Can an Organization Really Learn?


The company’s president walked into the conference room for his Monday morning leadership team meeting. Everyone sitting around the table was a bit apprehensive. The previous week the president had attended a conference, and whenever this happens he always came back with some new concept or scheme to make the company better that he wanted implemented. This time, the program-of-the-month was creating the “learning organization.” After the usual Monday morning niceties, the president excitedly launched into what he learned about the importance of being a learning organization and rambled on about all the benefits it would bring.

After running out of steam, the president paused and the conference room was silent. Interpreted this as his leadership team agreeing with him, the president closed his monologue by stating, “I think each of you should set up your area so that we can become a learning organization.”

After a brief hesitation, the head of operations raised his hand as if to ask a question. “Being a learning organization sounds great, and I certainly see how it could help our company, but how do we go about doing this?” After some thought, the president frowned and conceded, “Good question. I really have no idea.”

This story was shared by a friend while we were talking about the importance of organizational learning. His story goes back a few years to when the concept was the latest management fad. At the time, a lot of people got very excited about its potential, but unfortunately the gurus of the day seemed to be better at extoling the virtues a learning organization than at showing people how to actually create one. For many the concept quickly became simply a nice analogy for constant improvement.

When I first encountered the concept of organizational learning during a doctoral seminar from Eric Trist, a brilliant internationally renowned scholar, I was skeptical. Sure, I thought, people in an organization can learn, but how can an organization itself learn? I quickly discovered that the concept was much more than a nice metaphor, and that understanding a couple of its key components can be very helpful when trying to set up a company capable of rapid continuous improvement. Two of these concepts are: 1) an organization’s “theory-in-use” and 2) its “institutional memory.”

An organization’s theory-in-use consists of the operating strategies, assumptions and norms that govern the decision making and actions of its members. In other words – the thinking that determines the way the organization gets work done. A firm’s theory-in-use is captured in its institutional memory, part of which is explicit and documented in org. charts, policies, procedures, systems, technology, and other official records; but the remainder is implicit in individual’s “mental maps, their personal images and patterns of thinking about how work gets done. To the extent that ideas, new technology, management initiatives, and other actions change the way the company works (its theory-in-use), the organization is learning.

Boy, this sounds academic, and to some extent it is. But let’s look at several things that it points to in our efforts to continuously improve our organizations.

First, if organizational learning involves changing our theories-in-use, we need to make certain our organization is set up and run to embrace and enable the challenging of the status quo. We need all of our people constantly looking for ways to improve how we do our work, and be fearless about stepping forward with their ideas. Most organizations focus more on maintaining control than on encouraging people to challenge the way work is done.

Second, we must make certain that we quickly and efficiently capture improvement ideas and embed them into our theories-in-use – both explicitly in formal documents, policies and procedures, and implicitly in people’s thinking and actions.

Third, we need to set up systems and processes that help the organization to constantly learn. This is why I am a big promoter of high performance idea systems, where front-line workers identify problems and come up with ideas to solve them as a regular part of their daily work.

Fully understanding the concepts of organizational learning can provide us with many valuable insights. It is much more than a simple metaphor. But there is one part of the concept that is rarely discussed. How do we make certain that the organization learns the right lessons?  That’s a blog entry for another day.

Dean M. Schroeder

Dean M. Schroeder

Dean M. Schroeder is an award-winning author, consultant & scholar whose work helping organizations improve management outcomes continues to garner praise. His best-selling book,Ideas Are Free, co-authored by Alan Robinson, was voted the Reader’s Choice by Fast Company magazine and selected as one of the 30 best business books of the year by Soundview Executive Books. As a consultant & speaker, Dr. Schroeder has worked with many types of companies & organizations around the world.

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