The Challenge of Organizational Learning

By Milway, Katie Smith; Saxton, Amy | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

The Challenge of Organizational Learning


Milway, Katie Smith, Saxton, Amy, Stanford Social Innovation Review


Disseminating insights and know-how across any organization is critical to improving performance, but nonprofits struggle to implement organizational learning and make it a priority. A recent study found three common barriers to knowledge sharing across nonprofits and their networks, as well as ways and means to overcome them.

Reinventing the wheel-this well-worn phrase describes one of the oldest of human follies: undertaking a project or activity without tapping into the knowledge that already exists within a culture or community. Individuals are blessed with a brain that, some of the time, remembers what we've already learned-or at least that we've learned something. But what about organizations?

Consider the views of Kim Oakes, director of sharing and communities of practice at the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a national network of 99 charter schools serving 27,000 students via 1,900 teachers. Oakes told Bridgespan's research team: "We know that about 80 percent of our teachers create materials from scratch. ? It became increasingly important to connect our teachers, so that they could build upon one another's ideas rather than work in isolation."

Or consider World Vision, an international Christian development organization with an annual budget of more than $2 billion operating in 93 countries. World Vision was facing the consequences of rapid growth. In the words of Eleanor Monbiot, its senior director for knowledge management: "We were growing at 10 to 15 percent a year. We had moved from everybody knowing each other vaguely, to a breaking point. ? The No. 1 need was to know what people were up to, where the best practices lay."

KIPP, World Vision, and a host of other nonprofits, large and small, are tackling the challenge of making their organizations as smart as the individuals who constitute them. In short, they are engaging in the hard work of organizational learning: The intentional practice of collecting information, reflecting on it, and sharing the findings, to improve the performance of an organization.

Authors ranging from the late business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. to MIT Sloan School of Management senior lecturer Peter Senge have emphasized the value of knowledge and learning inside organizations. But, to use another well-worn phrase, this is easier said than done. In the fall of 2010, a Bridgespan Group team surveyed 116 non-profits about how they learn-and how they translate the knowledge gained into practice, to increase their impact and fulfill their missions. We then explored these topics through interviews with more than half a dozen organizations, which were recommended by their peers for their innovative approaches to learning.

The results of the survey indicate that nonprofit leaders care deeply about capturing and sharing knowledge across their programs and fields. But they also identify three significant impediments to organizational learning: a lack of clear and measurable goals about using knowledge to improve performance; insufficient incentives for individuals or teams to participate in organizational learning activities; and uncertainty about the most effective processes for capturing and sharing learning. These issues also surface in for-profit organizations, according to outside studies, where knowledge hoarding between business units can result from competition for resources. 1 In the nonprofit sector, however, 97 percent of survey respondents said their leaders value knowledge sharing as a means to achieve their missions. Still, many of them struggle to do it well.

In this article, we look at the components of organizational learning; explore the challenges surrounding its goals, incentives, and processes; and provide examples of organizations working to address barriers to sharing knowledge. In an age driven by technology and information, organizational learning has not just become part of the successful 21st-century nonprofit; increasingly, it is a key ingredient. …

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