Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Is Being a “Learning Organization” Enough?

I was once debriefing a training class with a senior manager from an organization who had purchased a large training program from us. We were specifically discussing the results of the post assessments each student had completed. Overall the students had done fairly well. As the instructor I was pleased and anxious to hear what I was hoping to be glowing feedback from this particular manager. I was a bit taken back when he handed me the results and said, “These numbers mean nothing to me.” When I asked him to clarify he replied, “I don’t care what my people learn in training. I only care that they perform better or differently AFTER the training.”

Peter Senge and his colleagues spent most of the 1990’s helping us better understand the qualities of becoming a “Learning Organization” and many of us did our best to meet these guidelines. But after having spent the last 3 years of my professional life solely focused on Performance Support (PS) and the profound impact I have seen it have on organizations, I’m wondering if the goal of becoming a Learning Organization is enough. Should becoming a “Performing Organization” be the goal of the millennium and beyond?

The past 3 years have taught me that although learning is a key part of the overall success of any individual learner and the organization at large, sometimes learning is simply not enough. Focusing heavily on learning may play a huge part in why we don’t achieve the ultimate outcome we are striving for.

It may help if I take a second to share what my definition of learning has become. For me, the overall goal of any organization and its employees is to successfully and consistently outperform their potential. Learning is clearly a prerequisite to performance, but to have learned does not always translate into, or guarantee, performance. This is the one of the hardest things for training departments to understand. We have spent years and billions of dollars on classroom programs, e-learning libraries, certifications, and compliance training only to find that we’re still not getting the performance we need and want from our workforce. That’s because we are missing a key component! We need to be offering an intentional instructional model that takes what someone has learned and helps them transfer and adapt that knowledge into their daily workplace. This is the job of PS. Until an organization begins to create, deliver, maintain, and measure PS with the same focus, budget, resources, and rigor it has always dedicated to learning they will never truly realize the overall productivity growth they have been tasked with achieving.

In order for a learner to achieve peak performance they need to journey through two stages: mastery and competency. Each is a critical part of the journey, but in most organizations mastery is the area most served by the training organization leaving competency up for grabs. Mastery is the acquisition of knowledge. It’s what training and learning organizations do brilliantly, and should continue to do! Competency is when a learner takes what they have learned and can apply and adapt what they have learned to their unique work setting and the plethora of challenges they encounter.

This is where PS comes in. Its role is to help take a learner from mastery to competency. When a training organization adopts PS as a compliment to their learning strategy they will begin to impact both mastery and competency. At this point they will begin achieving an entirely different level if impact on the organizations they serve. In a time when training budgets and training departments are being held accountable at a level like never before, being able to show a direct impact on the competency of the learners they support will position them in a highly strategic way.

The Learning Organization of today needs to become the Performing Organization of tomorrow which includes a more robust and mature view of what is the entire learning journey. Although learning is key, it is not enough to sustain the growing and every changing world of those we support. Creating a comprehensive performance strategy which includes both mastery and competency is the only way to ultimately serve our organizations. Adding PS is a key step in achieving that goal!


  1. Agreed! There is even an article in the March 2009 edition of ISPI's Performance Improvement that talks about the difference between Performance and High Performance? Is that the next step to go from a Learning organization to a High Performance organization? Is it just jargon, or do they mean different things? Really as I see it, it is about linking to business goals and making a measurable impact.

  2. I agree Bob. I've only been in the industry for about 10 years, however, I can see that Learning and Support, while almost always under the same leadership operate in silos. There is the occasional collaboration, but there was no true integration of learning and support, where training departments truly understood support and operational needs, and support understood how training can make their lives easier. Now, there is a whole list as to why that may be (at least in my company - but we wont go there), but we are at a crossroads. With economic downturn, a competitive market, and the search for keeping "the edge" the only [real thing] that separates us from the next guy is how we perform, support, and service! So, yes we do have to become a Performance Organization where both support and learning hold the same value and actual "depend" on each other. At least for me and my company, that is.