Roll the Stone (of Mediocrity) Away
As a consultant, I sometimes feel like a morbid ambulance chaser. I make a career from working with organizations with serious problems. Now, some problems I don't mind — we all make mistakes. But some organizations seem trapped in a sisyphean cycle of not just making mistakes but repeating the same mistakes again and again. For example:
- They make and have to undo poor senior appointments.
- They embark on quixotic, ill-thought-out campaigns.
- They set unachievable and un-credible service goals.
I'm less keen on working with these organizations. They seem dispirited and are frankly dispiriting to work with. Yet other organizations can make mistakes, even lots of mistakes, and still produce outstanding results. I call these organizations "learning organizations," and it's a pleasure to work with them — there's a sense of progress every time.
You've probably heard the term "learning organization" before. But what does it actually mean? For Peter Senge, who coined the phrase, "learning organization" means something very specific. He talks about "the continuous testing of experience, and the transformation of that experience into knowledge — accessible to the whole organization, and relevant to its core purpose" from "The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization."
There are some key and challenging ideas present in that definition. It's about constantly trying new approaches even when things seem to work and turning that experience into something that everyone can use, with a very specific purpose — to deliver on the mission.
(If you're interested in Senge's broader theories, he expanded his ideas in a second book, "The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.")
Being a learning organization isn't about having cool, fun offices, or lots of training for staff, or formal policies for everything — and it's never about having an online knowledge management system. (That last item can bring an organization to its knees financially and intellectually. Somehow IT and learning hardly ever seem to match up in real life.)