Are teams that learn less productive than ones that don't? Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson says that in the short term, they probably are.
In an interview in Working Knowledge from the Harvard Business School, Edmondson argues that there are built-in tensions between learning and performance that smart organizations must learn how to address. To learn means to become less productive, at least for a while, and she points to a few reasons for this:
"When you're learning, you're often without an instruction manual to follow for guaranteed results. Also, performance gains won't show up instantaneously. In a learning mode, it's awkward. It's a transition, or we hope it is anyway, because there is no guarantee we are doing the right kind of learning. But, even if we are learning the right things, there is a transition to get through. The two-finger typist who wants to learn to touch type will suffer a performance decrement when he makes the shift. The idea was to improve performance by learning a new skill (e.g., touch typing), but in the short term, performance will be worse."
Teams that are learning can also seem less productive because learning is about focusing on and (hopefully) fixing mistakes:
". . . learning processes by their nature involve facing failures—problems, mistakes—head on. The presence of problems or mistakes doesn't signal high performance to most people who might be watching. Some scholars go so far as to define learning as the detection and correction of error (notably Chris Argyris, now emeritus at HBS). So, clearly, if learning is about identifying error, in the short term, performance will appear to be weak (error ridden) while learning is occurring. At the very least, if learning involves trial and error, the error part does not resemble most people's idea of good performance. So, they're at odds."
Ultimately, she argues, managers who don't explicitly recognize that errors and a drop in productivity are part of the learning process will end up favoring today's performance over tomorrow's new skills. Not necessarily what we want or need in a world where an organization's success depends on the knowledge and skills of its workers.
It's interesting that I come across this article on the same day that Tony Karrer wonders if time spent learning and using Web 2.0 tools will be perceived as time spent away from "real work." I suspect that for many organizations that will be the case, especially if they don't perceive learning as part of the job. But as Edmondson indicates, this isn't the best way to look at things.
Sometimes I think that the idea that learning isn't "real work" goes back to an organizational need to be in control. "Learning is part of your job when we SAY it's part of your job. If we tell you it's time to attend training, then learning is part of your job. If we say that it's time for you to do other things, then learning isn't in the job description right now". So many organizations talk about valuing life-long learning and how you need to develop your skills, but their behavior communicates something entirely different.
Regardless, this short-term focus on "productivity" at the expense of learning is a problem, I think, and one that will only get bigger if organizations don't recognize and address it. Edmondson suggests that part of the fix lies in having managers and workers recognize that a drop in productivity is part and parcel of the learning process. Once the skills are mastered, then productivity should improve. In the meantime, ease up and help learners through the process of trial and error and developing new knowledge and skills.
I also think we have to re-evaluate what we mean by "productivity." Being busy all the time doesn't mean that you're productive, although I find that many organizations seem to value the appearance of busy-ness as a sign that a lot of work is getting done.
In many cases, taking the time to learn how to do things differently and to master new tools will actually make you more productive than continuing to do things as they've been done before, particularly when it comes to using technology. To borrow Edmondson's example, the two-fingered typist may not pump out a lot of work while he/she is learning how to touch type. But once that skill is mastered, then a whole lot more work will get done in the same amount of time.
Bottom line here is the need for us to see learning and exploration as investments in our organizations, rather than as costs. The more skilled and knowledgeable our people are, the more successful we will be. But we have to recognize and accept that we might take some hits on productivity in the process. And getting better at what we do means we may have to re-define what it means to be "doing your job."