Thursday, May 03, 2018

How is learning organized in a self-managed organization?

Every month I read a management book. I am very curious about learning in self-managing organizations. How is this organized? Is self-management also self-directed learning? In April, therefore, I have read the much talked-about book by Frederic Laloux about new ways of organizing (reinventing organizations). I started reading 70-20-10 boek van Jos Arets, Vivian Heijnen en Charles Jennings but this is not an easy book to take with you on the train. So Laloux got priority.

Does a knowmad want to work in a self-managing organization?

I see more and more self-learning professionals around me, knowmads. A knowmad wants meaningful work and is using online networks and resources to learn. Many are looking for space and opportunities to develop themselves and to deal with difficult job assignments, I read a funny blogpost about a manager of a law firm who googled how he wanted to reorganize his office.
George looked around for alternative ways of organizing. “Until that time, I was only aware of the traditional pyramid. This was a problem. So I asked myself: What do we do now?”Geoffrey’s confusion didn’t last long. He adopted a very pragmatic approach. “I just went to Google and searched for things like: Do you need a management structure? Do you need to do performance reviews?
How knowmadic?  I am very curious whether organizations with self-management are places where people learn selfdirected. And how? With this question I  read Laloux. Laloux regularly mentions
Buurtzorg in the Netherlands and AES in the UK as examples he studied.

Be yourself

First some figures about meaningful work. Within Buurtzorg, absenteeism is 60% lower and turnover 33% lower than in comparable home care organizations. That means that people certainly want to work with Buurtzorg. In Laloux there is a chapter about 'wholeness' = I think it's the least down to earth chapter. However, I think 'wholeness' is an important aspect of knowmadic working: being able to be yourself, bringing your own identity and not playing a completely different role at work than at home or at the sports club. "Every time we leave a part of us behind, we cut ourselves off from our potential and our creativity and energy". A knowmad expresses all interests, does not pretend to be different than he/she is. The example of 90 employees and 20 dogs at the office is quite funny. Your dog is also part of your identity :).

Training and coaching

There is little talk about training in the studied organizations. New teams receive training on 'problem-solving approaches' and learn techniques for decision-making within teams. They learn the basics of collaboration, communication, meeting, coaching and other practical skills for self-managed teams such as conflict management. Training programs and workshops are often provided by colleagues. 

Instead of training there is a stronger focus on regional coaches. These coaches develop their own role. A coach supports 40-50 teams. An important (unwritten) rule is that a coach does not provide solutions, but allows the team to make its own choices.

Knowledge versus management hierarchy

A self-managing organization has no hierarchy. A team within Buurtzorg does not have a team leader, but this does not mean that everyone is the same. Nurses take on extra roles based on their expertise or interest. They become experts in a specific area. Someone can listen well and becomes a coach for colleagues. Another person knows everything about a certain disease. They are asked for advice from colleagues from all over the country. The intranet 'BuurtzorgWeb' is needed to find others with expertise. This creates a knowledge hierarchy instead of a hierarchy based on function.

Peer to peer from team to team

Within Buurtzorg, all information is actually openly available on the intranet. Information about the functioning of teams is also available. For example, a team that struggles with something can start looking for another team that performs well and ask how they do it now.

Learning and knowledge creation in working groups

If there are new challenges, a voluntary working group can be set up of professionals who will investigate, experiment and start building expertise. An example is a working group within Buurtzorg investigating new legislation. In another organization, AES even states that people invest 20% of their time in this type of workgroup on a voluntary basis. People develop a second role or expertise. Research in the work groups is also a form of apprenticeship because experienced and less experienced colleagues work together. A working group does not sound dynamic, but I guess the way of working in different than in a committee in a hierarchical organization. 

The advice rule

An important rule within AES is the advice rule. You can be fired if you violate this rule. Anyone can make a decision, but must seek advice from anyone who has an interest or has relevant knowledge. Why is this rule so important that you can be fired for violating it? Firstly, it is good for the knowledge flow: the right people come together and develop new insights. People who advise feel honored. It creates a bond and confidence. The professionals asking are open to advice and do not become arrogant about their own knowledge. It stimulates creative solutions and good decisions. I am curious to see how this rule remains intact under work pressure.

Collective reflection

There are differences between the organizations studied in their emphasis on reflecting. Heiligenfeld is strongly committed to this. Every week on Tuesday there is a reflection of more than one hour with all 350 employees. Every week another topic is on the agenda. They start them with a short introduction and exchange in groups of 6-10. It takes a lot of time but they think it is worth it.

No HR and no talent management required

Interesting: none of the organizations do talent management or career planning. There is no HR function. People have so much room to grow, to take on new roles, to develop expertise that no talent management programs are needed. It grows naturally, in an organic way. Everyone is responsible for his or her own learning process. This often translates in a budget for teams or individuals who can decide to engage in training programs if they want.

Experiment and experiment

Someone in AES said: "everything is constantly changing here!" And so it is. The way of working is focused on improving and experimenting. That is also a way of learning in practice. Every problem is a challenge to learn further. Making better mistakes than doing nothing.


I am very happy that I read Laloux. I find the practices and principles surrounding learning and development in self-managing organizations very interesting, such as the advisory principle. I think that 'ordinary' organizations that want to be agile can copy elements from this. A knowmad will gladly work in a self-managing organization. On the other hand, in these self-managing organizations you will automatically become a knowmad. You are always challenged to learn new things and take on new roles.

It may sound too good. What are the dark sides? It requires a lot of the self-learning ability of the employees. I can imagine that not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon to do something new. Some people leave such an organization because they do not like it. It sounds like I would enjoy it though!

I have read this book with pleasure. Do you have any tips for books that I definitely need to read this year?

ps also interesting: the practices of learning at Kessels and Smit described by Nancy Dixon