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See some of Doug Smith's other writing.

Better Than Plan: Managing Beyond the Budget. D. Smith. Leader to Leader, Winter 2000.

Make Success Measurable: A Mindbook-Workbook for Managing Performance. D. Smith, 1999.

Taking Charge of Change: 10 Principles for Managing People and Performance. D. Smith, 1997.

The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. J. Katzenbach, D. Smith, 1994.

Organizations are bombarded by the rate of information, technique, and technology change. Bombarded. Organizational consultant and author Doug Smith believes it all comes down to learning people in learning organizations.

In speaking with Smith, LiNE Zine learned more about how learning people in learning organizations achieve success in the new economy. By taking a fresh look at a never-ending challenge, Smith gave us a “how to” outline for success.

Change Velocity Is Not the Only Challenging Force at Work

For organizations to succeed, they must become learning organizations. The markets in which we compete operate at too great a velocity of change for any other conclusion to make sense. However, there are other forces at work—very tight labor markets, business infrastructure shifting to the web, the grip of irrational financial markets on the world, rapid paced mergers, acquisitions, alliances, and more. Each force can provide a premium, competitive advantage to people and organizations that learn to perform while bombarded by the challenges of the new economy.

Even in the face of forces continually shifting the new economy’s marketplace, organizations that do not learn how to learn will fail. They will fail to sense and respond to customers’ needs. They will fail to develop strategies that succeed. They will fail to compete and cooperate with other organizations, take advantage of technology, and to engage, develop and retain talent. Organizations failing at learning will not fully move into the information age where the measurement of an organization’s worth is based on knowledge assets. Competitive, successful organizations’ sin qua non equals: people who can and do, learn.

To succeed, your organization must be a learning organization. A learning organization not only learns, it continually learns how to learn. To create learning organizations, you must have learning people. People, like companies, will realize; that those who do not learn, and learn how to learn, will increasingly become unemployable. Knowledge of these organizational and individual challenges should be tremendous motivation for people to learn and companies to invest in people’s learning.

Learning Is Not Enough, You Must Learn Well

A crucial disparity exists between the motivation to learn and the woefully small amount of spending dedicated to creating the learning organization. Statistics show that far less than 1% of total corporate budgets in the U.S. are spent on learning. Is it because there is nothing new under the sun to learn? No, I don’t think so. It results from top management’s deep-seated belief that return on investment is just too low when it comes to organizational learning programs. And, by the way, I agree with that assessment. Why? I’ll tell you through two recent headlines:

“Close to Four- Fifths of All Major Change and Learning Efforts Fail” and

“98% of Adults Who Attend Training and Education Efforts Forget All but One or Two Things Within Two Days of Leaving the Course”

 I wouldn’t want these kinds of results, would you? How is this happening?

Three Failure Sources

There are three sources for learning failure. 1. There must be a clear, specific performance context for learning but there rarely is one. In fact, organizations have grown very sloppy in even understanding performance. 2. Learning efforts must have rigorous structure. They must be evaluated and accompanied by work both before and after the session. 3. People who attend management education and training sessions must bring a disciplined readiness to learn. There is just no room for casual consideration.

There are ways to turn these failure sources around.

Make Performance a Context for Learning

I stubbornly stick to a longstanding grievance; I don’t believe learning is the primary objective for most people in any organization. The primary objective is performance. Let me repeat this: the primary objective of organizations is performance, not learning. It makes sense! Most people in organizations are motivated to learn when it makes a difference in their performance and the performance of their organization.

I recognize that some people enjoy learning for the sake of learning. These people typically make up no more than five to ten percent of an organization. The vast majority of your people will not sustain learning efforts, primarily about learning, for learning’s sake. For this reason, all programs must be structured to a specific performance context that relates to the organization’s current performance challenges. All participants must be committed to the specific performance goals that relate to the performance challenges of the organization and the program. Finally, all results from the education program must be measured directly by the difference made to the underlying goals and performance challenges.

By contrast, though, most management education programs run (at the convenience of the trainer) to promote theories or ideas for their own sake. The programs offer only a notion of the application for skills being taught, rarely demand participants bring real challenges and make real commitments, and hardly ever directly  measure the education by  the resulting performance.

Given how critical the performance context is for learning, this foggy, activity-driven reality is disturbing. There are both financial and non-financial aspects of performance at work. Constituencies, such as customers, the people of the enterprise, and the alliance partners, in addition to shareholders, don't matter. Only a scant minority of organizations or people within organizations can confidently create and achieve SMART, outcome-based goals.

SMART=Specific, Measurable, Aggressive, Relevant, Time-bound

SMART outcome-based goals give the learning program structure through a performance context. They answer questions like: ‘What is success?’ and ‘What is performance?’

Rigorous Structure Makes for Better Learning

Do you remember going to school? I do. At school, the learning effort was structured, we were assessed from time to time, we were advised of what we had achieved and learned, and where we could fill the gaps—what a contrast to the edutainment and one-time events of most management education. Instead of assessing the impact of the program on the learners, we actually ask for an assessment of the instructors. Why don’t we ask learners to demonstrate what they have learned or to demonstrate the utility of the learning in a specific performance challenge?

Disciplined Readiness Is Key to Learning Well

Among managers and executives in learning contexts, the dominant mindset includes some very problematic beliefs that often carry over into the learning program. They probably started as a result of childhood learning experiences.

We equate learning with authority, either hierarchical (teacher, parent) or scientific authority (indisputable truth). Somehow, culturally, we emphasize personal creativity and ingenuity almost to the exclusion of discipline and mastery. What do we get when we let that happen? Learners who believe they understand what is best for them, learners who believe management is a creative and individualistic art, and learners who, at best, walk away with a few useful ideas to consider.

Where does this carry over leave us? When authority and hierarchical learning beliefs dominate the program, we have learning contexts that build awareness, edutain participants, and often turn into debating sessions. Executives who attend these types of sessions are like window shoppers looking for interesting ideas but not inclined toward understanding or application. In this situation, there is neither respect for the depth of the discipline being shared, nor an understanding of the relevance of the discipline to their work. They are in class to relax, have fun, and network with each other. Not a great investment if you are looking for solid return on investment (ROI).

If we change the teacher to the CEO instead of a guru or consultant, we often see a different result. In this context, learners often pay closer attention. It’s like the old joke, ‘If the boss says up is down, then up is down.’

Learning Well = Context, Structure, Discipline

What does it all mean? The learning organization with learning people means: 1. Learning demands a specific performance context which, in turn, demands a better understanding of performance itself. 2. Learning is a structured progression integrated with work and surrounded by before and after sessions, not edutainment. 3. Learners must bring a discipline of learning to their efforts, not casual attitudes and expectations.

Douglas K. Smith is a consultant and author specializing in organization performance, innovation, and change. Named in The Guru Guide as one of the world's leading management thinkers, his work has been featured in Business Week, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times, and the McKinsey Quarterly. His most recent book is Make Success Measurable (1999)

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