The Pre-Internet Learning Organization

In Jane Hart’s Modern Workforce Learning Challenge, last week’s challenge was to look at how to support continuous social learning and how to help team members learn from each other.

My first reaction was “hey, I’ve done that before.”

I went back to an experience I had with an organization where I first learned about a learning organization. From 1990 – 1995 I had the joy of working for a language publisher called Heinle & Heinle. We were relatively small (less than 100 employees), but the management team was committed to being a learning organization.

Before the internet was involved, we curated content. Journals and trade magazines were circulated around the office with people making notes in them and passing them on to the next person on the circulation list that was stapled to the front cover. Team leaders were expected to find articles, make copies, and put them into circulation as well. Cross-functional teams were encouraged to have lunch “on the company” together to get to know each other. When we had authors coming into the office to work on projects, it was expected that editors would arrange an all company presentation on a relevant topic by that author. Our “bibles” were Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline” and Katzenbach/Smith’s “The Wisdom of Teams”. I still have my copies – worn and marked up. Teams were expected to spend time discussing their learning efforts and how they were functioning as a team. How could we do these things

Our “bibles” were Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline” and Katzenbach/Smith’s “The Wisdom of Teams”. I still have my copies – worn and marked up. Teams were expected to spend time discussing their learning efforts and how they were functioning as a team. How could we do these things better?

The leadership team did this as well.  Applying these new concepts was a very novel idea.  Our leaders openly said things like:

  • “We’re going to try this out because we think it’s the way to apply what we’re learning”
  • “Did that work?”
  • “Did that work?”
  • “Why not?”
  • “How should we do this?”

I look back and realize that they were visionary, but brave as well.

The takeaway

We sometimes fall into the trap that today’s ideas are novel and never attempted before. Sure social tools would have made all of the above easier to do, but the principles are still the same.

  1. Management buy-in and commitment is crucial. But the most vital part is management participation. Talking about sharing, working out loud, being vulnerable is totally undermined by a management team that isn’t already doing the same.  Heinle’s leaders lead by doing – modeling desired behavior, even when they weren’t sure of next steps.
  2. We were expected to share our work with other teams so they could learn from our successes and failures.  We worked out loud.
  3. Performance goals must be set to match the desired behaviors. At Heinle, as a team leader, it was made clear I was expected to drive the learning process by keeping up to date on advances in the disciplines I was working and sharing those with my teams. I was expected to create events where learning would happen. It was in my performance review.
  4. It is important to get to know each other as people as well as colleagues. 20+ years later I am still very close friends with eight of the people I work with back then. I’m still in touch with a dozen more (through social media).
  5. It is important to monitor the meta-learning of the process. Are we learning as a team? Are we functioning well as a team? What can we do better? How can we hold ourselves accountable? Are we sharing what we are learning with each other? with other teams?
  6. If you look at the communities of learning literature, a key to successful communities of practice is rule setting and self-monitoring by the community. Management can inspire and support the development of communities of practice, but they can’t implement rules. This means managers need to be trained in how to encourage and facilitate team/community practice without being controlling.

Was it successful?

The five years I spent at Heinle & Heinle were among the most rewarding of my career. I learned more than I ever imagined I could about business, working together, marketing, publishing, leadership, and, most importantly, about learning. It was not only fun but in those five years, I launched 3 different product lines, participated in 2 merger/acquisitions, expanded revenue for the company, opened international markets in Japan, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Mexico, and Brazil. Being part of a high-performing learning organization enabled me to open my mind to the possibility of doing the impossible.

Have you been part of successful learning organizations pre: social media?  How do the principles I’ve outlined above jive with your experience?  Please let me know what you think in the comments below.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s