!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Execution-as-Learning

Monday, July 28, 2008


"Execution-as-learning" is Amy Edmondson's prescription for how to pursue long-term business success in a knowledge-based organization.

Edmondson, a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, provides a summary of her research on how to maintain high performance in knowledge-based organizations in "The Competitive Imperative of Learning," published in the July-August 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

The first exhibit in the article summarizes the differences between execution-as-learning and execution-as-efficiency, the latter being the approach to performance that dominated management practice in the heyday of mass production. Edmondson cites seven salient contrasts, listed below (slightly edited), with each execution-as-learning practice in bold, and the corresponding execution-as-efficiency practice in normal type.
  • Leaders set direction and articulate the mission.

    vs. Leaders provide answers.

  • Employees (usually in teams) discover answers.

    vs. Employees follow directions.

  • Tentative work processes are set up as a starting point.

    vs. Optimal work processes are designed and set up in advance.

  • Work processes keep developing; small changes — experiments and improvements — are a way of life.

    vs. New work processes are developed infrequently; implementing change is a huge undertaking.

  • Feedback is always two-way: The boss gives feedback in the form of coaching and advice; team members give feedback about what they're learning from doing the (ever-changing) work.

    vs. Feedback is typically one-way (from boss to employee) and corrective.

  • Problem solving is constantly needed, so valuable information is provided to guide employees' judgment.

    vs. Problem solving is rarely required; judgment is not expected; employees ask managers when they're unsure.

  • The organization avoids creating an atmosphere of fear because such an environment cripples the learning process: It inhibits experimentation, lowers awareness of options, and discourages people from sharing and analyzing insights, questions, and problems.

    vs. Fear (of the boss or of consequences) is often part of the work environment and generally does not appreciably harm the quality of execution; it may even motivate effort and attentiveness in those facing an otherwise dull task.
As suggested by the final item in the above list, an essential prerequisite for having employees speak up with their ideas, questions, and concerns is psychological safety — "ensuring that no one is penalized if they ask for help or admit a mistake." Managers signal that it is safe to speak up by acknowledging that they don't have all the answers, and by asking questions that clearly aim to elicit employee contributions.

Edmondson presents a four-step process for carrying out the execution-as-learning approach:
  1. As a starting point, provide process guidelines based on best practices. Then allow employees to deviate from the guidelines, and update them with improvements, whenever the employees' judgment and learning indicate that doing so is appropriate.

  2. Provide tools that enable employees to collaborate in real time. Examples of such tools are IT systems geared to the employees' information needs, forums that enable networks to develop and members to interact, and training in teamwork skills.

  3. Collect process data (not just outcome data). These data enable the organization to keep track of what works and what doesn't.

  4. Institutionalize disciplined reflection. This means periodically analyzing process and outcome data to identify any process updates and improvements that are in order.
Edmondson's article is a model of practical advice clearly expressed, well worth attention from anyone in a knowledge-based organization.


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