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Becoming a Continuous Learning Organization

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Software Development is often considered to be knowledge intensive, therefor organizations look for ways to enable continuous learning. “We need learning organisations and they start with learning individuals” says Marcin Floryan. But individual learning can be difficult and scaling individual learning can be even more challenging. What can organizations do to become a continuous learning organization?

At the the Lean Kanban Central Europe 2014 Conference Marcin will talk about the law of learning entropy . InfoQ will cover the conference with Q&As and write-ups.

InfoQ interviewed Marcin about the value and importance of continuous learning for agile teams and organizations, how to scale learning, learning from success and failure and increasing the learning capability of organizations. 

InfoQ: Most people that I know are eager to learn new things. But actually doing it sometimes turns out to be difficult. Do you see the same thing?

Marcin: One of the reasons I love software development is that learning is pretty much the cornerstone of the profession. Many people I meet recognise this but I’m also surprised that when it comes to day-to-day working practices learning often gets pushed out. So I think the main source of the difficulty is not so much in the approach to learning, many people don’t go that far, but rather the discipline of making learning a key part of your daily routine.

In my talk I have been asking the audiences if they think “they are getting paid exclusively to learn” and very few people identify with that. Sure, the question is somewhat contrived, people like to be rewarded for their existing skills rather then just the fact that they also learn new skills, but I hope that it provokes reflection. 

After all, in all software projects I participated in, we always started with a bunch of unknowns and go through a discovery process - which for me is nothing but learning - learning about the domain, about the requirements, about technology, people, infrastructure… Jeff Patton expresses it very nicely "Scope doesn't creep; understanding grows"

InfoQ: Can you explain what you consider to be the value of continuous learning?

Marcin: It’s a tricky question because we have to be careful in how we look at this. Naturally we are working in an environment that continuously changes and as such we need effective means of keeping up. Continuous learning is one of the key tools at our disposal. I’m going to suggest however, that in and of itself continuous learning has no value. I may be reading lots of book and practicing sophisticated skills but if I don’t put that into practice it’s not going to be helpful or useful. I’m not suggesting that continuous learning is not valuable but I see it as a means of achieving valuable outcomes - such as the ability to solve increasingly difficult problems, provide innovative solutions, evolve business models, accelerate delivery and many, many other things.

InfoQ: What makes continuous learning important for agile teams? And for organizations that want to become agile?

Marcin: The agile manifesto starts with the following statement: "We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” The uncovering better ways bit, for me, lays out explicitly that it’s an approach which is based on learning and that this discovery should be on-going.

It acknowledges that even though “through this work we have come to value…” the following statements were valid at some point in time and that their validity may fade with time or the emphasis may need to be shifted somewhere else. I think we are seeing this in the agile community today. Thus I see that change, adaptation, evolution are the essence of what agile teams should aim for and I see these as different manifestations of learning. This approach is a big shift form a typical “analytical” mindset or a “fixed” mindset of traditional organisations where the underlying assumption is that “we already know how to do the work, we have the skills and expertise required and we just need to execute projects”. In order to fully embrace and benefit from becoming agile, organisations need to shift to a growth mindset, one that acknowledges the lack of complete knowledge and the need for learning.

InfoQ: To become a learning organization you would need to scale the individual learning somehow. Is that possible?

Marcin: I have been asked that question a few times already and I still don’t feel qualified to answer it well. The work of Chris Argyris and Peter Senge, as much as I have studied it, suggest that building learning organisation is certainly a possibility, yet one which requires a fundamental mindset shift and a new approach. 

For me, this approach must start with people who understand the the effects of learning and the true meaning of learning. Here is how Chris Argyris presents a key mistake people make in their effort to become learning organisations: "First, most people define learning too narrowly as mere ‘‘problem solving,’’ so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment […] but if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.”

So in short, scaling learning is possible and desirable and we need to keep discovering how to make that a reality.

InfoQ: You can learn from failures and from successes. Are there differences between those two ways of learning?

Marcin: This is a big topic and perhaps one for a whole new talk. Interestingly I don’t believe, despite the conventional wisdom, that we can learn anything from failures. I think it’s a convenient excuse to cope with failure. Well, we failed but at least we have learnt from it so it’s wasn't a waste of time. The distinction I tend to make is that we can learn “in the presence of failure” and that indeed creating conditions where failure is not only acceptable but even welcome is essential for effective learning to occur.

InfoQ: If an organization wants to increase their learning capabilities, can you give them some advice to get started?

Marcin: Giving advice without specific context always makes me worried that it will either sound trivial or irrelevant. I have a few ideas and hope people will find some of these useful.

First and foremost the organisation needs to recognise the need for learning. You could then go on to try and understand how learning currently works and what are the main obstacles for effective learning.

Making learning explicit and engaging people in the experience are straight-forward practical steps you can take. Organise lunch & learn session where people share their knowledge or experience in a particular area with others. Start a blog where everyone can share ideas and their own learning. Send people to conferences and community events and encourage any take-aways or insights to be shared with everyone. Give people time to practice, perhaps a coding dojo or a programming kata for a few hours every week. Start a library and buy books for people to read, run a book club and share the reading experience and learning. These are all little things that may just spark the interest and take people forward. If you create little communities with an explicit focus on learning it can be an effective mechanism to keep each other honest and motivate about their own progress.

However, with all these good initiatives one needs to keep in mind that often, to increase its learning capabilities, organisations will have to be prepared to have their existing status quo challenged. How can you do that if numerous people derive their own value and position from that status quo? Like the example of washing hands I talk about in my presentation. "Semmelweis's groundbreaking idea was contrary to all established medical understanding. Some doctors, for instance, were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands, feeling that their social status as gentlemen was inconsistent with the idea that their hands could be unclean.” Overcoming this attitude may be the most important leverage point to get the true learning going.

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