Academic journal article SAM Advanced Management Journal

Toward a Learning Organization: The Strategic Building Blocks

Academic journal article SAM Advanced Management Journal

Toward a Learning Organization: The Strategic Building Blocks

Article excerpt

The literature on organizational learning has been elusive in providing practical guidelines or managerial actions that practicing managers can implement to develop a learning organization. Some of the questions raised by managers about the concept of a learning organization are as follows: What is a learning organization? What are the payoffs of becoming a learning organization? What should I do to encourage organizational learning? How do I know if my company is a learning organization? What are the characteristics of a learning organization and how do I sustain one? Is there an implementation strategy? Clearly a discussion with a managerial perspective on how to build a learning organization is lacking in the literature.

To answer the first and most frequently asked question, "What is a learning organization?", we need a definition. The following definition best reflects the conceptual approach of this paper:

A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights (Garvin, 1993).

This working definition is only a starting point. More important is the need to explain how to become a learning organization, not what it is. This paper will develop an organizational archetype of a learning organization to focus on some of the details of how to build one.

Before getting to this, we need to answer a second frequently asked question which is, Can a learning organization improve my bottom line results? A manager promoting the concept should be ready to answer this question. One approach is to ask whether the organization is looking for a short-term or long-term results. Organizational learning is a long-term activity that will build competitive advantage over time and requires sustained management attention, commitment, and effort. A list of companies frequently cited as learning organizations confirms this fact. These companies include Motorola, Wal-Mart, British Petroleum(BP), Xerox, Shell, Analog Devices, GE, 3M, Honda, Sony, Nortel, Harley-Davidson, Corning, Kodak, and Chaparral Steel. Not only have these organizations maximized their competitive positions in good times, they have been carefully nurtured in turbulent times. As a result, these companies are envied by their competitors (de Geus, 1988; McGill, Slocum & Lei, 1993; Leonard-Barton, 1992).

Studies have shown that long-term investments in these companies would have given an investor spectacular returns. More to the point, these companies were built to last and have been managed effectively since their founding (Collins & Porras, 1994).

To address the other questions mentioned about how to build learning organizations, over 80 published articles and books on the learning organizations were reviewed. My involvement with nine different organizations in helping them measure and build their learning capability has also provided additional insights (Goh & Richards, 1997). Information from interviews, discussions with senior managers, and focus groups with employees were also part of this review process.

The objective of this paper is similar to the tradition of human resources practices research, that is, to identify a bundle of managerial practices and organizational processes that differentiate these learning companies. Current research shows that identifiable bundles of human resource management practices are linked to organizational performance (Pfeffer, 1994). Selected literature from this area was also reviewed to provide further insights about managerial practices in a learning organization.

A Matter of Perspective?

A premise of our approach is that all organizations can learn. Some learn better than others and survive, while the more successful learners thrive. Those that fail to learn will eventually disappear (Nevis, Dibella & Gold, 1995). The role of leaders in organizations is to set the necessary conditions for the organization to develop an effective learning capability. …

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