Learning in organizations should occur at different levels (individual, team, and whole-organization) and in different ways. Any organization that relegates all learning to instructor-led, classroom-based teaching, is not doing the most it can to improve performance. One method of facilitating learning that doesn’t receive enough recognition for its benefits is the process of one organization teaching another. Bill Taylor, in his Harvard Business blog post titled The Rise of the Teaching Organization, writes:
…the organizations with the most original ideas about how to compete and win — aren't just committed to learning. They are just as committed to teaching. They understand that the only sustainable form of market leadership is thought leadership.
While I agree that teaching is a great way for organizations to learn, teaching doesn't necessarily mean learning. Toyota, Disney, Motorola, Florida Power and Light, and Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, to name a few of the prominent "teaching organizations", have been generously teaching other companies for roughly two decades with, I would contend, relatively little impact on their industries (i.e., auto manufacturing, hospitality, high tech manufacturing, energy utilities, and gourmet retail food). Some who commented on Taylor’s blog appear to think that the problem is a lack of a will to learn. I think it’s not so much the will to learn; I think it’s more the will to change.
If students of benchmark companies have not prepared their organizations for change, when they return to their companies they find little support for a new production system, or a customer-centric way of operating, or a dramatic reduction in errors, or infusing quality in all aspects of the business, or any other model of improvement that they have learned. For people to change they need to know how the change will benefit them, that the effort is likely to pay off, that they will have the consistent support of senior management, that they will have the opportunity to begin applying their new learning immediately, and that there will be some way to determine to what extent the change has occurred and has been effective. Teaching can be a powerful way to learn but those organizations that truly want to bring about change in their own companies and industries need to create the conditions that ensure effective application of that new knowledge.