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Learning Organizations: From the Ground Up

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with this notion of helping companies and organizations harness the flow of knowledge within the organization and one of the challenges I keep coming back to is the need for the individuals within the organization to embrace a proactive learning mentality. On an individual level, proactively learning helps you to stay current in your profession, provides the ability for you to grow in your career, and, perhaps most importantly, keeps your skills fresh should you need to jump ship to another company either as a defensive move (e.g. layoffs) or as an offensive maneuver (e.g. better pay).

The trouble is, most top-down learning systems have mixed results. Primarily because the people doing the learning, often aren’t that receptive to the process.

So, if one was able to kick start the desire to learn, at the level of the individual, it would be relatively easy for an organization to adapt and facilitate learning. This bottom-up approach allows the process go grow organically, from individuals to departments to business divisions, etc. Ideally, this system would be peer-directed and peer-facilitated with minimal oversight and instruction from senior leaders.

In an idealized sense, I see it working something like this…

Quarterly, a team of employees sits down with their manager(s) and collectively outlines the learning objectives for the coming quarter. These might be specific problems to resolve, (e.g. cut down on waste from a production process), skills to acquire (e.g. all team members develop competencies to create responsive Web designs), or challenges to address (e.g. develop and research solutions to comply with new regulations and pressures from upstart competitor). Once identified, these objectives are atomized, broken down into discrete “chunks” and subdivided among the group. Each team member must research one portion of the problem and be able to teach other members what they’ve learned. At the end of the quarter, all team members will possess both a high-level understanding of the knowledge gained from the learning objective along with specific skills relative to their specific position and now have a list of resources (used for research) they can draw from to stay current on this topic as it continues to evolve. These resources become part of their personal learning system and, ultimately, part of the company’s knowledge system.

Certainly, this is an idealized scenario and the time commitments, infrastructure and resource needs along with the elements necessary to create a supportive team dynamic need to be addressed. Still, I think this solution may hold promise in helping individuals and companies quickly acquire new skills to stay ahead of advancing technologies and competitive pressures.


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