Monday, December 21, 2015

How Startup can create a fast learning organization

In today's fast paced startup environment in Bangalore, startups such as Flipkart, OnMobile,  OLA etc. are facing a rapidly changing environment. Competition is fierce for these startups as they try to disrupt the market. 

Like with any startup money is tight and these companies have the challenge of hiring the right talent. In many cases, it is tough to attract talented folks - so they are forced to work with what is available. 

In such an environment, working hard is absolutely necessary, but it is not enough. It is also important to create an organization that can learn new things and adapt quickly to take advantage of new opportunities. These companies will have to be creative and innovative. Managers will have be bold enough to try new things, develop new processes and solutions and things don't work, managers must learn to fail fast and turn around quickly. 

Startups cannot afford to create a training department and formalize a training program. Instead, it is best to create a learning culture - where employees have the space to learn new things and have the opportunity to put their learning into practice. All this happens along with day-to-day jobs and without missing a beat.   

In order to create a learning culture, there are few things entrepreneurial leaders can do to create a learning organization.   

1. Top Management Commitment
2. Foresee future business needs and communicate to the team
3. Create space & time for learning
4. Encourage collaboration 
5. Encourage experimentation
6. Fail Fast, unlearn and relearn
7. Setup a reward system
8. Encourage Feedback

These steps will create an informal process for learning in a startup. As the organization grows and matures, it will be good to formalize the learning programs and have a formal training department. In this blog, I am focusing on startups - who need to bootstrap their teams to learn and develop new skills. 

1) Top management's commitment: 

Creating a learning culture has to be top down. A learning culture can be developed in an organization only when the top management is committed and deeply involved. At Open-Silicon, where I worked in the past, One of the founders was a professor and the other had a Ph.D. Both of them led by example when it came learning program. Starting off with such leaders, it was easy to imbibe a learning culture right from the start. 

2) Foresee future business needs and communicate to the team 

Top leadership of often involved in dealing with customers, vendors and partners. As a result, they will know the direction in which business is heading and will have fair idea of their future business needs. It is therefore important to share this insight with the teams on the floor and guide them into learning new things that will be needed in future.

Leaders must set a clear and firm learning objectives which is aligned to the business objective.  The strategic value of learning must be clearly articulated. Employees will be motivated to learn more only when they understand its importance and value.  

For example, when leaders in the IT department of a Bank learnt about the benefits of Big Data analytics, they created a small team - whose main task was to learn about Hadoop and see how Hadoop could change the current Business Intelligence (BI) operations. 

At Open-Silicon, Dr. Satya Gupta initiated a small team to go and learn all about new manufacturing process using 45nm lithography and see how it impacts the current design process. 

Leaders should encourage people on the floor the review new & emerging technologies and understand how it will help & benefit them. Without this guidance, any learning program will flounder aimlessly and lose steam.

3) Create space & time for learning   

Learning does not happen in vacuum. People will need time and space for it. This implies that top management must create the necessary time & space for learning. The best example in recent times was Google when it was still a startup. Google allowed its employees to spend upto 20% of their time on personal initiatives and projects. This created the necessary space for engineers to learn new things, try out new things and Google benefited enormously from it. 

Wipro and several other organizations conduct formal classes on weekends, where employees can sign-up to learn new things. Large organizations have collaborated with universities to create weekend programs that leads to Master's Degrees. Today, universities in Bangalore also encourage industry leaders to come and teach during weekends. I used to teach for Master's students at Manipal Institute of Technology. Teaching is a very good way to learn.

Startups can mimic the same model and help their employees learn - it can be simple certification programs or even university degree program. 

4) Encourage collaboration

Learning is best done in a group. For startups, it is not possible to create a personalized learning program or an Individualized development plan. Instead, it is best to network with other startups in the area and encourage collaboration between startups and have a joint learning programs. Collaboration lowers costs and encourages people to do more. 

Collaboration encourages employees to work in teams, share information, knowledge and learn through a peer group network. People will learn faster when they learn from others in their team.  

5) Encourage experimentation  

Learning without hands-on practical experimentation is useless. It would be akin to reading a novel. To get the benefits of learning and encourage employees, organization must allow for experimentation. Experimentation needs tools and resources. Startups have to provide adequate tools and compute infrastructure for experimentation.

Experimentation needs tools and resources. Startups have to provide adequate tools and compute infrastructure for experimentation. Experimentation can be in form of developing Proof-of-concept or even taking on a open-source projects.

For example, having a weekend hackathon will provide an opportunity for learners to try out their new skills. 

6) Fail Fast, unlearn and relearn

Learning is good for the individual, but for the organization learning a wrong tool or technology will not help. So leaders must watch out for such misalignments and wrong turns. When it is clear that the learning program is not aligned with future needs, the program must be killed fast. 
Leaders in startups have to be flexible and open to fail fast, unlearn things and relearn new things.  

For example, I had a case where a team was learning about MangoDB for bigdata analysis - but after few experimentation it was clear that this tool was not the right one. So the team quickly stopped all learning activities on MangoDB and switched over to Cassandra.

7) Setup a reward system

Employees who are innovative, creative, and experimental must be rewarded.  Rewards are always a great way to motivate people. Rewards is way of acknowledging that the learning program adds value to the core business.  Best part of giving rewards in a learning program is that rewards need not be cash based. It can take several forms - for example a plaque or a certificate or even a preferred parking spot etc.

Like in all organizations, rewards must be given judiciously and must be merit based. Having a regular rewards program will keep people motivated to learn more. However, one must be careful to ensure that the learning program rewards are not linked to performance at work. Regular work and learning should be kept separate. Also avoid giving out too many frivolous rewards. 

8) Encourage Feedback

If leaders in a startup keep a close eye on the learning program, then they will have valuable feedback. Yet there is a need to formally collect feedback on each program so that programs can be improved further. Feedback also helps to identify & remove any barriers to learning. Constant feedback and improvements will create a continually learning organization. 

9) Encourage a Teaching Culture

Learning cannot happen without teachers. So encourage senior employees to reach out and teach. Developing a cadre of coaches and mentors to help employees.  Caches and mentors love to teach - because teaching is a great way to learn several new things. Teaching a course helps people learn new skills such as pubic speaking, presentation skills, interpersonal skills, empathy etc. 

If business leaders act as mentors and coaches, organizations will becomes a learning organization - and will know what it takes in terms of time & resources.

Closing Thoughts

Building a fast learning organization is too important to be left to HR department. While large companies have a formal training department and with dedicated budgets, startups will have to be more creative and flexible.

It is very important to inculcate a learning culture at the startup phase itself so that all employees know the value of continuous learning. As the organization grows, it is important to formalize many aspects of employee learning and have proper organizational controls to oversee learning.

In this article, I have focused on learning in startups. If you have suggestions & feedback - please send it to arun.kottolli(at)gmail(dot)com.  

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