There’s more than one way for com­pa­nies to grow by learn­ing

Be­ing a fast learner is an ad­van­tage in busi­ness – the ques­tion is how to learn fast

The Irish Times - Business - - WORLD OF WORK - Dr Sara Melo is a lec­turer in man­age­ment at Queen’s Univer­sity Belfast Sara Melo

In to­day’s fast-paced world, one of the key fac­tors of suc­cess is the speed at which a com­pany is able to fore­see and re­spond to change.

There is no short­age of lit­er­a­ture on how to do so. What dis­tin­guishes com­pa­nies is how fast they are able to in­cor­po­rate this in­for­ma­tion in their work­ing prac­tices.

Be­ing a fast learner is a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage in to­day’s busi­ness world. The ques­tion is how to learn fast. Man­agers have a vi­tal role in fos­ter­ing a fast learn­ing cul­ture in­side their or­gan­i­sa­tions, re­search I have con­ducted with col­leagues has found.

Here are three main take­aways:

1Man­agers need to recog­nise that learn­ing takes place in dif­fer­ent types of net­works.

These can be bro­ken down into four group:

- In­traor­gan­i­sa­tional for­mal learn­ing net­works;

- In­teror­gan­i­sa­tional for­mal learn­ing net­works;

- In­teror­gan­i­sa­tional in­for­mal learn­ing net­works

- In­traor­gan­i­sa­tional in­for­mal learn­ing net­works

In­traor­gan­i­sa­tional for­mal net­works are es­tab­lished within an or­gan­i­sa­tion (eg in­ter­nal train­ing cour­ses). They are of­ten long-term in du­ra­tion and staff in­ter­act with them sev­eral times a year. Their ob­jec­tives are to im­prove staff aware­ness of new pro­ce­dures (such as health and safety pro­ce­dures, HR pro­ce­dures, etc), knowl­edge about new leg­is­la­tion like GDPR, etc.

For­mal in­teror­gan­i­sa­tional net­works on the other hand net­works are formed be­tween mem­bers of an or­gan­i­sa­tion and ex­ter­nal en­ti­ties. These are of­ten short-term in scope and are es­tab­lished with a pre-de­fined ob­jec­tive, such as ex­am­ple ob­tain­ing qual­ity cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or ac­quir­ing knowl­edge on a par­tic­u­lar topic. It can in­volve one-off train­ing ses­sions or oc­ca­sional in­ter­ac­tions.

Turn­ing to in­for­mal ap­proaches, in­teror­gan­i­sa­tional learn­ing is where or­gan­i­sa­tions learn from one an­other, of­ten with­out even recog­nis­ing it. This can hap­pen be­tween of­fices or com­pa­nies within the one group or be­tween dif­fer­ent groups – such as a com­peti­tor, a sup­plier or just com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in a dif­fer­ent field.

Fi­nally, in­traor­gan­i­sa­tional in­for­mal learn­ing net­works can form through work­ing groups and com­mu­ni­ties of prac­tice es­tab­lished in a bot­tom-up way – ie in­for­mally, by em­ploy­ees (of­ten mid­dle man­agers) – with the aim of im­prov­ing an as­pect of the per­for­mance. This ap­proach is def­i­nitely not de­fined by top man­age­ment and the net­works can even in­volve small groups of col­leagues who rely on each other when­ever they have a doubt on a spe­cific as­pect of their job.

2For com­pa­nies, learn­ing de­pends not only on the qual­ity of each net­work but on how they in­te­grate with each other:

For­mal in­traor­gan­i­sa­tional net­works are use­ful to trans­mit stan­dard­ised knowl­edge across the en­tire or­gan­i­sa­tion or depart­ment, or even to a spe­cific group of staff. An or­gan­i­sa­tion usu­ally has only a few of these net­works. De­vel­op­ing such net­works can en­tail mak­ing a depart­ment/unit re­spon­si­ble for or­gan­is­ing the in­ter­nal train­ing cour­ses, with clear struc­tures for for­mally com­mu­ni­cat­ing new pro­ce­dures within the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Max­imis­ing the po­ten­tial for in­teror­gan­i­sa­tional for­mal net­works of­ten in­volves iden­ti­fy­ing out­side agen­cies that can de­velop knowl­edge or skills in spe­cific ar­eas. In gen­eral, only a small num­ber of staff is di­rectly in­volved in these ex­ter­nal for­mal net­works. To cap­i­talise on this learn­ing it is im­por­tant to spend time con­sid­er­ing how it might best be trans­mit­ted to other rel­e­vant em­ploy­ees through for­mal and/or in­for­mal in­ter­nal net­works. Although nor­mally of short-term du­ra­tion, they can be ex­tended. For in­stance, if the learn­ing link is with a univer­sity, you can get in­volved in re­search projects with the univer­sity or cre­ate sum­mer place­ments for stu­dents.

In­teror­gan­i­sa­tional in­for­mal learn­ing net­works are of­ten spon­ta­neous and of a short du­ra­tion but they can of­fer valu­able in­for­ma­tion to ad­dress a spe­cific is­sue or gen­er­ate ideas for new prod­ucts or ser­vices.

A com­pany can foster this learn­ing through en­cour­ag­ing em­ployee par­tic­i­pa­tion in trade fairs or via em­ployee ex­change pro­grammes in com­pa­nies work­ing across dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions. In­for­mal learn­ing net­works within or­gan­i­sa­tions are also gen­er­ally a short-term ex­er­cise. Mem­bers use the net­work to learn about spe­cific is­sues. Given that fa­mil­iar­ity and a cer­tain de­gree of trust be­tween par­tic­i­pants is re­quired such in­traor­gan­i­sa­tional in­for­mal learn­ing net­works re­quire low staff turnover and a strong cul­ture of col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween staff.

3Learn­ing needs to be a pri­or­ity and be em­bed­ded in a com­pany’s day to day cul­ture and prac­tices.

The way the or­gan­i­sa­tion is struc­tured needs to be con­ducive for learn­ing. For ex­am­ple, an or­gan­i­sa­tion with well-de­fined per­for­mance met­rics and where per­for­mance ap­praisal de­pends on those met­rics, will see staff fo­cus­ing on achiev­ing per­for­mance tar­gets rather than fo­cus­ing on de­vel­op­ing their learn­ing.

By con­trast, an or­gan­i­sa­tion with­out strict per­for­mance mea­sure­ment sys­tems and where staff feel val­ued by con­tribut­ing to its

Learn­ing de­pends not only on the qual­ity of each net­work but on how they in­te­grate with each other

long-term devel­op­ment en­cour­ages learn­ing and en­gage­ment with in­no­va­tion.

For a busi­ness, be­ing a fast learner re­quires it to share its knowl­edge ef­fec­tively across dif­fer­ent de­part­ments or units. It needs to have high qual­ity net­works fos­ter­ing learn­ings from out­side en­ti­ties and then trans­mit­ting these within the com­pany.

How­ever, a com­pany’s suc­cess in do­ing so will de­pend also on other HR pro­ce­dures in place, such as per­for­mance man­age­ment, as well as on what is im­por­tant to the or­gan­i­sa­tion. Is learn­ing truly one of your pri­or­i­ties as a man­ager or a busi­ness owner?

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