we could set up forums and so on, but nothing worked as well as things people were already familiar with. It doesn’t need to be something special, you don’t need high-technology to make progress on this stuff.

Convergence Training: Yeah, good point as well. I get tired of learning new technology all the time at work as well. I’d much rather use something I already know.

OK, so that was concrete learning practices and processes. The third characteristic you identified from the Harvard Business resource was “leadership that supports and reinforces learning.” Why don’t you tell us a little about that?

Leadership that Supports and Reinforces Learning at Learning Organizations

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, so a lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about. Things like are people safe to talk up, you know, to speak out about things. How do we as an organization react to a mistake? A lot of this gets down to leadership behaviors, right? And you know leaders set the tone for the organization.

Traditionally, we think of “what’s the manager’s role in learning?” And the answers are things like “To help people find training courses” and “to help them with an opportunity to apply their skills,” or maybe “give them some stretch assignments to build their skills in the workplace.”

But it’s actually about a lot more than that. It’s about the kind of conversations that managers have. Whether managers seek input from others. Are they consulting? Do they listen? Do they acknowledge their own limitations in their expertise and seek information and input? Do they ask questions? Do they actively listen? Do they know how to engage people to get expertise onto the table and to facilitate a discussion around using that expertise to find improvement? Are they open to new perspectives?

And you know, it all starts with the CEO and the tone they set, to a large degree.

So I don’t know if you’ve followed some of what’s happened at Microsoft  since their new CEO Satya Nadella took over in 2015. There’s been a big turnaround at Microsoft in that time. And there’s a story about his first big executive meeting, and before that meeting he had a book sent to all of his senior leaders and asked them to read it. That book was called Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg, and it was all about listening and communicating peacefully. And I think that sent a huge message about the tone he was setting, and how he wanted his leaders to start communicating and engaging with their people. And so I think that’s really critical, both, you know, in terms of “What can you do about that?” you know, in terms of looking at your senior leadership and what they’re doing for role modeling, but also in your leadership development programs and really taking a good look at those. Coaching and individual leadership when necessary and appropriate.

You know, most of us have had that experience of working in an organization, while someone who is working in the same organization and maybe even in the same job role has a very different experience, right, because of the leader they have. So we’re looking for pockets of good practice, finding where trust is high.

You know, one of the organizations I work with as a business partner is called Towards Maturity, and they’re a research and analyst service based in the United Kingdom. They work with learning and development teams, they’ve been around for fifteen years, and everything is research-based. And one of the things they do is called a learner intelligence work. So they will help you look at what and how are people learning in your organization, what sort of digital technologies are they using, how do they get better at their jobs. But they also look quite closely at how do their managers score their performance and help them to do their job better.  And they ask managers the same kind of questions, about how they think they are supporting their people. And then they compare what an individual manager says with what that manager’s direct reports have to say, and normally that throws up some blind spots for the manager. Normally they are not doing as good a job as they could supporting their people and creating this environment to reinforce and enable learning.

What’s interesting is that some times, you get a case where that isn’t the case. So for instance I did a 12-month strategic piece of work with Qantas, looking at learning across their organization recently, and we ran these learner intelligence surveys, you get as many people as you can from across the organization to do this online study, and we found this one area within the organization where not only was there a common view between the manager and the team members about how well they were being supported, but it was also really high, it was much higher than normal. So we went and had a look to see what’s happening here. What’s being done to create this environment where the leaders are supporting and reinforcing learning, to look at practices and see how we could replicate that elsewhere.

So we’re looking for examples of where it’s being done well. And you may not need to go to the extent of doing a study. You may be able to just kind of look around and kind of know, from people talking and from reputation, where you’ve got leaders who are creating this kind of open environment, having discussions around improvement, where it’s OK to ask questions, where it’s OK to fail as long as you keep moving forward, and then look at their practices and see how you can use them as role models. And how can you help others to learn from that as well.

Shared Purpose & Learning Organizations

Convergence Training: Well, you know it’s interesting, it seems a lot of that goes back to psychological safety.

Amy Edmonson will tell you that psychological safety is the foundation for having a learning organization.

OK, great. So that’s three, but you have added a fourth trait for a learning organization. And that’s the idea of having a shared purpose.

Can you tell us a little about that?

Michelle Ockers: I know you mentioned it was in Senge’s original model. He called it shared purpose. But it didn’t get carried into the Harvard model.

I think the idea of purpose has really made a resurgence in the past few years. And I think that’s for a couple of reasons. First, the work of Daniel Pink and his book Drive (read about Pink’s book Drive and how purpose affects motivation here), where he looked at the factors that motivate people, and purpose was one of them along with autonomy and mastery.

And so if we have a sense that what we are doing is important, and it matters, and if we are clear on why we are doing it, we are more likely to put effort and energy into doing it well.

And the other thing is just the generational change. A lot of the younger people entering the workforce are very values-driven. So they want to work with organizations where there are strong values and clear purpose statements. And they are motivated by that.

But you know, it takes a lot of dialogue. To get a clear statement of purpose that people are actually aligned to, you’ve got to start with the customers and the stakeholders. There’s a really good example of that–there’s a company called Red Hat, they’re an open-source software company. So Jacob Morgan runs The Future of Work podcast, and recently he interviewed the Chief People Officer at Red Hat about their culture and leadership model and so on. And one of the things she talked about was the process they went through to create what she calls their “why statement.” And it took a year of dialogue.  They’ve got 14,000 staff, they tried to involve as many people as possible in the dialogue around, at its heart, what and why. Why do we exist? And what they came up with was the statement “We believe open source unlocks the world’s potential.” That’s pretty simple, right? But it took them a year to get to that point, and before they had even officially launched that slogan, their sales team had already organized a conference around it. You know, it really resonated across the organization.

Side note: you can catch that Future of Work podcast with Red Hat here.

But it is something that takes a lot of conversation to get right.

Convergence Training: Well, I’ve read the Pink book Drive you talked about, and one of the things he talks about and which I think is a classic error that Red Hat avoided, is this notion that the boss will come up with the purpose or mission statement. And it sounds like they did a good job of involving everybody.

But I think that’s a classic error–the managers will squirrel away in the corner office, and they’ll come out with a mission statement and we’re all supposed to genuflect to it…

Michelle Ockers: Well, actually, we all sit there and scratch our heads and say “What the hell does that mean?” And what does it mean in terms of how I act, and my behaviors, and how I work with other people? Often they’re so obscure.

Convergence Training: Right. And I think what usually happens, and I’m sure this is familiar to you as well, is two days later nobody remembers what it is or where to find it on the computer network.

The other thing you talked about in terms of purpose, and I think companies can forget this, is that employees do not think that making more money for the boss or stockholders is a purpose. And then Pink shares a lot of good evidence that even bonuses or a higher paycheck for an employee is not necessarily a motivating factor. So the whole carrot & stick thing doesn’t work as well.

Michelle Ockers: No, absolutely not. More and more, it’s about that intrinsic motivation and that connection to what we do and why we do it.

So that’s what it takes to get people on board with caring enough to learn and to improve and to adapt. And that’s why that one is so important.

Convergence Training: Yeah, that’s a good point.

I just completed an interview with the learning professional Patti Shank, and we were talking about how a lot of times, learning is just hard. And you might reasonably ask “why would I do it?” unless there’s some greater reason for it other than making the boss more dollars.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. I talked earlier about blind spots, right? I think the learning & development profession has a blind spot around what learning looks like. And there are organizations where a lot of people still think it’s about training. And when I want to know about how people learn, I don’t ask them how they learn and talk about courses and things like that. I ask them things like “How do you get better at your job?” and “How do you solve problems?” Because that’s what real learning is, right? How do you figure out what you can do differently to make your day-to-day life easier?

And I think a lot of the processes we’ve talked about are not about training. A lot of the approaches we’ve talked about are things that happen in the workplace, right?

Convergence Training: Yeah. Not to disparage new employee onboarding, but there’s more to it than that.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, absolutely.

To really unleash the power and potential of knowledge and of learning in your organization, to drive better outcomes, it is really not about what happens in classrooms.

First Steps on the Learning Organization Journey

Convergence Training: Alright…so those are four characteristics of a learning organization. And let’s say I’m an organization and I want to do it, I want to become a learning organization.

How should I start–any ideas?

Michelle Ockers: I think, as with anything, you have to start by figuring out “Where the hell am I now?”

Let’s say someone listening to this is a team leader, and they want to do more of this at their level. You don’t have to wait for the whole of the organization to get on board. You can actually do some things within your team itself, and you talked about some things like lunch and learns, and I talked about things like toolbox talks at shift changes or introducing a learning moment in meetings. You know, there are so many little things that you can do as a start point.

If we’re talking about the bigger vision for a whole organization, I think taking stock of where you’re at now. And I think that the benchmarking survey tool from Harvard is a nice place to start. But you want to think about it before you use it, and maybe update it with some of the things we’ve talked about to make sure it’s modernized and suits your context.

If you are on a learning & development team, there’s a Learning Health Check benchmarking process through Towards Maturity if you’re specifically look at practices for your L&D team and tactics. And they compare you, they benchmark you to the best organizations. And by the “best organizations,” I mean those where learning is actually having an impact on the business. So you can learn from that.

But either way, some sort of benchmarking process of taking stock with open eyes of where you are, and then based on those things thinking of some simple practices where you can start shifting to move further along on the learning organization spectrum.

Nigel Paine suggests that if you can’t establish the clarity of purpose and a high-trust environment, you will get nowhere. So he would suggest those are two critical places to start–building trust and establishing a sense of shared purpose.

So I would say those are the initial ones…and looking for practices that you can implement within work, I think is a really great place to start. Plus breaking down silos. If there’s anyway within the organization of doing more things cross-functionally, or getting input from other functions or from outside the organization, get going in getting customer feedback data, talking to customers, suppliers can provide great insight. With bigger organizations,  you can look into partnerships with research organizations and universities. But just starting to get outside of your own little silo and your own way of thinking.

That’s where I would start.

Convergence Training: OK, so I think workplaces are classic for stories about “well, we started it, but then it died.”

Any tips for sustaining it?

Sustaining Your Learning Organization

Michelle Ockers: It takes time, so be patient. That would be the first tip.

This is something that is years of work, and it needs ongoing work to sustain and nurture it. It’s fragile. And a leader saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong time can really damage trust.

So keep working at it.

Another is expanding experimentation, continuing to build experimentation I think is a great way of sustaining learning.

And in terms of the idea of lifelong learning, encouraging people to learn every day and building those learning moments in to work, building those practices in.

Refining technology and how you use technology. It’s not so much about how much technology you have, but how you use it. Technology’s an important part of it, though, because we often work in locations that are geographically distributed, or we want to access the outside world and ideas from the outside world, and technology can really help us to do that. You know, through platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, you can find and have conversations with experts in just about anything, all over the world. And they’re people who are happy to share knowledge. And are quite generous with what they share as well.

Side note: remember, Michelle is one of these generous experts who shares her knowledge on Twitter and LinkedIn and we recommend you follow/connect with her (thanks, Michelle!). 

But certainly, virtual spaces where people can collaborate, can share knowledge, making it easy for people to discover each other, and discover if you’ve got processes around learning from experience to discover what others have learned. But a lot of it is around finding each other. So using technology for that. It’s an integral part of that, but it’s really just one part of the solution.

And I guess the other thing is just staying abreast. Like that whole thing around–your environment will change, it will keep changing, and it will change quickly–so keeping abreast of what’s happening in the external environment is really important as well to sustain change. You’re never there, you know? There’s always more to adapt to, yeah?

Convergence Training: That kind of leads to my next question.

So you’ve started it, you’ve sustained it….how do you know when you’re there? Or is there a moment when the lights come on and you say “I’m in a learning organization here!”

Michelle Ockers: I think it’s good to celebrate your little wins and your successes along the way, and to acknowledge you’re getting better at learning from failure and that the innovation is improving or whatever it is you’re going for, continuous improvement systems are improving, more people are contributing ideas.

But I think if you start thinking you’re “there,” you’ll just get complacent.

And I think the other thing is that there is still more work to be done in understanding learning organizations. There are people still doing research, people still testing ideas, and pulling ideas in from different areas.

So if you look for instance at neuroscience, there’s still a lot of work being done in understanding how we teach and how we process information and what impacts that. If you look at machine learning and artificial intelligence, you know there’s probably a place in time–and if we were to have this discussion in five years time, we’d be talking about the use of artificial intelligence in a learning organization, right?

So it’s about staying abreast of developments and looking for new ways. But keep it simple initially, just get started with some practices that get knowledge flowing more freely around your organization, and make it easier and safer for people to share knowledge, to speak up, to take a little time for reflection and for learning, and for supporting giving other people the opportunity to answer questions and share their expertise.

Convergence Training: OK, so good summary.

So maybe start it, sustain it, and then keep sustaining it.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. Absolutely.

Convergence Training: So, you’ve mentioned a couple of resources. Are there other places you’d recommend where people can learn a little more?

A Few Additional Resources & Tips on Learning Organizations

Michelle Ockers: I think I’ve touched on quite a few resources along the way, so I think there’s quite a few things there for people to start digging into.

If you are in learning and development and are listening to this podcast, I would recommend you look at the latest annual research report from Towards Maturity. It’s called The Transformation Journey. And it looks at what are the three biggest barriers stopping us from achieving our aspirations in learning and development. Because we’re not making rapid enough progress at building agility in organizations, in building what we call a learning culture.

So it looks at those barriers, and it looks at one in particular that I think is very relevant to this discussion is the barrier of cultural resistance. The idea that, you know…openness to new ways of learning, openness to shared responsibility around learning. L&D people are often saying “I want shared responsibility, I want to introduce more learning into the flow of work, I want to help develop continuous learning practices and help people become lifelong learners,” but people aren’t getting it. They don’t want to  play the game.

So the research from Toward Maturity tackles that, and looks at organizations that are managing to break through that barrier, to see the things they’re doing. So it’s quite useful, and that would be another resource to add.

Convergence Training: Great.

Michelle Ockers: For anyone in Australia and New Zealand, and you didn’t know this when you invited me on, so this isn’t a setup, but I’m running some workshops in August with Nigel Paine on how to build a learning culture. It’s targeted at L&D professionals who are ready to make that shift from training and spoon-feeding people to sharing responsibility and building more whole-organization approaches to learning like the ones we’ve talked about before. So that will be in August. So people can follow me on LinkedIn to get details about those.

Side note: You can register for and learn more about Michelle’s Building Learning Culture webinar with Nigel Paine here.

Convergence Training: OK, great. That’s interesting, I didn’t know that. Maybe I’ll get a chance if I’m lucky to talk to you sometime again after August to talk about learning culture and we can discuss the relationship between that and learning organizations.

We talked briefly about LinkedIn, but for people who want to learn more and want to follow you, how can they follow you and what should they do?

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, so my name is Michelle Ockers. I’m very active on Twitter (@MichelleOckers) as well as LinkedIn (michelleockers). And I’m quite OK if people have some questions or want to get in touch by email sharing my email address is michelle@michelleockers.com if anyone is interested in that. Finally, you can find me at my website.

Convergence Training: Great, and for people listening out there, Michelle mentioned earlier about how there are a lot of people on social media who are willing to share information and who are quite generous, and Michelle is certainly one of them, and I’ve really learned a lot by following Michelle. She’s a great source and very generous with information, so I do recommend following or connecting with her.

Alright, cool, Michelle. Thank you so much. I guess before we go, do you have any last words?

Michelle Ockers: So, be brave. Be courageous. Try something.

Involve other people in whatever it is you’re trying. Be upfront with them that you want to try this thing and let’s see how it goes. Get them on board with it.

But yeah, be brave and just try something. Don’t be daunted by this being so big. Just do one thing, pay attention to what happens, and run an experiment.

Convergence Training: Alright. Be brave and take baby steps. Thank you very much, Michelle. For everybody out there, thanks for listening, I’m sure you enjoyed it. Do follow up and connect with Michelle, follow her on social media, and if you’re in Australia or New Zealand, check out these upcoming conferences in August on learning culture with Nigel Paine.

Conclusion: Get Started Now on Your Learning Organization Journey

We wish you luck with your efforts to move higher up the learning organization spectrum and we thank Michelle so much for sharing her knowledge with us. Let us know if you have any questions and we’ll be back soon!

And don’t forget to download the free guide below since you’re here 🙂 

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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