A learning team is needed when the objectives are so huge and the obstacles and environment so tough or competitive that it requires the emotional, intellectual and volitional contribution of everyone involved. We need everyone’s intellectual capital invested in the enterprise. Traditionally, division of labor has been between the managers and the workers. It has been management’s job to think, plan, organize, control, etc., and it was the worker’s job to do the work. Workers were paid to “do” not to “think.” At the top of the organization was a leader whose job it was to think. A learning team is different.
A learning team is one that is committed to continuous improvement and continuous improvement requires a commitment to learning. Harvard’s David A. Garvin defines a learning organization as “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights” (Harvard Business Review, August, 1993).
David A. Garvin writes that learning organizations are skilled in five main activities: Systematic problem solving Experimentation with new approaches Learning from their own experience and past history Learning from the experiences and best practices of others Transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization.
There are two types of learning in a learning team-- active and reactive learning. The first is acquiring new information and skills that we previously did not have. The second is the process of learning from what we have experienced. Acquiring new knowledge and skill is critical but not sufficient to become a learning team. Learning teams learn in light of making themselves better and more fit to accomplish the mission--not just becoming a storehouse of information. As with Bible study, conceptual learning is not enough. We learn only as we do...as we act upon what we have learned. The cycle is know--do--learn--change. Knowing about the mechanics of swimming is very different from learning how to swim.
All learning begins with assumptions we have regarding what is true, right and will work most effectively in a given situation. We then do what we think will work. Then we measure the results of our actions and compare the results to what we thought would happen. We now have learned something that we did not know before. We can then make revisions based on our current reality and we now have a new body of knowledge. The quicker we can go through this cycle and repeat it, the quicker we as an organization will learn and become more effective.
The breakdowns are obvious. Unless we act upon what we think will work, unless we have timely feedback mechanisms, unless we learn from our feedback and implement changes to be more effective, we will never become a learning organization. We are getting the results we are getting because we are doing what we are doing. If we want different results, we need to do something different. Athletes, musicians and successful businesses practice this cycle continuously. Unless we are committed to ongoing improvement, there is no need to be a learning organization. We can just continue to do the things that we’ve always done. Everyone should master this learning cycle.
Bank statements, traffic tickets and accidents give us feedback as to how we are doing and adjustments we could make to improve. To learn quickly we need to cut the lagtime between performance and feedback. Great communication is essential. Do you have enough current information regarding what the staff and students are doing so that you can see trends and initiate changes? Or are your systems such, that by the time you get real, measured feedback on performance or emotional well-being, the semester is over there is nothing you can do? Without rapid and unambiguous feedback staff are excluded from this learning cycle because they have no idea how to measure and learn from what they do. They don’t know what good performance looks like...only what good results look like and they often fail to see the correlation between the two. Do you have systems in place, like weekly staff reports or weekly appointments with your team, where you can get relevant information?
Learning teams learn individual skills and then learn to play as a team. Each team, like individuals has the capacity to learn. Peter Senge writes, “A group of talented individual learners will not necessarily produce a learning team, any more than a group of talented athletes will produce a great sports team. Learning teams learn how to learn together.” Team learning is contingent upon competency, trust and humility. Humility is needed because no person can think that he or she alone could accomplish this complex task. To be taken seriously, team members must be competent in what they contribute and must value what others contribute. Mutual trust is needed to allow individuals to fully take responsibility for what will be implemented. A team that cannot learn is doomed to failure.
We need to learn how to learn as a team so together we become smarter and wiser. Teams must learn how to tap the potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one mind. Peter Senge writes, “Consensus often leads to an appallingly mediocre state of affairs in which the collective IQ of the group is likely to be lower than that of the individual with the lowest IQ in the group. That’s because conflicts tend to be resolved downward. If someone has an idea and anyone else objects, it is dropped. Therefore the only idea likely to be seriously considered are those acceptable to everyone, and these ideas are usually commonplace, unchallenging and in many cases widely accepted anyway.”
Senge also points out the role of dialogue in team learning and continuous improvement. “In team learning, discussion is the necessary counterpart of dialogue. In a discussion, different views are presented and defended, and...this may provide a useful analysis of the whole situation. In dialogue, different views are presented as a means toward discovering a new view. In a discussion decisions are made. In a dialogue, complex issues are explored.” Discussion may produce the best solution but dialogue produces the greatest understanding. It is impossible to have dialogue in a hierarchical organization.
The job of a team leader is to create local learning teams. Learning leaders learn fast and encourage others to learn quickly. As a leader of a learning team you must:
Create an “open system.” Make the same knowledge available to everyone. Everyone in the organization should have the same access to knowledge that will help the organization.
The job of a leader is to see that all the work gets done – not to do it all themselves. Although it seems like one of the simplest things in the world to do, delegation is one of the hardest to accomplish.
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