How to Become a Learning Organization (An Interview with Michelle Ockers)

Learning Organization Image

We’ve written before about what a learning organization is and what are some of their traits, and we’ve even talked about how to integrate safety departments into learning organization efforts (see this Safety & Learning Organizations article or this recorded Integrating Safety into Learning Organizations ASSP webinar).

But we thought we’d shoot big and talk to an expert in the field to learn what organizations can do to become learning organizations: Michelle Ockers.

Michelle very kindly shared her time and knowledge to help us get up to speed. If you’re interested in knowing what a learning organization is, or if you’re looking for some simple steps to move along the path, this is a great place to start.

The video of the discussion is immediately below. We’ve also typed it up for you if you’d rather read–just click the MORE button to read on.

Steps to Becoming a Learning Organization

Convergence Training: Hello, everyone, this is Jeff Dalto of Convergence Training, and we’re back with another of our semi-regular audio/web/podcast series.

Today we have a guest from the world of learning & development. I’m pretty excited, we have Michelle Ockers, who is an independent learning & development professional in Australia (learn more about her at her website). And Michelle will be talking about learning organization theory.

So I’ve been following Michelle for quite some time. She’s a great source of information and I think you’ll really enjoy this.

And with that, let me say hello to Michelle. Hi, Michelle.

Michelle Ockers: Hey Jeff, thank you for inviting me to talk with you today.

Introducing Michelle Ockers

Convergence Training: Yeah, and thank you. I’m really excited to have you on and I really appreciate it.

So we’re going to talk about learning organizations, being a learning organization, what it means, how to be one, and more in just a moment. But before we dive into all that, maybe if you could tell us a little about yourself and your professional background, that would be great.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, absolutely.

In brief, I’ve got a lot of background in logistics, in both the aviation industry and in manufacturing. I worked with the air force for sixteen years, I’ve worked in a manufacturing environment. I’ve also worked in a white-collar environment as well, but heavily in that manufacturing and aviation space.

And these days I work more at a strategic level. Normally I work through learning and development teams, sometimes directly with business leaders, looking at making sure that what we’re doing with learning in organizations has an impact on performance. I’m very business focused–I always ask “What is the business need?” and “What’s going to make a difference to performance?” and “How do we make sure we’re doing things and lining things up in a way that will make a difference?”

So a lot of the work I do is around strategy and operating models for learning organizations and directly building the capability of learning and development teams.

What Is a Learning Organization?

Convergence Training: Alright, great.

So we’re here to talk about learning organizations. I wonder if you could start by telling us what the heck that means?

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. I wish there was a simple answer to that question. I’m going to try to demystify the whole concept of a learning organization during the course of today, giving people something simple enough that they can use it and get their heads around it, making it actionable and practical, but it’s not so simple that it doesn’t do the job of building organizations that are adaptable and innovative, which at the end of the day is why we want to be a learning organization.

But it’s really about adaptation to whatever is changing within the organization.

So one of the resources that I like is a book that was recently published by Nigel Paine called Workplace Learning. And one of the things he does is he does a bit of a history about the thinking around a learning organization, which has really evolved since the early 1990s. And what is clear, if you look at it, is it’s just not straight-forward. We’re all still figuring out how to build a learning organization and what makes for a learning organization.

And so a lot of people may recall Peter Senge, he wrote a book in the 1990s called The Fifth Discipline, where he talked about a learning organization being about a group of people who work together, collectively. So it was about people working together, using that collective knowledge and learning to build capabilities and that that creates results that they care about.

Now Senge was quite high-level. He was kind of visionary in his day. But people struggled to implement his ideas because it wasn’t actionable enough, and it was just a bit too complex….too many disciplines, too many rules, and hard to actually do it.

But in the 1980s, at the Harvard Business School, there was a guy named David Garvin, who gave a far more practical definition. And he basically said, look, “a learning organization is an organization that is good at creating knowledge, acquiring knowledge, and transferring knowledge” and then using both the knowledge that’s being shared as well as what’s been created to be able to change their behavior appropriately. So again, there’s that idea of adaptation.

And what’s common, throughout all the history of all the people we’re talking about, about what a learning organization is, is this whole idea of being able to challenge assumptions, challenge the way we think, and the way we work. Technically, it’s called double-loop learning, but it’s really just about not taking as a given the frameworks and the way we look at the world.

So let me give you an example to show what that might look like to make it a bit more real life if that’s OK?

One of the challenges we can have if we become really good at something is that we can develop blind spots. Because we think our past experience is a good predictor of the future. And we can make poor decisions. Basically, it’s about blind spots.

And so, for instance, Polaroid had a blind spot to digital video technology. And ultimately, they fell off the radar, right? They didn’t keep up because they failed to see that digital was the way of the future because they were so expert at old-fashioned ways, or at producing photos and videos.

And here in Australia, there’s a bank called ING, who are asking its staff and leaders to think more like technology companies than like a bank. You’ve probably got online-only banks in the US. And they’re actually digital companies first, rather than banking companies.

I think we’re seeing that a lot. And there are a lot of organizations starting to realize they need to be in the digital space, and they’re asking their people not to think traditionally about their industry, but to adopt this different mind set.

So a learning organization can look at what is happening in their environment, and kind of start making sense of it. It can have a flow of conversation, a flow of knowledge, a flow of experience within the organization to figure out how do we respond to this and adapt to this and build new capabilities.

Does that make sense?

Convergence Training: It does.

And I’m glad that originally you talked about reacting to changes within the organization, but I’m glad you also mentioned reacting to changes that happen externally.

I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan (in the US), and we had these auto companies, right? And now maybe they’re becoming tech companies in the way you described. And their competitors are Google and Amazon and not just Ford and Chrysler and GM.

I wonder…a couple of other things. Could you show us that Nigel Paine book again that you talked about so everyone will know how to find that?

Michelle Ockers: Oh, this is on video, as well, is it? Here you go…Nigel Paine, Workplace Learning.

But there was actually a guy before him who wrote a book called The Learning Organization–named Bob Garratt–in 1987 in the UK. So Senge and Garratt were working on this around the same time, independently, and they didn’t credit or acknowledge each other’s work. But where Senge was too complicated, Bob Garratt was probably a little too simple.

Convergence Training: So I just learned about this Garratt guy a week or two ago, so that rings a bell. I had the same thought about Senge, that it seemed kind of abstract and there was no obvious way to apply it, even if a lot of it was good. And your touchstones–Garvin as well as people Garvin worked with, like Gino and Edmonson–that all sounds familiar to me.

Great intro. So if that’s what a learning organization is….and again, could you repeat the Garvin definition? Do you have that written down?

Michelle Ockers: I do. I’ll read it out–it’s from a 1983 article in the Harvard Business Review called Building a Learning Organization, and I’ll read it out verbatim: “An organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

Convergence Training: Great. And I’m sure we’ll touch on this, but that second part is really important–modifying behavior.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, that’s essential.

Why Be a Learning Organization?

Convergence Training: OK, so that’s what a learning organization is. Why would I want to do it? Why is it a good idea for an organization to be a learning organization?

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. Are there things changing in your environment? Are they changing quickly? Is the pace of change accelerating? You know…digital disruption, technology is moving on, our customer’s expectations are shifting. We need to be able to respond to all of these things for our businesses to thrive.

So being a learning organization is about being able to adapt. To see what’s going on around us. To make changes in not only how we engage with customers, for instance, and in the service and products we offer, but how we work internally to bring that all to life and to make sure we can deliver something new, something more appropriate, something more effective. So we’re bringing the whole power of the organization and often, and we’ll talk a little bit about the examples of hack-a-thons, right, often it’s about going beyond the boundaries of the organization and bringing in knowledge and experience from outside the organization to create some momentum that allows us to change so we can do a better job of serving our customers, remaining profitable and competitive. So it’s all about adaptability.

Convergence Training: Alright, great.

So classic examples would be things like the taxi industry being Ubered or Lyfted…

Michelle Ockers: Absolutely. So here’s a couple of examples I wanted to share. And one is about driverless cars, right? So there are quite a few organizations working on autonomous vehicles now, and Mercedes-Benz has this interesting concept car that they call the F 015. And one of the interesting things about it is that they’re not just saying “well, it’s about a car being able to move around without a driver,” but they also thought about the space inside the car. Because if people aren’t driving, what are they doing? So they’re setting it up to create a space that can be used for business meetings and for socializing, right? So they’re thinking ahead to that. What kind of technology can we put inside the car, so that all of the sudden it has a very different purpose. And so that’s a good example of adaptation and thinking outside of the traditional mindset of what does it look like.

And WestJet, they’re a Canadian airline. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them–they’re about 20 years old. And aviation has been a fairly traditional industry for a long time. But more and more, aviation is going digital and thinking about and servicing customers more effectively using digital technology and innovation.

Side note: Here’s a link to an article about the Westjet hackathon

So they had a hack-a-thon last year to look at solutions for their premium travelers, and how to provide better service to their premium travelers. They had 120 people from 17 different technology companies come in…they had people from Facebook, from Amazon, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, SnapChat. You know, they have nothing to do with the aviation industry, really.

They also had about 37 staff and about a dozen customers, so they’re bringing the customers into the process.

And they basically had this hack-a-thon saying, “given what we know about the structural limitations of our industry, we’re heavily regulated, we will continue to be heavily regulated, safety is critical, but what can we do to better service our premium customers?” That’s the question they worked on.

And they came out of that experience reframing themselves as a digital company that happens to fly aircraft. So there’s a shift in thinking, right, and a challenging of fundamental assumptions, seeing things differently, and pulling knowledge from all over the place to adapt.

Convergence Training: I don’t know if you have Blockbuster video stores there, but clearly you must have had brick-and-mortar video stores, am I correct?

Michelle Ockers: We had Blockbuster video stores. We don’t have them any more.

Convergence Training: We have one left. It’s 200 miles south of my home in Bend, Oregon. But that’s another example of an industry that got disrupted by technology, and a cautionary tale that organizations have to be careful so it doesn’t happen to them.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. Real estate is another example of an industry that’s completely changing through technology, right? And the range of services that are now being offered in real estate is quite different.

There’s a lot of reframing that organizations have to do and seeing themselves differently.

Convergence Training: Yeah. I don’t want to drag us too far offline, but I have heard the discussion of what will people be doing inside of it, and the article I read suggested a lot more hanky-panky, but I like your notion that we should design something for people to do, because drivers used to be busy and soon they won’t be, and it’s a nice tie-in to design thinking.

Note: Read more on design thinking here.

So if we know what a learning organization is, and we know why an organization would want to be a learning organization, can you give us a bird’s-eye view of some of the characteristics of a learning organization and what they might be?

Characteristics of a Learning Organization

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, sure.

And you can kind of go cross-eyed, trying to figure that out, with all of the different frameworks and points of view. Because we’re still learning about this, we’re still figuring things out, and it’s not simple.

But what I’ve done is, I’ve pulled a framework from Harvard Business Review which was published in 2008, so it is a little dated, and I’m going to talk about making some updates to it to make it more relevant and current for today’s world. So it was developed by David Garvin, who we mentioned before; by Amy Edmonson, who I’d like to talk about a little more in regards to her work on psychological safety and setting up safe environments for people in organizations and teams, and Francesca Geno did this work based on 30 years of research around organizations and thinking about adaptability in organizations and learning organizations (see Is Yours a Learning Organization? at the Harvard Business Review). And they put together a self-assessment tool.

One of the nice things about their framework is it covers quite a bit that’s in their self-assessment tool, and it gives you a framework for figuring out “OK, where are we at and what might we focus on as a starting point?” But they also say that all three of these building blocks, because they’ve organized it into three building blocks, they say all of them have got to be in place. It’s not as simple as saying “OK, we can work on one and then look at the others,” they’ve all got to be in place.

So they talk about:

  • A supportive learning environment
  • Concrete learning processes and practices, and they give specific processes and practices, and
  • Leadership that reinforces learning

So I think that’s quite useful as a starting point. But I would also overlay some of the thinking from Nigel Paine’s book which I shared with you a moment ago, when he talks about the critical components of a learning culture. Because an organization has a culture. So it’s a slightly different concept.

So he talks about things you have to have in place or you won’t be able to create a learning organization. He talks about:

  • Trust
  • Collaboration
  • Purpose
  • Sharing

Now I think three of those four elements are adequately covered in the Harvard framework, but the one I want to call out and maybe discuss a little more is the idea of purpose and why that’s important in a learning organization.

Convergence Training: Great. I like that addition of the fourth (purpose), which, as you mentioned earlier, hearkens back to what Senge said as well.

I do have a question before we go on. I know we are going to drill down into each of those four points in just a second, but the Harvard Business Review article you’re talking about, by Gino, Garvin, and Edmonson, which I think is called Is Yours a Learning Organization?, has a self-assessment in it, which I think is a really cool idea, but I’ve never been able to make that work correctly, like it seems like there’s something wrong with the scoring on it or something. Am I wrong? Should I go back and try it again?

Michelle Ockers: I think it is. But I would caution people against using it in its current form. I would suggest it as a starting point, because it’s from 2008 so it’s eleven years out of date and I think there have been some subtle shifts since then. But I think it’s a great place to start with a set of dimensions and questions you might consider looking at. But I would create my own, off the back of that, and maybe update it a little.

A Supportive Learning Environment for Learning Organizations

Convergence Training: Alright, great.

So then, let’s dig deeper into each of those. The thing one is a supportive learning environment, and they had different examples of what that meant.

Could you tell us what, in your mind, what does that mean–a supportive learning environment?

Michelle Ockers: So nowadays, we tend to use the word learning ecosystem, which is a bit jargony, but if you see talk about learning ecosystems and performance ecosystems, that’s kind of the same thing. And I think there are three key elements in a learning environment.

One is resources; another is people; and thirdly, the underlying environment–technology, talent management, for instance.

Often people think that these learning environments are based all around technology, and a lot of vendors of platforms have kind of hijacked the idea that “If you just put our platform in place–voila!–you’ll have a learning environment.” But it’s actually not true–it’s much bigger than that. The idea of a learning environment is that you’re reducing friction, to make it easier for people to learn and in particular to make it easier for people to learn, and in particular to learn while they work. And I’ll talk a little bit more about that when we move on.

So it’s about enabling people to learn continuously, to have a more fluid sharing of knowledge, to be able to access the resources they need, in the flow of work and to be able to do their job.

So there’s a really big question now, revolving around how we can enable individuals at work to own their own learning, and I think that question wasn’t such a big question in 2008. But we recognize now, with the pace of change, and this idea of helping people to be lifelong learners, is really important. So creating an environment in which they are able to take charge of their own learning.

Now, I’m not going to cover every element noted for a supportive learning environment, but there are two I’d like to call out that are particularly important.

The first is this idea of psychological safety. Some people may have heard about it. It was popularized by some work that Google did with a project they called Project Aristotle. I think they started the work in 2012 and it took three years for them to do this piece of work. And they wanted to figure out what are the ingredients that make a high-performing team. And they spent a couple of years, internally, trying to figure out what it was: was it diversity? was it experience? And they just couldn’t come up with anything.

But then they figured out that the secret ingredient was this thing called psychological safety. But they didn’t invent it–Amy Edmonson came up with it (see Edmonson’s book The Fearless Organization and our article on psychological safety) and she identified it, I think, in 2002, looking at cultures in a hospital system.

And I’m going to talk a little bit about hospitals and aviation, because we can learn from them in terms of creating environments where people can learn and adapt and share knowledge quickly, in a moment.

But basically, psychological safety is about people feeling that they can speak up, that they can share information about what does and doesn’t work, that they can ask questions, they can give feedback, they can discuss problems and disagreements, and that mistakes can be viewed as opportunities to learn and none of this will be held against them.

So they are not going to be judged to be incompetent because they’re asking questions. People are not going to respond defensively, there’s going to be open discussion around the questions, and the issues, and the concerns that they raise. So it’s kind of related to learning from failure as well, in a way. Creating an environment in which it’s safe for people to ask questions or to admit that something didn’t work, and that’s critical.

Now, Edmonson’s published a book recently, which I think you’ve read, Jeff, called The Fearless Organization.

Convergence Training: Right. I just read it and I’ll have a blog post about it soon.

Michelle Ockers: And I haven’t taken a good look at it yet. It’s got some good reviews. It’s got a tool kit for leaders, so if people are looking for something actionable to help create an environment of psychological safety, it’s a help.

If you look at the Google research, a lot of the Google research talks about leaders being vulnerable and being willing to say “I don’t know,” or ask a question, or even just share a little bit about themselves. When they do that, it almost grants permission for others to do the same. That was really important, to building high-performing teams.

Convergence Training: Right. Especially that “I don’t know.”

Michelle Ockers: Yeah. And these days, things move so fast. I don’t know if you’ve heard the term “the half-life of knowledge,” that half of what we know in a particular field, it turns over much more quickly. And so it’s no shame to be saying “I don’t know, but I know how to figure it out,” or “I know how to find people”. And this is the whole idea about the people element of a learning environment: I know how to find people who can help me with this. I know how to find people I can work with and collaborate with, right? That’s really critical.

Convergence Training: Right. The whole thing about continual learning, lifelong learning, working out loud outside your organization–even what you and I are doing now.

Michelle Ockers: Yeah, absolutely.

And the third element I want to touch on briefly, but it’s a really big one–it’s reflection, and making time for reflection.

We’re so caught up in business, and this idea that activity equals productivity, but you’ve got to make time to sit back and think about what we are doing, both on an individual level and at a team level, and what you are learning from that and how to improve that.

And there are lots of ways you can build in learning moments in an organization, and let me share just a couple that I think are quite relevant to a manufacturing environment in particular.

One is just looking for natural points in the workflow where questions can be asked about learning. So, a shift change in a manufacturing environment, for instance. You know, normally there’s some sort of handover meeting, at the very least between team leaders, often at the start of a shift. You know, there will be a toolbox talk, people will come together to have a conversation about what’s happening. This is a great opportunity to say “here’s what’s happened on the last shift, here’s what we did, and here’s what we learned from that,” or have a little reflective discussion.

Side note: Check out this article about holding pre-job pre-mortems to learn on the job in the way Michelle’s talking about.

Root-cause analysis in maintenance activities. You know, if you’re having trouble figuring out some sort of problem with your equipment, your operations, and there’s a process around root-cause analysis, you can really dig into what’s going on here and the diagnostic processes. These are fantastic moments for reflection, so long as you capture the knowledge and what you’re learning out of it to think about “what can we change,” so you’re closing the loop and adapting, so I think that’s a really good example.

Side note: Check out this article on conducting a root-cause analysis and this article for a similar exercise called a learning team (or this one for learning teams and operational learning) to get an example of what Michelle’s talking about.

And I’ve got a story from WD-40. You know how a lot of organizations–I know you do a lot of safety work–a lot of organizations have safety moments built into their meetings. So they’ll often share a point about safety, or have a reflection on safety, as part of the meeting structure. WD-40 has built learning moments into their meeting structure as well. So in a lot of their recurring meetings, they’ll have a short share on “what did you learn this week?” and they just quickly go around the table. And so that’s kind of a pause, a reflection moment.

Convergence Training: Yeah. Well I’m glad you brought up that third point of reflection, which I think is really important but also really hard to do in a fast-paced lif

Jeff Dalto, Senior Learning & Performance Improvement Manager
Jeff is a learning designer and performance improvement specialist with more than 20 years in learning and development, 15+ of which have been spent working in manufacturing, industrial, and architecture, engineering & construction training. Jeff has worked side-by-side with more than 50 companies as they implemented online training. Jeff is an advocate for using evidence-based training practices and is currently completing a Masters degree in Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning from Boise State University. He writes the Vector Solutions | Convergence Training blog and invites you to connect with him on LinkedIn.

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