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Does Learning Make You Less Productive? Probably.

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."


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Nice post, Michele. Just to try this idea on for size and see how it fits -- might it be (depressingly) possible that in a low-margin, high-turnover, high-burnout field, a definition of productivity that doesn't care at all whether you learn might in fact be adaptive for some organizations?

If the actuarial table says you're probably out the door in two years and out of nonprofits altogether in five [<-numbers I just made up], I might just want to extract the surplus value and leave you to learn on your own time ... and by at least certain definitions of responsible institutional management, I might be right.

Or no?

Wow, Jason. You are depressing me.

You're right that learning doesn't make sense if you assume that people will be out the door in a short period of time. I actually saw a presentation a few months ago where the speaker argued that businesses have decided that there's no return on investment for training until people have been there for at least three years, so they don't bother providing training until then, other than for really basic work processes.

But I see chicken or the egg syndrome here. Is it just as possible that the reason that there's high burnout and high turnover because there's such a focus on "productivity," rather than on learning and figuring out better ways to do the work? Is it possible that if people feel that you're not willing to invest in them then they aren't willing to stick around?

I don't know the answer, but I'd sure like to test my theory. I can't help but feel that if we really helped people reach their potential in our organizations, we'd solve a lot of turnover problems.

I also wonder if nonprofits are really that deliberate about it. Have they done the research and determined this makes the most sense, or is it just how things have worked out? I suspect the latter.

I was going to comment but after reading Jason's comment I'm too depressed. I also agree with you that making the case for blogging as "personal learning renaissance" doesn't necessarily resonate with a lot npos. And, I can definitely see where some ED's might think it isn't real work. Nonprofits with learning cultures are not common for all the reasons that Jason mentions above.

Hmm .. now I am really bummed out

Now, let's all dress in black.

Heck, I don't know anything, I'm just thinking out loud here. Heaven knows that inertia is sturdy enough to bear the explanatory weight without resort to the subtle gestures of the invisible hand ...

I'm really glad you raised the question, Michele. It seems to me that the matter of getting to a learning culture where one doesn't exist at all is the hard step. For an organization with any kind of existing commitment to it, even only a nominal one -- by a conventional signifier, perhaps, something like a budget for professional development, conferences and trainings -- it's a matter of opening that box to encompass other forms of learning as well. After all, most seminars don't come with a clear straight-line ROI any more so than messing around with a new tech toy does.

But yeah. Total chicken and egg syndrome.

Wish I had a better answer here. I think your acknowledgment that it's an up-front cost is an important one. It's only one step beyond to acknowledge that the cost might in some situations be too high to justify. But maybe such costs can sometimes also be borne as part of the expression of the values of a mission-based organization, as opposed to one that takes its marching orders from shareholders.

(That's a total punt.)

This is an inescapable truth in programming and software engineering in general. When you are learning a new library, or tool or language, you are immensely unproductive because it's like learning to walk or talk all over again. You know what you want to do, but you don't yet know how to express it in that language. I'm suffering tons of this right now because I've just switched back to Java after a few years of using C#. Yes, the languages are a similar in many ways, but the libraries you use to get things done are very different. It's like knowing the rules of a language, but none of the vocabulary.

I don't think this is anything to be depressed or worried about. It's very simple to me. Until you become proficient in a new skill, where you don't take an hour to look up and learn how to do the simplest thing, you're not going to produce the end product efficiently.

You're absolutely right, Joe. I think what's depressing is if you work for an organization that doesn't recognize that to develop new skills for a period of time you'll be "unproductive." They get so hung up on you doing work, they'd rather have you use outdated skills and tools that get SOMETHING done, rather than new tools and skills that might cause you to accomplish less while you're learning them.

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