10x Learning Organizations
Future proofing your talent and business by creating a culture of continuous learning
Let me start this off with a comment about Meta layoffs I read on Blind…
“What is happening at Meta is an example of capitalism at work and a natural progression of a corporate entity. They created a service that people found useful and it satisfied a need to promote commerce. The market matured, competition increased, companies found better solutions to market to people and so now the fb service is in decline and should no longer exist if users don't find it useful. Zuckerberg and management only had one option to create other solutions or die.
Seems like in today's rapid speed of innovation we as Engineers should not be scared of what is happening here but embrace it. The downsizing of Meta allows those human resources to be distributed to the next big thing. The skills they developed will not go to waste in their next endeavor.”
While layoffs are painful, and comes with added complexities for people on visa, the perspective about high pace of innovation resulting in creative destruction, and the mindset to embrace this recurring phenomenon is absolutely spot on! This is an opportunity for leaders to fully acknowledge this uncertainty and invest into building what I call “learning organizations” to better prepare their talent for future opportunities. This doesn’t have to come at the cost of doing what’s imperative for the business - in fact, to future proof your business, you have to future proof your talent. The set of products, technologies and skills that made your business successful today are probably going to be different, even irrelevant to the success tomorrow.
Why build learning organizations? Let’s refer to Jack Welch - the much-admired, much-embattled chairman and CEO of General Electric - who had some sure advice for graduating MBA students at HBS in 2001.
"If there's one thing you'll learn - and dot.coms have learned it in the last year - is no one can guarantee lifetime employment," Welch told the students. "No one. The only thing that guarantees lifetime employment is satisfied customers.
"You can give lifetime employability by training people, by making them adaptable, making them mobile to go to other places to do other things. But you can't guarantee lifetime employment. And we were one of the first ones to break that pattern. And we had to do it. And as a result of it, lots of people had pain, which we tried to soften; but a lot of people won, because the company has flourished," Welch said.
In order to drive transparency and accountability to publicly traded companies, Wall Street yields immense pressure to organizations to keep on delivering on revenues and profits. This emphasis on short term - quarter over quarter - may seem like an anti-pattern to invest into the notion of employability which is a long term bet. But strategic leaders need to balance the short term objectives with long term bets on a regular basis - and investing into their people is the biggest leverage they have.
Culture of Learning
How do you build learning organizations? What does a learning organization look like? Many (most?) organizations have a team of experts and tools investing into “learning and development (L&D)” programs (LinkedIn Learning, coursera, pluralsight, …). These are the fundamentals. Say, if you are a backend engineer expert in Java, but now you need Golang skills to develop microservices, you should be able to access programming tutorials through L&D platform available through your organization. Or say, you’re an engineering manager who wants to develop more business savvy by taking up a crash course in product management, there should be an avenue for you to avail such a course. Across all of your functions, you would need to develop strong leadership skills and you need to regularly encourage your budding leaders to deepen their knowledge. Many organizations also have a budget for training and conferences - which is also a great way to invest into developing your talent.
The next tier is learning on the job. This takes many forms. Some companies have a notion of “gig” opportunities within the workplace - these are short term (3-6 months) part-time projects that enable you to practice your skills in a domain different from your day job. Business leaders need to be aligned on how to incorporate “gigs” within their team while not compromising their own business objectives - a typical short vs long term tradeoff consideration. I have had the good fortune of working at two different companies offering an internal gig platform - I should add, with varying degrees of success. At Uber, you’re encouraged to learn by doing and drive the kind of growth that best fits you.
Finally, mastery of any function takes years and years of deliberate practice, and feedback. Even when you’re not trying to bridge a skill gap, or helping develop a new skill to support career transition, refining the craft requires the organization to continuously learn. This doesn’t require a separate investment or program, rather it requires you to be intentional about it. Every interaction should become a learning opportunity. Say you’re reviewing service availability or reviewing incident post-mortem. You as a leader can ask probing questions, drive detailed followups, and celebrate a job well done - this teaches new and existing engineers in your organization about expectations and examples of exemplary work. While group interactions serve as a high leverage learning opportunities, every 1:1 interaction should also be approached with a learning lens.
There are no top-down initiatives that will achieve the goal of creating a learning organization with a 100% effectiveness. The holy grail here is to cultivate a curious mindset within each and every employee. You can nurture such an environment by rewarding behavior that questions the status quo in product, process, technologies, and everything in between. You support experimentation and celebrate failures - letting the inherent curiosity drive learning and innovation.
The quotes below capture the perspective on curiosity and learning perfectly that lead to many wonderful discoveries by the brilliant physicist, Richard P. Feynman.
“Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand this multitude of aspects. As perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental. Things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations”
“You keep on learning and learning, and pretty soon you learn something no one has learned before.”