Encourage your employees to learn together (and they'll succeed together)

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

The car I was riding in pulled up to the curb in front of my house. It was a chilly Michigan evening sometime in March, 1961. As I was opening the door to get out my basketball coach, who was dropping me off after practice, asked an unexpected question: “So Mike, how do you think we’ll do next year?”

We had one game left in a season where we were going to win just over half our games, our football team had done about the same and with baseball just around the corner I thought we might do just about as well but I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, “Are you asking me about next year already? We haven’t even started baseball!”

He looked straight ahead into the darkness of the evening through the windshield and without looking at me he said, “I think we are going to win all three championships next year.”

What he was saying was about as realistic to me as if he had said that a man would land on the moon within the next ten years. My middle school had been around since the late 1920s and as far as anyone new we had never won even a single sports championship, much less all three in one season.

I couldn’t get out of the car without asking, “What makes you think we’ll win even one championship, especially when we haven’t even finished the year?”

Then he did look at me.

“It’s the rate at which the players are learning and the fact that we don’t let the losses get us down. If you could see the season like I do, like the entire progression not just the single games as they are being played, you’d be able to see what I mean. Our teams are progressing much faster than the others and even though our records are just about .500 now by the time next year rolls around we’ll be very hard to beat.”

I went in the house that evening and made a note to myself to remember what he had said.

Our school did in fact go on to win all three championships the next year, a set of experiences that have stayed with me to this day. And while those memories have been great to have the conversation we had that evening in the car in 1961 has stayed with me and became a cornerstone of both the way I managed my company and delivered my consulting services. What he shared with me that evening permanently transformed my relationship to learning and performance.

What I took from the conversation that evening back in 1961 might be expressed in several significant observations about organizational performance as follows:

  • Learning = knowledge + social capital (Those teams played together for three consecutive years).

  • Current results + learning = possibility for future performance (Those teams lost nearly every game they played the first year, won about half the second year and won all the championships the following year).

  • Learning occurs in and is measured by performance, and not by testing.

  • When performance is ultimately some cumulative of coordinated action, education as an individual experience makes little sense.

(As a side note, much of what we have been doing as development professionals in offering training/development experiences has been measured by how much people liked the experience, not how much it affected their performance.)

I’ve come to understand over the years that he was not only referring to the learning that occurred in practices, he was talking about the day to day learning that took place between the practices and the games. What he had observed was the amount of time we, the team members, spent with each other away from the formal learning settings and the kinds of conversations we engaged in.

Marcia Conner has devoted her professional career to developing a deep understanding of learning in the workplace. From her studies, she has developed recommendations for how to promote learning and thereby overall performance in your workplace.

Conner defines five ways to capitalize on informal learning:

  1. List all the informal programs occurring in your organization. Post them for others to consider, review and add suggestions.

  2. Create peer-to-peer sessions where employees informally share experiences in a structured, facilitated roundtable format.

  3. Support informal communities of practice. Create others where you see there are gaps.

  4. Reconsider and review your meetings. What are they really offering? It may be time for a redesign.

  5. Find more opportunities for accidental learning and make them a topic of conversation.

Obviously, some of these suggestions work better for some organizations than others, but the underlying message is clear. What you want is your organization learning, as much as any individual learning.

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