Monday, April 18, 2005

HBS Working Knowledge: Organizations: Learning in Action

HBS Working Knowledge: Organizations: Learning in Action

Most managers today understand the value of building a learning organization. But in moving from theory into practice, managers must realize there's no one-size-fits-all strategy applicable to every company and every situation. In this excerpt from his book Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work (HBS Press), HBS Professor David A. Garvin shows how different organizations put different learning strategies to work.

The Learning Organization Litmus Test

How do you know if your company is a learning organization? These simple litmus tests can help determine whether or not your company qualifies:

Does the organization have a defined learning agenda?

Learning organizations have a clear picture of their future knowledge requirements. They know what they need to know, whether the subject is customers, competitors, markets, technologies, or production processes, and are actively pursuing the desired information. Even in industries that are changing as rapidly as telecommunications, computers, and financial services, broad areas of needed learning can usually be mapped with some precision. Once they have been identified, these topics are pursued through multiple approaches, including experiments, simulations, research studies, post-audits, and benchmarking visits, rather than education and training alone.

Is the organization open to discordant information?

If an organization regularly "shoots the messenger" who brings forward unexpected or bad news, the environment is clearly hostile to learning. Behavior change is extremely difficult in such settings, for there are few challenges to the status quo. Sensitive topics — dissension in the ranks, unhappy customers, preemptive moves by competitors, problems with new technologies — are considered to be off limits, and messages are filtered, massaged, and watered down as they make their way up the chain of command.

Does the organization avoid repeated mistakes?

Learning organizations reflect on past experience, distill it into useful lessons, share the knowledge internally, and ensure that errors are
not repeated elsewhere. Databases, intranets, training sessions, and workshops can all be used for this purpose. Even more critical, however, is a mind-set that enables companies to recognize the value of productive failure as contrasted with unproductive success. A productive failure leads to insights, understanding, and thus an addition to commonly held wisdom of the organization.
And unproductive success occurs when something goes well, but nobody knows how or why. There is a peculiar logic at work here: to avoid repeating mistakes, managers must learn to accept them the first time around.

Does the organization lose critical knowledge when key people leave?

The story is all too common: a talented employee leaves the company, and critical skills disappear as well. Why? Because crucial knowledge was tacit, unarticulated, and unshared, locked in the head of a single person. Learning organizations avoid this problem by institutionalizing essential knowledge. Whenever possible, they codify it in policies or procedures, retain it in reports or memos, disperse it to large groups of people, and build it into the company's values, norms, and operating practices. Knowledge becomes common property, rather than the province of individuals or small groups.

Does the organization act on what it knows?

Learning organizations are not simply repositories of knowledge.
They take advantage of their new learning and adapt their behavior accordingly. Information is to be used; if it languishes or is ignored, its impact is certain to be minimal. By this test, an organization that discovers an unmet market need but fails to fill it does not qualify as a learning organization, nor does a company that identifies its own best practices but is unable to transfer them across departments or divisions.

From Chapter 1 of Learning in Action


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