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Make Your Practice a Learning Organization


In this tight job market, discerning dental candidates want excellent compensation as well as a great working environment.  Ideally, you want to attract candidates who value personal and professional growth. This article describes what you can you do to create this kind of culture so that that these candidates are eager to work with you.

What is a Learning Organization?

Many years ago, a business thought leader named Peter Senge introduced the concept of a learning organization (The Fifth Discipline, 1990). Employees in a learning organization are encouraged to try new things though multiple opportunities for formal and informal learning. He described an organizational culture that makes the transfer of knowledge a priority so that employees innovate and improve.

Personal Mastery

Senge described five “component technologies” to achieve a learning organization but the most important is personal mastery. Personal mastery means increasing one’s ability to produce results.  In other words, employees must be able to apply what they’ve learned to their work.  But “mastery” may also be a misnomer because Senge said that learning is continuous.

To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You never “arrive.” The more you learn, the more acutely aware you become of your ignorance.

So, in a learning organization, each employee is encouraged to experiment, innovate and learn and then share their questions, insights and skills with others.  Ultimately, I like this summary of a learning organization the best:

It is a group of people working together collectively to enhance their capacities to create results they really care about.

Wouldn’t you like that at your practice?

Are You Leading a Learning Organization?

Now let’s look at your dental practice and see if you are creating a learning organization where a growth-minded employee will flourish.

Give yourself one point for every yes answer.

  • Do you meet with each employee annually to discuss their personal and professional goals and then create a plan so they can achieve those goals?
  • Do you bring in speakers, trainers or specialists to help your team upgrade their skills?
  • After these opportunities, do you work with the team so they can apply what they learned?
  • Do you expect team members to present what they learn through CE classes to the rest of the team and create the opportunity for them to do that?
  • Do you expect your team to be cross-trained and provide the time for them to do that?
  • Do you reward learning through your compensation plan?
  • Do you acknowledge and appreciate efforts to try new things, even if they don’t work out?
  • Do you have conversations about values and philosophy so that your team has a shared vision of patient care?

Every item on this list is something we focus on through consulting.  If you have answered “yes” to every item – then congratulations! If you answered “no” or “I don’t know” to any item, then let’s reimagine your systems so that your team can expand their skills.

How to Lead a Learning Organization

An article in the Harvard Business Review (4 Ways to Create a Learning Culture on Your Team, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Josh Bersin, 2018) describe what leaders can do promote learning within their team.

  1. Reward continuous learning
  2. Give meaningful and constructive feedback 
  3. Lead by example
  4. Hire curious people

Each of these leadership actions is essential and yet not too many dentists implement these successfully.  For example, if you hire “curious people” but then fail to provide them with great feedback or you don’t offer tangible and intangible rewards for learning, then your curious team members will become more curious about another practice.

(As an aside, one of the article’s authors has an intriguing book called, Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? Clearly, this author has some interesting insights, although of course, I make no comment on their validity!)

Hiring and the Learning Organization

Want a compelling indicator about the importance of a learning organization on hiring new employees?  Indeed, the national job matching site, describe the benefits of learning organizations on their website:

Learning organizations create cultures that foster collaboration, innovation and overall employee satisfaction. They strive to do better in every aspect of their organization and at every level. Learning organizations also create a sense of longevity in their business, encouraging employees to consider their future with the business and make changes for long-term improvement. Businesses that create this sort of atmosphere often see great returns on their investments and have significantly higher employee satisfaction compared to other organizations.

Candidates who want to work in a practice that promotes collaboration, innovation and learning will scan job ads for words that connote that culture. Imagine if you positioned your practice as a learning organization and wrote this in a job ad:

You will work with an enthusiastic team where your ideas and skills are valued
and where we partner together to improve the lives of our patients and of each other.

Leading a practice that exemplifies the principles of a learning organization has multiple benefits.  You improve your practice’s profitability and your ability to attract and retain top notch employees who want to grow and contribute for the long-term.  Just as importantly, a learning organization with its emphasis on continual improvement, encourages you and your team to be curious, resilient and innovative.

And given the last two years, those are critical characteristics for every dental practice.

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Inspired Us to Dream Bigger, and it Works

“As an Office Manager, I’ve seen a great difference in my practice since starting with Sharyn. Three years ago our staff was in turmoil with a lot of infighting and gossip and some jealousy directed towards me.

I had given up because everything I did was judged. Now I have learned to have more one-to-one communication and by being more vulnerable with individuals I found my leadership voice. As a team, we’re all focused on the same goals.

Last year, in August we produced $88,000. This year we’re on track to produce $111,000 this month. I know it’s because we learned how to follow through with patients and communicate our expectations while building our systems.

Sharyn has gotten us out of our comfort zone and inspired us to dream bigger and it works.”

–Sharon St Pierre, Sperbeck Dental Care

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