Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Cultivating a Learning Organisation

Cultivating a Learning Organisation


Key Takeaways

  • Technology now changes so rapidly and constantly that specific expertise and knowledge have become less important than the ability to learn, evolve and adapt in pace with the change
  • To create this responsiveness and resilience in both their workers and internal culture, enterprises need to become learning organisations   
  • Psychological safety is a key component of the learning organisation
  • Employees need to be able to experiment and learn from any outcome - without fear that failure will be punished
  • Companies that can shift to a learning-focused culture will be able to thrive in any new paradigm that comes along

When talking about the biggest risks our industry faces today, I often hear some version of “Big Tech companies like Amazon and Uber, they have the means for innovation that the smaller ones simply don’t.”  While it is true that most real world enterprises don’t have engineering teams dedicated to developing next-step tech (most of us are working hard enough on managing current tools and technology, thank you very much!), we at Container Solutions (CS) do actually have the very same ability to innovate. Innovation, after all, is not something you have to dedicate a special team to handle. By creating an internal culture of experimentation and learning -- by becoming a learning organisation -- any company can keep pace with all the rapid iterations in tech that have become the regular way we now do business. This is true no matter what sector you come from.

Why it’s important to support a learning organisation

Tech is a knowledge-based industry. It relies heavily on performance in hard-to-measure areas: intelligent experimentation, ingenuity, interpersonal skills, persistence, and resilience in the face of adversity. These traits are supported and developed by the environment created within a learning organisation.

A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights. This is what is required to keep up in the current day economy.

Keeping up requires the ability to innovate, and innovation is a natural outcome when a learning organisation leads its employees toward being open, holistic and systematic. These attributes give them the ability to adapt to unpredictable and ever-changing situations, and respond more easily than in non-learning organisations. Given the ever-faster acceleration of technology, it’s basically imperative that companies strive to become learning organisations. 

In the Cloud Native world, becoming a learning organisation is something that happens almost organically. Because there is no one-size-fits all optimal path for a cloud migration, much less a turn-key set of tools to make that possible, experimentation is essential. So this was baked in more or less from the day Container Solutions were established, the understanding that we work from a wide-open field of options and then run small iterative Proof of Concept projects to see what works, and what does not. We are vendor-agnostic because nobody has that one foolproof solution, no matter what vendors tell you. Every organisation comes with a unique set of circumstances and needs, and the only way to figure out the right fit is to try a lot of different options. This sounds scary and expensive, especially since the old way of reducing risk was to move slowly and deliberately.. But in actuality, this kind of experimentation has become the new low risk way of working: small experiments that can be rolled back immediately if they fail, or extended another small step if they succeed. That is the heart of Cloud Native architecture, but it is also a sound approach for any business. 

At CS we use experiments in every facet of our work, to test out our hypotheses or improvements to our processes. Often this is to benefit the clients we are helping with cloud transformations, but we also experiment on ourselves. We recently ran an experiment with a new tool to improve our hiring process, for example.

Establishing a learning organisation

To have a learning organisation means to support continuous learning. And an effective way of discovering new learning is through experimenting and sharing ideas. When we have a new tool and we want to test it on clients we explain that this will be a first trial, and we offer a reduced rate or even free work if they are up for the experiment. No matter what the outcome, knowledge is shared by both CS and the client. And even when we aren’t necessarily experimenting with anything new, our formal process is to run frequent whiteboarding sessions on projects: what is going well, what is not going well, how to respond, and what can we do differently next time?

Another very useful, but often more painful, way to learn is to look at our failures. But this means using failure as a way to seek improvement and seeing past mistakes without blame and or prejudice. The old way of doing things was always to avoid failure at any cost. Experimenting introduces risk, and if you risk some experimentation anyway and then fail, well that could very well cost you your job. 

Now, however, we are trying to solve a problem that cannot be fully solved with today’s knowledge, namely the widespread adoption of the Cloud Native computing paradigm. Cloud Native is an approach to building and running applications that exploits the advantages of the cloud computing delivery model. It is about how software is created and deployed, not where. But distributed systems are the heart of Cloud Native architecture -- containers and  microservices -- and with this comes exponential complexity that simply was not a part of traditional monolithic approach to building applications. That served us well for a long time, but it simply is not fast enough or flexible enough to be sustainable. Enterprises are seeing this inevitability, and trying to respond and evolve.   

The problem is that, with such new and complex tech, there is no one “right” way to do it. It’s hard to solve because there is nothing you can simply buy and install, no matter what the vendors tell you. Instead, as an organisation you must feel your way to the best solutions for your specific circumstances by trying different solutions -- experimenting with various tools and platforms and techniques -- to see which combination best serves your particular circumstances. This requires an open mindedness that is not a usual part of bureaucracy, a willingness to experiment and tolerate risk, tolerate not knowing. Which is exactly what being a learning organisation confers. Bureaucracy holds us back but it also feels safe, it is known, it spreads risk and responsibility very widely, so it’s very hard to give up.

To get beyond, to establish yourself as a learning organisation, means you must first be willing to take an honest look at your current culture. Second, you have to be willing to accept ambiguity and risk as part of your daily organisational process.  

Think about it. It used to be that “low risk” meant “don’t experiment.” The customary model was for organisations to be massively risk averse, to minimise uncertainty at all costs. Ultimately, wholesale risk aversion becomes thoroughly integrated into an organisation’s identity. Change becomes more and more difficult to achieve and, worse, is treated not as opportunity but rather as a cause of anxiety.

Experimental culture is the new low risk, but it obviously can’t simply be bolted on top of existing company culture. The organisation undergoing Cloud Native transformation needs to shift its collective culture and mindset from “safe and slow,” to experimental and iterative — just like it is shifting its technologies and infrastructure from legacy to cloud-based. So any organisation that aims to be a learning organisation needs to take a good, hard look at its current relationship to risk and change. If there is anxiety around change, if experimentation requires permission, if people are afraid to fail because failure is automatically “bad” -- obviously none of these are ideal, but you have to recognize them before you can change them. 

Learning organisations are dependent on people acting autonomously while willing to fail -- and then mine what went wrong so they can learn from it. Such people are rare, not because they are special, but because few of us were ever trained to think or work this way. The first thing we have to do at Container Solutions is hire for that kind of cognitive resiliency or flexibility, which is tricky. Then we train them to think and act autonomously, which is easier said than done, and happens best in a setting of psychological safety.

Balancing risk and psychological safety

When we look at risk, we need to consider the hazards, vulnerability and exposure. How vulnerable are companies for future changes (and we know the future is hard to predict), what are potential hazards for us, and how much exposure will we get from it? Looking at all three makes a risk assessment more accurate. 

For example, our kitchens are full of hazards: sharp knives, boiling kettles, toasters and cleaning substances. We avoid the risk of these hazards by reducing our exposure. We do not poke forks in our toaster or pour bleach on our food. We also protect others who are more vulnerable to these hazards by having safety lids on cleaning chemicals and not letting them near the boiling kettles. 

Our professional lives are no different really. The innovation process relies on failures and improvements over time, but in many organisations there is the strongly-held belief that failure is always bad and to be avoided at all costs. It is very risky to fail in this culture, you could lose your job or at least face very serious consequences. It can also be risky to point out problems others are causing, particularly when they are further up the hierarchy. 

In a true learning organisation, employees are able to speak up, express concern and make mistakes without fearing negative consequences like punishment or ridicule. This is commonly known as Psychological Safety.

What is Psychological Safety?

Psychological safety, quite simply, is a group belief that is is okay to express yourself with honesty and to make mistakes.

In the workplace, psychological safety among teams means that the members of the group believe no one will be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, concerns, ideas or mistakes. When psychological safety is present, team members worry less about the potential negative consequences of expressing a new or different idea than they would otherwise. As a result, they speak up more when they feel psychologically safe and are motivated to improve their team or company. Psychological safety differs from trust due to the focus; trust is about the individual, whereas psychological safety arises from the collective group belief.

Indeed, evolutionary biology explains why psychological safety is vital to success in uncertain, interdependent environments. The brain processes a provocation by a boss, competitive coworker, or dismissive subordinate as a life-or-death threat — the same as if they were a sabre toothed tiger about to attack and eat us. This “act first, think later” brain structure shuts down perspective and analytical reasoning in order to direct all resources toward either fighting back or running away. While that fight-or-flight reaction may still be useful in life-or-death situations, it is much less so in today’s workplace.

Meanwhile, Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina has found that experiencing positive emotions like trust, curiosity, confidence, and inspiration have the opposite effect. When we feel safe we become more open-minded, resilient, motivated, and persistent. Humor increases, as does solution-finding and divergent thinking — the cognitive process underlying creativity.

When the workplace feels challenging but not threatening, teams can engage in and sustain creativity and innovation. Oxytocin levels in our brains rise, eliciting trust and trust-making behavior. This is a huge factor in team success, and the goal of the psychologically safe organisation. 

The benefits that psychological safety brings

At Container Solutions we start with the concept of psychological safety right from our onboarding process. We get to see new staff try out the new ideas, though it can take them time to really feel it is really ok to try something you really don’t know is going to work. But this is what we need as a company, especially for our engineers, who are out in the field on their own working with customers and trying to figure out the best way to handle their needs. 

So the benefits we see are the autonomy, the confidence to try and fail and try again, and not waste lots of time trying to find the guaranteed solution that is absolutely going to work before you even start trying it out. In Cloud Native that solution does not exist, not yet anyway.

Ways we encourage this at CS are to be honest about failure, inside our company as well as outside. For example, we encourage all our engineers to blog -- on our public website -- about their experiences, whether good or bad, and to be completely honest. This honesty and openness is emphasised from the very first day they begin working here. We genuinely want to understand your experiences here; your unvarnished thoughts are always important even if it’s something that is hard to hear. We communicate this as a core component of our onboarding process.

Long term effects of learning organisations

Research suggests that the long term effects of having a learning organisation ripple outward and build upon each other. A learning organisation has a positive effect on knowledge performance, which in turn has a positive effect on financial performance. In their paper The Impact of a Learning Organization on Performance, researchers Karen Watkins, Kyoungshim Kim and Laura Lu found thatknowledge performance fully mediates the relationship between a learning organization and financial performance.

The beneficial effects of psychological safety alone have been proven to be significant in both the medical profession as well as the tech industry. In Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams, Amy Edmondson reported the effect of psychological safety in hospital patient care teams by examining what she called “interpersonal context”: 

I found significant differences in members' beliefs about the social consequences of reporting medication errors; in some teams, members openly acknowledged them and discussed ways to avoid their recurrence; in others, members kept their knowledge of a drug error to themselves...For example, a nurse in one team explained matter-of-factly, "Mistakes are serious, because of the toxicity of the drugs [we use]-so you're never afraid to tell the Nurse Manager"; in contrast, a nurse in another team in the same hospital reported, "You get put on trial! People get blamed for don't want to have made one." 

In the tech industry we have Google’s Project Aristotle, where Google dug deep to understand what makes a team, great versus average or even dysfunctional. The key finding was great teams have the shared expectation of psychological safety. As one participant said, “My work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?’’ 

The ability to speak openly and honestly, the expectation your voice will be heard and respected, and the ability to fail safely: these are the core of a learning organisation. But only a few companies have been able to fully implement the structure and policies required to be called a learning organisation. This is partly to blame on the scholars preaching the practice of the learning organization. There has been too much focus on the bigger picture and much too little on how to actually get there. Concrete steps were missing. 

This issue has now been addressed, fortunately. Concrete building blocks have been developed and a toolkit for measuring success has been added. This has created a way forward for companies to start implementing the processes and practices required to be called a learning organisation. 

About the Author

Andrea Dobson-Kock is Registered Psychologist (HPCP) and a Cognitive Behavioural therapist. As a practicing psychologist, Dobson-Kock specialised in depression and anxiety disorders, complex grief and worked for over a decade in mental health. Dobson-Kock started working at Container Solutions in 2015 to expand their learning culture. This involved coaching, executive education and formalising the hiring process, whilst expanding it to include psychometric testing. This work continued from 2017-2018 when Andrea created CS’s leadership development programme. In 2018, Dobson-Kock started working for the Innovation Office, working with Pini Reznik, one of the founders of Container Solutions, to link patterns of consumer behaviour with their latest product development efforts.

Rate this Article


Hello stranger!

You need to Register an InfoQ account or or login to post comments. But there's so much more behind being registered.

Get the most out of the InfoQ experience.

Allowed html: a,b,br,blockquote,i,li,pre,u,ul,p

Community comments

Allowed html: a,b,br,blockquote,i,li,pre,u,ul,p

Allowed html: a,b,br,blockquote,i,li,pre,u,ul,p