"Unleashing the Eagle within..."


Building Community Through Learning Teams

Building Community
Learning Teams

By Dave Hueller, Co-Founder
Eagle Learning Center

[How important is it to have a sense of community in your organization? Since this article was written in 1995, Eagle Learning Center has created and hosted monthly “forums” for business people with titles ranging from Skills for a Jobless Workplace to Can We Learn in Teams? to Skills for Jobs without Walls and finally, The Anxiety Factor. These titles have attracted an average of 25 people (from 18 companies) to each forum, most of whom report a high degree of uncertainty pervading their organizations. The findings described in this article seem more important now than in 1995. People are hungry for a sense of belonging and order. Dave Hueller, February 4, 1997]

Since early 1990, my partner Bill Murray and I have been helping organizations talk--really talk.

We didn’t start out to do this.

Instead, we were casting around for ideas to help clients with a different challenge. We had been hearing from a variety of organizations that they were determined to gain competitive advantage by becoming premier service providers. Because they had used our services in the past, they asked us to help them create and implement their service strategies.

For a period of two years or so, we had no satisfactory answers.

An Inadequate Performance Improvement Model

During this two year period, Bill and I were working for a small (15 employees) training and consulting company who specialized in delivering the management, customer service, and sales training courses developed by Wilson Learning Corporation. The typical “learning system” that we designed and implemented utilized:

        Small group (15-25 people) seminars for particular groups of employees that needed skill development

        Sessions for the managers of those employees to prepare them to coach their people and reinforce the skills taught

        Written job application exercises for the employee participants to complete over a 3 to 6 month period and discuss with their managers

As you can see, our group had a strong orientation to classroom training delivered by our highly skilled, expert trainers, the most notable of whom was my partner, Bill Murray. Our commitment to involving management in post-training reinforcement was a reflection of our belief that classroom training was only one part of successful performance improvement systems.

But even while we tried to influence our clients to take into account the effect of work unit culture--including management encouragement--on the behaviors they wanted to instill, the structure of our typical performance improvement system continued to revolve around high impact, interactive, small group training sessions facilitated by our people. Clearly our operationalized belief was that you needed experienced, highly skilled people in the role of trainer/facilitator if you wanted to address the really tough issues.

Our Blind Spot and the Barriers It Created

Unfortunately, our beliefs about the importance of our own expertise (as leaders of small group learning) were the root cause of our inability to creatively respond to our clients who were determined to build competitive advantage via superior customer service. We simply could not conceive of change processes that did not depend on the extraordinary ability of people like Bill Murray to facilitate employee training sessions.

What a limiting belief! It created huge barriers like:

      The cost involved in either hiring our instructors to teach their employees or to “train the trainer.”

      The “who in our organization is qualified to lead these sessions?’ barrier. Some organizations felt they did not have staff who could replicate the effectiveness of a Bill Murray--even when trained by Bill Murray (and in some cases they were right).

      The “time-off-the-job” problem. The interactive, small group learning sessions that we typically designed and delivered required time to be effective, a significant problem for companies running lean. Even though we were learning to modularize our sessions from full day sessions into shorter, 2-4 hour classes, our clients still found it difficult to free up employees for training without hurting productivity. Time off the job was perceived by many of our clients as a major barrier.

More Problems and New Perspectives

Yet another challenge came from the fact that the needs our clients had identified did not fall neatly into our typical categories of skills: management, customer service, and sales. For one thing, they wanted all of their people trained.

Also, they were describing to us not so much deficiencies in technical or interpersonal skills as an attitude or approach to work. Did we have any way to help them instill a particular attitude or approach?

We chose to interpret their problem from two perspectives:

1.     Logistical. Would it be possible to get all employees involved in a learning process without severely impacting the organization’s ability to “get the work done”? (As in, ‘Who’s doing the work while we’re in class?’)

2.     Economic. Could a learning process be developed that they could afford--and that we could support in a profitable manner?

Arriving at these two perspectives led us right back to our own core problem: our egos. As noted earlier, we had been convinced that for their people to deal with the really important issues, they would need highly trained facilitators like ourselves to conduct their group learning sessions. Left to untrained facilitators--or even average trained facilitators--their employee sessions would be at best superficial discussions that the typical employee would take lightly (or even resent).

Or so our egos said.

New Learning

Fortunately, we had been learning some things, things that helped us begin to think differently about how we might help an organization help itself.

For some time, Bill had been making connections (in classroom, facilitator-dependent delivery modes) between the role of individual choice and the obvious need for organizations to understand how their practices influence the choices that their individual employees make on a routine basis. His conclusion: than no one can empower any one else (personal choice), but that an organization’s values either encourage--or discourage--choices in the best interest of customers.

Meanwhile, I had been working with a hotel that was using a discussion group process to involve their employees in improving customer service. While the discussions were very different from a session led by a master teacher like Bill Murray, they were effective. Employees participated enthusiastically and were surprisingly frank about their concerns.

Field Experience, Research, and Some New Ideas

As we compared our experiences with the available research from studies of factors affecting work group performance, we came to three conclusions:

1.     A high degree of satisfaction (with the job, with peers, with management, etc.) was present in virtually all high performing groups.

2.     A high degree of communication was also present in high performing groups, in some cases allowing teams to thrive in spite of less than ideal work environments.

3.     While both satisfaction and communication were present in the highest performing teams, communication was more important because it encouraged commitment and the belief that the work group could solve problems.

We suspected that if we could come up with a process of small group discussions (in a sense to “force” communication) that made it possible for everyone in the organization to “open up” and discuss their mutual understanding of what mattered to the company--and how that compared to what mattered to them as individuals--that we could increase the number of employees who felt both listened to and satisfied in their work. We also suspected that any organization that could successfully involve all of its members in reflecting on matters of importance such as trust, personal purpose compared to the organization’s mission, and taking personal responsibility would find it considerably easier to take on virtually any strategic or tactical initiative. That having created genuine dialogue, the chances of getting commitment to excellent service would be much greater.

 Action Research With Clients

Early in 1990, an organization asked us to help them become an outstanding service provider.

The organization was in the secondary mortgage business. It was recovering from life with two previous owners, one a major banking operation and the other an east coast brokerage house.

The management team was determined to ride a wave of favorable interest rates and build a truly excellent company. The majority of the 200 employees were engaged in work that was described to us as “paper pushing,” meaning that they were the back room in a paper intensive business. The typical employee had been there for less than five years and looked at his/her work as a job, not a career. A number of employees were, by their own admission, working there temporarily until they could find a “better” job.

Because the majority of employees never, or rarely, had direct contact with customers, management reported to us that it was difficult to persuade employees that their work decisions had any impact on customer perceptions of the company. Management asked us to help them communicate how everyone’s performance affected customers and to help them increase the sense of “customer focus.”

We had been invited to respond to their needs because of our work a year earlier with one of their departments. Even though that work had been delivered in a classroom format, the manager of that area knew that our approach included clear communication about both organizational barriers and self-imposed barriers to performance. We talked openly about what we had been learning, and, when it was mutually agreed that they wanted a culture change process that was both top-down and bottom-up, we asked if they would be willing to pilot our untested ideas.

The initial pilot was conceived to be:

      A one-day session with executive management to introduce them to Bill’s research findings re: the key values that they would need to model at the same time as all of their employees were meeting to discuss the values.

      A half-day session with the designated discussion leaders to prepare them for their role.

      12, one-hour meetings for all employees in small groups (8-10 people) in which their responsibility would be to read a chapter of our (yet to be written at that point) book and discuss it with their peers.

      Bill Murray and I would attend a number of meetings to observe, assist those meetings in progress, and generally keep the process on track.

When the organization said “yes,” they wanted to proceed with this process, Bill Murray had six weeks to channel what he had been learning about the interplay between work culture and performance into a book format. Our idea was to have every employee read this book and participate in small group discussions of the contents of each chapter (12, one-hour discussion meetings).

Our [Mistaken] Greatest Fear

What we had no way of knowing was whether adults in the workplace would sit down together and discuss whether values such as personal purpose, creativity, taking personal responsibility, value added service, personal trust, and mutual support were:

        Important to them in a work setting

        “Lived and breathed” in the practices of their organization

Our greatest fear? That the majority of employees would respond cynically, ‘This is a crock.’ That without highly trained facilitators, even these brief, one-hour meetings would be perceived as a waste of time.

We were in for a huge surprise.

What Proved to Be Our Greatest Challenge

Contrary to our greatest fear, the majority of employees at this secondary mortgage company participated in these discussions with great interest and enthusiasm. The notion of aligning their personal values with the operating values of the company had great appeal. The “facilitation problem” that had consumed us was a nonfactor. Sure, there were individual discussion leaders--and particular groups--that didn’t “work” as well as the majority of them did, but our number one Greatest Fear, that employees would be bored by or resentful of the small group discussion process, proved to be erroneous.

Instead, our Greatest Challenge turned out to be what to do with the wealth of ideas--in the form of criticisms, improvement suggestions, misperceptions, etc.--that these discussions generated. Was this a great opportunity for management or a major problem? As you might imagine, this was, and is, one of those “eye of the beholder” things.

  What We Learned About Readiness

Upon completing the twelve meeting process, the management team decided to survey the employees to get their feedback as to what they had learned and the usefulness of the process. It is important to note that the executives had all rotated through the discussion teams as discussion leaders and had reported a high degree of satisfaction with what they perceived to be the value of the discussions.

What they heard back from their employees from their post-process survey caught them by surprise. While the majority of the written feedback was very positive (both in terms of perceived personal value and expressions of gratitude that the organization really wanted to hear their ideas), this particular management team was taken aback by feedback from a small, but very vocal minority, who basically accused management of not practicing the values that had been discussed throughout the twelve meeting process.

Management’s response? Confusion, disappointment, and anger. Ignoring the great majority of feedback that said, ‘this has been great, let’s continue the dialogue,’ they instead focused on the negative criticism of a small group of employees. Their response to that criticism was defensive. By focusing on the negativity of a small group of their people, they missed out on the opportunity to take the positive improvement ideas generated by the rest of their people and build a new contract of commitment and participation. For our part, we had been unable to prepare management for how their people might react because we--like the management team--had ventured into unknown territory.

What we chose to learn from this initial experience was:

      Now that we understood better what types of organizational issues might come out of the discussion group process, it was clear that we had to do a much better job of preparing management. In order to be ready to respond constructively to those issues, we concluded that executives must be emotionally trained for this type of communication with their people.

      Because we could now anticipate some of the types of ideas and concerns that might surface during the discussion group process, we now had a better idea of what the process could and could not do for an organization. This learning was all about helping a client organization determine what level/type of dialogue they really wanted with their employees (versus what they thought they ought to have).

      Because of our extensive observation of and participation in the small group discussions, we experienced firsthand the depth and quality of the discussions. People felt like these were important ideas to discuss, were genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to share their opinions with others, and conducted these discussions very nicely without our facilitation expertise, thank you.

      In subsequent opportunities to adapt this discussion group process to other companies (we have adapted the process for over 50 organizations--including our own--as of this writing), we began to clearly observe the stages of group/team development (storming, norming, etc.). In this initial pilot process, however, we made a mistake and said “yes” to them scheduling the one-hour meetings on a weekly basis. We learned along with our client to allow more time between meetings. Toward the end of the secondary mortgage company’s small group process, the meetings came to be viewed by some employees as punishing (‘there’s not enough time to get my work done as it is’) and lost their freshness. We repeated this mistake (of scheduling the meetings on a weekly basis) with our second pilot before we began to understand the importance of allowing more time between meetings. Once we understood this better and began counseling clients to schedule the discussions with two to four weeks between sessions, the phases of team development became very apparent over the 6-12 month span of the team discussion process.

Learning Over Time in Small Groups

You may remember that our rationale for small group, one-hour sessions had derived from client pressure to minimize time off the job (necessitating short sessions) and our concerns about the limitations of untrained facilitators (what size would be small enough to make the meetings manageable without being so small that one or two individuals could dominate the discussions).

While our process of twelve, one-hour meetings was responsive to both of these concerns, the greatest gift from our work with the secondary mortgage company was our hands-on experience with a significant organizational learning principle: for the organization to learn (and by implication change), allowing people to learn when they are ready to learn rather than “force feeding” that learning seems to increase the likelihood that participants will “own” the learning and make genuine, lasting shifts in their attitudes and behavior. By deciding to spread the sessions out over an extended period of time (typically 6-12 months), individuals and teams that were not ready to learn early in the process often times “got on board” later in the process when they were ready.

This may sound trivial at first glance, but as we began to see this phenomenon repeated over and over in a variety of organizations, we were struck by its power. Over the years we have had countless business leaders describe to us their frustration with trying to lead a change. What our work with this team learning process over the past six years has reinforced is that when people are ready, they learn and change very quickly. What takes time is getting ready to change.

Our simple process of twelve, one-hour meetings over a period of 6-12 months turned out to be a living, breathing example of this principle in action.

So What Does This Process “Do” Anyway?

 I have already described how our initial experience with the process taught us the importance of better preparing--and qualifying--executive management for their role in supporting the discussion groups. But to what end?

 In the case of the secondary mortgage company, the process exposed a gap in expectations. Executive management was ready to hear positive, constructive ideas. They were unprepared, and ultimately unwilling, to hear negative criticisms of their business practices. So one of the major outcomes from the 6-12 month discussion process is a diagnosis of the organization via the enormous amount of bottom-up communication that is generated.

As we observed with the secondary mortgage company, the value to management of that diagnosis depends on whether or not management  really wants to know.

It is our belief after working with so many different organizations, that whether or not management wants the full range of feedback, the perceptions and feelings behind that feedback exist and are driving employee behavior throughout the organization.

What else does the process do?

Our second pilot of the process yielded significantly different results as compared to the first pilot. The client organization was an HMO for whom we had just completed a comprehensive customer survey process. Their customers were not only patients enrolled in their health plan but also clinical staffs (including doctors and nurses) and benefit coordinators for corporations.

Since we were engaged in the first pilot process at the same time that we were conducting the HMO’s customer survey, we had occasion to share with management of this HMO what we were learning at the secondary mortgage company. They expressed a strong interest in further piloting the small group discussion process as a way to share the customer survey results with their employees and to build commitment to responding to the results of the customer survey.

Based on what we were learning from the first pilot process, we recommended two additional steps to the HMO’s implementation of the process:

1.     That Bill Murray present the core ideas from his book to all employees in a kind of “kick-off” speech. This idea came from a couple of sources. At the secondary mortgage company (where the only people to hear Bill’s ideas in a presentation format were executive management and the discussion leaders), we felt that the discussion groups started off slowly and often took several meetings before the groups jelled. We were also aware of case studies at organizations like General Electric (Jack Welch’s “workout groups”) that pointed out the power of “getting everyone in the room at the same time to hear the same message” rather than relying on key ideas to “trickle down” from the top. Based on those observations plus Bill’s ability to inspire people from the platform, we recommended to the HMO’s management that they set up an all-company meeting (or series of meetings) to hear a 45 minute “kick-off” speech by Bill Murray.

2.     That I would meet with the discussion group leaders at agreed upon intervals during the 12 meeting process. Two insights gained during our first pilot process caused us to add this step. First, we had observed the (unplanned) emergence of informal leaders during our work with the secondary mortgage company as people were thrust into the role of discussion leader. We anticipated that meeting with the HMO’s discussion leaders as a group would further nurture these emerging leaders by giving them peer support for their efforts. Second, we had observed a few discussion groups that never really got off the ground for a variety of reasons. Our intention was to “help the organization help itself” by building into the process a forum in which any problems could be “nipped in the bud,” not by Bill or myself swooping in heroically to make things right, but by the group of discussion leaders helping one another.

Both of these additional steps in the process “worked.” The kick-off speech to all employees provided tremendous energy and enthusiasm as the discussion group process was launched at the HMO. The planned meetings with the discussion leaders proved to be so helpful that the discussion leaders decided to meet with even greater regularity on their own.

What the customer focus process did for the HMO was very different from the first pilot at the secondary mortgage company.

At the HMO, the launching of their process coincided with their board of directors’ announcement that the organization was being purchased by another HMO. In fact, the agreement was announced after we met with executive management, but the day before we delivered a kick-off speech and discussion leader training.

I can still remember the feeling of walking into the room to deliver the half-day discussion leader session and sensing all the tension and anxiety in the room. I asked the discussion leaders what was wrong--and got an earful! ‘Why,’ they asked me, ‘should we go through with this process when no one even knows if he/she will have a job after the merger?’ My response was to facilitate their discussion of that question.

After discussing this question with their peers, the group of discussion leaders decided to proceed with the 12-meeting process. Their reasoning was, ‘This process is more about being reflective as a human being than anything else. Let’s use the process as a way to support each other through the uncertainty of the next few months.’ Executive management at the HMO agreed that the discussion meetings would provide a forum to prepare everyone for the acquisition.

So what the HMO “got” was a way to talk directly with one another about their concerns while remaining focused on “business as usual” to the best of their individual and collective ability. Morale remained unbelievably high considering the fear generated by the impending merger.


Since those initial pilots in 1990, Bill Murray and I have helped a wide variety of organizations adapt this process for an even wider variety of needs. Examples include:

Medical manufacturer. This company had replaced its autocratic founder with a new CEO who felt that the firm’s only hope for survival was to get all of its 250 employees participating actively in re-creating the organization. The new CEO used our process to convince employees that the company’s survival was tied to their willingness to step forward with ideas and commitment.

Bank. One banking organization was looking for a way to have each department of the bank focus on improvement in their particular department. As compared to most of our clients who have used the process to build commitment to a new overall business strategy, this organization defined the scope of each discussion team as improvement within their functional area (as compared to the cross-functional teams that most of our clients have utilized).

Customer service department at a window manufacturer. With this particular corporation re-thinking how it serviced its customers, the decision was made to restructure the customer service department. The vice president charged with radically changing how service was delivered used our process to invite all of his people into the creation of a new culture.

Environmental testing laboratory. Faced with changing regulations and an industry under siege, the president of this company used our process (with voluntary participation by his employees on 12 sites across the country), to create an atmosphere at each location where people understood how critical it was to be fully involved in re-creating the business.

A self-managed team within a traditional union environment. The coach for this team adapted our process to help her create a process for discussing with long time union employees how they could find a middle ground which all parties could agree was better for everyone.

This work has been exciting, fulfilling, and humbling. Starting off from our efforts seven and eight years ago to help our clients reshape their organizations, we have learned a lot about what we, Dave Hueller and Bill Murray, believe about esoteric concepts like empowerment, purpose, teams, employee-run organizations, and building community.

Clearly, no one can empower anyone else. But organizations can greatly increase the likelihood that the majority of their employees will choose to work in an empowered fashion. Our continuing work with team-based learning has convinced us that given the opportunity to talk about what is important to them, most people will do so eagerly--and those discussions can help create an atmosphere where the norm is people working together to creatively serve the customer.

It is our opinion that this sense of community is essential for any organization that is committed to thriving under the chaotic market conditions buffeting us all.


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