Tools for Assessing Your Organization's Learning Capabilities

Last Updated Mar 6, 2008 8:54 AM EST

Tools for Assessing Your Organization's Learning CapabilitiesEvery organization must learn or die -- learn about itself, the competition, the market, the world.

A new Harvard Business Review package on organizational learning wraps together an article, assessment tool and video interview to help you judge your own organization's learning capabilities.

What does a learning organization look like? Here is how the article's authors, Harvard Business School's David Garvin and Amy Edmondson, summarize work on the concept done in the 1990s and led by Peter M. Senge:

The result was a compelling vision of an organization made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. These people could help their firms cultivate tolerance, foster open discussion, and think holistically and systemically. Such learning organizations would be able to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than their competitors could.
Getting to that point, however, has proven difficult in practice for most companies. There are three building blocks an organization must achieve on the way to this goal.
  1. Supportive learning environment. "An environment that supports learning has four distinguishing characteristics: psychological safety, appreciation of differences, openness to new ideas, time for reflection."
  2. Concrete learning processes and practices. "For maximum impact, knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways. Sharing can take place among individuals, groups, or whole organizations. Knowledge can move laterally or vertically within a firm."
  3. Leadership that reinforces learning. "When leaders actively question and listen to employees -- and thereby prompt dialogue and debate -- people in the institution feel encouraged to learn."
The diagnostic tool accompanying the article will help you answer key questions, according to Garvin and Edmondson: To what extent is your unit functioning as a learning organization? and what are the relationships among the factors that affect learning in your unit?

(Image of Second Life lecture by el_aquacil, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.