Learning Organization

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Building a Leaning Organization
DAVID A. GARVIN

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY are proliferating as corporations seek to better themselves and gain an edge. Unfortunately, however, failed programs far outnumber successes, and improvement rates remain low. That's because most companies have failed to grasp a basic truth. Before people and companies can improve, they first must learn. And to do this, they need to look beyond rhetoric and high philosophy and focus on the fundamentals. Three critical issues must be addressed before a company can truly become a learning organization, writes Harvard Business School professor David Garvin. First is the question of meaning: a well-grounded, easy-to-apply definition of a learning organization. Second comes management: clearer operational guidelines for practice. Finally, better tools for measurement can assess an organization's rate and level of learning. Using these "three Ms" as a framework, Garvin defines learning organizations as skilled at five main activities: systematic problem solving, experimentation with new approaches, learning from past experience, learning from the best practices of others, and transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization. And since you can't manage something if you can't measure it, a complete learning audit is a must. That includes measuring cognitive and behavioral changes as well as tangible improvements in results. No learning organization is built overnight. Success comes from carefully cultivated attitudes, commitments, and management processes that accrue slowly and steadily. The first step is to foster an environment conducive to learning. Analog Devices, Chaparral Steel, Xerox, GE, and other companies provide enlightened examples. CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT PROGRAMS

CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT PROGRAMS

are sprouting up all over as organizations strive to

better themselves and gain an edge. The topic list is long and varied, and sometimes it seems as though a program a month is needed just to keep up. Unfortunately, failed programs far outnumber successes, and improvement rates remain distressingly low. Why? Because most companies have failed to grasp a basic truth. Continuous improvement requires a commitment to learning. How, after all, can an organization improve without first learning something new? Solving a problem, introducing a product, and reengineering a process all require seeing the world in a new light and acting accordingly. In the absence of learning, companies-and individuals -simply repeat old practices. Change remains cosmetic, and improvements are either fortuitous or short-lived. A few farsighted executives – Ray Stata of Analog Devices, Gordon Forward of Chaparral Steel, Paul Allaire of Xerox-have recognized the link between learning and continuous improvement and have begun to refocus their companies around it. Scholars too have jumped on the bandwagon, beating the drum for "learning organizations" and "knowledge-creating companies." In rapidly changing businesses like semiconductors and consumer electronics, these ideas are fast taking hold. Yet despite the encouraging signs, the topic in large part remains murky, confused, and difficult to

penetrate.

Meaning, Management, and Measurement
Scholars are partly to blame. Their discussions of learning organizations have often been reverential and utopian, filled with near mystical terminology. Paradise, they would have you believe, is just around the corner. Peter Senge, who popularized learning organizations in his book The Fifth Discipline, described them as places "where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together."' To achieve these ends, Senge suggested the use of five "component technologies": systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models,...
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