The Business of IT

What is a learning organization?

Now that you know why you shouldn’t become a software business, you need to know about becoming a learning organization instead. As discussed, a learning organization rapidly learns about the customer, the problem domain, and the tools they must wield to fill the customer’s need. But what are the ingredients of learning itself?

To learn about any subject, the following three elements must be present:

  • A clear purpose.
    You must have a goal in mind, a challenge you are trying to address, or a question you are trying to answer. Learning only happens when you are actually interested in the subject, as my classmates in my Hebrew class in third grade will attest—it was very boring and I retained next to nothing from that year. On the other hand, when you are genuinely committed to the subject, you will persevere despite challenges. As a child I didn’t have the “rounded” Lego pieces necessary to build the iconic black-and-white Airwolf helicopter, but I devoted hours and hours over several weeks in repeated attempts to constructing the best replica I could from the only pieces I had, mostly blue and grey rectangular bricks. It was really cool (in my pre-teen opinion). And I persevered because I had a clear purpose in mind: to create something really cool.
  • A commitment to and curiosity about truth.
    Curiosity and commitment to truth are the engines that drive learning via the scientific method. Brook no hidden agenda, accept no propaganda, and harbor no preconceived notion of what the solution must look like. As a young software engineer I once was helping a colleague debug some anomalous software behavior. We interrupted the program to debug it step by step, and watched the internal state of the program while it—we thought—was exhibiting the faulty behavior. Convinced we were witnessing a bug, we tried to explain every observation accordingly. But we failed to reproduce the issue, calling into question all of our explanations. Only afterward, when we allowed the program to continue running to completion, did we understand what had happened: I had pressed the wrong key, which executed a completely different function than the one we were trying to diagnose, so all of our explanations were wrong. Yet we had been doggedly trying to explain how correct they were! Respect the data: If the conclusions don’t match your hypothesis, then the problem is in your hypothesis, not your data.
  • Rooting out frustration.
    Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” driving economic progress is the human desire to eliminate frustration from our lives. We seek lower prices for commodities because it irks us to pay more than our neighbor pays for the exact same product. We invent new labor-saving devices because less labor means less frustration. Frustration points us to opportunity for improvement. In your organization, what frustrations are important? What are your customers’ frustrations, and what about the frustrations that workers encounter while building and delivering your product or service? These are the frustrations you should identify and seek to eliminate. Too much attention has been paid to “promoting empathy,” which cannot be measured objectively in a corporate setting. Frustration can be identified and measured. Rooting it out forces you to focus on the very areas that are opportunities for improvement.

When you have clear purpose, commitment to and curiosity about the truth, and a relentless pursuit of rooting out frustration, learning ensues. You learn about your customers, the problem domain, and your own tools and processes with fresh eyes, open mind, and focused energy. That is what it takes to be a learning organization.