How can you tell if your company is, indeed, a learning organization? What is a learning organization anyway? And how can you improve the learning systems in your company? The authors provide a framework for examining a company, based on its “learning orientations,” a set of critical dimensions to organizational learning, and “facilitating factors,” the processes that affect how easy or hard it is for learning to occur. They illustrate their model with examples from four firms they studied — Motorola, Mutual Investment Corporation, Electricite de France, and Fiat — and conclude that all organizations have systems that support learning.
1. C. Argyris, “Double Loop Learning in Organizations,” Harvard Business Review, September–October 1977, pp. 115–124;
K. Weick, The Social Psychology of Organizing (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1979);
B. Leavitt and J.G. March, “Organizational Learning,” Annual Review of Sociology 14 (1988): 319–340;
P.M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (New York: Doubleday, 1990); and
E.H. Schein, “How Can Organizations Learn Faster? The Challenge of Entering the Green Room,” Sloan Management Review, Winter 1993, pp. 85–92.
2. C.K. Prahalad and G. Hamel, “The Core Competence of the Corporation,” Harvard Business Review, May–June 1990, pp. 79–91.
3. J. Child and A. Kieser, “Development of Organizations over Time,” in N.C. Nystrom and W.H. Starbuck, eds., Handbook of Organizational Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp. 28–64; and
E.H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).
4. J. Van Maanen and E.H. Schein, “Toward a Theory of Organizational Socialization,” Research in Organizational Behavior 1 (1979): 1–37.
5. C. Argyris and D.A. Schön, Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1978).
6. Senge (1990).
7. Huber identifies four constructs linked to organizational learning that he labels knowledge aquisition, information distribution, information interpretation, and organizational memory. Implicit in this formulation is that learning progresses through a series of stages. Our framework makes this sequence explicit and connects it to organizational action. Huber does not make this connection since to him learning alters the range of potential, rather than actual, behaviors. See:
G. Huber, “Organizational Learning: The Contributing Processes and Literature, Organization Science 2 (1991): 88–115.
8. At Motorola, we observed and interviewed fifty senior managers, visited the paging products operations, and had access to about twenty-five internal documents. At Mutual Investment Corporation (a pseudonym for a large financial services company based in the United States), we observed and interviewed corporation employees in the investment funds group and the marketing groups. At Electricité de France, we observed and interviewed employees in the nuclear power operations. At Fiat, we observed and interviewed employees in the Direzione Technica (engineering division) in Torino, Italy.
9. A. Strauss, Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
10. For a discussion of “communities of practice” see:
J.S. Brown and P. Puguid, “Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice,” Organization Science 2 (1991): 40–57.
11. Argyris and Schön (1978).
12. W.H. Schmidt and J.P. Finnegan, The Race Without a Finish Line: America’s Quest for Total Quality (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).
13. For the idea of the factory as a learning laboratory, see:
D. Leonard-Barton, “The Factory as a Learning Laboratory,” Sloan Management Review, Fall 1992, pp. 39–52.
14. This skill has been referred to as “legitimate peripheral participation.” See:
J. Lave and E. Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Palo Alto, California: Institute for Research on Learning, IRL Report 90–0013, 1990).
15. C. Argyris, Strategy, Change, and Defensive Routines (Boston: Putman, 1985).
16. See “Companies That Train Best,” Fortune, 8 February 1993, pp. 44–48; and
“Motorola: Training for the Millenium,” Business Week, 28 March 1994, pp. 158–163.
17. T. Peters, Liberation Management (New York: Knopf, 1992).
18. Jay W. Forrester is considered to be the founder of the field of systems thinking.
19. S. Srivastra and D.L. Cooperrider and Associates, Appreciative Management and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990).
20. E. Nevis, Organizational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach (Cleveland: Gestalt Institute of Cleveland Press, 1987).
21. W.R. Torbert, Managing the Corporate Dream (New York: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1987).
The research in this paper was supported by a grant from the International Consortium for Executive Development Research, Lexington, Massachusetts, and by the MIT Organizational Learning Center. The authors would like to thank Joseph Reelin, Edgar Schein, Peter Senge, and Sandra Waddock for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.