Building a Learning Organization

… a core concept in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107

Click for Garvin’s HBR article

Concept description

David Garvin (reference below, link on right) defines a learning organization as “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

Key activities

Garvin states that:

“Learning organizations are skilled at five main activities: systematic problem solving, experimentation with new approaches, learning from their own experience and past history, learning from the experiences and best practices of others, and transferring knowledge quickly and efficiently throughout the organization.”

1 – Systematic problem solving

“This first activity rests heavily on the philosophy and methods of the quality movement. Its underlying ideas, now widely accepted, include:

  • Relying on the scientific method, rather than guesswork, for diagnosing problems (what Deming calls the “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle, and others refer to as “hypothesis-generating, hypothesis-testing” techniques).
  • Insisting on data, rather than assumptions, as background for decision making (what quality practitioners call “fact-based management”).
  • Using simple statistical tools (histograms, Pareto charts, correlations, cause-and-effect diagrams) to organize data and draw inferences.

“Most training programs focus primarily on problem-solving techniques, using exercises and practical examples. These tools are relatively straightforward and easily communicated; the necessary mind-set, however, is more difficult to establish. Accuracy and precision are essential for learning. Employees must therefore become more disciplined in their thinking and more attentive to details. They must continually ask, “How do we know that’s true?”, recognizing that close enough is not good enough if real learning is to take place. They must push beyond obvious symptoms to assess underlying causes, often collecting evidence when conventional wisdom says it is unnecessary. Otherwise, the organization will remain a prisoner of “gut facts” and sloppy reasoning, and learning will be stifled.

2 – Experimentation

“This activity involves the systematic searching for and testing of new knowledge. Using the scientific method is essential, and there are obvious parallels to systematic problem solving. But unlike problem solving, experimentation is usually motivated by opportunity and expanding horizons, not by current difficulties. It takes two main forms: ongoing programs and one-of-a-kind demonstration projects.”

3 – Learning from past experience

“Companies must review their successes and failures, assess them systematically, and record the lessons in a form that employees find open and accessible. One expert has called this process the “Santayana Review,” citing the famous philosopher George Santayana, who coined the phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unfortunately, too many managers today are indifferent, even hostile, to the past, and by failing to reflect on it, they let valuable knowledge escape.”

4 – Learning from others

“Of course, not all learning comes from reflection and self-analysis. Sometimes the most powerful insights come from looking outside one’s immediate environment to gain a new perspective. Enlightened managers know that even companies in completely different businesses can be fertile sources of ideas and catalysts for creative thinking. … Enthusiastic borrowing is replacing the “not invented here” syndrome. … The greatest benefits come from studying practices, the way that work gets done, rather than results, and from involving line managers in the process. Almost anything can be benchmarked.”

5 – Transferring knowledge

“For learning to be more than a local affair, knowledge must spread quickly and efficiently throughout the organization. Ideas carry maximum impact when they are shared broadly rather than held in a few hands. A variety of mechanisms spur this process, including written, oral, and visual reports, site visits and tours, personnel rotation programs, education and training programs, and standardization programs. Each has distinctive strengths and weaknesses.”

Measuring learning and learning audits

Garvin describes the importance of measuring organizational learning and describes the value of a learning audit:

“Managers have long known that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This maxim is as true of learning as it is of any other corporate objective. Traditionally, the solution has been “learning curves” and “manufacturing progress functions.” …For companies hoping to become learning organizations, however, these measures are incomplete. They focus on only a single measure of output (cost or price) and ignore learning that affects other competitive variables, like quality, delivery, or new product introductions. They suggest only one possible learning driver (total production volumes) and ignore both the possibility of learning in mature industries, where output is flat, and the possibility that learning might be driven by other sources, such as new technology or the challenge posed by competing products. Perhaps most important, they tell us little about the sources of learning or the levers of change.

“Organizational learning can usually be traced through three overlapping stages. The first step is cognitive. Members of the organization are exposed to new ideas, expand their knowledge, and begin to think differently. The second step is behavioral. Employees begin to internalize new insights and alter their behavior. And the third step is performance improvement, with changes in behavior leading to measurable improvements in results: superior quality, better delivery, increased market share, or other tangible gains. Because cognitive and behavioral changes typically precede improvements in performance, a complete learning audit must include all three.

“Surveys, questionnaires, and interviews are useful for this purpose. At the cognitive level, they would focus on attitudes and depth of understanding. Have employees truly understood the meaning of self-direction and teamwork, or are the terms still unclear? At PPG, a team of human resource experts periodically audits every manufacturing plant, including extensive interviews with shop-floor employees, to ensure that the concepts are well understood. Have new approaches to customer service been fully accepted? …

“To assess behavioral changes, surveys and questionnaires must be supplemented by direct observation. Here the proof is in the doing, and there is no substitute for seeing employees in action. Domino’s Pizza uses “mystery shoppers” to assess managers’ commitment to customer service at its individual stores; L.L. Bean places telephone orders with its own operators to assess service levels. Other companies invite outside consultants to visit, attend meetings, observe employees in action, and then report what they have learned. In many ways, this approach mirrors that of examiners for the Baldrige Award, who make several-day site visits to semifinalists to see whether the companies’ deeds match the words on their applications.

“Finally, a comprehensive learning audit also measures performance. Half-life curves or other performance measures are essential for ensuring that cognitive and behavioral changes have actually produced results. Without them, companies would lack a rationale for investing in learning and the assurance that learning was serving the organization’s ends.”

Topic, subject and Atlas course

Promoting Learning (core topic) in Implementation and Delivery and Atlas107 Implementation and Delivery


David A. Garvin (1993), Building a Learning Organization, Harvard Business Review, July-August, pp. 75-92, at, accessed 19 October 2017.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 19 October 2017.

Image: Atlas of Public Management, Advice, at, accessed 20 November 2016.