3 Barriers to Organizational Learning

The values of ongoing, organization-wide learning are well-documented and numerous, but that doesn’t mean that implementing this kind of learning is always easy or straightforward.  Thought leaders across the business landscape are identifying common problems and stumbling blocks to successful implementation and execution of organizational learning initiatives. 

Here are a few of the most frequently discussed barriers that hinder organizational learning, and some of the ways companies are working around them.

Give Me the Bad News First

Perhaps a good place to start is at the hardest point: the elephant the room, or the naturally unpleasant parts of organizational learning.  These typically spring from painful topics, which can vary considerably from organization to organization; some might involve reversing discriminatory trends or unhealthy cultural aspects like harassment, while some might center on shifts away from long-used technologies, workflow disruptions, or dealing with layoffs. 

To teach and expect change, these topics must be addressed directly, and immediately.  Delaying them—or worse, ignoring—them will build anxiety and create a long-running distraction as you dive into the other, more ‘comfortable’ changes you’d also like to see.

Think of it this way: when you’re told that someone has both good and bad news for you, which do you want to hear first?  Most of us immediately request the bad news first. We want to get it out of the way, because it’s almost certainly more demanding to address.  And if we don’t start with the bad, we’ll be thinking about it during the good news.  Don’t make learners wait for the other shoe to drop when they know it’s coming, in terms of difficult learning topics; they’ll be waiting so nervously, there’s a good chance they’ll barely be present for the preceding material.

Focusing on the Big Picture

A less sensitive but equally important element to build into organizational learning is a focus on long-term, organizational success over short-term wins.  The tendency to seek and create stop-gap, immediate solutions can be a major barrier to not only the success of an organization, but the identification of its employees as part of a whole.

Those familiar with the terminology around this sense-of-belonging might consider this a part of employee engagement, and correctly so.  The engaged employee sees beyond their individual role, beyond their current workday, and focuses on broader, company-wide objectives and the part they play in achieving them.  The disengaged employee is siloed, no more collaborative than they must be, and unconcerned with things that do not directly affect their day-to-day work and compensation.

Disengagement isn’t just a barrier to the overall goals of the organization—it’s a barrier to learning as well.  Since organizational learning focuses on the exact things that the disengaged ignore, they’ll be uninterested in the course, and their attitudes may hinder other learners’ abilities to focus. 

The fix?  Well, it’s not quite as simple as the one to our first problem—address the issue early—but it’s possible.  Tailor your material to be as inclusive as possible, emphasizing each person’s importance in the course, and the importance of the information to the organization as a whole. 

Disengaged employees often among exhibit a high resistance to change.  This is even more noticeable when the change is significant, entailing a radical shift in leadership, a policy overhaul, or any other shift that will have a significant effect on daily activities, compensation, interactions, or more.

Preventing Mental Shutdown

It’s a barrier to organizational learning that can be a sort of brick wall. “No, I don’t want that,” thinks the learner, and that’s usually where the thinking stops.  The rest of the material on the change is ignored.  So how can you prevent this shutdown when you need to address major change in your learning courses?

Jason Silver’s answer is strong, effective communication.  If employees understand the why behind the change as thoroughly as they understand the what, you can mitigate the mental shutdown.  Instead of saying “We will be changing leadership”, say “Because of recent events, our leadership is no longer credible with the public, and it’s harming our bottom line.  So, the company has decided to make a significant change in leadership to ensure the security of your positions.”

This kind of explanation-forward discussion shows empathy, and creates a chain of events that leads to a logical conclusion, rather than a conclusion that drops out of thin air.

Thoughtful Communications Propel Understanding

The three issues I’ve focused on here are included in almost every discussion of barriers to corporate learning, and each of them—difficult topics, lack of interest in the bigger, organizational picture, and resistance to change—can be best be dealt with through carefully planning how you’ll talk about them in your learning initiatives.  Specifically, deal with them up front, communicate clearly, and explain them in terms that are relevant to the learners while tying them to broader organizational goals.

If I tell you that we’re going to start with a sensitive topic, proceed directly into it carefully and empathetically, discuss how the change will affect you personally and link that personal experience to the goals of the company as a whole, I stand a good chance of securing your engagement and understanding. After all, barriers to organizational learning are just that—barriers.  They can be tunneled under, climbed over, or broken through.  And they are easiest to overcome with forethought and concern for those who must navigate them.  They are not the end of growth or understanding, but simply a challenge in the path to getting to these desired states.