That great resource Wikipedia describes a "learning organization" as follows: "A learning organization is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment. A learning organization has five main features; systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. The Learning organization concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues . It encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking. Organizations should become more like communities that employees can feel a commitment to. They will work harder for an organization they are committed to."
Last week I was part of a capital voir dire workshop that Kentucky's Department of Public Advocacy puts on periodically when there are enough pending capital trials to justify it. It lasted for three days and approximately 25 public defenders and mitigation specialists throughout Kentucky listened to lectures on the Colorado Method, group voir dire, objections, race, publicity, and the other issues implicit in that most important portion of a capital trial. The lawyers practiced both group and individual voir dire, including one day devoted to speaking with citizens about their death penalty views, mitigation, and the process used in a capital case. It was exhausting and exhilarating to watch the lawyers learn and practice skills they would need in the coming weeks to save their cients' lives. The following day, I facilitated a day long case review in a capital case with an imminent trial date.
As I left Friday afternoon, I looked around at the now empty training room at DPA. I thought of what had occurred that week, and how much learning had occurred, learning that was going to make an immediate impact on clients' lives. I thought of the room as a virtual beehive of activity throughout the year. I thought about the education program that Ed Monahan, Public Advocate and former Training Director for DPA, Jeff Sherr, present Training director, as well as Glenn McClister, Michael Camenish, and Lisa Blevins, had built, and the impact that it had on the statewide public defender organization in Kentucky. That program now consists not only of the periodic voir dire training and an annual capital litigation institute, but also the "Public Defender College" that includes new attorney training, district court (misdemeanor) training, juvenile law training, circuit court training (felony), a three day annual seminar with a smorgasbord of training, and regional and capital and juvenile summits. In addition, at least three times a year leaders from around the state, lawyer and non-lawyer alike, gather to learn about leadership and supervision. This leadership training is supplemented with an annual week-long leadership institute. The apogee of the education program is the week long litigation institute at a place called Faubush where trial skills are taught and values are embedded. I have often called Faubush the "soul of DPA." Faubush is the place where lawyers and investigators and others learn that the client comes first in whatever we do as public defenders, that zealous and excellent representation must be the norm, and that individuals who commit to changing themselves can constantly transform an organization for the better.
As I left the training room Friday afternoon and thought about all the teaching and educating that went on in that room as well as in Faubush and other places, the only way I could describe the place was "learning organization." The Kentucky public defender system is or is becoming the organization described in the first paragraph, one where the client comes first, where learning is valued, and where transformation is normative.