How Organizations Learn

Many of us think of learning as an action, something an individual does. But what does learning mean? How does learning differ from knowledge? How do we manage knowledge and organize learning? What, exactly, is the role of organizational learning when it comes to facilitating change and innovation? Well, one question at a time, we’ll address them to discover exactly how an organization can learn.

how organizations learn-pinterest[3]


As theory and practical skill tests continue to show, formal education and non-formal training do not necessarily result in learning. When we plan for training, the goal is to facilitate learning.

Learning, in this case, is defined as when participants gain new insights and modify their behavior or actions based on those insights.

Many training courses focus on individual learning. They assume that the individual takes their learning back to work groups, and across the work group the knowledge learned spreads to the whole organization.

In contrast, a good designer of education and training will carefully plan to engage learners, help them apply material in training programs, encourage supervisors to reinforce material, and provide the follow-up coaching. Research shows that good instructional design elements help ensure the transfer of training into learning. But since training only represents 10% of the total learning in an organizational setting, one should consider all of the methods in which learning occurs.


Most people learn informally and incidentally, such as when someone looks something up on the Internet, talks with a co-worker at the water-cooler, or engages with a colleague in the hallway. Most of the time, learning occurs throughout the day as we “tuck away” these little nuggets of information bit-by-bit and encounter-by-encounter. The accumulation of our learning is knowledge. The brain stores knowledge, and every day that knowledge in the brain is shared—in conversation, in reports, in conferences.

The more knowledge stored in the head of an employee, as opposed to documented in writing and safely stored, the more that knowledge is at risk of being lost to an organization. It has been reported that 85-90% of an organization’s assets walk out the door each evening—that is, the employees.

As long as employees come back the next morning and continue to share their knowledge, all is well. But what if they don’t come back due to sickness or a better job? The proactive management of cumulative knowledge in an organization is known as the new field of “knowledge management” (KM) in the last two decades.


Peter Senge, of the MT Sloan School of Management, popularized the concept of the learning organization—a vision of a firm where employees adeptly create, acquire, and share knowledge. Moya Mason, citing the Navron Associates Newsletter, defined a learning organization as “one that seeks to create its own future.” The learning organization includes tolerance, diversity, open discussions, and holistic thinking. This results in increased adaptability and transformational operations.

Gavin, Edmonson, and Gino describe three building blocks for creating a learning organization: firstly, a supportive learning environment, secondly, learning processes and practices, and thirdly, leadership that reinforces learning. A supportive learning environment includes the security to experiment, ask questions, and voice differing viewpoints. It truly appreciates differences and new ideas, taking risks and exploring the unknown, and having time for reflection. Employees require time to pause from deadlines and project pressure to think creatively and thoughtfully.

A learning organization considers learning processes and practices as an important business system. Processes such as post-audit reviews on projects, review of process flows, and diagnosis of workflow challenges increase the likelihood of process improvement and innovation. By documenting learning processes, the organization can continue to build upon its knowledge base.

Leadership is an integral building block that reinforces learning and the role of learning in an organization. Leaders engage in active reasoning and look at issues from different viewpoints without judgment. A good leader can, in this way, model and reinforce a learning culture. Of course, there is no “one size fits all” approach to leadership. Organizational learning and change occur at different speeds due to a myriad of factors like trust, flexibility, and the organization’s culture of learning.

The Role of Learning in Change and Innovation

A little known entrepreneur known as Bill Gates once said, “In three years, every product my company makes will be obsolete. The only question is whether we’ll make them obsolete or somebody else will.” American business history contains many stories of great products and companies that simply did not adapt to the changes in the marketplace. Kodak was slow to make its own products obsolete, and its competition stepped in and gladly alleviated that burden from them. Kodak’s struggles are well-documented as disruptive technology in the form of digital cameras killed off Kodak’s 90% share of photography film sales and 85% market share of camera sales.

Stata argued “the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage, especially in knowledge-intensive industries.” Change and innovation require ongoing learning in an action research model—research, plan, do, evaluate, rinse and repeat. Stata asked the questions that each proactive organization ponders: “Are we learning fast enough? Or will one of our competitors, either here or abroad, learn even faster in the future?”

A learning organization proactively creates learning processes and procedures for capturing, storing, and providing access to knowledge. A recent Training Industry promotion stated, “The future business will require organizations to think digitally, share openly, work fluidly and move quickly.” Are you ready to write your future?


CATMEDIA is an award-winning Inc. 500 company based in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 1997, the company specializes in advertising, creative services, media production, program management, training, and human resource management. As a Women Owned Small Business (WOSB), CATMEDIA provides world-class customer service and innovative solutions to government and commercial clients. Current CATMEDIA clients include Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Stay Connected with CATMEDIA:
For more information, please visit
Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Twitter

Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

About Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

Gloria Pobst helps organizations and work groups drive performance through change management, leadership development, and action learning. She has expertise in both quantitative and qualitative research, including ethnographic methods. You can connect with Gloria via Twitter @GloriaPobst or LinkedIn.

View all posts by Gloria F. Pobst, Ph.D., MBA

eLearning, Learning, Program and Project Management, Training

Subscribe to Blog

Recent Posts

Posts by Topic

See All