Building a learning organisation: Workshop by Prof Garvin:

After several months of intense preparation, D-Day – 9th February 2010 had arrived. All of us had been awake the previous night, either out of sheer nervousness, excitement or simply because we were catching up with our colleagues. As we inched towards the lobby we realised, it was buzzing with activity, and a sense of bonhomie prevailed. The inaugural was scheduled later in the morning and the first session was a workshop conducted by the renowned Harvard Business School Professor. It was then time for Dr Ganesh Natarajan, Vice Chairman of Zensar Technologies and immediate past President of NASSCOM to deliver the opening remarks. He began on a very positive note, on how the downturn was over and the industry finally showing some signs of life. The past year was one of the most difficult, in several decades and it taught us the importance of innovation to stay competitive, he said. Now was the time to build on the culture of a learning organisation – if not already imbibed – and be ready to face a new set of challenges in 2010. “over to my professor from Harvard”, as Dr Natarajan proudly introduced the speaker and added that Prof Garvin was the recipient of the prestigious McKinsey Award, a record three times, for publishing the best paper in the institute’s much famed magazine, the Harvard Business Review.

Prof Garvin began by sharing an interesting anecdote. He asked the participants (especially ones in the back) if he was audible. Boston West Sox, a baseball team in America was known to win every game in the season, till the last month. And then, they would start losing every game and undo all the good work done earlier. In one particular season, they got a drubbing from their arch rivals, New York Yankees 15 – 0. Later in a post-match meeting with the players, the manager of Boston West Sox, asked the ones sitting on the last row, if he was audible. On which, there sounded a loud “NO” from behind. This had a miraculous effect on the ones in the front row, as they all stood up and moved back . This had the crowd in titters as Prof Garvin captivated all.

The topic under discussion would be addressed under 5 objectives:

  1. Make a strong case for the learning organisation. Not just for individuals but for organisation as a whole. Why it makes business sense to adopt it
  2. Hands-on definition on what is really a learning organisation and devise a litmus test for it.
  3. Discuss some of the best practises and explore the critical learning process.
  4. Leading the learning process – leaders as teachers and how can they help their team members to embrace the culture of learning.
  5. Getting started

Putting the learning organisation to work – the problem:

Paul Valery, the French Symbolist poet once said “the trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be”. This aptly sums up the present economic conditions, globally. The growth this industry has witnessed so far, was because of the product and services. Though the future looks rosy now, it is not quite open ended, Prof Garvin said. It will be much tougher. Innovation and process reengineering will play a significant role as managing employees will be a potential challenge. Is there a definite solution? I wish there was, he said. In the times to come by, the rate at which individuals and organisations learn may be the only sustainable competitive advantage. It must be realised that both product and services can be copied, he added. Six Sigma was introduced by Motorola and GE perfected it. But, now there are hundreds of organisations today which have implemented it successfully. The speed at which you learn must be greater than that of your competitor and only then, will you stay competitive, he said. He gave another example – that of the automobile and semi conductor industries. If the former had developed as much as the latter then a ten-thousand dollar Cadillac would cost only 86 cents today, but also two inches longer.

Learning organisation is skilled at:

  • Creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring and retaining knowledge
  • Purposefully modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights

Prof Garvin cited the Disney example and compared it to the “gong show” as popularly shown on American television. The senior management at Disney, once asked its employees to pitch in for an idea to produce an animated film. Those who did not make the cut, were asked to get off, by sounding of the “gong”. The only ones to survive was Michael Eisner, the Disney Chief and his Vice Chairman. Their ideas fructified in the movie Hercules, which grossed 100 Million dollars, built on creativity and expertise. He also talked about acquiring knowledge by getting the right people on board – those who possess the requisite knowledge and skill. Knowledge is about interpreting data that may exist in silos that needs to be integrated. We have mental models in our minds that need to change, lest they become obsolete. He gave the example of Intel and the “Intel inside” campaign, which was aimed at the B2C segment but the company was not quick enough to change its communication strategy when addressing the B2B segment. True, this constant change can be very challenging, akin to sailing a boat when the wind is changing directions. Instantly, it will be a knee-jerk reaction, he added.

On transferring and retaining knowledge:

If your key people take away your organisational learning and knowledge with them, then the organisation has certainly failed the litmus test, Prof Garvin said. The knowledge must be mined, by using Knowledge Management tools and not remain only with the individual. A team needs to be put in place, to capture this knowledge. Organisational behaviour must be modified periodically, to reflect new knowledge and insights, he said. The biggest gap between goal and performance is in learning. Linking learning to business strategy and business outcome is the biggest challenge, he said. If the behavioural pattern needs modification then it is the leader who must practise it and not simply preach.

Critical tasks:

  • Collect intelligence about the environment, customer, competitor, social & economic trends and demographics.
  • Learn from best practises of other companies.
  • Learn from the company’s experience in the past. It needs to be internalised and reviewed periodically.
  • Experiment with new approach.
  • Systematic problem solving and
  • Transferring knowledge

Every idea that is stated above, needs to be implemented by a process. It is a process which can be improved upon daily. Most of you are already doing this in some degree, he said. It is now time to refine it and take it to the next level.

Characteristics of a Learning Organisation:

  1. Leadership must imbibe a “pull culture” and not push it down forcefully. Leaders must exhibit a willingness to learn themselves. It should not be a case of “I like learning for them but not for myself”, Prof Garvin remarked on a lighter vein.
  2. The organisation is greater than specific individuals.
  3. Individuals must have the freedom to express. Dissent and differing views must be encouraged and not stifled. Generally, ideas flow up, but vetoes flow down, he said.
  4. Reward & recognition must be aligned to learning. The process of learning is beyond HR and training manuals really, he added.
  5. Willingness to allow mistakes and experimentation. Also, how does senior management learn from mistakes? The only thing that cannot be compromised is values and ethics.
  6. If the organisation makes repeated mistakes, then obviously, it has failed to learn.
  7. Develop role models within the organisation and have the willingness to listen.
  8. Information is meant to be shared and not horded.

The urgent drives away the important, Prof Garvin said. In a fight for survival, companies frequently do this and are not able to complete the learning process. He shared another interesting anecdote at Harvard. A final year student had copied from an earlier term paper – already published – and submitted under his name. The supervisor gave him an “A” but with a certain comment. “Oscar” it said, “I wrote an A class” paper 20 years ago. It still is”! , shared Prof Garvin, much to the amusement of those present in the room.

What are the barriers that get in the way of a learning organisation?

  • Since the change that is happening around us is rapid, the learning has to be rapid too. The rate of learning has to be greater than the rate of change otherwise, you will fall behind, Prof Garvin said.
  • Attachment to “my way” and a sense of threat because of contradicting status quo. Organisations must be open to different ways. Bottlenecks are usually at the top of the bottle, he said.
  • Size of the organisation. Very large organisations find it a challenge.

The Process of Learning:

  1. Intelligence gathering – through searching the web, Inquiry (market research), observing how things get done really.
  2. Successful intelligence gathering requires: Collecting information from diverse sources, keeping an open mind and cross-checking and probing to validate correctness and accuracy. On intelligence gathering, Prof Garvin gave the examples of Du Pont and GE and how the CEO has weekly con calls with his senior management.
  3. Learning from other organisations – benchmarking.
  4. Catalyst for creative ideas. Look to other industry examples, and inculcate in your own business, he said.
  5. Learning from the past: What did we set out to do; What actually happened; Gap Analysis; What do we do the next time? Good decision comes from knowledge. Knowledge comes from wisdom and wisdom comes from hundreds of bad decisions
  6. Experimentation

Systematic problem solving:

  • Requires data
  • Requires repeatable tools
  • Requires discipline

For learning to be effective, individuals must develop their listening skills and a sense of humility, Prof Garvin said. He gave the example of two Indian companies – Mindtree and Zensar Technologies which were typically learning organisations. Mindtree was a classic case where technology enabled knowledge management helped the company grow on the learning curve. Zensar, the other example, was a company with a great vision, he said. The flat organisational structure has aided the learning process tremendously. Finally, Prof Garvin ended his brilliant presentation by quoting Cyrus the Great from Persia: There should be diversity in council but unity in action.

2 Comments
  1. jayaraman kanniappan
  2. Snehal

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