How do we know if an organization has the “DNA” that predisposes it to organizational learning? Gary Neilson and Jaime Estupinan have been studying and writing about "organizational DNA" for the past 10 years. They explain the term this way:
We use the term organizational DNA as a metaphor for the underlying organizational and cultural design factors that define an organization’s personality and determine whether it is strong or weak in executing strategy.
Using this DNA metaphor, here are 10 principles that determine whether an organization has a strong or weak environment for learning:
- Leaders support learning. The message from the CEO, senior executives, and other key leaders in the organization is that continuous learning by individuals, teams, and the whole organization is valued and expected. Leaders communicate that learning can happen in many different ways: through formal face-to-face and online instruction; formal and informal, on-the-job activities; and social interaction. Leaders say things and do things that are visibly aligned with this value.
- Managers take responsibility for employee learning. Managers encourage their direct reports to acquire new knowledge and skills and develop competencies to make themselves more valuable to the organization. Managers provide opportunities to learn, practice that learning, and apply learning on-the-job. Managers hold employees accountable for learning and hold themselves accountable for developing their direct reports.
- Organization hires and promotes learners. Recruiters, other HR staff, and hiring managers look for people who are self-motivated learners, are always seeking opportunities to acquire new knowledge and skills, learn from their successes and failures, take risks for the purpose of learning, and continue to develop themselves. The organization selects new employees and promotes current employees who demonstrate initiative in learning and growing.
- Learning is aligned with results. Employees and their managers can clearly see how acquiring specific knowledge and skills will contribute to the success of the organization. It’s not learning for learning’s sake or learning because “we’ve always done it that way”, but learning because that’s what will help the organization achieve its strategic goals.
- People have a growth (learning) mindset. Executives, managers, and employees believe that they and others can learn and grow within the organization. They believe that this potential is in everyone and can be unleashed by actively giving people the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills. They believe that nobody is fixed in their abilities; that it is the nature of the human condition to be able to enhance competencies and improve performance.
- Organizational structure facilitates learning. Information flows freely throughout organization. Leaders of work units feel free to communicate with each other. They provide assistance and peer-coaching to each other as needed. Employees are connected across departments and geography and actively share successes, failures, and lessons-learned. Other key stakeholders are brought into important decision-making and are respected for their input.
- Knowledge management contributes to learning. Information is stored in an easily accessible place (hardcopy or in a database) that can be used by all employees to acquire knowledge that they need to be successful in their work. Successes and failures are described in a way so that anyone can glean what they need to know. Employees can get the information they need when they need it for the purpose of improving organizational performance. Employees are constantly, creating, identifying, collecting, organizing, sharing, adapting, and using information to help the organization become smarter.
- Employees take risks and experiment. Leaders foster this behavior by recognizing the effort and the learning even if the results are unsatisfactory. Employees are not punished (e.g., pay cut, demotion, public humiliation, marginalization) for trying something new. On the contrary, this kind of behavior is encouraged. Failures, as well as successes, are treated as opportunities for learning.
- Learning is rewarded. When employees acquire new knowledge and skills, this is recognized and applauded. When new learning is applied and contributes to improving the performance of the organization, employees are rewarded (for example, more challenging work assignments, statements of appreciation and respect, money and perks). What’s important is that the reward is appreciated by employees and reinforces this kind of behavior.
- Everyone is reflective. Leaders, managers, employees, and other stakeholders take every opportunity to learn. Projects end with after-action-review. Client contacts are immediately examined with the intention of learning and improving those contacts in the future. Tasks, events, processes, and committees are all viewed as opportunities for learning. People are continually reflecting on what they can learn from what they are doing and what was achieved.
When these principles exist in the culture, an organization is predisposed to individual, team, and whole organization learning. With that learning comes an increased likelihood that performance will improve and strategic goals will be achieved.