A Learning Organization

A lot of talk has gone around about the importance of becoming a “learning organization”. But what does that mean and how can it be achieved? Is an organization safe because it provides a professional development stipend in its benefits package?

Providing time and resources to your employees for professional development is great. But it is the very first step in a long journey. While having a workforce that is capable of adapting to changing practices and techniques is necessary, it is not sufficient to keep you competitive in the modern software landscape. Sending your workers to conferences and buying them books will not make you a “learning organization”.

Becoming a learning organization is about continuous experimentation. The primary type of learning that you will need to be doing is not the type that can come from books or conferences or classes. The competitive knowledge that you are after is mostly hidden. It is knowledge that either does not yet exist, or exists as a trade secret locked deep within your competitor’s corridors.

The kind of knowledge that a learning organization acquires is a deep, mostly hidden knowledge. It is the knowledge that informs you of what will provide the most value to your customers. It is the knowledge that enables you to increase your customer base while keeping your existing customers. This knowledge is something that only your customers can provide to you.

Your customers may not even know that they possess this knowledge. They give up this knowledge through increased use of your platform. They give it up through increased satisfaction and NPS scores. They give you this knowledge when your UX tooling informs you that a new feature allows your customers to complete the same workflows in 28% less time. They give up this knowledge when they spend 15% more annually on your products and services or when the internal system you built increases communication between departments and reduces mistakes by 18%.

To be a learning organization you must experiment. You must experiment faster than your competitors, or you will ultimately lose.

The results of those experiments become the secret knowledge that gives you an edge in the marketplace (but only for a little while: there is always someone else experimenting). It is the foundation upon which you build the future of your company. It is how you provide radical value to your customers.

To be a learning organization you must experiment often. To experiment often you must reduce the cost of experimentation. To reduce the cost of experimentation you must reduce the size of the experiments. You must automate everything about the experiment that can be automated. You must reduce or eliminate wasted effort and unplanned work. You must constantly work to identify bottlenecks within the delivery workflow and eliminate or control them.

“The bottleneck should be the creation of good ideas”

Eric Ries and Steve Blank (quoted in Beyond the Phoenix Project)

I would argue that continuous experimentation lays at the very heart of all of agile and all of DevOps. If you could give the product team a magic wand that allowed them to instantly create and deploy new ideas and just as quickly eliminate them if they are not successful you would have finally hit the target of everything that agile and DevOps principles are aiming for.

We will of course likely never get there. In the meantime, though, we can aim to get as close to continuous experimentation as possible. Small improvements and features deployed continuously with strong feedback loops and telemetry provide the foundations for an organization that is continuously learning; enabling you to tap into the arcane and prized knowledge hidden deep within the customer’s experience. The knowledge that your competitors currently lack.

A Learning Organization