Building a True Learning Organization

By Charles Araujo  |  Posted 03-19-2014
Learning organization

Building a True Learning Organization

By Charles Araujo

"I wish IT would just come and spend one day in my world."

I was sitting at an evening reception at my regular hotel in Virginia, speaking with the property’s general manager, Jim.

"Every day, we try to listen to our customers," Jim said. "We try to get feedback from people like you about what is working and what isn’t, so that we can make things work better. And a lot of times, our systems just don’t help us do that."

On Wednesday evenings, the hotel holds a cooking demonstration and reception for its regular guests. As I stay at the hotel quite often, I've had the opportunity to get to know Jim a little bit through these Wednesday night events. This evening, he told me about his job and it struck me as a perfect example of what it means to be a learning organization from both the management and personal perspectives.

The First Trait: Being a Learning Organization

After the first two events in our Catalyst Experience series (which I wrote about here and here, respectively) , our last five events are directly tied to the five organizational traits that I describe in my book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. The first of these traits is that every next-generation IT organization must first and foremost be a learning organization.

The term "learning organization" has deep roots, but was popularized by Peter Senge in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline. I won't go into detail about Senge's description of a learning organization, but in its simplest form, a learning organization is one that is in a constant state of adaptation and improvement. It is continually tuned into the needs, wants and challenges of its customers and one in which each member of the organization holds herself personally accountable for continual improvement and adaptation.

This is the first trait in my book because it serves as the foundation for everything. Becoming a learning organization is the basis for creating a culture of service and innovation. It lays the framework by which you bind your team together around a shared vision. If you can successfully lead your team to becoming a learning organization, you will be well positioned for anything the future may hold, so it is the best place to start.

Unfortunately for IT teams, the concept of a learning organization can be difficult to grasp. If it is contemplated at all, it is too often boiled down to some lukewarm commitments to training. And that is why I found my conversation with Jim so intriguing. As he spoke of his experiences with IT, he was basically lamenting that his IT organization was not, in fact, a learning organization (which is all too common). At the same time, however, his own story was a great example of exactly what it means to become one.  

Learning = Listening

While becoming a learning organization represents a fundamental cultural shift and demands a steadfast commitment to embodying these principles, the first step is very simple. Before anything else happens, becoming a learning organization demands that the IT organization begin by listening.

"It would be nice to have the opportunity for IT to really hear what we need, what drives us and how we want to use technology to better serve our customers," Jim told me. "With everything being outsourced and IT trying to cut their costs, it's getting harder to communicate with them. When things get 'lost in translation,' it makes it harder for us to do our job. We want someone that understands what our associates and customers go through."

Over the course of our hour-long conversation, the theme of listening and being able to discern the urgency of a situation from the customer's perspective came up again and again. It's important to note that Jim wasn't complaining. Instead, he was calling upon IT to work with him—much like you might call upon a teammate on the field to give it his all so that you can win the game—together.

Building a True Learning Organization

I think that IT often sees itself in an almost adversarial role. But through my entire conversation with Jim, that wasn't what I heard at all. There was frustration, yes, but more than anything there was a sense of lost opportunities to serve and thrill their hotel customers—and a lament that IT never seemed to see the situation that way. I gathered that his IT hindrances spanned over many years and that he understood that there were complexities that he didn't—and probably couldn't—understand. Nevertheless, he just wished that IT would listen and educate him so they could make better decisions together.

The Essence of a Learning Organization

As the conversation shifted to Jim's personal story and his management style, a simple truth emerged: A learning organization begins with the leader. As he walked me through his career, I heard story after story that exemplified what it means to be (and to create) a learning organization. The level of his position in the organization didn't seem to matter. If Jim had the opportunity to lead, he focused on helping his team serve the guest while continually looking for improvements and being personally accountable.  

One problem with the idea of becoming a learning organization is that it can feel somewhat abstract. Dealing with large staffs with widely varying degrees of both experience and education was a particularly challenging issue for Jim. So I was excited when he shared his approach for communicating the essence of being a learning organization to his teams. He explained that he works with his staff to consider the Three Ps when they are faced with an important decision:

  • People: How will this decision affect the people that pay your check (i.e., the customer, not your boss) and how will it affect the people that work for or with you?
  • Product: How will this decision affect the service that you are providing and the way that you're providing it? In his case (and I'd argue for IT as well), a key part of that is understanding how it will impact your ability to be friendly, attentive and responsive as that's a key part of their "product."
  • Profit: How will this decision affect your ability to make a profit for your investors? For IT, we can think of this in terms of our fiduciary stewardship.

Jim went on to say that he teaches his teams that the three Ps must be in balance. Let one have sway over any other and the organization will not function properly. If you think about the challenge of becoming a continually learning organization, it typically comes down to the challenge of being able to make good decisions that keep moving the organization forward. This Three Ps method can help make your day-to-day decision-making process much more actionable.

Connecting Your Team to Your Mission

While Jim shared more with me than I can fit into this article, there are two final points that had a significant impact on me and helped me refine my understanding of how to apply the principles of a learning organization.  

The first is a simple phrase that he uses as a sort of mantra: "Always choose the hard right over the easy wrong." This simple phrase helps his team understand the core of their mission. They are in business to serve their customers and to make a profit. It is often easy to let things slide, but when doing so will impact your customers or the organization's ability to make a profit—which the easy things most often do—then you must instead choose the hard right. Do the thing that must be done—even if it's more difficult in the short run.  

This speaks to the idea of personal accountability, which I spent considerable space discussing in my book. It is one of the most important cultural elements that must exist if an organization is to thrive, but it's tough to put into practice. This simple phrase is a great tool to do it.

The other technique that every IT leader should steal right now is what Jim calls his "partner program." It is a program whereby any time a staff member is recognized by a guest, the staff member gets an immediate monetary reward. (Have I said how wonderfully Ricardo and Mohammed treat me!) But Jim recognized that there were a bunch of behind-the-scenes staff that would never be recognized because they never interact with a guest. As a result, Jim partners every back-of-house person with a front-of-house person—and every time the front-of-house person is recognized, the back-of-house person also gets rewarded.  

Building a True Learning Organization

This simple act connects the entire organization together in a common mission to serve the guest. It makes them interested in their mutual success. And it gives them a sense of being part of a team and a comfort level with speaking up about potential improvements, even when the suggested enhancements are out of their own area of responsibility.

A Hard Path to Making It Look Easy 

After I finished my talk with Jim I felt a bit like I had just been allowed to peek at the magic behind the curtain. I had a deep appreciation for just how hard the team works every day to make my hotel experience pleasant, peaceful and painless. I had tried about five hotels in the Washington, D.C. area before I settled on this one. If you had asked me why, I'm not sure I could have told you. It wasn't necessarily the best reviewed or most convenient hotel, but it just felt comfortable. And it felt right.

I can now see why. I can see how much work that takes. And it makes me appreciate all of the hard work even more. Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing to hear as an IT organization? At a cocktail party, someone asks your CEO about his IT organization. He pauses and simply says, "You know, they're great. I can't even tell you what really makes them different from the IT organizations at the other places I've worked, but this team just gets it. They just feel right."  

That's what becoming a learning organization sounds and feels like. Jim and his approach provides some great lessons for all of us in IT, but only if we're willing to listen. And if you are ever in the D.C. area and need a place to stay, let me know. I’ve got a great recommendation for you. 

About the Author

Charles Araujo is a recovering consultant and accidental author of the book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change. He is an internationally recognized authority on IT Leadership and liberally shares his message of hope about the future of IT and what it means for all of us. He is the founder and CEO of the IT Transformation Institute and serves on the boards of itSMF USA and the Executive Next Practices Institute. You can follow him at @charlesaraujo.

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment of an eight-part article series titled "Seven Steps to a Next-Generation IT Organization." To read the previous installment, "The Four Pillars: The Secret to IT Transformation," click here.