Thursday, May 03, 2007

Learning vs. Performance

Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson, with whom I have co-authored several articles and case studies, has an interesting new paper about the tensions between organizational learning and performance. This paper is especially interesting because it synthesizes her outstanding work over the past decade. In this article, she argues that firms must engage in learning if they are to improve performance over time. However, efforts to enhance learning often appear at odds with an organization's performance orientation. For instance, she points out that many of her past studies have shown that learning requires a willingness to surface and discuss problems and mistakes. However, detecting and discussing errors makes organizations appear to be performing poorly. That makes managers and employees uncomfortable. Learning also creates another type of discomfort. When people learn, it typically involves a transition period, during which performance may lag as individuals and teams develop new capabilities. Therefore, Edmondson suggests that managers need to confront and assuage the discomfort that is created by a healthy learning process. If they do not, then the performance orientation of most organizations will stifle opportunities for improvement and innovation. For more on this interesting work, see http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5588.html