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Teaching Smart People How to Learn

While most people react to an examination of their organization’s problems by becoming defensive and allocating blame, by taking part in that critical examination and learning from it, employees can become far more effective and contribute to the improvement of their business.

This article is the first of a five-part series that will be published throughout this week on establishing learning organizations.

Position + Authority = No Learning

Before a company can become a learning organization, it must first resolve a learning dilemma:

Competitive success depends on learning, but most people don’t know how to learn. What’s more, those same members of the organization who many assume to be the best at learning—professionals who occupy key leadership positions—are in fact poor learners. Well-educated professionals are prone to human behavioral patterns that block learning in organizations. Companies can improve the ability of their managers and employees to learn when they realize that effective learning is not a matter of the right attitudes or motivation, but naturally emanates from the way people reason about their own behavior.

When asked to examine their own role in an organization’s problems, most people become defensive, typically placing the blame on someone else. This defensive reasoning keeps people from examining critically the way they contribute to the very problems they are committed to solving. The solution is in teaching smart people how to learn.

Organizations need to make the ways that managers and employees reason about their behavior a key focus of organizational learning and continuous improvement. Break down the defenses that block organizational learning by teaching people how to reason about their behavior in new and more effective ways.

Tomorrow’s article will focus on strategies that ensure innovation occurs in the workplace.

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Harvard Business School Press (1998), On Knowledge Management, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, Boston USA

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