THERE is a lot of talk these days about the importance of employee learning in an organisation. Few would disagree with this, but let’s change our perspective about learning.

What if the most widespread and pervasive learning in your organisation didn’t happen in a training room, conference room or boardroom, but in the hallway, by the water cooler or at the hawker stall across the street?

Alan Webber wrote about the importance of conversations in his Harvard Business Review article: “The most important work in the knowledge economy is conversation.”

Where information is the raw material and ideas are the currency of exchange, he explains, good conversations become the crucible in which knowledge workers share and refine their thinking in order to create value-added products and services.

Most organisations don’t think this way. There is still a subtle expectation for leaders to tell everyone what they need to know in a formal meeting and view other conversations as idle time.

It is not unusual to hear a leader say, “stop talking and get back to work”. The underlying belief is that conversation takes time away from the more “important” work of the organisation.

Research on communication has discovered that talking — the network of conversations — actually catalyses action. Healthy conversations are vital for good performance in the long run.

You could say that an organisation is nothing more than an ongoing conversation among those who have agreed to work in a common direction. The growth, health and maturity of the organisation could then be gauged by the quality of the conversations going on in it.

With this in mind, a leader’s responsibility is to develop core processes and infrastructure that facilitates and develops the capacity of those in the organisation to have healthy conversations.

Creating dialogue

A starting place for developing this capacity is to teach and develop the skill for discovering and working with “questions that matter”. Why? Simply put, the quality of conversations depends on the quality of the questions asked

.Clear, bold and penetrating questions, with an encouragement for a full range of responses, tend to open up the organisation to learning. People engaged in the conversation then tend to develop a common capacity for deeper levels of shared meaning. Shared meaning is the essence of any organisation

Focusing on essential questions also enables us to challenge our underlying assumptions in healthy and constructive ways. With a simple and consistent focus on questions that matter, casual conversations are transformed into collective inquiry. As these questions “travel” throughout the organisation, they enable creative solutions to emerge in unexpected ways.

The right questions

Authors Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, co-originators of the World CafĂ© — a simple process of bringing people together around questions that matter — give a list of questions to help discover your organisation’s capabilities for healthy conversations.

1. Does your organisation consider conversation to be the heart of the “real work” of knowledge creation and of building intellectual capital?

2. How often do the members of your organisation focus on the principles and practices of good conversation when they engage with colleagues, customers or suppliers?

3. Do you consider one of your primary roles to serve as a convener or host for good conversations about questions that matter?

4. How much time do you and your colleagues spend discovering the right questions in relation to the time spent finding the right answers?

5. Is your physical workspace or office area designed to encourage the informal interactions that support good conversations and effective learning?

6. How much of your training and development budget is devoted to supporting informal learning conversations and sharing effective practices across organisational boundaries?

Your answers can serve as a starting point for change in your organisation.