Building a True Learning Organization

Becoming a learning organization is the basis for creating a culture of service and innovation. It also helps bind your IT team together around a shared vision.

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.  

This article was originally published on 03-19-2014
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