HBR: Knowledge Management: Chapter 3: Building a Learning Organization

No learning organization is built overnight. Success comes from carefully cultivated attitudes, commitments, and management processes that accrue slowly and steadily. – David Garvin

HBR on Knowledge Management
HBR on Knowledge Management

Why did I chose this resource?

It’s part of a really dense but valuable book. Each chapter is like a book. This is chapter 3.

What did you learn from it?

There are lots of people jumping on the bandwagon of “learning organizations” and “knowledge-creating companies” but few really do it well. It takes a discipline to do this. There are three major questions or issues that need to be raised:

  • Meaning – What is a well grounded and plausible definition of learning organizations – it must be actionable and easy to apply.
  • Management – We need clearer guidelines for practice filled with operational advice rather than high aspirations.
  • Measurement – We need better tools for assessing an organizations’ rate and level of learning to ensure that gains have in fact been made.

Key Knowledge

  • What is a Learning Organization
    • A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.
  • Building Blocks
    • Systematic Problem solving – Scientific method, data driven , statistical tools
    • Experimentation – Ongoing programs, Demonstration projects, simple changes to systemic changes
    • Learning from past experience – Internal failures documented and trained as “improvements”
    • Learning from others – Going beyond our selves and looking at others’ successes and failures
    • Transferring knowledge – Reports, tours, [videos] [presentations]
  • Measuring Learning
    • Increased learning rates should mean increased productivity and quality
    • “Half-life curve” measurement – Companies, divisions, or departments that take less time to improve must be learning faster than their peers.
  • First Steps
    • Foster an environment that is conducive to learning – different types of activities, analysis, and brainstorming
    • Open boundaries and stimulate exchange of ideas – each practice can learn from each other
    • Create learning programs with specific goals and outcomes – what do we need to learn and perennial reviews

How are you using what you learned?

We have already put in place many of the ideas mentioned in this chapter – as a result of applying what we’ve learned, seeing what others do, and refining our method based on feedback. I think there is definitely room for improvement specifically to better ask the questions of meaning, management, and measurement.

Key Changes

  • Look at each team as a learning organization within a larger shared corporate learning team
  • Determine a curriculum for the teams and the company of “concepts” and then a process for outside knowledge
  • Find ways to cultivate learning in other forms – discussions e.g. theme reviews , software reviews

How can we as a company or individuals in the company use this?

We can learn how to better manage our learning process by asking the questions about what does it mean to be a learning organization for us, how do we manage our learning, and how do we measure our learning.

Key Actions

  • Reiterate team visions so that people know what they are learning for
  • Determine the knowledge gathering, analysis, retrieval, and application process
  • Measure the outcomes of learning – who’s reading what – how many times is something read


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