Notes on a Learning Organization

Building software products means coping with complexity. Our products are highly interconnected systems of systems. Dynamics are difficult to model; outcomes can be difficult to predict.

Ivory towers crumble on this unstable ground. It is not sufficient to have one person deciding for the whole group, everyone following the direction of a “grand strategist”. Decision-making in complex environments needs to be decentralized.

If we are all to take part in decision-making, then we all need to constantly improve our knowledge of the problems we face – we need to be active participants in a learning organization.

Learning is both an individual and a group experience. Organizations that excel tap the commitment to learn from people at all levels. And learning is something deeper than just taking in information. It is about changing ourselves – growing in meaningful ways that contribute to the whole. So we want to build an organizational culture that promotes a deep connection to collective growth.

I have found the five disciplines of learning from the book The Fifth Discipline helps to inspire ideas about how to develop this culture. A quick summary:

The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization:  Senge, Peter M.: 8601420120846: Books -
  1. Systems thinking – seeing how all of our work connects, sharing the big picture. Proactively developing a collective understanding that we can use at all levels to spot patterns and persistent forms. Overcoming when systems develop built-in limitations to growth. (Remember, systems can be technical, organizational, managerial, etc.)
  2. Personal Mastery – developing our ability to see our reality more clearly. Our work is creative work, and creativity results from the movement of ideas. “Still water becomes stagnant.”
  3. Mental Models – guiding our ability to make decisions. How are we building them? Sharing them? Reinforcing them? They have a natural entropy and tendency to diverge, so they must be actively maintained and continuously refreshed.
  4. Shared Vision – having a shared vision enables co-creation. When we have that vision present in our day to day work, we are building things together for a common goal. This helps frame the context of the learning we engage in.
  5. Team Learning – this involves two practices: discourse and discussion. Discourse is the practice of presenting knowledge to others. Discussion is the practice of inquiry and exploration into the discourse. Both are crucial. 

To build a learning org, we can start by asking the questions in these disciplines to enrich our learning experience. Questions like: How can we help other teams expand their understanding of how our work connects with theirs? How can we share our mental models with others? What activities can we do to reinforce our shared values? What kinds of “discourse” activities can we use to promote discussions?

We can start doing that today. Start by creating the Tiny Habits needed to ask these questions at the right times. We should not expect anyone to build out learning organization for us – we all need to take ownership and do our part. What are you doing to help?

Published by JohnRauser

Eng Leader @ Cisco

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