Team Effectiveness: From Pandemic to Promise in the Learning Organization (Executive Summary)

Team Effectiveness: From Pandemic To Promise In The Learning Organization (Executive Summary)This research on the effectiveness of teams was conducted in the early fall of 2020. It is largely supportive of, and consistent with, much of the thinking of others who were paying close attention to the experience of teams and leaders in a virtual environment. And the focus on teams also highlights the important relationship between teams and organization leadership and their interdependencies.

The research also highlights a number of important insights and ‘learnings’ that will serve us well in the coming months; while it is difficult to predict with any certainty, it is possible that new habits will emerge as teams continue to focus on their overall effectiveness in support of organization priorities.

Chief among the findings were the following:

  • The recognition that there is always a balance between Task and Relationship in any work setting warranted increased and active attention. The wellbeing of the team and its members extended to not only having the tools and support necessary for the tasks assigned, but also to the whole question of safety and security as teams looked to leaders for assurances and ongoing clarity. (In her book entitled Teaming, Professor Amy Edmundson refers to this important area as “psychological safety”);[1]
  • Leaders became much more aware of the need to bring elements of emotional intelligence into their active support of teams and team members; this included empathy and appropriate ‘blends’ of compassion and communication as their colleagues coped with balancing personal responsibilities in addition to work expectations, all in a virtual world. Moreover, the longstanding concept of ‘shared leadership’ assumed heightened importance in a transparent virtual environment;
  • Collaboration and Communication are not new concepts as essential elements in support of team effectiveness. What has become much clearer however, is the need for both leaders and teams to actively pay ongoing attention to both in order to have a finger on the ‘pulse’ of the individuals who are engaged in furthering organization goals. Moreover, the notion of collaboration  increasingly links to shared leadership in such aspects as greater participation in decision-making and joint problem-solving; and
  • Throughout the responses, often implicit, was the theme of how critical ongoing learning was as we ‘navigated’ the uncertainties of a COVID-19 world.

Looking forward, we can probably expect the mutually-supportive relationship between leaders and teams to continue in a more active way.  Expectations of continuing shared participation are now more the norm and reverting to an earlier way of working is unlikely.

Further, the research emphasized the importance of dealing with relevant questions, many of which are at an exploratory stage, but all of which will impact both teams and leaders in the weeks and months ahead.  Among these are:

  • As we move to the new reality in which virtual work will be a preference for some organizations and employees, with others preferring the surroundings of a safe office environment, how will the organization ensure that it mitigates any risk of the emergence of an ‘A’ Team and a ‘B’ Team?;
  • Performance Management in all of its dimensions will of course remain a critical aspect of organization life.  The question, however, is how it will be managed and how it will be measured.  For instance, feedback for developmental purposes has already changed and may continue to do so.  As we move forward, what will be the critical areas in which active attention will determine how successful feedback conversations will be?;
  • As one recent book –‘Virtually Speaking’ from Changemakers Books (2020)[2] – highlights, we will cease speaking of ‘virtual communication’ and simply refer to ‘communication’.  That said, with the ongoing imperative to continue to explore the integration of digital technologies in enabling strong two-way communication— often in close to ‘real time’ conditions—- what will the new models look like and how will we measure their effectiveness?;
  • What will become central to ensuring that there is continuous and shared learning across the organization, both within and between teams but also at and among other levels of the organization?; and
  • What models of ‘shared leadership’ will emerge to recognize the speed of change, the multi-faceted issues which challenge organizations and the heightened expectations of positive outcomes in a ‘less-than-certain’ environment?

Finally, as leaders and teams continue to grow and adapt to changing realities, a number of topics will probably be central to the organization effectiveness  conversation. Such subjects as the following may become part of their ‘standing agenda’:

  • Building and fostering solid trust relationships;
  • Continuing to pay attention to the evolving and changing needs of teams
  • Making ‘resilience’ and emotional intelligence key organization priorities
  • Adapting a range of technologies to facilitate effective communications
  • Re-visiting the roles of leaders in areas of shared leadership, problem-solving and decision-making
  • Examining new approaches to managing change
  • Adapting organization design to be fully responsive to the need for collaboration and agile responses to current and emergent challenges


About the Author

Ross RoxburghRoss Roxburgh is a leadership coach and organization consultant with several decades of experience with a wide range of clients, both domestic and international across the private, public and para-public sectors. He has a strong interest in the effectiveness of individuals and teams in complex organization environments; in many cases he brings both coaching and consulting experience to client engagements.

Ross positions his client work in a deliberate way.  He works with his clients as opposed to adopting a prescriptive approach.  Initially he focuses on understanding where the organization is positioned today and what the key challenges are in realizing the preferred future.  Respectful challenge is central to his approach and he is committed to developing solutions with the client which meet current priorities and also position the organization for future challenges. He is a facilitator with Queen’s IRC on a range of programs related to Board effectiveness, Committee evolution and Performance Management. 

Ross holds the designation of Certified Management Consultant (CMC) as well as that of Master Corporate Executive Coach (MCEC).  He has been certified in the use of the EQ-I 2.0 instrument as well as the LEA 360. He has continued to deepen his learning through the globally-recognized graduate program in Organization and Systems Development developed by the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland as well as a number of related programs through the International Gestalt Centre in Wellfleet and the National Training Laboratories (NTL) offerings. Prior to his coaching and consulting career, Ross completed an interdisciplinary Masters Degree in Canadian Studies as well as an Honours BA, both from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

The full report can be downloaded at: 


[1] Edmondson, A. C. (2012). Teaming: How organizations learn, innovate, and compete in the knowledge economy. Kbh.: Nota.

[2] Erickson, T & Ward, T. (2020). Resilience: Virtually Speaking. John Hunt Publishing.

Team Effectiveness: From Pandemic to Promise in the Learning Organization (Research Report)

As we move from the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic into the next phase of organization life, learnings from the first few months of the pandemic will serve to highlight behaviours and approaches which will serve us well as we continue to build effective teams. In addition, the experience of a virtual world, one which is here to stay, will also point to areas where we will need to develop new habits, modify earlier ways of working, and examine approaches that served us well in the pre-pandemic reality, but now no longer support us as effectively in light of the new reality.
This research captures how organizations are re-thinking the role of teams, the work they do and how they approach and carry out that work. This report is based on a survey of team leaders, organization consultants and leadership coaches, as well as research in the field.
The survey on the effectiveness of teams was conducted in the fall of 2020 with a goal to examine the following:

  1. What we have learned at the team level of the organization from the experience and challenges of moving through a pandemic?
  2. What has taken on greater clarity for leaders, managers and supervisors in terms of priority areas as teams strive for sustained effectiveness over the next period of uncertainty?


Creating a Mentoring Culture for Organizational Success

Creating a Mentoring Culture for Organizational SuccessMentoring is a management practice that can assist organizations in building a desired corporate culture, while enabling the careers of those who are already motivated to pursue one. It is an efficient and effective method of shortening the learning curve of new executives and providing more knowledgeable employees with broader perspectives. New executives with a mentor have a sounding board, as well as the benefit of their mentor’s experience as they navigate through situations that may be unfamiliar to them. Based upon a foundation of trust, the relationship of mentees with experienced executives can offer a safe place to try out ideas, skills, and roles with minimal risk, while focusing on their individual development needs.

In this article, I will discuss the impact a mentoring culture can make in an organization, how mentoring differs from coaching, the value of a structured approach to mentoring and the steps to set up a mentoring program.

Successful Mentorships

Mentoring is defined as a professional and confidential relationship between two individuals that assists one of them in developing “business strategies” and acquiring new “technical” knowledge and skills. One mentee concluded, after a year-long mentoring relationship in a structured program I designed for a large public sector organization,1 that: “It is an evolutionary process, where mentors become a resource for someone enabling an exchange of ideas and experiences. Avoid matching of those who have known each other a long time… the forging of the relationship is a valuable part of the process.”

Is Your Workplace in Motion?

A Model for the New World of WorkDo you encourage collaboration between departments?

Are you ready for a changing demographic in your workforce?

Do you know how technology will change your organization in the future?

This past spring, Queen’s IRC hosted a summit to explore our workplaces in motion. We thought of our summit as a discovery space.  We invited people to come together to reflect, share and re-imagine how their workplaces could become more transparent, integrated and inspiring. Through an old world – new world lens, we explored how four inter-related trends (see model), are shaping the new employee, the new work, and the new workplace.

Our lofty aim was to reveal how the workplace principles and frameworks that worked in the past no longer serve us.  While we all appreciate that the era of centralized governing systems and rigid hierarchies is over, many of the legacy principles are so deeply engrained, we simply do not see or question them. Our task was to surface the principles that no longer serve us, and define a new set of workplace fundamentals promoting connectivity, innovation and adaptability.

In service of keeping those conversations going, we offer our old world-new world models as a starting place for you to ponder the future of your workplaces.  As you reflect on each of the three models (the new employee, the new work, the new workplace), gather your colleagues together and answer the questions below.  We’ve employed a technique called reverse brainstorming to surface the organizational practices and systems that may, inadvertently, be rooting your organization in the past.

York Region Strategic Plan: Putting Theory into Practice

When I was tasked with leading the development of York Region’s 2011 to 2015 Strategic Plan, I sought out the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre’s (IRC) Essentials of Organizational Strategy program. While I had completed components of organizational strategy process in the past – namely, organizational assessment and environmental scanning – I had no experience in the entire process and was interested to have some sense of theory and practice to rely on, as I undertook this project on behalf of the organization, Regional Council, and the residents of York Region. York Region is a confederation of nine municipalities, each having their own strategic plan. It was extremely important that the Region’s strategic plan aligned with our local municipalities; therefore, confidence in a thorough planning process was essential.

This article describes my experience with the IRC’s Organizational Strategy programming and the ways in which the theoretical and practical tools acquired in the programming helped to guide the development of York Region’s 2011 to 2015 Strategic Plan. I am hoping that my experience with formulating a strategic plan, with direction from the IRC’s programming, and Carol Beatty‘s expertise, may prove to be a resource for other practitioners embarking on similar work. I begin by describing the four phases that guided the development of the Region’s strategic plan. Then, I describe some of the obstacles and challenges we encountered and my key learning. I close with a commentary on the IRC’s programming.

Four-Phase Development of the York Region’s 2011-2015 Strategic Plan

As part of my role in the Region’s 2011 to 2015 strategic plan, I led the business case for the plan. Successful approval of the plan was obtained from our Senior Management Team in late 2010, including the process and timelines to develop and complete the plan. The process approved by Senior Management included four-phases: Data Gathering, Strategic Direction Setting, Activity Planning, and Monitoring and Reporting.

Our first outing on a strategic plan was in 2009, with a two-year interim plan. That plan was strictly administrative in nature and used internally by staff to focus their performance planning to stay in line with our Council’s priorities. It was termed an “Administrative Plan” and served to incorporate certain fundamentals, such as sustainability, into our everyday language and practice across the organization, and began the collaboration necessary to tackle cross-cutting issues. We considered it a strong foundation for the 2011 to 2015 plan, a test for organizational readiness for this type of planning. Initially, the 2011 to 2015 plan was again to be inward-facing, but as the process gained momentum, that changed and we developed a fulsome, Council-engaged, and endorsed plan. I now describe the four-phase development of the strategic plan.

Phase I: Data Gathering

Our development phase included external and internal scanning. We looked at what was happening around and within the Region, how the findings might affect us positively and negatively over the coming years, and where we should concentrate our efforts. From the scans and Council feedback, we were able to identify quite clearly the areas of priority for the plan’s four-year timeframe. I am not sure if future years will be as easy to determine, but the scans this term were consistent across the board, and showed early internal and external alignment. Analysis from the scanning process set out six key areas that are in our final plan today; polished up and well-defined, they remain true to the initial analysis. This phase launched in February 2011 and was completed in mid-June 2011.

Phase II: Strategic Direction

Our Strategic Direction phase was settled fairly quickly with the addition of a seventh priority targeting Regional staff – a direct response to the findings of the internal organizational assessment in which staff voluntarily participated. We presented the findings to the Steering Committee at the end of June 2011 and targeted mid-July to bring the draft priority areas and objectives to Senior Management Team for their input. It was at this meeting that work began for the Activity Planning phase.

Phase III: Activity Planning

We entered the Activity Planning phase as a means of developing our “Indicators of Success” – how we intended to measure progress in each of the strategic areas. We assessed each of the strategic priority areas and determined what needed to take place in order to make progress. This helped to not only determine the actions required, but to also identify the “hubs” of activities that supported more than one area. Those “hubs” were looked at closely and, in turn, helped further focus and polish the strategic priority areas. From there, the Senior Management Team ratified the indicators of success they were willing to be measured against. By end of August 2011, we had a fully developed plan – structured, defined, and accountable; that solidly responded to the results of the environmental scanning done at the beginning of the process. The plan was approved by Regional Council on October 20, 2011.

Phase IV: Monitoring and Reporting

Upon endorsing the plan, Council also approved an annual reporting cycle. Each June, Council will receive a progress report. During these meetings, we will report on the plan’s progress and outlook, including any required amendments to the plan. We built the plan as a living document, so our monitoring and reporting process allows for adjustments, as required. Quarterly strategy review sessions have been set up with the Senior Management Team to monitor the in-year activities to ensure progress.

Obstacles and Challenges

The obstacles were minimal in developing this strategic plan. The benefit of having stuck our toe in the water in 2009 on a strategic plan helped. We also did a year’s worth of work with our Leaders group in 2010 that let us know that we had the organizational readiness for this type of collaborative planning process. Our Chief Administrative Officer encouraged us to build a wave of interest behind us to have the desired effect. Throughout 2010, we explored the concept of “integrated planning and budgeting” using the 4D process facilitated by Brenda Barker Scott. Together, we determined the three criteria necessary for us to be successful in integrated planning and budgeting: having strategic direction set in advance of the budget process (as opposed to during); having measures and targets to know where we’re going and whether we’re making progress; and, having decision-making ability along all lines of the organization. These criteria mesh completely with the concept and practice of strategic planning. With the support of the larger senior management group behind us, we moved forward to incorporate strategic planning into our organization, fitting it between our long-range planning (our draft vision, Vision2051, spans forty years) and our annual department and operational planning and budgeting.

While there were not, as noted, many obstacles to developing the strategic plan, some challenges did, however, arise regarding terminology. The Region has an established and award-winning reputation for long-range planning. Initially, it was a challenge to differentiate and include the long-range vision in the short-term plan. Many municipalities function with twenty to forty year plans, not unlike the Region. Strategic planning can, and does, cover a wide timeframe; a three to five year plan is included in the broader definition of strategic planning. We discovered the two can live in harmony. We chose to look at the desired state proposed in our long-range plan, and use it to help determine the course of action for this term of Council that would take us closer to that vision. We asked ourselves some fundamental questions: Are we doing today what we need to do to get there? What is happening today that is keeping us from getting there? What can, and should, we do about it? Thus, the initial challenge was quickly turned into a benefit, as it provided us the “big picture” to map the current day trends and issues and therefore determine a short-term focus.

Personal Learning

My first key learning point was the deeper understanding that the Region is a conglomerate. We have lines of business that most people wouldn’t put together: transit and public health, nurses and inspections, sewers and road systems, early childhood intervention and immigrant settlement programs, just to name a few. I learned a lot about the businesses we’re in.

As an organization, however, we learned that we need to work together on these very complex issues. We did an exercise with the Steering Committee that had them drawing lines of interrelation between the priority areas. Each of the seven priority areas is strongly linked to at least one of the other priority areas. There is a tight weave between all of the areas, and therefore a tight weave in how we will respond to the issues. The interplay between our areas is actually where our work lies. What had been typically been viewed as disparate lines of business, is now seen from an “interdisciplinary” approach to solve problems. This approach is new and refreshing for the Region, a powerful outcome of the strategic planning process.

My second key learning point is that the implementation of the plan is probably the trickiest part. The inner workings of the organization are changing and adapting to the new plan, the new way of thinking and working together. Our systems that have traditionally been separate and apart from one another are now moving and fusing at the right points. Using the facilitative and supportive nature of our Council, we’ve aligned the corporation with the goals expressed by our Regional Chair and Council. This alignment is captured through the Senior Management annual goals process, and that is now cascading down and across the organization. We’ve amended our performance management system to include mention and communication of the plan as a means of ensuring linkages are made between all levels of the organization in delivering on the priorities of our Council.

We are using, for the first time, a digital dashboard to house and track the plan. The “dash” requires a great deal of front-end work to delineate the milestones and load the dashboard so that we can accurately account for our progress on the plan and intervene on issues in a timely manner. We continue to have strong buy-in across the organization, and are spending the majority of our time in this phase, as we touch enshrined systems and processes, and create together the new way of working. A great deal of change management principles and practices are being employed, along with a high degree of face-to-face communications and assistance. Our next steps are to complete the data call for the dashboard to monitor 2012 actions. We are also preparing to deliver our first progress report to Council in June 2012.

Advice/Guidance for Practitioners

Based on my experience with developing the York Region’s strategic plan, I offer the following advice to any individuals in a similar role:

  • Strategic planning is a process. Everyone wants to see their issues highlighted and profiled; a strategic plan doesn’t work that way. A strategic plan tells you the areas that require dedicated and unwavering focus toward a particular end. It can be a challenge not to include everything in the plan. The organizational strategy process is not meant to focus on everything, but rather reveal where departments should put their focus.
  • Be inclusive and build support. Not every organization can take the time we did to determine organizational readiness; however, I strongly suggest having some investigation of this area before you embark on the process. And from there, choose your degree of collaboration. By the time we had the final plan before Council for approval, well over 800 staff had participated in one way or other in the development of the plan. We are an organization of approximately 2,800. That degree of staff participation gave both Senior Management and Council a high degree of confidence in what was in the plan and our ability to execute on the plan.

The IRC Experience

Prior to joining the IRC’s Essentials of Organizational Strategy program, I really didn’t know what to expect from the course; my learning objectives were fairly wide open. I was hoping for either theory or practice that I could take back and apply to the project. As well, I was looking for a bit of validation of what I had been doing thus far. By the time I came to the course, I was already three months into the project and was quite nervous that I might have to backtrack considerably.

The tools, resources, and learning that I took away from the IRC’s Essentials of Organizational Strategy program contributed significantly to the development of our plan. For example, the Five Question Process taught in the course is the backbone of our plan. When you can provide simplicity to the process, people will better engage. There are basic questions that need to be answered when developing a strategic plan: What’s happening around us? What business are we in and how are we doing? What is the deliberate path we need to take? How will we get there? How will we know we’ve arrived? Answering these questions will provide you with a solid, executable strategic plan. There were a couple of Steering Committee meetings where we had to remind the group that our role was to work the process, to ask the questions, whether people liked the answers or not. The book provided in the course, The Strategy Wall, was a wonderful resource. In general, the course and its takeaways ensured we left no stone unturned in the development of the plan, such as industry and customer focus. All the learning provided tremendous value and insight. I used the templates provided in the course as the practical means of executing the process.

Our plan also benefited from the program theory. The underlying purpose of a strategic plan is to differentiate yourself in some way from others like you and to leverage that difference to increase your value. By learning and understanding the concept of “value proposition” through the academic foundation portion of the course and the program’s simulation exercise, we were able to answer that fundamental question for our organization. We now have a better understanding of our value proposition, and our customer focus. York Region is one of many municipalities mandated by the province to absorb large amounts of population growth over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years. To grow communities, you have to build and that requires relying on third-party deliverers to get the infrastructure and services in place, as well as attracting businesses and industries to employ the population and contribute to the overall economic vitality of the Region. These growth municipalities are vying for many of the same contractors, services, businesses, and industries. It is good to understand those you are contending with, determine what sets you apart, and give those companies and investors confidence that they are doing business with a focused and aligned partner. All of this essential information is baked right into our plan.

The entire IRC program was relevant to me and our organization. The timing couldn’t have been better – right in the middle of developing the plan. The theory and the practical exercises both served their purpose, and having the real-life project on my hands helped transfer the learning. The simple and highly-relatable way in which the course is designed and taught helped me, and subsequently York Region, tremendously. In a time where government is coming further under the microscope to find and prove efficiencies and effectiveness, a strategic plan, its process and outcome, more than responds to that analysis, internally and externally. Our strategic plan is a commitment from our Council to our residents that we are doing the right things, at the right time.

Learning from the IRC’s programming will continue to be applicable and a solid resource for my work. For example, I will once again turn to The Strategy Wall in 2014, when we ramp up to develop the 2015 to 2019 strategic plan for the Region.

In closing, I thank you for the opportunity for me to relay my experience in developing York Region’s strategic plan. The IRC’s program helped York Region tremendously. The Five Question Process kept my team focused as we dealt with competing interests and issues. Understanding strategic planning as a process, and I think having learned this from a qualified and well-regarded institution’s programming, enabled the development team to sit in the process and accept whatever results were coming our way.

To read York Region’s 2011 to 2015 Strategic Plan and learn more about The Regional Municipality of York, please visit For more information regarding organizational strategy, please consult Carol Beatty’s (2011) article, Demystifying Organizational Strategy.

About the Author

Heather BeairstoHeather Beairsto is the Program Manager of Corporate Initiatives in the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer at the Regional Municipality of York in Newmarket, Ontario. Her main portfolio is strategic planning. She is responsible for leading the development, implementation, monitoring, and reporting of the strategic plan for the Region. She is also responsible for the Leaders program – an annual program that addresses leadership issues for approximately 100 of the Region’s senior-level staff. In addition to that work, Heather takes on special projects that deal with organizational performance and effectiveness. Heather has served with York Region since May 2005, after nearly seven years with the Ontario Public Service.

Enabling Fruitful Learning in Organizations

Brenda Barker Scott, Queen's IRC FacilitatorTake this challenge. Ask fellow employees if they have ample opportunity to learn and apply what they learn at work. Chances are their answers will be varied, with many answering with a sometimes or it depends. This is a conundrum. One does not have to look far to find support for the notion that learning in organizations is a critical capability. In our disruptive world, an organization’s capacity to facilitate learning—to acquire, apply, and spread new insights—has been touted as the fundamental strategic capability and a leading source of competitive advantage.

Why the knowing–doing gap? While we hire people with advanced degrees and send them to respected learning institutes, we often fail to tap the full potential of what employees can and do learn. Add in the notion that most organizations don’t know what people know—let alone provide opportunities for people to share and leverage learnings—and it’s not a stretch to conclude that learning in organizations is often a haphazard endeavor.

Several years, ago as part of a masters research project, Queen’s MIR student Laura Dow joined me in exploring the learning strategies of a wide range of Canadian organizations. Our results confirmed that most organizations do not have a comprehensive learning framework. While all organizations surveyed supported the job-specific learning of individuals, few thought strategically about how that individual learning would be applied, honed, embedded, or spread. Fewer still thought systematically about facilitating learning amongst chosen groups, or about capturing, sharing, and spreading new learnings with relevant others. On another front, only a handful of firms were able to articulate their strategic learning agendas. In other words, firms were not able to define the core capabilities they needed to hone and develop to compete and excel.

What might a strategic learning framework look like? Before we can answer this question, we need to step back and explore some basic questions that have kept academics busy for years. They are: 1) what is learning, 2) what is the relationship between learning and knowledge, and 3) where does learning take place?

What is learning? Let’s begin with a typical scenario. An organization identifies a gap in the skill-set of a group of employees—let’s says the gap is in innovative thinking amongst a group of middle managers. To remedy this situation, they design a course in innovative thinking skills, hire faculty to teach it, and offer it over a three-day program.

Following the course, can we say that our managers have learned? If we define learning as the acquisition of new insights, as some academics do, we can assume that the managers have acquired new insights—to varying degrees—and therefore that learning has occurred. If however, we take a more rigorous definition of learning, one that suggests that learning requires both the acquisition of new insights and the application of those insights, then our learning cycle is not yet complete. This dual cognitive and behavioural approach to learning is represented by Kolb’s (1984) adult learning cycle. We acquire new insights via a lecture or an experience, followed by reflection and then assimilation through action. Accordingly, learners must have ample opportunity to seek out new insights on the one hand and test, apply, and refine their insights and emerging abilities on the other. At the organizational level, the process of acquiring and applying new insights is represented by March’s (1991) foundational concept of exploration and exploitation.

If learning is indeed active, the process of acquiring new knowledge is not one of a simple receptivity, whereby veridical knowledge is tossed over the fence to those who catch it. Rather, acquiring and leveraging new insights and abilities is dependent on the learners’ motivation to learn, their opportunities to learn, and the mechanisms in place to enable the acquisition and application of knowledge. Support comes from the environment in the form of cues from bosses, strategic goals, standards, rewards, norms, available technologies, and the like. Should, these cues signal that the learning is not valued, supported, or necessary, individual conviction may wane and learning will be stifled. What people learn is, therefore, encouraged by a focused and supportive learning context. Understanding the learning agenda—what we need to learn in order to succeed—is critical to creating motivation and focus. Our middle managers must understand why innovative thinking is a core competence, how innovative thinking will enable them, and how they will be supported.

Why does our definition of learning matter? Quite practically, if we hold ourselves to a more rigorous definition of learning, one that combines learning with doing, then our middle managers cannot simply be sent to a three-day course on innovative thinking. In addition to a program, they must see the real world relevance for innovative thinking, be open to exploring innovative practices and have ample opportunities to practice innovative thinking with pressing challenges, in a supportive context.

What is the product of learning? Learning has an intimate relationship with knowledge; it is the process that brings about a change in know what (insights) and know how (behaviours). Nonaka (1991, 1994) distinguishes between explicit, easily codified knowledge, and tacit knowledge, which is rooted in both know what and know how. While the exchange of explicit knowledge can be shared and integrated amongst members via reports, memos, databases, and lectures, the sharing and development of tacit knowledge, whereby we know more than we can tell, occurs through dialogue and practice as members surface, exchange and absorb know what and know how.

Why does our definition of knowledge matter? If we understand that innovative thinking is tacit in nature—it is both know what and know how—we can no longer assume that innovation skills can be neatly packaged, or stored, or shared as a set of concepts and transferred to managers in a lecture or via a database. Rather, we see that innovative thinking amongst our managers will evolve as they exchange, combine, and build on ideas with others, perhaps after their appetites for innovative thinking have been wetted in a three-day program with their colleagues.

Where does learning take place? To state the obvious, learning in organizations occurs through people, as they acquire new insights and act on them. At the individual level, knowledge is acquired and accumulated as know what in the learners’ minds and know how in the form of expertise and craft. However, learning in organizations must go beyond what individuals learn. Innovation in isolation is clearly not our goal. Rather, our aim is to develop innovative thinking amongst our managers.

Group or community level learning depends on, and builds from, the knowledge and worldviews of individual members and requires an opportunity for learners to join around a common cause, exchange ideas and insights, and combine knowledge. Accordingly, our managers must be involved in processes, forums, networks, partnerships, and communities that enable the requisite exchange, synthesis, and co-creation of innovative ideas and practices amongst peers.

At the organizational level, as knowledge is captured and embedded—in peoples’ heads as norms and values and in organizational features such as strategies, structures, processes, and systems—the organization develops context or a code. In turn, the organizational context influences the future learning of individuals and groups, both the focus of their learning as well as how the learnings are applied, leveraged, and spread. The code continues to evolve, as it consumes the learning of individuals and groups. What might our code for innovation look like? Perhaps the infrastructure for innovation might include: a performance spirit of innovation amongst all leaders, dabble time for creative experimentation, rewards and recognition for sharing ideas, mechanisms for storing innovative ideas, forums for innovative problem solving, and a formal innovation process.

A Framework for Learning: Questions, Not Answers

Given that we have come to define learning as a multi-faceted personal, yet social phenomenon that is context specific, it would appear that a one size fits all definitive framework of learning in organizations is rather fanciful. Perhaps instead, a more useful approach might be to provide a set of powerful questions that, when asked and answered, shed light on the path to fruitful learning. Based on our definitions of learning, knowledge, and supportive context, those questions might be as follows:

  1. What’s our learning agenda? In other words, given our organization’s business, operational model, and strategic goals, in which areas do we need to excel? Ideally, the learning agenda will be scalable to units, across unit endeavors, and to individual roles. Answering this question is essential to developing a strategic and focused learning aim. Once set, the learning aims create a supportive context and build motivation for learning.
  2. Given the learning agenda, who needs to learn? What new insights and behaviours are required amongst individuals, groups or communities? Answering this question will identify the system of players—specific groups and individuals—who need to develop new insights and behaviours.
  3. Given the learning agenda and our understanding of who needs to learn, how will we facilitate the learning? Here we ask: Is the knowledge we are seeking to develop more explicit or tacit in nature? What are the vehicles and forums that will support learning acquisition, application and sharing?
  4. Insights from this set of questions will reveal a multi-pronged approach to learning which may have learners acquiring new abilities in a classroom setting, reflecting and building on them within group forums, applying them in a project team and honing them through a coaching relationship.
  5. Given our learning agenda, what’s the required depth and breadth of the learning? In other words, how will we support knowledge transfer? Insights from this question will reveal the requisite scope for the learning, as well as strategies for sharing the learnings with others and embedding the learnings in processes and systems.
  6. Given our learning agenda, what does a supportive context look like? How can we ensure that the context (or code) expands and adjusts to enable and embed new learning? Explore this question to identify the main organizational elements—from culture, to strategy, to leadership—that enable or prevent the requisite learning.


Learning in organizations is complex and depends of a myriad of personal, social, and environmental factors. Rather than searching for the ultimate recipe for organizational learning, I offer a set of questions as a starting place for this exploration. The questions are meant to tap the tremendous amount of wisdom that has been generated in the literature. How leaders answer those questions, given their specific needs, goals, history, and context, will define their approach to learning. Fostering innovative thinking is going to look and feel differently in every organization. A thoughtful approach to identifying the learning agenda, who needs to learn, how the learning can best be facilitated, the scope of learning transfer, and the key contextual enablers will go a long way in supporting learning. Learning strategies must be home grown. It quite simply will not work any other way.

Selected References

Antonacopoulou, E. P. (2006). The relationship between individual and organizational Learning: New evidence from managerial learning practices. Management Learning, 37(4), 455–473.

Argote, L., & Ingram, P. (2000). Knowledge transfer: A basis for competitive advantage in firms. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82, 150–169.

Argyris, C., & Schön, D.A. (1996). Organizational learning II: Theory, method and practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Becerra-Fernandez, I., & Sabherwal, R. (2008). Individual, group, and organizational learning. A knowledge management perspective. In I. Becerra-Fernandez & D. Leidner (Eds.). Knowledge management: An evolutionary view of the field, (pp. 13–39). Armonk, NY: Publisher M.E. Sharpe.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational learning and communities-of-practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning and innovation. Organization Science, 2(1), 40–57.

Christensen, C, & Overdorf, M. (2000). Meeting the challenge of disruptive change. Harvard Business Review, 78(2), 66–76.

Constance, J. (2003). Designing learning organizations. Organizational Dynamics, 32(1), 46–61.

Cross, R., Parker, A., Prusak, L., & Borgatti, S. (2001). Knowing what we know: Supporting knowledge creation and sharing in social networks. Organizational Dynamics, 3(2), 100–120.

Crossan M., Lane, H., White, R. E., & Djurfeldt, L. (1995). Organizational Learning: Dimensions for a theory. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 3(4), 337–360.

Cyert, R. M., & March, J. G. (1963). A behavioral theory of thefirm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

De Geus, A. (1988). Planning as learning. Harvard Business Review, 66(2), 70–74.

Easterby–Smith, M., Crossan, M., & Nicolini, D. (2000). Organizational Learning: Debates past, present and future. Journal of Management Studies, 37(6), 784–796.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fiol, C. M., & Lyles, M. A. (1985). Organizational learning. Academy of Management Review, 10(4), 803–813.

Garvin, D. (1993). Building a learning organization. Harvard Business Review, 7(4), 78–91.

Haragdon, A., & Sutton, R. (1997). Technology brokering and innovation in a product development firm, Administrative Science Quarterly, 42(4), 716–749.

Herriott, S. R., Levinthal, D. A., & March, J. G. (1985). Learning from experience in organizations, American Economic Review, 75, 298–302.

Huber, G. P. (1991). Organizational learning: The contributing processes and literatures. Organizational Science, 2(1), 88–115.

Inkpen, A. C., & Crossan, M. M. (1995). Believing is seeing: joint ventures and organizational learning. Journal of Management Studies, 32(5), 595–618.

Kellogg, K., Orlikowski, W., & Yates, J. (2006). Life in the trading zone: structuring coordination across boundaries in post-bureaucratic organizations. Organization Science, 17(1), 22–44.

Kim, D. H. (1993). The link between individual and organizational learning. Sloan Management Review, Fall, 37–50.

Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Kofman, F., & Senge, P. M. (1993). Communities of commitment: The heart of learning organizations. Organizational Dynamics, Fall, 5–23.

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Srikantia, P., & Pasmore, W. (1996). Conviction and doubt in organizational learning. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 9(1), 42–53.

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Vera, D., & Crossan, M. (2003). Organizational learning and knowledge management: Toward an integrative framework. In M. Easterby-Smith & M. Lyles (Eds.), The Blackwell handbook of organization learning and knowledge management (pp. 122-141). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Wenger, E. C., & Snyder, W. M. (2000). Communities of practice: The organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review, 78(1), 225–246.

Wenger, E.C. (2006). Learning for a small planet, version 2, revised September 2006. Appendix 1. Social learning theory: identity, social structure, and meaningfulness. Retrieved May10, 2009, from

Zack, M., H. (1999). Developing a knowledge strategy. California Management Review, 41(3), 125–145.

Zander, U., & Kogut, B. (1995). Knowledge and the speed of the transfer and imitation of organizational capabilities: An empirical test. Organization Science, 6(1), 76–92.

Organizational Learning: A Literature Review

While a comprehensive model for organizational learning (OL) remains elusory, the wide web of scholarly conversation and debate has spurred rich insight into the central questions of how and what people learn in organizational settings. This paper is aimed at exploring some of those debates, with a view to identifying a complementary set of factors that, if present, might tip the balance towards more fruitful learning in organizations. I begin by exploring the debates shaping the literature through two central questions: 1) What is learning? and 2) Can organizations learn? Based on the insights gained, I turn to the question of how organizations can increase their capacity to learn.

Energizing Organizational Readiness

At its core, facilitating organizational change is about energizing the right people to design and execute smart strategies. As sociologist Philip Selznik says: “Strategies take on value only as committed people infuse them with energy.”

Simply put, all organizational change is envisioned and enacted by committed, engaged, and at times, adventurous people. While energized people are required for change to happen, more often than not, people don’t start out that way. At the onset of any given change initiative, approximately 10% of the target population will be energized supporters, another 10% will be staunch resistors and the remaining majority will take a wait and see approach. While these bystanders are not active saboteurs, they are not energized to exert the necessary effort to make change happen. This too is resistance.

And so, for every planned change effort, small or system wide, we should expect resistance. It is a normal and natural human reaction to change. In fact, people resist for good reasons. People simply may not have enough data and information to understand the why, what and how of the change; this is informational resistance. Alternatively, people may resist for personal reasons; they may feel a sense of loss of familiar work patterns and relationships, or fear that they may fail or lose power, control, and status. Or the resistance may be more culturally based; people may believe that the change can’t possibly work in their organization; they may fear that the leadership are not capable or committed to the change goals or they may see the norms and culture rooting people to the status quo. Whatever the possible causes, people are more invested in spending time and energy preserving the status quo and the devil they know.

If we as change agents forge ahead and try to make the change happen, and fast, we feel its full force. When the going gets tough, and it always does, it is we who must solve all the problems, configure all the workarounds, and remove all the barriers. While we expend much energy, just like the mythical Greek king, Sisyphus, we never make any real headway.

A Better Way: Dannemiller’s DxVxF>R

Building on the pivotal work of Richard Beckhard (1969), who recognized that for change to occur, people must experience a greater pull towards the change than the pull they feel from the status quo, Dannemiller and her associates (1994) created a change process designed to energize a critical mass of stakeholders to accept and create change. Her change process is built on the notion that for change to occur, people must have a deep appreciation for the why, what, and how of the change, or DxVxF as they describe as follows:

Our version states that for change to occur, the product of dissatisfaction with the present situation (D), a vision of what is possible (V), and first steps to reach the vision (F) must be greater than resistance to change (R). If any element is missing, the product will be zero. Since we all resist change to some extent, if the product is zero we will not overcome resistance and no change will occur. In other words, if people are able to absorb new information, they will see the world differently (paradigm shift) and, once their paradigm shifts, their behaviour will change as a result.1

What is the best way to create DxVxF?

There is no substitute to engaging people in critical conversations with colleagues, customers, suppliers and experts to explore and identify the many reasons for change, the desired possibilities for the future and the paths to getting there. Building a critical mass of support through DxVxF creates leverage. It is a strategy that enables change agents to join with people, to make them all smart about why change, to what and how.

Working with change leadership teams over the years, one of most compelling insights that I’ve had, is that if you spend time creating D and V, you will create the spark for working at warp speed when you reach F – or implementation. That’s because when people have a deep appreciate of why change is necessary (D), and what the ideal solution encompasses (V), they know what to do; the right actions (F) are embedded in their DNA. That’s why a brilliant diagnosis made by a select few may be a waste of time if it does not resonate with the people who need to make it happen. In many ways, change is all about learning, and doing the diagnosis is a critical step. You need to think carefully about who needs to be engaged in real learning for the change to succeed.

The simple truth is that energy for change is a product of the process that we use to lead change. When our process enables the right people to embrace the big questions about why change and to what, and to stay in a place of uncertainty and confusion while we collect data and sort out the answers, we create the basis for real learning, sound decisions and speedy implementation.

1 Dannemiller Tyson Associates, Inc. Real Time Strategic Change: a consultant guide to large scale meetings. Page 6.



Maurer, Rick. Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Unconventional Strategies That Build Support for Change. Bard Press, 1996

Building a Learning Organization

Françoise Morissette is an Queen’s IRC Facilitator, accredited coach, and Organizational Development consultant. In the following Q & A she discusses how executives who sponsor education for their employees can ensure that valuable knowledge actually gets applied in the workplace.

Do executive sponsors typically get good returns on their educational investments in employees?

A lot depends on the quality of the discussion between the participant and the manager who authorized the training. If the executive is clear about what he or she is trying to accomplish by sending the employee for professional development, and maintains a dialogue – debriefing the person upon his or her return to the workplace, and setting the scene for application and sharing of knowledge – chances are there’s going to be a good return on investment.

In contrast, if someone goes on a course and then no one ever talks about it, nothing much will happen. The quality of the dialogue between sponsor and employee is really the deciding factor.

What are the most common barriers employees face in applying and sharing new knowledge in their workplaces?

One is lack of a plan – no one has thought about the applications for the new knowledge, for example, and the person reverts back to the normal way of life without using what they’ve learned.

A second is a clash with the culture – someone comes back and has great ideas, but the environment is not receptive, or is even against these new ideas.

A third one is overwork. People are burdened; they come back, haven’t been in the office for a week, a crisis erupts, and that’s it – they never move forward with their learnings.

Of these three, the worst and most difficult to overcome is culture. It is almost impossible to deal with, unless the person becomes a missionary within the organization.

However, the other two are linked. The best defence against them is having a plan. That way there’s clarity around next steps for applying or sharing knowledge, and you will do better in dealing with the emergencies. Instead of being controlled by them, you’ll see them as a temporary nuisance along the path, but don’t send you away from your longer-term goal.

How can the sponsoring executive promote the transfer of knowledge from employee to workplace?

Sponsoring executives have three roles to play: to plan before the course; debrief after the course; and coach while the person applies and shares new information.

Can you talk in more detail about these roles, and the steps that need to be followed?

Good organizations have development strategies that pertain to different levels. They might ask first, ‘At the organizational level, what do our employees need to know?’

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp., for example, has a full set of leadership competencies it wants all its leaders to have, and as a result has created an organization-wide development strategy for these leaders. People journey through these developmental programs, which include training and other activities, the way you would go up a ladder. When organizations do this it really clarifies ‘What do we want our employees to know?’

Sometimes it is about the core business of the organization and what the competencies are, or other times it is about culture – ‘We want everyone to be change-friendly, so we’ll send everyone to a change program’ for example.

Organization is the first level, and then we have the department, and its specific needs. The purchasing department might want to provide customer service training, for example.

Then there is the individual, person A’s needs versus Person B’s. So perhaps the employee needs to improve at something, or has been thrown into a new role requiring new skills – an HR person moving into an OD role, for example.

In the ideal world, all three levels flow together in a spiral from organizational needs, in to departmental needs, and then individual needs.

Sponsoring managers and participants both need to be clear about what exactly is being pursued on each of these three levels. If you can link the time at Queen’s, for example, to the individuals’ needs, the department’s needs, and the organizational strategy, that’s one step toward getting a good return on the education investment.

So the first step is to link the education to the organizational, departmental and individual needs, and have clarity around this.

My advice is that executive sponsors and employees have discussions before the program to identify on the three levels, ‘What is it we are after?’

Then after the program, the second step is for the authorizing manager and participant to discuss what was learned, whether learning goals were met, how new knowledge can be applied to a particular situation or project, and how learning can be taken further – for example the participant might say ‘This was so good I suggest the whole HR department takes the course.’

The third step is moving into applications for learners, and also for colleagues and others to whom knowledge is to be transferred.

Here, ongoing coaching as the employee is applying the knowledge is needed. Agree on periodical check-ups and continue along that path until the project is complete. Then schedule another meeting to consider how well the learning was integrated, and future needs.

In addition, discussions on who else needs to share knowledge, and vehicles for doing so, are essential.

This need not be a complex process. A few simple steps before and after educational programs will ensure that learning really takes root.

How can sponsoring executives help employees apply new learning at work?

It is important that they draw a line from the training to a project the employee can work on in the organization. It is good to talk about this before the program, and again afterward. That’s because it is not always clear to the authorizing manager and employee what the applications ahead of time. Often, whatever they were thinking early on changes.

What can managers do to help employees share information?

Many organizations have Lunch and Learns, where people return from a course and are expected to share with colleagues. Or participants might write articles for the newsletter, Intranet or use other vehicles within the organization.

As well, some organizations have learning councils so people may share learning on an individual or strategic level. For example, I was recently involved in a project with a hospital, and they’d even struck up a partnership with a university. Often what happens with councils/forums is people start to realize that they need to align their approach to learning in the organization if they want to leverage it.

It is all about alignment, and that’s the overall role of the sponsoring executive: to make the link and ensure learning is aligned to organizational, departmental and individual needs – as well as specific applications in the workplace.

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