In his best selling book "The Fifth Discipline", author Peter Senge says the only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization's ability to learn faster than the competition. Okay, no argument there. But knowing that and doing that are two completely different things.
When it comes to learning, just about every workplace has its share of foot-draggers, but like anything else, managers and leaders set the tone. And, whether intentionally or inadvertently, too often management displays a certain smugness that implies they needn't learn anything more to succeed.
Best-selling business author Robert Heller writes about this in a recent article at Management-Issues.com. Talking about how leaders can get stuck in a rut, Heller says:
There's a natural lifespan for human beings which seems to be accompanied by a natural leadership span. That's why top managers are seldom as effective in their older years.
It's tempting for CEOs to get sucked into a certain mindset that places priority on doing things right over doing the right things. What's more, charismatic leaders can sometimes get addicted to their own power, which makes them lose touch with reality.
The ability to recognize mistakes and to atone for them, however dire, is a more important leadership attribute than charisma.
A similar dilemma that inhibits learning afflicts frontline managers. This mindset is "I'm a manager – and I must know how to be a manager, or they wouldn't have made me one! Why do I need to learn anything more?"
In fact, in many circles it's almost socially unacceptable for managers to attend management training. Here are just a few examples of what I mean:
1. If an executive wants a middle manager to attend training, the manager thinks "It might appear that leadership doesn't think I have what it takes to be a manager, and my team might start questioning my authority."
2. If the manager wants to attend training, he doesn't say anything because "It might say to my boss that I don't think I have what it takes, and then they might not consider me when the next promotion opportunity comes along."
I've lost count as to how many times I've seen these attitudes, but business owners are guilty, too. In more than one place on this planet I've heard them say "That's the way it's worked for years, I see no reason to change."
I believe that sentence will go down in history as being among the "famous last words" from business people who faded from view.
The Impact of Anxiety
Another factor that inhibits workplace learning is anxiety. Many people seek predictability, stability, and work processes that evolve into routines and habits. New learning means new ways of thinking—and doing—which usually involves venturing into unknown territory. Not exactly predictable.
On the other hand there are those that recognizes a need to keep up with a rapidly changing world, but what to learn is the question. Choosing a path of learning that leads away from industry trends can put an organization on the wrong track, not move it ahead. It's a different kind of anxiety, but it's still resistance to learning.
What to Do
Probably the first thing to do in developing a learning organization is to create a training organization. One of the core functions of a manager is to train teams in what they must know, do, and be concerned in order to succeed.
Ineffective on-the-job training sounds like "Okay, you watched me do it, now you do it." If you're wondering why people don't retain their learning when taught with that method, it's because that method uses only two of the four steps needed for teaching a skill.
Additionally, and I say it a lot; the ability to stand up and talk does not a trainer make. First and foremost – get managers trained in how to be trainers.
Second, leadership must set the tone. Every leader in an organization—and I mean every leader—must become an avid learner. Learning new things must become an organizational norm. As soon as just one leader says "learning is for everyone else. I already know what I need to know," almost everyone reporting to that leader will adopt a similar attitude.
As the adage goes, people will follow as they've been led.
Third, make learning an "in" thing to do. It needs to be water cooler conversation for all.
And why not? Both Senge and Heller are spot on: A pervasive attitude of learning will give your organization a competitive edge.