The process of organizational learning is related to the concept of a learning organization, which Senge (1990: 3) described as one ‘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’. A learning organization was defined by Wick and Leon (1995: 299) as one that ‘continually improves by rapidly creating and refining the capabilities required for future success’, and by Pedler et al (1997: 3) as an organization that ‘facilitates the learning of all its members and continually transforms itself’. As Burgoyne (1999) pointed out, learning organizations have to be able to adapt to their context and develop their people to match that context.
Garvin et al (1993) suggested that learning organizations are good at doing five things:
- Systematic problem solving, which rests heavily on the philosophy and methods of the quality movement. Its underlying ideas include relying on scientific method rather than guesswork for diagnosing problems – what Deming (1986) calls the ‘plan-do-check-act’ cycle and others refer to as ‘hypothesis-generating, hypothesis-testing’ techniques. Data rather than assumptions are required as the background to decision making – what quality practitioners call ‘fact-based management’ – and simple statistical tools such as histograms, Pareto charts and cause-and-effect diagrams are used to organize data and draw inferences.
- Experimentation – this activity involves the systematic search for and testing of new knowledge. Continuous improvement programmes – ‘kaizen’ – are an important feature of a learning organization.
- Learning from past experience – learning organizations review their successes and failures, assess them systematically, and record the lessons learned in a way that employees find open and accessible. This process has been called the ‘Santayana principle’, quoting the philosopher George Santayana who coined the phrase: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.
- Learning from others – sometimes the most powerful insights come from looking outside one’s immediate environment to gain a new perspective. This process has been called SIS (for ‘steal ideas shamelessly’). Another more acceptable word for it is benchmarking – a disciplined process of identifying best practice organizations and
analysing the extent to which what they are doing can be transferred, with suitable modifications, to one’s own environment.
- Transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization by seconding people with new expertise, or by education and training programmes, as long as the latter are linked explicitly with implementation.
One approach, as advocated by Senge (1990), is to focus on collective problem solving within an organization. This is achieved using team learning and a ‘soft systems’ methodology whereby all the possible causes of a problem are considered in order to define more clearly those that can be dealt with and those that are insoluble.
A learning organization strategy will be based on the belief that learning is a continuous process rather than a set of discrete training activities (Sloman, 1999). It will incorporate strategies for organizational learning as described above and individual learning as discussed below.