How does the organization shape learning?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers

Organizations develop attitudes around learning: when is it necessary? Who gets trained? Why are people trained? How are mistakes viewed? etc. These attitudes shape how learning is viewed and, to a very great extent, how successful learning is.

Many years ago, I was participating in a training exercise. As part of that exercise, I was assigned to play a manager who had been recommended for coaching. Having been a serious competitive fencer for many years, I knew that the only people who were recommended for coaching were the best athletes. One of the other participants in the exercise was stunned at my happy response to the role and said, “How can you be so happy? You’re playing someone who was recommended for coaching!” Her experience with coaching was that it was the last step before you were fired.

Similarly, it matters how the organization views training: is this something done to build people up or “fix those who are broken?” Is it developing strengths or remediating weakness? Is training something fun or something to be endured and forgotten? Will you have the opportunity to exercise your new skills or not? How the culture views training is critical to the success of training. If the organizational narrative is one that teaches us that training is for losers or that Real Experts don’t need training, it’s going to be very hard to make training work. That, in turn, will reduce engagement with the material and, hence, make it difficult for organizational members to grow in their roles. On the other hand, if training is viewed as an opportunity to increase competencies and status in the organization, and those who engage in training are given opportunities to exercise their new skills, training can have dramatically outsized benefits compared to the investment.

All too often, training is viewed as an afterthought, something to do when nothing important is going on. There is frequently a strong attitude of, “Sure, take classes, but don’t let it interfere with the real work.”

If you want training to be effective, it needs to be taken as seriously as any other part of the job. The products you build today are built with the skills you learned yesterday. The products you build tomorrow will be built with the skills you learn today. View training as an afterthought and it will be treated as one. Demand that people already working long hours add more time for training and it will be resented. Either of these factors will dramatically reduce the benefits of even the best classes or training exercises. This may not matter for classes which are done for legal protection more than anything else; it will matter for training that it intended to achieve that goal of a permanent change in behavior.

When training is intended to alter the way people in an organization do their jobs, such as learning new technology or systems, deadlines must be adjusted for that learning to occur. If people are expected to maintain the same levels of productivity during the learning and adoption period as before they started to learn something new, the new technology or systems will not be learned: people will naturally and reasonably opt to meet their deadlines by doing things the old way, rather than invest the time in learning something new. There is almost always a dip in performance in the early stages of adopting new systems and technology: people need time to get used to the new ways of working. This is perhaps the most difficult part of learning as no one likes feeling incompetent. Performance improvements only come once people have become sufficiently comfortable with those new ways of working that they can work faster than they can in the old way: remember, even if the old way is less effective or less efficient, it is very well practiced. That practice enables a great deal of speed and efficiency, which will not initially be present in the new system.
Recall our recent discussion of automatized skills and cueing: the old skills are automatized; the new ones still need to be.

“Author Stephen Balzac has written a terrific book that gets into the realpolitik of organizational psychology – the underlying patterns of behavior that create the all important company culture. He doesn’t stop at the surface level, explaining things we already know like ‘culture beats strategy’ – he gets into the deeper drivers and ties everything back to specific, actionable stories. For example he describes different approaches to apparent “insubordination” by a manager; rather then judging them, he shows how each management response is interpreted, and how it then drives response. Balzac preaches real engagement with one’s own company and a mindful state of operation, especially by executives – who must remember that culture “just happens” unless and until they learn to recognize that their behaviors play a huge part in creating and cementing it. It covers the full spectrum of corporate life, from challenging bad decisions to hiring, training, motivating teams – and the secrets of keeping people engaged and learning – and/or avoiding actions which do the opposite. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to participate in creating and steering company culture.”

Sid Probstein

Chief Technology Officer

Attivio – Active Intelligence

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