“Organizational learning” and “learning organization” are terms that continue to be misused. It seems like these days any business, nonprofit, or government agency that provides training and education to its employees calls itself a learning organization. They might do a lot of training and education but that doesn’t necessarily mean employees are learning and, most importantly, it doesn’t mean that their individuals and teams are learning what they need to know in order to become and stay high performance organizations.
With the proliferation of elearning and mlearning, I’m afraid that more accessible training and education is being confused with learning. Companies are rightly proud of themselves for the quality and quantity of online performance support that they are providing. Whether employees are continuously learning and applying that learning to achieving strategic goals is another matter entirely.
It is organizational learning that will make some organizations more successful than others over the long run. Quoting Ray Stata, co-founder and former CEO of Analog Devices, Harvard Business Professor David Garvin says that learning may be the only sustainable competitive advantage for organizations today. He explains that products, services, and processes can be copied. This observation is being played out today in the many Web-based companies. Having a search engine, online payment processing, or social networking capability was a competitive advantage only a short time ago. No more. Software engineers can create comparable services seemingly overnight. Companies have to be continually learning and changing in order to merely stay in the game, let alone win the game.
Garvin, one of the early thought leaders on organizational learning, and another Harvard Business Professor, Amy Edmonson, define “learning organization” in an interview he and Amy Edmonson did with HBR in 2008 (See video.). They say:
…a learning organization is an organization skilled at two things: one, creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge; and, second, acting, modifying its behavior to respond to [that] new knowledge and insights.
Garvin and Edmonson go on to talk about the “three building blocks” of organizational learning: 1) environment; 2) work processes; and 3) leadership. I interpret “environment” to mean organizational culture. This includes the values, basic assumptions, beliefs, expected behaviors, and norms of the organization. These aspects of culture must be aligned with continuous learning about and from the work of the organization. “Processes” are the routine ways in which the work gets done. Work and learning must be part of the same process. And by “leadership” they mean what top level leaders do to support, encourage, and remove barriers to learning and performance improvement. All three of these “building blocks” must be in place for an organization to be a truly learning organization.