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July 6, 2012

Creativity versus the learning organization

Posted by Paddy Rao (View Profile | View All Posts) at 5:42 AM

Think about how good your organization is at learning new things and challenging the status quo. Do you see the conflict that it can cause? Learning organizations lay a welcome emphasis on its people continually learning and sharing new knowledge. But does this make the organization smart? And, what is 'smart', anyway? In my view, a smart organization knows what it needs to know and share, and then uses this to drive efficiencies. It may sound rather obvious, but think again.

We've always struggled with finding the right balance between creative problem solving and making organizational processes more standard and efficient.  Ever since the pre-industrial age, creativity has played an important role in organizations. Tradesmen crafted masterpieces reflecting great creativity in their handiwork - all custom made for individual patrons.  These master craftsmen were the curators of knowledge, and handed it down from generation to generation.  Best practices were born.  But as automation and standardization evolved, it came at the expense of creativity.  Operations became faster, more efficient and repeatable but with less room for creativity, which can be a key differentiator.

Smarter organizations use learning as a means of generating new ideas that can help infuse creativity into business processes.  I've observed that successful smart organizations share these characteristics:
• Are willing to take a risk to build best practices - to challenge organizational beliefs and question why things are done in a certain way
• Create an environment where people are willing to share - allowing everyone to have a voice with no penalties for speaking out
• Actively encourage knowledge sharing and learning - recognizing contributions and acting upon good suggestions even if this has a short term less-than-desirable impact on operations 

I had a telling experience when I was working with a large defense contractor several years ago.  This organization was justifiably proud of its global processes that enabled pan-operation participation from design to manufacturing.  During the course of my work,  I became aware of a problem with the guidance system software under development.  After a lot of head-scratching, by several engineers, and many rounds of calculation checks, I did myself, we discovered a probable solution.  I was directed to the chief designer with my solution.  I felt honored but quickly realized that it was not a hero's welcome that awaited me... the chief designer was thought to be infallible. . . and here I was way down in the food chain...challenging this long-held organizational belief!  Fortunately for me, the chief designer turned out to be very engaging and receptive to my fix.

My little story has a happy ending but it does make me think about the challenges around building a smarter organization.  Have you had a similar experience in getting others to think differently?

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