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Learning as a Management Strategy

Bert Troughton, MSW, Director, SFSPCA / ASPCA Strategic Alliance


Learning As A Management Strategy

In Oswego County, NY, a newly formed humane society decided to assess their organization and the community’s needs, and sought recommendations from the American Humane Association to prepare them for building an animal shelter. Using what they learned from this process, their board is now working to develop an organizational framework and services that will meet the community’s needs without building a shelter. In Lebanon, NH, the staff at the Upper Valley Humane Society are looking at their best personal experiences as customers to create a vision of the customer experience they want to provide for visitors to their humane society. And in Boston, MA, the Living With Wildlife program staff at the MSPCA conducted interviews with more than 60 MSPCA employees at every level and in every department of the organization to understand what MSPCA employees knew about urban wildlife issues in order to custom design an effective staff training program. Additionally, these interviews intentionally laid the groundwork for improved interdepartmental communications and collaboration. These are all examples of humane organizations practicing “learning behaviors”. When this practice is embraced, an organization is on the road to becoming a “learning organization”.

There are multiple benefits of the learning model within the operation and culture of an organization. While these benefits and how to achieve them are of practical concern to managers, it’s worth taking an initial full-scale appreciative view of the benefits of learning organizations.

A learning organization is one in which every interaction is viewed as an opportunity to increase understanding, widen or sharpen our thinking abilities, and anticipate–even steer–change. Competitive advantage is the major motivation for adopting the learning model in for-profit companies. In non-profits (including animal shelters) one of the clearest advantages of the learning model lies in its potential for forging community partnerships.

Animal sheltering does not solve the problems of animal suffering and homelessness. Real solutions to core problems require the concerted efforts of many groups and individuals within a community. One of the most effective ways to partner with groups and individuals is through practicing learning behaviors with them. In so doing, shelter customers–visitors, adopters, “surrenderers”, “reclaimers”, volunteers, event participants, and so on–are valued as potential teachers from whom we can learn about everything from what people want (and don’t want) in a companion animal, to how people understand the problem of animal overpopulation, to what it would take to engage someone in the work of advocating for animals. The opportunities for learning from the community are virtually limitless. When an organization opens itself up to learning from the community, the results include services that are in-tune with community needs and community members who – because they feel welcomed and respected – participate actively in the mission of the organization. This active participation can take many forms: improved attention/care to their own companion animals, donations of time or money to the organization, or individual activism that is aligned with the organization’s mission and goals.

Within the culture of learning organizations, staff members thrive on developing their skills and competence, are open to new ideas, challenge themselves and each other, are supportive of each other, and understand their role in relation to the overall work of the organization. As we live in a world where “change is the norm”, learning organizations have an advantage over more traditional authoritarian organizations, because when everyone in an organization is oriented around learning, change is expected and approached with enthusiasm and a sense of challenge rather than resistance. In short, the culture within a learning organization is upbeat, challenging, empathic, and collaborative.

So how does a manager shift her or his organization to a learning model? (Note: middle managers may not be able to get the entire organization to shift to a learning model, but s/he can create a learning climate within her/his area of authority–thereby improving the morale and productivity of that department and possibly influencing the larger organization in the long run.)

First things first: before you attempt to influence others’ to adopt a learning approach to their jobs, work on developing a learning attitude and learning behaviors for yourself. This will not only improve your skills, but it will increase your empathy for your staff and co-workers once they embark on this new challenge. To begin, establish a plan for yourself that includes: 1) a vision of yourself as a manager that learns and encourages learning, 2) a vision of what your team, department, or organization will act like, feel like, and accomplish by adopting a learning approach, and 3) a realistic approach for how you can learn more about learning organizations. [Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline” (see “Suggested Reading”) is the seminal work on learning organization theory; “The Fifth Discipline Field Book” offers individual and group exercises, tools, theory, and further resources for those who learn best by “doing”. Other options here include interviewing and/or observing managers and organizations which are actively practicing learning organization principles, or contracting with a consultant or management coach to develop knowledge and skill in the principles of learning organizations.]

Next, develop a set of open-ended questions that you can use every day to help you think differently about your job and its tasks. Questions such as, “What can I learn from this incident or interaction?” “What is new (or the same) about this incident or interaction, and what does that tell me?” “How could I experiment with this incident to learn a better way to deal with similar incidents in the future?” “What did I do today that I’m really proud of (excited about); what did it teach me, and how can I use it in some other area of my job?” Plan to carry these questions around with you and use at least one question once a day.

Third, share your personal vision for your learning organization and your plan with your staff. This sharing has a number of advantages. It’s always easier to develop new skills when you inform others of your intentions–it helps them to anticipate and understand changes in your behavior and it helps you to stick with the process because you’ve made a public proclamation. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, sharing your vision and your plans helps to model learning behaviors for your staff. In effect, you are saying, “I’m trying something new. I’ve laid out goals and a plan for how to do it. I know I’m going to make some mistakes along the way, and I’m going to learn from those as well as my successes.” Just imagine the impact if your staff developed this attitude about experimentation and learning from mistakes toward their own jobs!

Once you’ve launched yourself on your path to a learning management style and you’ve modeled a learning attitude and behaviors, it will be time to invite your staff along. Create a shared vision of your learning organization. To do this, bring your team, department, or organization together and ask them to imagine that you have collectively achieved a learning organization where all of your interactions and experiences are opportunities for the organization to gather new information, develop and test new ideas, and continually refine and improve everything you do. In this organization, people learn from mistakes, teams are collaborative and productive, and change is constant but not chaotic. Then brainstorm together what it looks like and feels like to be part of this learning organization. (For a set of vision questions, see “Creating Shared Vision …”.) The process of creating shared vision is, in itself, a learning exercise for a group. Vision questions help to orient people around what’s possible, and begin the process of determining how to get from here to “there”.

Finally, with your own personal vision and learning plan in place and a successful experience of creating shared vision under your belt, the next step is to practice. (Remember the principles of humane training: start with something simple, give yourselves opportunities for quick successes, and stop to celebrate and reward yourselves for your accomplishments.) For example, when I worked at Monadnock Humane Society in NH, one staff member was particularly concerned with how many animals were in our “lost” files but seemingly never “found”. She brought this up as an issue week after week in staff meeting, and week after week we did nothing more than acknowledge her sadness and frustration. Finally, it dawned on us to explore the problem further. We began to ask a lot of questions about what we were hearing, what we were doing, and what the response was. Eventually we realized that recording lost reports in our computer was only helpful if the animal showed up on our doorstep (which was rare) or we received a call from someone who saw the animal (equally rare). Our data base was doing little to really help the animal or his/her human. Eventually, we developed a list of guide-lines for counseling people with lost animals: who else to call, how and where to advertise, where and when to look for the animal, not to lose hope, and how to prevent a repeat once the animal was safely home. The results were multi-faceted: more people successfully located their animals, more cat owners came to us for collars and ID tags, more people reported back to us when they found their animals, people were impressed with our knowledge and grateful for our help (often expressing their appreciation through letters with photos and donations), and our team developed a new set of skills (along with enthusiasm and confidence) for approaching problems.

In a learning organization, people are encouraged to examine their experiences and explore and experiment with possible solutions. It is understood–indeed, expected–that some ideas will fail. However, those failures are seen as opportunities to learn and grow, and will not be met with criticism or punishment. Adopting a learning style to management is an ever-evolving process. Because learning is always ongoing–and benefits the individual, the organization, and the community–learning as a model of operating becomes “catchy”. As the organization’s experience with learning increases, learning itself becomes the reinforcement or reward.

Animal welfare and protection organizations that adopt the learning model will find their employees to be interested in their jobs, their work teams productive, their internal culture positive and resilient in the face of change, and their community supportive of–even engaged in–the mission. In short, adopting a learning management style is an effective strategy for saving animals’ lives and fostering humane communities.

Learning As A Management Strategy

Suggested Further Reading

Larsen, Kai, et al, “Learning Organizations”

McGill, Michael E. & Slocum, John W. Jr., “Unlearning the Organization,” Organizational Dynamics, Autumn ’93, vol 22, no 2, pp. 67-78.

Schneider, Benjamin, et al, “Creating the Climate of Success,” Organizational Dynamics, Autumn ’95, vol 24, no 2, pp. 17-28.

Senge, Peter M., The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday Publishing, New York, NY, 1990.

Senge, Peter M., et al, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies & Tools for Building a Learning Organization, Doubleday Publishing, New York, NY, 1994.

Creating Shared Vision of Your Learning Organization

Setting the Stage:

Visioning work is an invitation to be creative, to think “out of the box” and to dream of what could be possible. Much like brainstorming, group members are asked to participate fully, to refrain from evaluating or censoring ideas, and to disregard concerns (for the time being) of whether something is possible or even probable. Visioning is dreaming…anything is possible in dreams.

To stimulate ideas, have the group imagine it’s 10 years from now and you’ve created the perfect learning organization. All of your interactions and experiences are opportunities for the organization to gather new information, develop and test new ideas, and continually refine and improve everything you do. In your perfect organization, people learn from mistakes, teams are collaborative and productive, and change is constant but not chaotic. Now, as a group, answer some or all of the following questions. In order to help you really feel what achieving this vision would be like, frame your answers in the affirmative, present tense, as if the vision has already been achieved. For example, “we look forward to coming to work every day.”

The Questions:

What does it feel like to be a team member here?
How do we feel about the work we’re doing?
How do questions get asked? Who can ask them?
How do we find answers?
What kinds of information are shared? With who? How?
What do we do with mistakes?
How do we know if/when we’re learning?
How do we treat each other?
How do we treat our “customers”?
What is our reputation?
What practices or behaviors reinforce our learning?
What are all of the motivators that drive us to continue in this work and this organization?
How do we (individually and as a group) know that we are making a difference?

Answers to these questions can be transcribed from flip chart pages into a list or narrative that will serve as a tool to guide managers and staff toward achieving the learning organization. Some of the answers may prove so inspirational, that they become quotes worthy of hanging in work spaces. Some of the answers may stimulate particular goals or projects. And the original flip chart pages themselves can remain up on the walls of your meeting space to provide inspiration during the early stages of developing and practicing learning behaviors.

© 2002 Bert Troughton
Re-prints with permission. Contact Bert at

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