MBA 628 – Improving Organizational Performance
October 1, 1998
BOOK REVIEW: The Learning Edge, How Smart Managers and Smart Companies Stay Ahead by Calhoun W. Wick and Lu Stanton León, McGraw-Hill, 1993. $22.95.
Many individuals pride themselves on their education. Although not as prevalent, many companies are also beginning to take pride in developing “learning organizations”. A learning organization exceeds expectations with customers and employees. It is an organization that wants to stay challenged as it continues to improve its people and its processes. As more and more companies begin to take pride in the ability of their organizations to learn, these companies will soon be seen as the rule rather than the exception. Until then, however, the successful learning organizations are having great success as they set the standard in corporate learning.
The book begins by laying the groundwork for learning. If an organization does not specifically work to develop its employees, the individual must take responsibility for the learning. If the employee makes a commitment to learning, no excuse will provide an obstacle. The employees who accelerate their learning within the organization are likely to get the best opportunities, and those who fail to increase their learning will stagnate and their career potential will be limited. This same philosophy holds true for companies. A learning organization does not accept a “business as usual” approach. It challenges all of its employees when times are good, so when the company needs to make difficult decisions, the managers are able to make them because of the previous training they have received.
The next section of the book provides some very helpful guidelines on how an individual can take charge of his own learning. The mnemonic, S.M.A.R.T., provides an easy way to direct individual learning. To begin, a person must Select an appropriate goal and that goal must be Mapped out. After developing a plan and Acting on the plan, the plan should be Reviewed and evaluated to see what was learned. The final step is to Target a new goal and begin the process again. Another beneficial tool for the individual is “the Learning Toolbox”. The five tools within the learning toolbox are designed to help an individual as he progresses through different segments of his learning. The final part of this section gives encouragement when hurdles are placed in the way of learning effectively.
The third section provides a way to gauge how successful a company would be if it decides to become a learning organization. The components necessary for a learning organization are:
- A leader with a clearly defined vision;
- A detailed, measurable action plan;
- Rapid sharing of information;
- Inventiveness; and
- The ability to implement the plan.
If any of these elements are missing or are weaker than the others, then the organization should use these as potential learning opportunities.
The final section was the most interesting section of the book. It answered the question, “How do companies implement learning so they develop a learning edge?” The five companies profiled in this section (Corning Inc., Eastman Kodak, Rosenbluth Travel, J.P. Morgan & Company, and Motorola), discussed in detail how they have become successful in cultivating a learning organization. Although the companies may have used different methods, learning as an organization occurs when the entire company, rather than just management, realizes the importance of outside perspectives and the need for a free flow of new information.
Although the book made many good points, I was somewhat disappointed. I was hoping to read the book and get a recipe that would make all of my work experiences learning ones. I did not expect my hopes to be completely fulfilled, but they did come up short of my limited expectations. First, the companies profiled did not cover the gamut of employers. Thus, it was impossible to clearly determine how the techniques of these learning organization would transfer to small businesses or government employers. Second, the book was not a really fast moving one. The detail provided was done to the point where the concept being described was lost. The solution to this was to read what you needed to and then to skip ahead. Finally, the book had no strong eye appeal. The success formulas were not incredibly beneficial, and the graphics were far more limited than I prefer.
Did any of these things make the book a terrible read? No. The authors erred by putting out a book that hinted at much more than it actually provided. Not only did it hint at more that it provided, but what it provided was an assembly of chapters only fully perused by the most dedicated of readers. I read the book because I had a genuine interest in knowing more about a learning organization. This knowledge was available within the book, and came as insights hidden within the otherwise distracting prose.
Despite these criticism’s, the book’s authors made some very worthwhile observations. First they point out that the creation of a learning organization is intentional. A CEO does not wake up one morning and find he has a group of “battle-hardened” managers. These managers are a result of tasks that were progressively more challenging. If a company accepts mediocrity, its employees will rarely disappoint it. If a company wants its employees to always be challenged by their learning, most of the employees will gladly rise to the opportunity. If the corporate culture is resistant to change, a company may think it is doing just fine as the rest of the industry is flying by them. The company must not get caught up in its past; it must recognize the past has little bearing when compared against the challengers of the future. My past employer, Applied Innovation, would do well to learn from this observation. Applied Innovation has basked in its past successes without pushing its employees to greater accomplishments. From recent events at Applied Innovation, it is clear that its customers and competition will not wait for it to catch up.
Another idea from the book was to “let teams evolve”. If team building occurs in an artificial environment, the team may know with whom they want to go white water rafting with. They will not, however, know with whom they could most successfully complete a business project. This is where the MBA program at Franklin is successful. As I am entering the second year of the MBA program, I now know the different members of the class well enough to know with whom I can successfully work. Thus, my teams and the teams of other groups have evolved into groups made up of people who work well together. To be successful within an organization, this must also occur. At Applied Innovation, the early emphasis was on forming teams from a narrow group (i.e., engineering). As problems continued to occur, management began to realize the need to have team members from all groups that contributed to the product. Thus, teams evolved based on the need for internal efficiency. This allowed all team members to know they had a specific purpose for being on the team.
The final idea I benefited from was “employees and managers share a responsibility in the learning process”. To continually improve, an employee must be continually learning. The learning may be the result of a mistake made during a project, or it may be the result of an academic adventure. If a person is empowered and encouraged, they will stretch and grow and achieve higher levels. Managers must take the lead and serve as role models. Not only must a leader be concerned with his own learning, he must also be concerned with the development of those he manages. Whether the leader uses the work environment or additional training, the leader wields great power in the future growth of his employees. Upper management does not escape responsibility. This was very true at Applied Innovation. Very few managers set goals for their employees, and those that did were unlikely to monitor the progress of the goals. If the company had a vision for its employees, managers would be encouraging their employees to grow professionally. Once this is achieved, the presence of a learning organization should be obvious to all.
Applied Innovation (AI) would like to pride itself on being a learning organization. Regrettably, they have failed to follow the five components of a learning organization mentioned earlier. Of the five components of a learning organization, AI lacks leadership with a clearly defined vision, rapid sharing of information, and inventiveness.
Outwardly, AI may appear to have a vision of trained employees, but the company sponsored training has no “stick-to-itiveness”. Recently, I was sent to one-day seminars where team building exercises were conducted. At the end of the day, the exercises confirmed the weaknesses within my department. My supervisor was not involved in the training and was uninterested in implementing any of the seminar’s suggestions. The net result was a lost day of work and a frustrated employee. Although the training allowed the HR department to feel they were doing something, the results were ineffective. If an emphasis is placed on learning specific skills, the opportunity to reinforce those skills must be supported on the job. If the company believes these half-hearted efforts will lead to true success, it will continue to be frustrated with the results.
AI also lacks originality and inventiveness in the development of its employees. While the webmaster at Applied Innovation (AI), I realized my career was not going the in direction I wanted it to go. Since management would not help me find the right direction, I took the matter into my own hands. Fortunately, I had the spousal encouragement necessary to overcome the resistance to beginning an MBA program. If I had waited until my position was eliminated, I would have been out of a job and had no additional education to place on my resumé. With the motivation demonstrated by my additional education, the opportunities available to me during my recent job search were greatly enhanced.
If information were rapidly shared, AI would be a much more progressive organization. While at AI, I have seen many people hoard information. These people hang there entire worth on the knowledge they alone possess. In the short term, it briefly preserves their position. But eventually, failing to share information can cause all parties involved to lose. If all AI employees would readily share information, all issues could be subjected to a variety of perspectives. These unique perspectives can allow many creative solutions to evolve. I want to associate with people who share the same philosophy about sharing information. This would allow my prior experiences and my creativity to contribute to the success of a company.
As a final summary, all experiences are learning experiences. No matter how bad the experience, the fact that I am breathing when I leave a situation means I am capable of learning from the experience. I have had more employers and more W-2’s then I would prefer to reveal. If I focus on this aspect alone, I could get very frustrated. When I focus on the variety of companies and circumstances I have been placed in, I have a wealth of experiences that provide an excellent precursor to my MBA. Would I like to start over with my Bachelor’s degree freshly grasped in my hands? Only if I could keep the experiences I have received through my various learning opportunities. Without those experiences, I would very likely make the same mistakes or worse ones. Learning some lessons can be very painful, but failing to grow from the lesson is a life-limiting decision.