Creating an Innovation Organization

If I’m positing that L&D should be leading innovation, aka informal learning, we need to look at the necessary elements from an evidence-based perspective. That includes practices, but it also includes the beliefs and attitudes towards learning. So one of the important steps is having a good definition and way to assess status. That’s what Garvin, Edmondson, & Gino (GE&G) did in their 2008 paper Is Yours a Learning Organization? They give us a foundation for creating an innovation organization.

They point out that it’s not a safe bet that an organization is uniform in these elements, unless the organization is small. Instead, levels of maturity across the elements can differ across business units, departments, etc. The local approach can differ substantially from the organization as a whole! While some diversity may be healthy depending on the context of the component entity, an overall unitary focus towards learning is healthy. Thus, identifying the necessary elements is important. Also, as argued, the place to start is within L&D before broadening out.

Their paper identified three core areas that constitute a learning organization. The first is the environment, the second are the processes, and third is the leadership. While interrelated, empirically it is possible to be good at some elements and not at others.

The environment has four elements: diversity, openness, reflection, and safety. There needs to be not just a tolerance of diversity, but an actual appreciation. It’s from diversity that we get the lateral inputs that can help us find new opportunities. Openness to new ideas is critical, and yet frequently lacking. Jennifer Mueller, in her book Creative Change documents how orgs that try to practice innovation frequently evaluate the ideas inappropriately, stifling possible improvements. Time for reflection, for the fermentation/percolation/incubation (pick your metaphor) of improvements, also is necessary. Too often we hear “we don’t have time for that”, yet it’s the source of improvements that end up reducing time! Finally, it has to be ‘safe’ to offer ideas. I talk about the Miranda Organization, where anything you say can and will be held against you, and that’s not a path to creating an innovation organization.

Along with those values, we need concrete practices and processes. GE&G stipulate that this includes experimentation, where you are trying new things. Making the budget for that, and recognizing that experiments can fail are important components. Coupled with that must be information collection and analysis from the experiments. Experiments should be designed to answer questions, and the data should be examined to provide the answers. Finally, there should be education & training about both what’s known outside, and from the results of the experiments. This includes these elements, and also organization-specific learnings.

The third element from GE&G is leadership. That goes beyond just supporting innovation by providing resources. While that’s necessary, it’s not sufficient. Instead, leadership actually needs to practice the principles as well. If leadership, for instance, isn’t willing to ‘learn out loud’ and share mistakes, will anyone else truly believe that it’s safe to do so? Thus, leadership has to talk the talk and walk the walk!

A simplistic view could be that the natural role of L&D should be the education and training around the concrete learning practices. I’m arguing that L&D can and should do more. Beyond incorporating these elements into their own activity first, I’m suggesting that L&D can be facilitating the events to ensure the practices are followed, supporting evaluation and improvement, and so on. Informal learning is learning, and L&D should be the ones to drive it.

There are sound principles to support creating an innovation organization. As things go faster, organizations need to be more adaptive. That’s about innovating. And L&D has a role. The only question then is whether we’re going to do it.

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