Innovation, Organizational Culture, Organizational Learning

Is your Organization Capable of Learning



It is now openly acknowledged that continuous learning and improvement are the keys to an organization’s competitiveness. Then why is it, an article in the November issue of the Harvard Business Review asks, that most organizations are unable to learn? The article goes on to list a number of reasons.


In the first place, it seems that employees and employers are fixated on success and avoid perceived failure at all costs. As a result, they are afraid to uncover and make use of their own strengths relying, instead, on past performances and narrow, formally acknowledged expertise. Reliance on top down expertise wastes the on-the-ground and constantly renewable knowledge of front line employees. Those who deal directly with customers, develop products or events, make sales, field customer complaints and have a sense of how customers think are not empowered to intensify their learning and contribute their knowledge to a company’s business strategy and decision-making. Fear of failure also promotes a rush to tactical action– constant busy work — without ever a pause for reflection. Without the willingness to analyze and apply what has been learned, acknowledge mistakes and make revisions, the article notes, an organization cannot improve.


Does this ring any bells for you so far? For me, these findings are consistent with what I found in my own research, especially the fear to pause, reflect, extract lessons learned and figure out how these could be applied.


“We don’t have time now,” was the usual response to any suggestion of re-thinking things. “Maybe when this crisis is over.. or the board meetings or conference is completed.”  Drowning in busy work and operational issues are not conducive to learning. The thing is that they are not conducive to your bottom line either. While your organization is too exhausted to learn, reflect, take risks and innovate the world changes rapidly around it, leaving it increasingly behind its markets and customers.
The article stresses the need for continuous learning in order to achieve continuous improvement. What I found in my research was also the inability of non-learning organizations to constantly adapt and innovate which, today, spells nothing short than eventual extinction.


It is not only an obsession with success that prevents learning. It is also a narrow and static definition of success as “finished product” — a new event or service; increased sales; a new membership model. But what happens if one’s members or customers no longer need products or educational events to succeed in their work? What if changes in their industries make solutions, access to information or introduction to investors far more valuable and conducive to their success that attending educational events? Or if, in spite of increases in sales, you have not broadened and diversified your aging customer pool or entered into new, strategic relationships with content and technology partners to meet increased customer needs? In these cases, improvement of your current product lines or current sales strategy would not increase your value to your customers as much as your ability to understand their needs in a dynamic context and craft new types of solutions to their problems, outside your existing categories.


In true learning organizations, success is not equated with a finished product but capabilities for constant reinvention and unbroken alertness to customers and evolving market opportunities.


“There is never an end—meeting a deadline, or finalizing a product,” Paul Pion, CEO of a virtual veterinary network, VIN, once told me. At VIN members interact and solve tough cases in online communities. Their solutions, captured and archived in a searchable data base, are constantly amended by members’ own results and conclusions. Research data bases are daily renewed by new research information provided by members and staff, vetted and curated by member specialists. There are constantly new innovative applications of the community’s intellectual capital, such as providing data and a ing Organization.


Learning is a quality of culture; state of mind and simply the way you arrive at decisions, compete and grow.  It is this kind of mindset and culture of discussion and exploration that applied a technological innovation for internal use to customer needs to living laboratory of practice to veterinary school students. Each day starts with staff reflections on what was learned from and about members the day before and how this knowledge can be applied. Technology and other staff weekly “walk” through their website, recreating members’ experience of it and coming up with improvements. New concepts are prototyped on line for members to weigh in on and a member’s complaint or new idea often catalyze action teams that include that member and are charged with remedying the cause of the complaint or testing the innovation.
Success for VIN is not a “finished product.” This is why I used VIN in my book as an example of a true Learning organization. And this is how the culture of innovation, exploration and conversation in Amazon applied an internal technological innovation to customer needs to launch Amazon’s fire tablet; and the political innovations in presidential campaigns were converted into commercial products.


Is your organization capable of continues learning?


    •  Do you think that you already know your members and an occasional survey and market research project are enough, or are you immersing yourself in the world of your members and constantly try to understand how they think and see the world?


    • Does your culture allow time and space for constant reflection on what is being learned and what the implications are?


    • Are staff’s insights into, and experiences with, customers valued and shared?


    • Do you arrive at decisions internally through board or staff committees or through observation of what worked and what failed and discussions with members?


    • Do you wait until all internal planning is complete before you launch a new program or do you learn by doing, e.g. by launching a skeletal, small scale pilot in the market and inviting a small group of members to test and co-develop it with you?


    • Do you construct and then “implement” finished, formal strategic plans for the next few years or do you provide a vision, set a general direction and develop plans as you learn with your clients and stakeholders?


    • Do you hire and reward on the basis of tactical skills and experience in specific functions or on the basis of capabilities for things like: carrying out concepts into marketable products/services, learning, innovation, market insight, people and relationship skills, seizing market opportunities etc.?


    • Do you view the value of members/customers in terms of short-term sales (of membership, products etc.) or in terms of assets that you develop over time (expertise, referrals, collaboration, access to new pools of relationship, upselling etc.)?