building a learning organization

In the early 1990’s, the life that my husband and I knew ended and a series of enormous changes started. Our country was ripped apart by a brutal civil war and along with millions of others, we started on a journey that would redefine us, the way we lived and the way we saw life. Change is frightening. It displaces us and we are not sure what to do to get that firm ground of familiarity back under our feet. In order to keep going we had to not just learn to accept change and adopt as quickly as possible, but we also experienced that embracing change opened up new horizons for us. I’ve grown to love change because it offers new opportunities to explore, rethink, reinvent and improve. It’s not a coincidence that I ended up working in digital marketing, an industry in which change is the only constant. It’s a challenge and a blessing.

Shem speaking to DragonSearch employees about the need to never stop learning.

Shem talks about why learning has to become a lifestyle.

Google is rolling out 400-500 algorithm updates in a year to an algorithm that is secret, marketing and customer care are changing due to social media, people’s behavior and expectations are changing due to the new media and ways of communicating with brands.

What does this mean for us as digital marketing professionals? We have to embrace change, be sponges and soak in all the knowledge we can get our hands on. Constant learning needs to be part of our DNA.

Ric Dragon, CEO of DragonSearch, has always been dedicated to endless learning. As DragonSearch was born, his drive and passion for being and autodidact became one of our foundational values and we never stop looking for ways to deepen and ingrain this learning lifestyle into our employees.

Another big challenge for dynamic organizations is that not everyone is dedicated to constant learning. So leaders need to work hard on creating an environment that encourages and expects constant learning.

This is why we decided to invite Ric’s good friend, Shem Cohen, who is an organization development consultant to speak at DragonSearch about building a learning organization.

The idea of creating a learning organization has elicited a lot of discussion among company leaders. While some feel that the concept is “too ideal” and is difficult to realize, others feel that becoming a learning organization is a must in today’s world when competition is intensified, consumer behaviors are shifting and finding a skilled workforce is increasingly challenging. This is especially true for companies ingrained in the knowledge economy.

Inspiration to Learn from Organization Development Consultant Shem Cohen

Constant learning is one of our core values at DragonSearch. Because of this, we were very much looking forward to our guest speaker. Shem works with company leaders on effective strategic planning, change management, and intervention. Not only does he firmly believe in the value of building a learning organization, but he has also worked with many organizations whose implementation of these practices has led to great success.

The Source of Company Culture

What is culture? The way things work around here. Shem started out by explaining that every organization has political, technical and social aspects to it. All this feeds into and creates what we call “Culture”.

  • Political aspect – The definition is the use of power and authority. How it’s used, where does the buck stop… etc. Every system has to have some kind of decision hierarchy. Depending on if it’s involving one or several people it will be different but there is still a decision hierarchy.
  • Technical aspect – It’s the first thing everyone thinks of; workflow, value chain, etc. From the initial order to the delivery of the package, and customer satisfaction, it is what you do every day within an organization. It’s the whole value chain. It’s what you do every day.
  • Social aspect – It’s the quality of working relationships. It’s about going over to others and talking about how we do or don’t do things, going out for a drink after work, give each other feedback as part of the team. There needs to be a certain level of good relationships.
Company culture is built from the political, technical and social aspects of the company.

Political, technical and social aspects of and organization create the “Culture”

What is a Learning Organization

A learning organization asks the questions:

  • How well do we learn together?
  • How do we leverage our own expertise, camaraderie and collective skill sets in order to offer incredible value to the customer?
  • What value are we creating for the customer? Is the value in alignment with the value proposition of our organization?


The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

The Collective Effort’s Potential for Creating Value

The end result of the value we create isn’t individual efforts stacked on a spreadsheet by deliverables. The value, if you are doing it right, is the collective effort with everybody where 15 singles equal 150, not 15. When everyone is coming in with their own skills, expertise, passions, and drive to do something with their own career and life tracks and you put all that together, 1+1=3 because all of the potential for creativity, feedback, innovation and for growing individually and collectively.

One of the major benefits and goals of having a learning culture is to deliver a better result and experience to the clients.

When individual efforts are combined and whole will have a larger value than the sum of its parts.

The collective effort combining each individual’s skills and creativity creates a much larger value than the sum of those individual parts.

Shem asked for some quick input on what everyone is bringing to the table. The Dragons’ answers varied:

  • community management,
  • planning campaign goals
  • creative writing
  • client and project management
  • social media planning and strategy
  • data analysis
  • strategy and action plan development
  • business development
  • process development
  • team development
  • marketing
  • supervision skills
  • communications skills
  • technical skills

If we take any one skill and map out all the skill sets under each of those that we developed during our career, we realize that with each employee there is an abundance of skills and experiences from which the organization can benefit.

In order to create and build a learning organization, we can and need to have the ability to tap into this full cadre of skills and be able to share that with each other in a process that creates huge value. Each one of us can bring skills to the table to help others.

How Can Individuals Help Create a Learning Organization

Let’s take a quick look at the digital marketing industry:

Constantly evolving, blending with traditional marketing, integrating with other marketing efforts, all about data and creativity, changes in methodology, avoids shortcuts or gaming of the system, working with budgetary constraints, etc.

What does the digital marketing industry look like today?

What is happening in the digital marketing industry?

Constant change is the biggest factor. What are you doing to make sure you are staying on top of what is happening in the industry. If you are building a career in the digital marketing industry at this time, the number one imperative is: “I can’t stop learning.” Building a learning organization comes down to the individuals.

As an individual, there are many things you can do to help create a learning organization. Here are just a few:

Get Uncomfortable – Challenge Yourself

Let’s move away from the organizational system where we get comfortable with our tasks and skills and shake it up a little. It’s always critical in life to “sharpen your sword.” Take a weekend to read and share ideas.  Look at the experts in your industry and the skill sets that they are bringing to the table and ask: are you tapping into it the best you can?

As far as your own career in the online marketing space; you have to have a dynamic learning lifestyle. It’s not about going to school to get a certification or degree; it’s a learning lifestyle, it is part of what you do and the way you function every day.

Shem told us a story about his 73-year-old friend who was a commander in Vietnam. He is a snowboard instructor now and taught himself to snowboard at age 68. For him, being in this physical condition is not something you go do, it’s the way you live.

For professionals in the digital marketing industry it cannot be emphasized enough: “never stop learning” is the only way. If everyone within the organization lives this lifestyle then we will have a learning organization which shares new ideas. We will look at what’s working, what’s not, and best practices.  We will always be questioning and looking for better ways.

Look for Predictors of Change

Are you seeing industry trends that can give you a jumpstart on predicting where things are heading? Is there something you see unfolding that gives you a gut feeling that you can bring up to your managers and the team and explain that this is a trend that you are observing? How many out of us are sharing these thoughts with our team?

Be a Leader on Your Team

Individuals have to take the initiative to share what they are learning. It is important to pick our heads up often from our daily work to connect and share new ideas with the team. At DragonSearch we found Lunch & Learns to be a very effective space for this type of sharing; the team has lunch together and shares knowledge, experiences, news, etc. It’s hard because you are working on your projects and you have a lot of deliverables in a course of the day with time constraints. Another way we’ve found helpful is bring out things that we find during our regular account meetings.

Question Your Assumptions Constantly

As a longer term employee you have to be able to sit back and understand your assumptions about your organization, your role, what we are doing here together and the ways we are doing them. The best leaders are the ones always questioning their assumptions, evaluating where they are stuck or locked in, where they should be locked in, where the barriers are in the ways they are thinking. This is especially true when new talent comes in.

Where Do You Fit In?

One of the crucial elements in a learning organization is to know and question yourself. Create a collaborative environment where you can ask any question, no matter how simple.  For newer employees, they should be getting continual feedback and should feel like the environment is open for asking questions.  For longer term employees, they should be patient and using their experience and knowledge to help newer employees learn and grow. People who have been at an organization for some time are driving the culture.

Shem Cohen presenting at DragonSearch about creating a learning organization.

Shem Cohen explains to #usDragons what it takes to build a learning organization.

What an Organization Can Do to Support a Learning Culture

Nothing is black and white in life; everything is balance. As a company you have to have processes in place that everyone follows and have management controls to maintain consistencies, but you also have to be questioning assumptions and beliefs, staying on top of what is unfolding in your industry and determining how to keep those processes agile.

Understand How People Learn

When we learn we go through different phases. There are many approaches and theories on how many stages we go through but overall the core of them is that we start with a phase when we are not aware, we then build awareness, move on to practice and eventually arrive at the performance stage when habits develop and productivity is highest. When we make sure our organization understands and works with this in mind when providing guidance and set expectations for employees as they learn, we will have improved attitudes and better success.

Keep Our Fingers on the Pulse

An important step in building a learning organization is to stay on top of what is happening in your industry so you can continually improve your skill sets.

Companies need to create a supportive environment where learning and experimentation is not only welcome, but is expected. At DragonSearch we often say that if we are getting comfortable in our seats and with the work we are doing, then we are probably not doing something right because we are not pushing ourselves to constantly learn and experiment.

Make Sharing Easy

Build good working relationships and share things internally. Often organizations have places where they share knowledge but it doesn’t get used. We at DragonSearch have a sharing platform and we use our Lunch & Learn meetings to follow-up on key changes and trends, share what we’ve learned, and ensure new processes are channeled through the entire organization.

Flag Important Items

If we see something really important that signals a significant shift, how can we bring that up and get attention for it? At DragonSearch we have team meetings in which we bring up topics like this.When we attend conferences, we avoid overwhelming team members with too many new ideas and instead focus on three key takeaways that we can actually put into action.  We follow-up after a month of testing to see how we can shift and improve on these newly implemented changes.

Implementing what we’ve learned is a very important step to build what we call a learning organization. Because you are organizing around what you are learning.

What About When We are Launching a New Project?

When launching a new project, create the opportunity for the team to be part of developing a strategy so that each team member contributes their own creativity and experience. Not only will you create an effective strategy but will also have a team of fully invested employees in the project’s success since they were part of planning the solutions.


One of the best ways in whichwe learn is through experimentation.Testing has to be part of any organization.  You have to fail to succeed and the rewards of trial and error can have a greater payoff in the long term.  We use DragonSearch to test new ideas, tools, etc. which benefits our team and our client. A learning organization is rapid experimentation. Make sure that your company creates the expectation that experimentation needs to be part of what the team does and then sharing the results is very important; good and bad, what worked, what didn’t work. With this we start building up everybody’s collective capabilities through group learning.

Is Yours a Learning Organization?

Companies are realizing that in order to stay competitive and meet the ever-changing customer needs they don’t only need to attract outstanding talent, they need to understand that creating an environment and culture that supports, and expects, constant learning is key to both the company’s and the employee’s long term success. Many organizations like The Cheesecake Factory, IBM, Apple, and Google are investing in building a learning organization. DragonSearch is fully focused on building and improving our agency through constant learning, both on the job and on our own. Shem Cohen was inspiring to all DragonSearch employees and helped us understand that creating a learning organization is only possible if the company supports it and if every single one of us is fully invested in it.

Is your company focused on building a learning organization? What challenges are you finding with the implementation?

Do you feel you have the support, the expectations and challenges from your organization to help create the culture of constant learning? What ways did you find to develop a learning lifestyle?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences so please share in the comments below.

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