Ever since the work of Peter Senge (1990) the concept of the Learning Organization remains the Holy Grail of management in contemporary business. This is merely due to the ever increasing pressure to keep reinventing products & services, business models and operational processes. Critique of Senge’s work was that it was too abstract to implement in organizations with rather vague dimensions as: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. Recent research into characteristics of learning organizations made the concept a bit more transparant for management. After “Is Yours a Learning Organization?” by Garvin, Edmondson & Gino now Erwin Danneels published an interesting research paper on (sort of) this subject. In his “Organizational Antecedents of Second-Order Competences” Danneels looks at competences that enable organizations to develop new competences, something that can be viewed as the source for innovation. In fact two types of learning can be distinguished in this respect: 1) learning that is aimed at improving existing product, services and processes, 2) learning that is aimed at producing new knowledge resulting in new product, services and processes. As the driving force for this learning Danneels points to five factors:
- Organizational Slack: the room an organization offers its employees for reflection and renewal. Not all worktime employees spend should be absorbed by the day-to-day job. Or as John Cleese put it: “If your want people to be creative, give them time to play!”. Companies as Google and 3M are good examples of embedding this in management practice.
- Constructive Conflict: openness in the organization to challenge the existing ideas, beliefs and assumptions. Internal discussion (with mutual respect) is stimulated to foster innovation. This is of key importance for the double loop learning Argyris & Schön published about in 1978.
- Willingness to Cannibalize: active support for innovation projects that potentially take away sales from existing products or services. Don’t neglect technological innovations because they can cannibalize your existing business, but embrace them and embed them into the organizations competences.
- Environmental Scanning: stimulation of active environmental scanning by employees is crucial. Make them establish networks beyond the borders of the organization via professional associations, networks, conferences, trade shows and researchers. This is crucial for picking up new knowledge and competence in the ‘outside’ world.
- Tolerance for failure: failure should be seen as a potential source of future success. Mistakes should be seen as opportunities to learn. With this mindset employees sense the room for entrepreneurship that will enable the development of new competences.
An interesting article that is enhancing the growing body of research into learning organizations from the perspective of strategic innovation and the so-called second-order competences.