Building An Organizational Culture of Shared Learning

By Donna Lopiano, Ph.D., President, Sports Management Resources

Achieving athletics department goals is a team sport.  The manager cannot do it alone, even if he or she is a superstar.  The more good players you have, the greater your chances of winning.  Therefore, the athletics director must be committed to creating a culture in which everyone is committed to making everyone else better – a culture of shared learning.

Commitment to Learning.  Like being a head coach, an athletics director must be a master teacher; the team is just larger, consists of players of all ages and skill levels and, instead of just being concerned with one sport, the range of subject matter is much more broad.  Being a good teacher first requires a commitment to learning, not only formal and continuing education, but also through watching the people you respect and identifying the programs you want to emulate.   The latter requires getting out into the world and putting oneself in a position to learn from the best.   Before the athletics directors takes the gift of knowledge from others, he or she should be willing to give time and effort in return.

The workload and time required to run an athletics department would be reasonable excuses for staying close to home and becoming isolated.  But you can’t let it happen.  When you look at the careers of top athletic directors, it is obvious that they said “yes” when asked to chair or serve on committees, run for elected office, give speeches to local groups or become involved in their committees in highly visible and important ways.  Giving of self professionally is an important commitment that also results in benefits being accrued.  Being involved in national professional associations for athletics directors or managers, volunteering to serve on committees of athletics governance and professional organizations, being a member of the local Rotary Club, are just a few ways to observe and learn other leaders of sport and non-sport organizations and, in turn, share your knowledge to help others.  Likewise, every employee should be encouraged to participate in professional organizations and attend professional conferences.

One of the challenges for the athletics director is accessing colleagues at the same level of responsibility who can help with advice.  Every athletic director should have at least three or four other athletics directors as colleagues and mentors they can call upon. 

Doing As the Ultimate Test of Learning.  The application of knowledge and theory and verifying that it works is what a manager does every day. Developing a strategic plan, creating measurable objectives, designing action plans to accomplish those objectives and evaluating how well those actions plans worked are the guts of “doing”.  Having everyone in the organization participating in all of these tasks is a teaching necessity.  People learn best by doing.  And doing must be a process that includes commitment to a plan, execution of the plan, evaluation, adjustment and finally, renewed and informed additional effort.  And then the cycle repeats itself.

Commitment to Teaching.  Sharing everything learned is an important obligation of the athletic director and should be a mantra for every employee in the organization.  The Athletic Department Handbook and Policies and Procedures Manuals are formal teaching mechanisms.  Or, sharing knowledge might be as simple as sharing conversations with other athletics directors and suggestions for solving a particular problem with senior staff members or returning from a conference and distributing notes taken at sessions attended.  Maybe it’s a weekly employee electronic newsletter sharing tips from all employees.  Consider establishing a professional development policy which institutionalizes the principle of sharing such as requiring, as a condition of athletic department funding, that any employee attending a professional development activity provide a written summary of what was learned or conduct a learning seminar upon their return.  Consider requiring, as a community service obligation of senior managers, that they share their management knowledge with local non-profit organizations.  Consider the contents of the athletic department Handbook and Policy and Procedures Manual as opportunities to institutionalize teaching and learning.  See Appendix A, 3.6 for an example of how a relationship building responsibility applicable for all employees becomes a teaching, learning and professional development activity.  When the athletics director takes the time to focus on developing a culture of shared learning, the responsibility of every employee to share what they know, it affirms the value of each employee’s knowledge.

Commitment to Critical Thinking.  Even when the athletics director is well educated in a particular subject area, wise decisions or effective problem-solving isn’t guaranteed.  What a person knows and how that knowledge is applied are very different circumstances.  The application of knowledge to decision-making and problem solving requires critical thinking skills.  Critical thinking is a persistent effort to rationally process information while simultaneously being aware of the often competing forces of (1) the rights and needs of others, (2) the fiduciary duty to the educational institution as employer, and (3) the decision-maker’s inclination to act with self-interest or unintentional prejudice.  Critical thinking requires a disciplined approach to decision-making.  It’s fine to check your “gut feeling” but never good enough to make a decision only based on such intuition.  The critical thinking process has the following characteristics:

  • Formulate clear and important questions and problems about the issue
  • Seek to recognize and acknowledge bias, prejudice or other indicators of lack of open-minded consideration – understand who benefits and who is disadvantaged by the decision
  • Gather and evaluate relevant information about the issue
  • Test possible conclusions and solutions against applicable criteria or standards, choosing the best option
  • Review the implications and practical consequences of conclusions and solutions with others from diverse perspectives and be willing to refine thinking and options accordingly

(Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2007)

Completing this process requires specific skills: 

  • Analysis – looking at an issue in detail, separating the whole into its component parts
  • Evaluation – judging the value or importance of an issue
  • Inference – drawing a conclusion through reasoning from the consideration of evidence
  • Explanation – to ascribe significance to an issue or its related parts Interpretation - giving reasons for the existence or origin of the issue
  • Self-regulation – to reexamine or reconsider a position in light of new information or after determining bias and consider new conclusions

(Facione, 2006)

Critical thinking is essential when addressing complex problems, establishing new policies, taking positions on important issues and dealing with situations that have an impact on the well-being of student-athletes, employees or others.  A commitment to critical thinking in such situations means patience, doing your homework and being confident and secure enough to ask others to critique your conclusions.  Most of all, critical thinking is committing to a thorough thought process commensurate with the importance of the decision to be made.

This commitment is similar to that of a great pitcher who, prior to throwing any pitch, has studied the hitter, determined the batter’s strengths and weaknesses, prioritizes the best pitches to be thrown given the count or game situation and who is always self-evaluating the quality of both his or her pitches and choices of pitches when the at-bat and game is over.  A talented pitcher can pitch a good game without any of this homework or preparation, but the difference between good and great, is consistently working at being fully prepared and having a great work ethic in that preparation.  Anyone can make a decision; fewer can consistently make good decisions and fewer still can make good decisions in crisis environments.   Like any skill, critical thinking requires practice and commitment.


Facione, P.A. (2006) Critical Thinking:  What It Is and Why It Counts.

Foundation for Critical Thinking (accessed 2007)