A few days ago, I posted about an article in Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge. It was on an interview with Harvard professor Amy Edmondson who has found that that learning makes people less productive at work, at least during the learning process. I suggested that organizations should accept that lack of productivity is part of learning and that it shouldn't keep them from encouraging and supporting learning with their employees. This opened up a bit of a (depressing) discussion in comments when Jason Zannon of DIA suggested that in an industry with high turnover and high burnout rates (i.e., the nonprofit industry), it may actually make sense to not worry about learning:
". . . 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."
I agreed with this, but suggested that maybe the reason that there's high turnover and high burnout is because organizations do not support learning--essentially chicken or the egg syndrome. Jason came back with:
"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."
I completely agree with Jason's point that it's difficult to develop a culture of learning. This line of thinking, though, led me to crystallize some thoughts I've had on what I see as a culture of training vs. a culture of learning.
Let me preface by saying that I have yet to meet the organization that sees absolutely no value in training. Even those organizations that don't make significant investments in training still acknowledge that training is necessary. They've just decided that they can't or won't make it a priority. This is important, I think, because to me it indicates that there's agreement that learning is necessary on some level, which gives you some place to start from in building bridges from the culture of training to the culture of learning.
That said, these are some of the differences I see between a culture of training and a culture of learning:
provided based on job function, organizational needs and requirements.
Focused on developing
skills of individual staff—learning in response to individual staff skill
at particular times in particular locations.
always going on and is woven into the fabric of the organization.
Instructor led, "formal training is the norm.
Supports a variety of formal and informal processes that center on the learner
Learning in response to
regulations/requirements and perceived staff inadequacies—often used inappropriately to address issues related to poor management and work processes
Learning as an ongoing,
natural process that is part of a quality organization—seen as a support to
other organizational quality initiatives
Often unrelated to and/or not supportive of work processes—i.e., training on “case management skills”
that are not supported by work flow
Usually related to and
supportive of work processes
Little focus on
transfer of learning to work
Transfer of learning
occurs because learning is well-integrated into work processes
Little value placed on learning--seen as a "necessary evil," a "cost" and/or a way to "fix" staff
High value placed on learning--regarded as an important investment in the quality of the organization and the growth of staff.
One side note--although this chart represents a kind of either/or thinking, in reality, I believe that organizations probably fall on some kind of continuum between the two cultures. Presenting it this way, though, helps me demonstrate the contrasts between how I view the two cultures in their extremes.
That said, I think a disturbingly high number of organizations have embraced a culture of training over the culture of learning and would find themselves on the far side of that continuum. I'm particularly bothered by the organizational view that training is a panacea for poor management, which implies that it's usually the worker's "fault" when there are problems in doing the work. In reality, poor work performance is usually NOT a result of lack of skill. Instead, it is generally because of poorly designed work processes and/or an organizational culture that says one thing and does another.
Another thing that stands out for me in this--In some ways, I think that culture of training organizations see learning as something that's done TO staff. Culture of learning organizations, on the other hand, see learning as something you do WITH staff.
In culture of training organizations, there's a belief that there's generally something "wrong" with staff that needs to be "fixed" by training. These are usually the organizations where management wouldn't be caught dead attending a training session. In culture of learning organizations there seems to be a belief that learning is a necessary growth process for everyone, which means that everyone participates in both formal and informal learning events. They see learning as something that's happening all day, every day.
So where might the leverage points be in moving from a culture of training to a culture of learning? I'm not sure. Part of me thinks that if you can get people to start expanding their definitions of what constitutes learning, as Jason suggests, you can potentially get people to start thinking differently about the roles and processes of learning in organizations. I also think that there need to be some attitude adjustments in terms of how staff are perceived, although this is a much harder area to address.
I'd be interested to hear from others about this. Am I totally off-base in thinking this way? If I'm not, do you have ideas about moving organizations more toward the culture of learning?