Learning Is Doing

In these tough economic times more and more workplaces, both business and government, have sharpened their pencils, gotten down to brass tacks, cut out the fat, tightened their belts, and adopted new production measures – because we all know “what gets measured gets done.” It has been very important for managers and leaders to be able to prove that each and every employee is doing what needs to be done, every minute of every day.

Top management has said that if you are not at your post, focused on your assigned task, you are not doing anything. And, if you are not doing anything, you are wasting the company’s time and money.

The concerns of management certainly can be understood. Stockholders are unforgiving of companies that do not operate efficiently. Citizens are unforgiving of governments that waste taxpayer dollars. In either case, dissatisfaction with the organization’s leadership can lead to changes at the top. CEOs and politicians alike hold positions that are constantly at stake.

So it is not surprising that management’s emphasis has remained on ensuring that employees are doing something that contributes to the success of the organization; doing those things that can be measured, proven, and demonstrated with hard facts.

In the face of this emphasis on facts and reality (See blog posts on The Leadership Diamond and Reality), true leaders are faced with the dilemma of finding ways to operate a profitable and efficient organization while still encouraging employee growth and learning. These leaders understand the need to take care of today by delivering efficiency and quality, and to take care of the future by investing in the managers and leaders of tomorrow.

In a recent blog post (Learning and Teaching) the need for learning, both adaptive and generative, was discussed. Adaptive learning is the learning that helps us survive. Organizations, like individuals, must learn in order to compete, gain resources, and survive in a competitive climate. Generative learning is the learning that “enhances our capacity to create” (Peter Senge). It is this learning that lets the organization move beyond mere survival, create new and better solutions, and reach new levels of achievement.

If an employee spends time learning, improving the chances that the organization will survive or will reach a new level, then that employee is doing something that contributes to the long-term success of the organization.

Even when the immediate results of the learning cannot be measured in profitability, number of widgets made, or popularity in the polls, learning that leads to the creation of good and competent managers, leaders who can take the organization to the next level, or creative thinkers that discover new ways of solving the problems of today is essential to the success of the organization.

If you are a leader, manager or politician, you have the opportunity to ensure that your organization is taking time to step back from the business of the day to take in the big picture (see The View From The Balcony), encouraging creativity and experimentation (see Everyday Creativity), expanding knowledge and skills (see Knowledge Skills and Talents), and improving the health of the organization. All of these efforts will help you create a successful organization.

In successful organizations learning is doing.

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Bill Brantley

@Jim – Great post! What would you suggest for measuring how well employees are learning? I believe if you can show an ROI on the learning you describe, managers would be more likely to encourage a learning organization.

Jim Elliott

Measurement is always hard, particularly with soft skills. But, as people learn new skills or ways of thinking they change how they do their jobs, how they approach problems, or how they deal with people. Measuring these changes requires good observation, and conversation. For example, if you have been doing training on a topic or skill, I might ask you to take on something you have never done before in that particular area.. And, before you started, I would have a conversation with you to hear your thoughts on how you will approach the task. Through the conversation you get to test your thinking, and I get to listen for growth and changes in how you have done similar work in the past. Sorry – I know that isn’t scientific, but it’s a start. @everyone – What are your ideas on measurement?

Jim Elliott

Re: budget cuts – My experience is that in many organizations training, particularly the soft-skill training, is an early cut. This is not always the case. I know of at least one case where the City Manager has said that training and development of the staff was a priority, even during hard economic times. The theory was that particularly during difficult times you need to get the maximum out of your staff. Learning new skills is one way to encourage this result.