Building a Learning Organization

Last Updated Apr 1, 2008 4:56 PM EDT

The Idea in Brief

As we all know, to stay ahead of competitors, companies must constantly enhance the way they do business. But more performance-improvement programs fail than succeed. That's because many managers don't realize that sustainable improvement requires a commitment to learning.

After all, how can organizations respond creatively to new challenges (shifts in customer preferences, market downturns) without first discovering something new--then altering the way they operate to reflect new insights? Without learning, companies repeat old practices, make cosmetic changes, and produce short-lived improvements.

To transform your company into a learning organization, Garvin recommends mastering five activities:

  • Solving problems systematically

  • Experimenting with new approaches to work
  • Learning from past experience
  • Learning from other companies and from customers
  • Transferring knowledge throughout your organization
  • Woven into the fabric of your company's daily operations, these activities help your organization make enduring improvements that translate directly into measurable gains--including superior quality, better delivery, and increased market share.

    The Idea in Practice

    Garvin offers these suggestions for mastering five organizational learning practices:

    Solving Problems Systematically

    Don't try to solve problems by relying on gut instinct or assumptions. Instead, generate hypotheses, gather data to test your hypotheses, and use statistical tools (such as cause-and-effect diagrams) to organize data and draw inferences.


    Systematically search for and test new knowledge. Use small experiments to produce incremental gains in knowledge. For instance, specialty glass manufacturer Corning experiments continually with diverse raw materials and new formulations to increase yields and provide better grades of glass.

    Use demonstration projects to produce knowledge you can use for systemwide changes. General Foods experimented with self-managing teams at its Topeka plant with the aim of adopting this approach across the company later.

    Learning from Past Experience

    Review your successes and failures, identify lessons learned, and record those lessons in accessible forms.

    Boeing compared the development processes of its 737 and 747 planes (models that had serious technical problems) to those of its 707 and 727 (two profitable programs). It then compiled a booklet of lessons learned. Several members of the learning team were later transferred to two start-up programs--the 757 and 767. They produced the most successful, error-free launches in Boeing's history.

    Learning from Others

    Look outside your immediate environment to gain new perspectives. Consider these sources:

    Other companies. Identify best-practice organizations (even in other industries), use site visits and interviews to study how they get work done, and generate ideas for improving your own practices.

    Your customers. Meet regularly with customers to gather knowledge about products, competitors, consumers' preferences, and the quality of your service. Also observe customers using your products, to identify problems and generate ideas for improvement.

    Transferring Knowledge

    New knowledge carries maximum impact when it's shared broadly. To transfer knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout your organization, move experts to different parts of the company--across divisions, departments, and facilities--so they can share the wealth.

    Time Life's CEO shifted the president of the company's music division (who had orchestrated years of rapid growth and high profits through innovative marketing) to the book division, where profits were flat because of continued reliance on traditional marketing concepts.

    Copyright 2008 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

    Further Reading


    Is Yours a Learning Organization?

    Harvard Business Review

    March 2008

    by David A. Garvin, Amy C. Edmondson, and Francesca Gino

    The authors expand on Garvin's initial insights about how to build a learning organization. In this new selection, they describe the three building blocks required for creating learning organizations: 1) a supportive environment (where employees feel safe taking risks and exploring the unknown), 2) formal learning processes for activities such as gathering, interpreting, and disseminating information, and 3) leadership that reinforces learning by modeling behaviors such as asking questions and listening. The authors then provide a diagnostic tool, the Learning Organization Survey, that enables you to determine how well your team, department, or entire company is performing with each building block. By assessing performance on each building block, you pinpoint areas needing improvement, moving your company that much closer to the learning organization ideal.

    Teaching Smart People How to Learn

    Harvard Business Review

    February 2000

    by Chris Argyris

    To build a learning organization, you need people who can learn. But sometimes your best and brightest are the hardest to teach. Why? They haven't had the opportunities for introspection that failure affords, and they dread feeling incompetent or vulnerable. When they do fail, they become defensive rather than open to learning from mistakes. To help talented employees develop more learning-oriented responses, demonstrate your willingness to examine and change unproductive assumptions, such as "I must never make mistakes." And teach employees to apply the same kind of "tough reasoning" to their own assumptions that they apply to on-the-job problems--such as using objective data and asking others to verify their conclusions.


    Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work

    Harvard Business Press


    David A. Garvin

    In this book, Garvin offers a complete overview of learning organization concepts. He introduces three modes of learning--intelligence gathering, experience, and experimentation--and shows how each mode is most effectively deployed. These approaches are brought to life in richly detailed case studies of learning in action at organizations such as Xerox, L.L. Bean, the U.S. Army, and GE. The book concludes with a discussion of the leadership role that senior executives must play to make learning a day-to-day reality in their organizations.