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.

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