There are three general ways organizations learn:
- Learning before doing
- Learning while doing
- Learning after doing
 Learning before doing
An example of learning before doing is NASA mission to land and return a manned flight to the moon. This had never been done before so there was very little applicable history and experience to learn from. Another often cited and documented case in manufacturing is the new factory that Timken built to manufacture bearings. Once you build a factory, its not easy or cheap to redesign or change it. Timken's goal was to build a modern efficient factory of a new generation that did not exist. Forced to innovate without benefit of models or precedents, Timken utilized techniques for learning before doing. The Timken team broke down problems into componnet parts and used a rigorous simulation process to learn as much as possible before committing precious resources to unproven solutions.
Learning before doing uses such problem-solving techniques as computer simulations, laboratory experiments, prototype testing, pilot production runs, and other experiments.
An example of learning before doing technique is the practice in the global market place of forming a partnership or joint venture for one organization to learn from another. For example, a US company going into China for the first time may want a local Chinese partner to learn from.
 Learning while doing
Xerox has studied and noted in many articles and books for its continuous learning abilities and systems. The table below outlines their system that all members of their organization are trained in and provided tools to use in their decision making. This is a deeply imbedded part of their culture. The Xerox story on the long journey that culminated in this problem solving process adopted by many is instructional.
Such a system relies on:
- Relying on the scientific method, rather than guesswork, for diagnosing problems.
- Data, rather than assumptions, as background for decision making.
- Using basic statistical tools to organize data and draw inferences.
 Learning after doing
An example of learning after doing is the After Action Review (AAR) system that was developed by the U.S. Army and has been adopted by many organizations.
At the core of the AAR system is a non-threatening review technique after an operation by the participants in a “what happened” review versus “the plan”. Through the AAR sessions a team, a division, an organization or a company can systematically go forward and improve its performance. The goal of the process through the systematic review of AAR’s is to correct mistakes and sustain successes.
A series of core questions leads the discussion of the group:
- What was our intent?
- What did we accomplish?
- Why were there differences?
- How do we sustain what we did right?
- How do we improve what we did wrong?
The Army also designed and implemented a system to transmit these lessons learned throughout the organization so that others can take advantage of these lessons learned and not have to learn through their own direct experiences.
 Definition of Organizational Learning
- David Gavin, author and expert on organizational learning: A learning organization is an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights.
- Definition from Wikipedia: Organizational learning is the process of creating, retaining, and transferring knowledge within an organization. An organization improves over time as it gains experience. From this experience, it is able to create knowledge. This knowledge is broad, covering any topic that could better an organization. Examples may include ways to increase production efficiency or to develop beneficial investor relations. Knowledge is created at four different units: individual, group, organizational, and inter-organizational.
- An organization learns successfully when it is able to retain this knowledge and transfer it to, or spread it throughout, the various divisions within an organization. Organizational learning can be measured in different ways, however one common measurement used is a learning curve.
- Peter Senge, who popularized learning organizations in his book The Fifth Discipline, described them as places “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”
 Related Best Practices
- Organizational Learning, Wikipedia.
- Building a Learning Organization, David Gavin, 1993. Article in Harvard Business Review
- Is Yours a Learning Organization?, Harvard Business Review, David Garmin, Amy Edmondson & Francesca Gino, March 2008 - discusses the building blocks of a learning organization and assessment tools.
- Learning in Action, a Guide to the Learning Organization to Work, David Gavin, Harvard Business Review, 2003. - Garvin argues that at the heart of organizational learning lies a set of processes that can be designed, deployed, and led. He starts by describing the basic steps in every learning process--acquiring, interpreting, and applying knowledge--then examines the critical challenges facing managers at each of these stages and the various ways the challenges can be met.
- The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge, 1990. Senge's book is considered one of the seminal management books by Harvard Business School.
- The Marshmallow Challenge, Tom Wujec. Wujec says, "I believe the marshmallow challenge is among the fastest and most powerful technique for improving a team’s capacity to generate fresh ideas, build rapport and incorporate prototyping - all of which lie at the heart of effective innovation." There is a TED talk on the Marshmallow Challenge.
The author of this page is Terry Gardiner
Terry Gardiner is the founder and President of Silver Lining Seafoods and NorQuest Seafoods - a medium size Alaska seafood processing companies; and currently Board member of the Anvil Corporation, an employee owned company specializing in oil and gas engineering.
His co-operative experiences include member director of the Commercial Fishermen Co-operative association; creation of legislation for the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank; and advisor to the US Dept of Health and Social Services for the state Health CO-OPs.
Terry served ten years as a member of the Alaska House of Representatives -several legislative committee chairmanships, Speaker of the House, Chairman of the Alaska Criminal Code Commission and board member on various state and federal boards and commissions.
Terry authored the leadership book, "Six-Word Lessons to Build Effective Leaders: 100 Lessons to Equip Your People to Create Winning Organizations".