Project Management in a Learning Organization: Thriving on Change While Delivering Results

Project Management in a Learning Organization:Thriving on Change While Delivering Results.

Life science industries are no different than any other money-making organization:  their bottom line is profit.  The difference in their profitability, though, often lies in the way they conduct their business.

Peter Senge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology advanced the theory of the learning organization.  He said learning organizations are “…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 see the whole together.”

Why is a learning organization important in today’s technological society?  Because the level of performance and improvement in today’s business climate requires extensive learning and training.  In industry, health care, and government, there is no clear path to success, so employees need to explore new ways to think about problems.

The rationale for learning organizations is that in situations of rapid change, only flexible, adaptive, and productive organizations will flourish.  Leaders will use technology to advance the organization and project teams will be encouraged to think in new ways and use new tools to solve problems.

The leader in a learning organization is a designer, a steward, and a teacher.  As a researcher said, “The old way is for senior managers to do all the thinking while everyone else ‘wields the screwdrivers.’ The old way works, but it doesn’t tap the greater energy available when the team is fully engaged.  Tapping into this energy can result in improved products and services for customers, and an improved work environment.”

In the traditional role, the leader makes everything happen.  It’s all about Plan-Deliver-Review.  There’s no room for the rapid change that is becoming the norm.

Jim Highsmith of the Cutter Consortium, an IT advisory firm, offers project managers in a learning organization a different planning path.  It is geared to accepting continuous change as the norm and he calls it Speculate-Collaborate-Learn. 

He says speculating gives committee members room to explore options and recognizes that planning is more uncertain than in the past.  Speculating requires shorter delivery times and a redefinition of the traditional idea of project success.

Businesses that exist in environments of constant change---like life sciences and high tech---require rapid information flow and employees with a wide knowledge base.  In such an environment, collaboration is essential to project success.  Teams collaborate on technical problems, delivery options, manufacturing and business requirements.  Plan-Deliver-Review won’t work in this climate; rapid change and short schedules require a learning environment approach.

If you are a flexible project manager, you can choose the opportune time to use either approach.  If your project environment is stable and your team is accustomed to working with a traditional management approach, go with Plan-Deliver-Review.  But if your project is volatile, you may find a Speculate-Collaborate-Learn cycle to be a better way to manage that project.

The Learning Organization at Schering-Plough
To see project management in a learning organization in action, take a look at Schering-Plough, currently ranked among the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical organizations.  In his “Remarks for the 15th Anniversary Pharmaceutical Strategic Alliances Conference,” Fred Hassan, Chairman and CEO for Schering-Plough, outlined some of his goals for transformational change within the company.

In the speech he said, “We have built a new, positive energy and a high-performance way of working across our organization.”

“In my experience, organizational charts are not so important in our complex environment.  ‘Command and control’ is no longer viable. This is why we have implemented an unusual way of working at the new Schering-Plough.”

“Our new way of working is based on attitude and on six specific Leader Behaviors, including Cross-functional Teamwork, Transparency and Shared Accountability, and Listening and Learning.  We make these behaviors part of performance evaluations for all of our people worldwide.”

“This transformation of the way of working within the company is perhaps the pivotal factor in our success.  It is making us more efficient.  It is driving executional excellence.”

Vas Nair, Schering Plough’s Chief Learning Officer, is responsible for advancing Hassan’s concept throughout the worldwide organization.   “Listening and Learning, one of our Leader Behaviors, feeds directly into our performance management, professional development and incentive programs,” she says.

Nair says that Schering-Plough is committed to cross-functional teams in project management.  “When you bring a group of people together who are from different functions, regions, and cultures, it is extremely rewarding to see how they learn from each other and align their efforts towards a common goal.  While they achieve project milestones, they learn new ways to more effectively manage the project and better meet overall business objectives. This fosters diversity of thought and encourages innovation.”

Initially, many Schering-Plough colleagues were a little hesitant to accept this new way of working, Nair says.  “Now we appreciate that collaboration and functional expertise is a powerful formula. When a cross-functional team is focused and committed to do what it does best, it all comes together to benefit our customers and patients.  A culture that facilitates learning helps us achieve our goals more quickly and that allows us to help patients sooner.”

Technology Assists Project Managers in Learning Organizations
Cultures that facilitate learning generally provide the tools needed to be successful at it.  Schering-Plough uses one method.  An electronic project management tool can also be used as another method to promote collaboration, improve efficiency, and accelerate project completion. Electronic project management software tools can release a project manager from intensive project monitoring, allowing more time collaborating on solutions that improve return on a company’s investment.

“In life sciences, many projects are run by people who have other jobs,” says David Hunter, senior project manager for MasterControl.  “They need tools that are easy to use, collaborative, and that save time.”

“A project usually has a long list of deliverables,” he continues.  “For life science companies, those deliverables are usually tied to documents.  Connecting project management to the content repository where the documents are being created and approved has a lot of advantages.”

Hunter explains that the project managers who use an electronic tool can plan tasks for a team, launch them, and be notified electronically when the tasks are done.  The bottom line, Hunter says, is that using electronic project management tools makes the organization as a whole more efficient by providing accurate, up-to-date project status, reducing the need for status meetings.

“Without the status meetings, the project manager can spend more time engaged in creative discussion and problem solving,” Hunter says.  “They can focus on eliminating bottlenecks and utilizing their resources more efficiently, which can have a positive impact on the bottom line.”Read more about electronic project and document management software solutions:


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