As I wrote in my November 28, 2007 blog post, it’s one thing for people to claim that they are a “learning organization”, it’s quite another thing to actually have an organizational culture that supports continuous learning. Every organization that values training, development, and education calls itself a “learning organization”. After Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline, was published in 1990, no self-respecting business, nonprofit, or government agency would admit that it was not a learning organization. David Garvin, who was studying organizational learning even before Senge started receiving notoriety for the concept, recognized the need for a tool to determine how close an organization is to truly having a culture of learning and what that organization needs to do to move closer to that goal.

To this end, Garvin and his co-authors have developed a very practical tool (including a survey, benchmarks, and feedback process) to assess an organization’s capacity for learning. I am impressed that they have used an article in the March 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review to make the tool available to a very wide audience. The tool is built around three factors. The authors write:

Organizational research over the past two decades has revealed three broad factors that are essential for organizational learning and adaptability: a supportive learning environment, concrete learning processes and practices, and leadership behavior that provides reinforcement. We refer to these as the building blocks of the learning organization.

We could debate the validity of the categories and the items of the survey instrument, but that would miss the point. As the authors say, the tool should be used for learning, not to judge the quality of an organization. The survey provides feedback for organizational reflection. By collecting the data and then discussing the findings, people must confront critical questions: Does our culture support learning? Do we have everyday processes and procedures in place to ensure that learning and change are embedded in the way we work together? Do our top leaders make continuous learning a priority and communicate this throughout the organization? And then, hopefully, leaders will use the answers to these questions to motivate further learning and performance improvement and contribute to developing a learning culture in the process.

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