Enabling Fruitful Learning in Organizations

Brenda Barker Scott, Queen's IRC Facilitator
Organization Development

Take this challenge. Ask fellow employees if they have ample opportunity to learn and apply what they learn at work. Chances are their answers will be varied, with many answering with a sometimes or it depends. This is a conundrum. One does not have to look far to find support for the notion that learning in organizations is a critical capability. In our disruptive world, an organization’s capacity to facilitate learning—to acquire, apply, and spread new insights—has been touted as the fundamental strategic capability and a leading source of competitive advantage.

Why the knowing–doing gap? While we hire people with advanced degrees and send them to respected learning institutes, we often fail to tap the full potential of what employees can and do learn. Add in the notion that most organizations don’t know what people know—let alone provide opportunities for people to share and leverage learnings—and it’s not a stretch to conclude that learning in organizations is often a haphazard endeavor.

Several years, ago as part of a masters research project, Queen’s MIR student Laura Dow joined me in exploring the learning strategies of a wide range of Canadian organizations. Our results confirmed that most organizations do not have a comprehensive learning framework. While all organizations surveyed supported the job-specific learning of individuals, few thought strategically about how that individual learning would be applied, honed, embedded, or spread. Fewer still thought systematically about facilitating learning amongst chosen groups, or about capturing, sharing, and spreading new learnings with relevant others. On another front, only a handful of firms were able to articulate their strategic learning agendas. In other words, firms were not able to define the core capabilities they needed to hone and develop to compete and excel.

What might a strategic learning framework look like? Before we can answer this question, we need to step back and explore some basic questions that have kept academics busy for years. They are: 1) what is learning, 2) what is the relationship between learning and knowledge, and 3) where does learning take place?

What is learning? Let’s begin with a typical scenario. An organization identifies a gap in the skill-set of a group of employees—let’s says the gap is in innovative thinking amongst a group of middle managers. To remedy this situation, they design a course in innovative thinking skills, hire faculty to teach it, and offer it over a three-day program.

Following the course, can we say that our managers have learned? If we define learning as the acquisition of new insights, as some academics do, we can assume that the managers have acquired new insights—to varying degrees—and therefore that learning has occurred. If however, we take a more rigorous definition of learning, one that suggests that learning requires both the acquisition of new insights and the application of those insights, then our learning cycle is not yet complete. This dual cognitive and behavioural approach to learning is represented by Kolb’s (1984) adult learning cycle. We acquire new insights via a lecture or an experience, followed by reflection and then assimilation through action. Accordingly, learners must have ample opportunity to seek out new insights on the one hand and test, apply, and refine their insights and emerging abilities on the other. At the organizational level, the process of acquiring and applying new insights is represented by March’s (1991) foundational concept of exploration and exploitation.

If learning is indeed active, the process of acquiring new knowledge is not one of a simple receptivity, whereby veridical knowledge is tossed over the fence to those who catch it. Rather, acquiring and leveraging new insights and abilities is dependent on the learners’ motivation to learn, their opportunities to learn, and the mechanisms in place to enable the acquisition and application of knowledge. Support comes from the environment in the form of cues from bosses, strategic goals, standards, rewards, norms, available technologies, and the like. Should, these cues signal that the learning is not valued, supported, or necessary, individual conviction may wane and learning will be stifled. What people learn is, therefore, encouraged by a focused and supportive learning context. Understanding the learning agenda—what we need to learn in order to succeed—is critical to creating motivation and focus. Our middle managers must understand why innovative thinking is a core competence, how innovative thinking will enable them, and how they will be supported.

Why does our definition of learning matter? Quite practically, if we hold ourselves to a more rigorous definition of learning, one that combines learning with doing, then our middle managers cannot simply be sent to a three-day course on innovative thinking. In addition to a program, they must see the real world relevance for innovative thinking, be open to exploring innovative practices and have ample opportunities to practice innovative thinking with pressing challenges, in a supportive context.

What is the product of learning? Learning has an intimate relationship with knowledge; it is the process that brings about a change in know what (insights) and know how (behaviours). Nonaka (1991, 1994) distinguishes between explicit, easily codified knowledge, and tacit knowledge, which is rooted in both know what and know how. While the exchange of explicit knowledge can be shared and integrated amongst members via reports, memos, databases, and lectures, the sharing and development of tacit knowledge, whereby we know more than we can tell, occurs through dialogue and practice as members surface, exchange and absorb know what and know how.

Why does our definition of knowledge matter? If we understand that innovative thinking is tacit in nature—it is both know what and know how—we can no longer assume that innovation skills can be neatly packaged, or stored, or shared as a set of concepts and transferred to managers in a lecture or via a database. Rather, we see that innovative thinking amongst our managers will evolve as they exchange, combine, and build on ideas with others, perhaps after their appetites for innovative thinking have been wetted in a three-day program with their colleagues.

Where does learning take place? To state the obvious, learning in organizations occurs through people, as they acquire new insights and act on them. At the individual level, knowledge is acquired and accumulated as know what in the learners’ minds and know how in the form of expertise and craft. However, learning in organizations must go beyond what individuals learn. Innovation in isolation is clearly not our goal. Rather, our aim is to develop innovative thinking amongst our managers.

Group or community level learning depends on, and builds from, the knowledge and worldviews of individual members and requires an opportunity for learners to join around a common cause, exchange ideas and insights, and combine knowledge. Accordingly, our managers must be involved in processes, forums, networks, partnerships, and communities that enable the requisite exchange, synthesis, and co-creation of innovative ideas and practices amongst peers.

At the organizational level, as knowledge is captured and embedded—in peoples’ heads as norms and values and in organizational features such as strategies, structures, processes, and systems—the organization develops context or a code. In turn, the organizational context influences the future learning of individuals and groups, both the focus of their learning as well as how the learnings are applied, leveraged, and spread. The code continues to evolve, as it consumes the learning of individuals and groups. What might our code for innovation look like? Perhaps the infrastructure for innovation might include: a performance spirit of innovation amongst all leaders, dabble time for creative experimentation, rewards and recognition for sharing ideas, mechanisms for storing innovative ideas, forums for innovative problem solving, and a formal innovation process.

A Framework for Learning: Questions, Not Answers

Given that we have come to define learning as a multi-faceted personal, yet social phenomenon that is context specific, it would appear that a one size fits all definitive framework of learning in organizations is rather fanciful. Perhaps instead, a more useful approach might be to provide a set of powerful questions that, when asked and answered, shed light on the path to fruitful learning. Based on our definitions of learning, knowledge, and supportive context, those questions might be as follows:

  1. What’s our learning agenda? In other words, given our organization’s business, operational model, and strategic goals, in which areas do we need to excel? Ideally, the learning agenda will be scalable to units, across unit endeavors, and to individual roles. Answering this question is essential to developing a strategic and focused learning aim. Once set, the learning aims create a supportive context and build motivation for learning.
  2. Given the learning agenda, who needs to learn? What new insights and behaviours are required amongst individuals, groups or communities? Answering this question will identify the system of players—specific groups and individuals—who need to develop new insights and behaviours.
  3. Given the learning agenda and our understanding of who needs to learn, how will we facilitate the learning? Here we ask: Is the knowledge we are seeking to develop more explicit or tacit in nature? What are the vehicles and forums that will support learning acquisition, application and sharing?
  4. Insights from this set of questions will reveal a multi-pronged approach to learning which may have learners acquiring new abilities in a classroom setting, reflecting and building on them within group forums, applying them in a project team and honing them through a coaching relationship.
  5. Given our learning agenda, what’s the required depth and breadth of the learning? In other words, how will we support knowledge transfer? Insights from this question will reveal the requisite scope for the learning, as well as strategies for sharing the learnings with others and embedding the learnings in processes and systems.
  6. Given our learning agenda, what does a supportive context look like? How can we ensure that the context (or code) expands and adjusts to enable and embed new learning? Explore this question to identify the main organizational elements—from culture, to strategy, to leadership—that enable or prevent the requisite learning.


Learning in organizations is complex and depends of a myriad of personal, social, and environmental factors. Rather than searching for the ultimate recipe for organizational learning, I offer a set of questions as a starting place for this exploration. The questions are meant to tap the tremendous amount of wisdom that has been generated in the literature. How leaders answer those questions, given their specific needs, goals, history, and context, will define their approach to learning. Fostering innovative thinking is going to look and feel differently in every organization. A thoughtful approach to identifying the learning agenda, who needs to learn, how the learning can best be facilitated, the scope of learning transfer, and the key contextual enablers will go a long way in supporting learning. Learning strategies must be home grown. It quite simply will not work any other way.

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