A New Way of Looking at Organizational Learning

The secret to business success is often lying deep in the inner workings of your company. Here’s why you should encourage organizational learning.

A new look at organizational learning

Organizational learning is the key to business success. The more employees know, the better they perform: the better they perform, the more a company can grow. The model for learning has traditionally been top-down. Management and HR determine what skills and competencies employees should have or aspire to, then set the learning agenda to align.

But internal knowledge sharing is as critical as bringing in outside information. The wealth of information your staff holds– regarding processes, systems, clients, and networks– is extensive. Creating a culture that captures and capitalizes on that wealth is a new way of looking at organizational learning – from the bottom up.

Organizational learning rises rather than drops

Rather than top-down, organizational learning must be a bottom-up system to have value. Knowledge gleaned from service to customers, relationships with vendors, systems and processes that work (and those that do not) is substantial at the rank and file level. Capturing and capitalizing on that data for cohorts and management it is critical to keep business moving forward and even advancing.

But collecting knowledge is often elusive. Staff members, so busy with their duties may not see the value in sharing what they consider the minutiae of their day. Others understand its worth but don’t have the time to pass on knowledge. Others hoard information in a misguided attempt to make themselves irreplaceable. Creating a culture in which knowledge sharing is not only safe, but is expected, is advantageous to business and employees.

Organizational learning: do you know what you don’t know?

How many times has an employee found a quicker, safer, better path to do their work? And how much could others profit from that efficiency? What does one employee know about their customers or vendors that makes the relationship more successful? Where do knowledge gaps impede others? There’s a wealth of business-critical information to be had if employers will simply start asking for and employees start documenting it.  

Making the case for organizational learning

The first step for this bottom-up learning process is communicating to employees that their knowledge has value to themselves and to the organization overall. But they may question “what’s in it for me?”

Sharing knowledge up the ladder does have value to the employee. The more their supervisor knows about their work, processes, even innovation, the better they can recognize and reward the employee. The inverse is also true: the more managers know, the better they can help the employee. If a coworker has a better way to build a mousetrap, managers can share. But they need to be in on the discussion in order to do so.

One staff member struggles to connect with a lead while another skates past firewalls. What knowledge can they impart that will boost sales for the entire company? Framing the discussion around how we all benefit from knowledge sharing is job one. Assuring employees the information they hold drives success for everyone repositions the emphasis on strengthening the company, rather than weakening the employee.

Organizational learning versus the brain drain

The Baby Boomers are leaving the workplace en masse. With 10,000 Boomers turning 65 every day, they are retiring in record numbers. With no end in sight until the 2030s, capturing the legacy knowledge this demographic holds may be mission-critical.  Creating data libraries requires a proactive approach.

Soon-to-be retirees may be your first step in collecting organizational learning. Ask these staff members to create an information page, shared with managers that highlight their tips and tricks of the trade. It can be as small as shortcuts they’ve found around systems to historical information on client/vendor relationships. Managers can determine what information is ripe for sharing today and what should be held on to for future reference. Beginning with these staff members should create a model to expand to all employees.

Organizational learning at scale

Beyond Boomers, managers and staff should consider what information is critical to gather quickly. What are the company pain points and problems that could benefit from brainstormed data? What are employee’s most frequently asked questions? Documenting these can not only address a wealth of questions, but they could also encourage employees to share. When they see the value they receive as others share knowledge, they’re more apt to do so themselves.  

Curating organizational learning

The old days of procedure manuals, where every step in every process was documented in minute detail (stifling personal creativity and independent thought) are long gone. Many younger employees have never heard of such a beast. While they may be archaic in the way they were structured, the intent is still valuable.

Harvested knowledge will need to be curated. It can start with FAQs and information collected from existing employees, but then go further. Look to managers to encourage even the staff that aren’t leaving to share as well. The same process can apply: managers decide what to share and what to keep in reserve. As more departments and teams participate, a company-wide knowledge base can be created.

Sharing organizational learning

What’s the point of collecting information if you’re not sharing? Once you begin the process, determine how you’ll be providing access and to whom. Will it be organized by department/division? Will it be housed on an intranet with full access to all employees, like an employee handbook? Will the document(s) allow employees to add more information; correct or update the data? How will that happen and who will approve any changes?

You may consider encouraging staff to gain a more well-rounded perspective of how other departments work by accessing the documents that don’t relate to their day-to-day.  Some data may be sensitive and require additional access permissions, while others may not. As you curate information, be aware of what should be shared widely and what should be closely held. These choices could save a lot of headaches in the future. The whole point of collecting the information is to benefit employees. Share as much as possible as widely as you can.

Organizational knowledge libraries should be living, evolving documents that serve as a resource to employees and management. But don’t put them on a shelf like a dusty old procedure manual. Staff should be reminded often to access and update them so everyone can benefit from the wealth of knowledge your staff holds.

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