Monday, 20 July 2009

HR, Learning and Performance

Not sure how I've managed to miss this, but there's an excellent report in the Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge Series by Amy Edmondson, someone whose work is always worth listening to and I've often cited her publications in the past. In this Q and A session, she decribes her research journey into organizational learning and learning organizations over a fifteen year period following an earlier career as an OD practitioner. One of the key messages she has taken from it is the tension between the need for organizations to learn in order to survive in the long run and the short term problems learning creates for performance because such learning frequently involves making errors and, more importantly, acknowledging in public the errors you have made. This tension is a difficult one for managers to handle in most arenas so the tendency is to go for the short term performance gains at the expense of learning because of the typical basis on which their performance is managed and rewarded. Nowhere is this more evident than in the frequently reported and experienced clashes between short term target achievement in the NHS and long term organizational success. Edmonson's work is particularly appropriate in this context because her early research was set in a clinical context.

Edmonson describes the challenge for managers as two-fold:

'One is to become team leaders who promote open discussion, trial and error and the pursuit of new possibilities in the groups they directly influence. The other is to work hard to build organizations to produce extraordinary teamwork and learning behaviours'.
These challenges are part of the message of the papers and reports I've been discussing on engagement in the last few blogs. It is also a message we are delivering in a new paper we're (myself, Paul Gollan and Kerry Grigg) writing on how employer branding can and should contribute to the innovation agenda. Talent management, employer branding and engagement have traditionally been aimed at building human capital in organizations, focusing on the beliefs, values, attitudes, competences and behaviours of individuals. However, as much of the research on innovation has shown, it is the creation of social capital (building bridges, bonds and trust in teams and organizations) that is the necessary condition for organizational learning and innovation. Edmondson's work over the last decade and a half begins to show how this can be achieved.

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