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Article++ (Building a learning organization - David Garvin)

The best place to find this article is at the ‘Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management’ series of articles published in 1990-1991. Interestingly, this article follows one on a similar theme by Ikujiro Nonaka which is quite contrary to what David Garvin suggests in this article.

While Nonaka focuses on implicit knowledge, cultural knowledge and the role of an enterprise wide motto to foster the knowledge creation and learning process, Garvin attributes standard processes and measurable indices to ‘calculate’ the learning process to be necessary for building a learning organization. He further critizes the approach by Nonaka that a system without a proper check and balance is difficult to introduce in place and later on manage to an extent that it becomes an inherent corporate culture.

Garvin suggests that a learning philosophy like that of Nonaka is quite abstract and ideal and lacks an operational plan to carry it out. He suggests an alternative model and provides his idea on how to develop SOP guidelines. to build a learning organization. But before presenting his idea, he stresses the need of defining a proper framework in place to develop our ideas such that various idea strategies can be comparable on some scale.

The Framework:

Garvin suggests a framework of 3M’s : Meaning, Management and Measurement. The idea being that since ‘learning’ is still an elusive concept and there is a lack of best practices to govern a learning organization and then finally there is no unified and quantifiable approach to measure any learning strategy, therefore, the foremost problem is not to bring forth these ideas but to develop a framework within which these ideas can be built and tested.

Garvin points out that an organization should set out first to define what ‘learning’ means to it, what are its goals of ‘learning’ and what outcome is expected from ‘learning’ . Once these different aspects are better understood, an organization can safely claim to have a clear ‘Meaning’ of a learning organization. After which a concrete SOP has to be implemented such that the learning process is standardized across teams and across people within the organization. This he terms as ‘Management’. Thirdly, there has to be some tools available to measure the outcome of the learning procedures such that the system can have a self diagnosis and can tune itself to the directions suggested by the measuring indexes. Thus, a ‘Measurement’ has to be clearly defined. Once these three things are in place, one can design an idea to build a learning organization.

The Idea:

After devising a framework, Garvin develops an idea within the 3M’s framework by defining learning as:

“A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.”

But having said that, he points out that without actions being associated with learning, there is no learning, that is, according to Garvin, learning is ‘learning by doing’ only and it also is the major instrument for employee motivation. If people see that their learned concepts/ideas/trade/skill are being practically implemented, then they feel motivated to further learn and improve. According to him, a learning management system must have a:

1. Systematic problem solving method which ensures consistency and quality. Such a system is data driven and scientific.
2. Experimentation by either ongoing programs which provide incremental knowledge gains or by demonstrations or prototypes which provide a holistic update to the knowledge creating process.
3. Learning from past experience enables one to stop repeating mistakes through lessons learned and develop a best practices knowledge base to improve work. With such a system in place, a failure becomes a productive failure as it brings insight into the product or process.
4. Learning from others like the ‘not invented here syndrome’ or the SIS idea (Steal Ideas Shamelessly).
5. Transferring knowledge through flatter organizational structure, corporate knowledge repositories and by placing a smartly designed incentive system.

Among measuring schemes, conventional methods like ‘learning curves’ and ‘manufacturing progress functions’ have their shortcomings thus Garvin suggests using the ‘half-life curve’ as a suitable tool to measure a learning strategy.

Finally he discusses the high level process of building a learning organization which starts from a cognitive phase where new ideas are exposed and are digested by the people followed by a behavioral phase where these ideas are put to use and finally a process improvement phase which alters behavior to improve any KPI, quality, or efficiency. And the start of these processes is triggered only by the creation of a learning environment.

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Tags: learning, nonaka, organisation


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