The Best Police Departments: Teaching Organizations?

imagesYes. This is my dream. For police to be both learning and teaching organizations. And not just to other police departments, but to their communities as well.

A learning organization is an organization that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself (See Peter Senge, “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” [1990])

A teaching organization exists when the organization becomes a teacher as well as a learner. The ultimate learning organization is when the organization reaches out and shares what it has learned with others. The teaching organization does this by teaching classes that are open to all regarding what is has learned and how it has improved. (See Bill Taylor, “The Rise of the Teaching Organization,” Harvard Business Review Blog, November, 2009) (See also Senge’s on-line site.)

It’s about time that the more successful of our nation’s police departments move toward becoming a true “learning organization” and then moving on to becoming one that teaches others. By “successful,” I mean the kind of police department that I outlined in “Arrested Development” — collaborative, community-oriented, innovative, fair and effective, and continuously improving.

Can this happen?

I write in my new book,

          “A leader should always be thinking ahead, scanning and listening. And this should be with the intent to sustain the good work and improvements that the organization has accomplished. It turned out that what I was developing almost unknowingly in Madison was something Peter Senge later came to identify in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. When I first read Senge’s excellent definition of the learning organization, it made clear that what we were attempting to do was just that:

Organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive     patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together. [1]

            “An organization that is learning to learning together can sustain itself. It is also an organization that should be practicing the new leadership because that’s what the leadership I have described in this book does. It frees people to learn together. While there are varying definitions of a learning organization, there remains a core principle in all of them. They are organizations that facilitate the growth of all their members and continuously work to transform themselves.[2]

            “My experience taught me the benefits of such an organization. This kind of organization is able to learn from its successes as well as its mistakes. It can innovate, be competitive, respond to external pressures, link  and adjust its resources to meet customer needs, continue the pace of change, and bolster its image in the community; that is, to sustain itself. I can say this was our experience and that every one of the characteristics of a learning organization should be present in all the places in which we work—in factories, corporate offices, schools, churches, not just police departments.”

Today, I would go much further and urge our nation’s police to not only to intensely collaborate with a local university, but to also begin to share what they are learning.

After all, we did this in Madison in the 90s by encouraging other police departments to come and visit. We even had a workbook, “The Quality Leadership Workbook,” designed to help that learning process when we either visited others or they came to us.

What are the benefits of a teaching organization? Think about how these benefits might help our nation’s police (“Are they learning as fast as the world is changing?”)

In 2009, Bill Taylor reminded us about the power of a learning-teaching organization. He is co-founder of Fast Company magazine and author of Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself (January, 2011).:

  1. Executives learn that for their companies to stay ahead of the competition, their people, at every level, have to learn more (and more quickly) than the competition: new skills, new takes on emerging technologies, new ways to do old things, from manufacturing to marketing to R&D. Gary Hamel, the influential business strategist, likes to say that one of the most urgent questions facing leaders (and thus their companies) is, “Are you learning as fast as the world is changing?”
  2. The organizations with the most original ideas about how to compete and win — aren’t just committed to learning. They are just as committed to teaching. They understand that the only sustainable form of market leadership is thought leadership. And if, as Aristotle famously said, “teaching is the highest form of understanding,” then they also understand that the most powerful way to demonstrate your position as a thought leader is to teach other organizations what you know — whether they are customers, suppliers, or even direct competitors.
  3. You don’t have to be a huge organization with a full-fledged institute to teach other companies what you know. The founders of 37signals, a fast-growing software company about which I’ve written in the past, have developed a truly original set of ideas about strategy, marketing, and the organization of work — ideas that have fueled their tremendous success. But they don’t keep those ideas to themselves… Their approach, they like to say, is not to out-market the competition, but to out-teach the competition. Why? Because teaching creates a different kind of presence in the marketplace. It creates a higher sense of loyalty among those who learn from you. And it helps the company create not just customers for its products but an audience for its ideas.

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[As a refresher: Senge’s Five Disciplines

  1. Personal mastery. Clarifying and deepening our vision, of focusing our energies, developing patience, and seeing reality objectively.
  2. Mental models. Identifying our deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations that influence our actions and decisions.
  3. Building shared vision. Our pictures of the future that foster genuine commitment.
  4. Team learning. It starts with dialogue and enters into genuine thinking together.
  5. Systems thinking. This is the Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four and sustains improvements.]

[1] Peter Senge. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Bantam-Doubleday. 1990.

[2]The Learning Company: A strategy for sustainable development, M. Pedler, J. Burgoyne, and T. Boydell (1997) and “Managing Learning: what do we learn from a Learning Organization?” The Learning Organization, D. McHugh, D. Groves and A. Alker (1998).