Organizational learning is the competitive advantage of the future. New products and services can easily be copied, but the speed at which you learn and renew, cannot. Organizational learning is the cornerstone of innovation as it allows everyone to discover unknowns and adapt to changes. Is yours a learning organization?
What is a learning organization?
The concept of a learning organization was first brought up by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline. It stands for an organization made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge.
These individuals help their firms cultivate tolerance, foster open discussion, and think holistically and systemically. Learning organizations are better at adapting to the unpredictable—and adapt more quickly—than their competitors.
The challenge with the concept of learning organizations has been that it is abstract. It’s also unclear how to become one–that is, how you can assess whether yours is a learning organization or not.
The work of Garvin and Edmonson has been instrumental in making the concept clearer and measurable, as in this video.
What is the relevance for innovation?
Organizational learning and innovation work together. Organizational learning creates a culture where employees adapt to changes and discover unknowns. Innovation is about acting upon new opportunities or addressing existing opportunities in novel ways.
- Learning organizations have processes in place to learn from success and failures, and an environment that fosters learning and leadership that supports it.
- Innovation provides the pathway for the organization to take action—for example, by developing new processes, services or improving existing ones—and to change course as needed.
In other words, in a learning organization, the development and implementation phases of an innovation process are more effective and efficient.
How do you benchmark a learning organization?
Learning may be essential to your organization and its ability to innovate, but how do you know whether yours is a learning organization? And for that competitive advantage, how do you know if you do it better than others?
Garvin and Edmonson have created a useful benchmarking tool that can help your organization assess three important components of a learning organization:
- Does your organization have appropriate learning processes?
- Does your organization have a culture that supports learning?
- Does your leadership support learning?
This benchmarking tool is free and can be accessed at http://los.hbs.edu. To get the most out of it, be sure and clearly define the boundaries of the organization you are assessing. Are you interested in assessing the whole organization, your unit, or only part of your unit? For a more reliable assessment, it helps to ask colleagues to complete the same survey. Your perceptions may not be the same.
How do you interpret the results?
The concept of a learning organization may seem simple in itself, but being or becoming one is not. Most organizations score disappointingly low using the benchmarking tool, or at least lower than senior management had hoped or expected.
- The first step for improving the learning of your organization, is to accept that you may not be very good at it. Very few organizations are.
- Second, becoming a learning organization means implementing a process for learning. That is, it means both creating a culture that fosters learning and creating leadership support—neither of which is easy.
Need help in becoming a learning organization?
The benchmarking tool will give you hints regarding the areas that need improvement. In the references below are some additional articles by Edmonson and her colleagues that may be helpful.
We at Organizing4Innovation will gladly assist you with administering the survey, interpreting it, and helping you become a learning organization. Please send your inquiry to: info “at” organizing4innovation “dot” com.
Here is a link to the HBR article on learning organizations including the benchmark questions: