Gabazira's blog

The Effectiveness-Lab

Is the modern company a school? – Series 1

Ask anyone why people go to school and the answer is not ‘growing-up’ but ‘to learn’. You have also heard companies announce to the world that they are learning-companies. Well, what is this learning-company about and how different is it from a ‘normal’ company? I am at times left bewildered by the vagueness of such statements and wonder if so-called learning-companies understand what they are talking about. You have to assume they do! Talk about faddishness, and the modern company is never far from such talk.

Ironical that the company is also a SCHOOL
Ironical that the company is also a SCHOOL

Let us explore the so-called learning-company a little more. Should we take it that learning-companies mimic a school like system, that allows employees to learn on the job? Can the company be both ‘company’ and ‘school’ at the same time? Learning-companies shall tell the world about their capabilities at teaching those that haven’t mastered their trade very well, the novice. However, at the same time, such companies talk about ‘quality at the gate’ i.e. that you either add value to the company (perform) as and when you join or get fired.

Can an employee fulfil two mandates at a company i.e. ‘learner’ and ‘worker’ that contributes maximum value to the goal of the company? Do employees go through a life cycle of ‘knowledge boom and bust’ during their time at a company? If the latter is correct, does the employee/er need to define special windows of time to get in and out of a company school system? Is it fair to expect companies, to create schools within a company eco-system? After all, why do people go to college? Does effective learning take place in a more hands-on work environment than the traditional lecture room? Is reality dawning on us all that our education paradigm is somehow flawed? Is it the case then that the modern company cannot avoid becoming a school? Have companies designed appropriate systems and processes to deal with the dichotomy of the employee as a ‘learner’ on one side and on the other side, a ‘finished product’ that adds instant value to the company?

So, is the modern company a school or not?

Many of us listen to company talk and read literature about learning-companies. Have you ever asked the high-priests of the so-called learning-company what such companies bring to the value table that other companies do not? What makes them more ‘effective’ at their work than other companies? The effectiveness lab has done the questioning for you, albeit informally, and apparently this is what makes a learning-company:

  • The learning-company itself is the ‘learner’ and not you the ‘individual’. The interesting dynamic here is that there are ’two persons’ and both can be the subject of ‘learning’ – i.e. the company (call it an object) and its employee (the person). Many will ask how an object, and that is what the company is, can be the target of learning as opposed to the individual. Well, that is the reality you are faced with and reason to always explore subject matter beyond the fads we see and hear in modern management
  • If the object called the company is the ‘learner’, then it becomes obvious that you the employee, the person, is the teacher to the company. In effect, the environment the company operates in is a school, and that school has teachers that teach and model the ‘leaner’ i.e. company, to become a model student of business. Confusing, is it not?
  • Therefore, if the company is the ‘learner’, expecting the ‘employee’ to teach it, employees cannot expect freedom/space to learn/perfect their trade at a company. At most, the employee will get refresher courses, but is expected to be a finished product that helps the company learn and not the other way round. I have called this liking for ‘quality at the gate’, the Rolls-Royce effect.

So does it mean that learning at a company is not about the employee but the company itself? A mere object at that?

Yes, the reality sad or not, is that the company is the ‘learner’ and you the employee the ’teacher’

Why would a company boss, want to invest in ones’ learning, as opposed to getting a person (quality at the gate) that guarantees them 100% value creation from the word go? Aren’t companies created to make money for their owners? Even if it were a charity organisation, is it not true that charities are coming under increasing pressure to deliver value for money (VFM)? Will VFM be delivered by novices?

Let the world not harshly judge companies that espouse the ‘Rolls-Royce effect’ by hiring employees that can add value from day one. Experienced people managers amongst you will know the difference between hiring someone fresh from college, the market-hybrid that brings some years of experience but clearly is still an unfinished product, and the accomplished professional that will even teach you your own trade. Who of you does not want the latter?

The learning-company is, therefore: a company that leverages its people capabilities to obtain a constant state of change, which seamlessly aligns: its identity, strategic intent, value-addition, and company architecture.

In other words, a learning-company’s ideal situation is.

  • To hire accomplished professionals that shall immediately contribute to its bottom line
  • To build a core-architecture that supports continuous learning by the company, driven by its extremely capable staff
  • The exception to the above is the trainee-program and refresher courses for its accomplished staff.

The reality + a blessing in disguise for the novice!

I have no doubt that many companies simply cannot afford to spend time teaching employees what to do. It is hard to blame companies that do not see a reason to create schools within their eco-systems.

Employees that are not accomplished professionals in their trade do not have to worry that they will never work for companies that espouse the ‘rolls-royce effect’. There is an interesting phenomenon that practically forces most companies to create a school for the employee. This dynamic is called the labour-market and its demand and supply forces. At any one point in time, the labour market brings with it a certain mix of people skills (the supply side) while companies require certain people skills to maintain their identity as well as deliver on strategic intent (the demand side).

Sadly and this must please the novice, it is not always the case that the labour market can supply the skills/capabilities demanded by the companies. In simple words, labour market supply and demand aren’t in equilibrium. Under the circumstances, companies are left with no option but to recruit employees that show potential in the capabilities they need and provide on-the-job training that turns employees into the accomplished professionals they require.

Companies are advised to invest in teaching the employee while on the job even if it results in reduced value-addition and therefore profit margins in the short-term. The latter is better than dealing with a labour market supply and demand situation that is in disequilibrium. Under the circumstances, companies do not have a choice but become ‘schools’ at the same time as ‘companies’.

Because of the above reality, companies have to carry the burden of having to complete a double-loop for them to ‘effectively’ learn. The first loop is providing a school for the employee to learn, augmented with a second loop where the company itself becomes the learner. A company can only learn, and attain the status of a true learning-company, as and when it has created a critical mass from its individual employee learning initiatives. Sadly for the company, but to the jubilation of the novice, this throws out the orthodox learning-company script.

Can companies sustain ‘effectiveness’ and ‘value-creation’, if they play simultaneously, ‘company’ and ‘school’? Look out for Series 2 of this blog next week


4 responses to “Is the modern company a school? – Series 1”

  1. Depending on type of work, available budget and level of responsibilities a company may decide to hire a novice or a finished product.
    For instance, a company needs to hire a Finance Assistant who will join a team of 6 people (including finished products). For this position, I think it is not necessary to look for a well finished product. A novice can join the company and get ‘’professional learning ‘’ provided by the senior people (finished products) and at the end of the day that novice becomes useful. After a number of “courses “and years the novice becomes a well finished product.
    For a high position, I totally support the idea of getting a high qualified person who will be a good teacher for others (Company).
    I agree with Apollo – a labor market supplies more novices than finished products, therefore a clear and creative hiring and staff retention strategies should contribute to this complex situation.


    1. Dear Emmanuel – first, thanks for taking time out to read the blog – appreciated

      Second, we all have to ask if we can’t cluster markets in terms of jobs/complexity. Assuming we can cluster, I think that you can get accounts assistants that are experienced/’finished products’ & not novices

      Getting novices = taking them to school with all its implications…

      Companies have to choose!


  2. If all companies are looking for finished products then how will the novices develop into the desired finished products if no one is willing to hire them? Sooner or later there will be no more finished products!


    1. Peter – thanks reading the blog! Agree with your analysis – the good news is that the market forces companies to take on the novice – that is the power of markets!


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About Me

Apollo B. Gabazira is an Ugandan OD. junkie fascinated by matters that render organisations/individuals effective or not. He blogs on effective leadership and management. He is a devoted green-farmer and breeds the Ayrshire cow at Nakabugu, Luuka district, Uganda. Apollo is quite effective at what he chooses to do.


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