Understanding Organizational Learning Capability


Address for reprints: Anthony J. DiBella, MIT Sloan School of Management, 34 Indian Ridge Road, Natick, MA 01760, USA.


This paper presents data on how learning takes place in four organizations, what gets learned, and the factors and processes that facilitate or impede learning. Seven orientations for describing organizational learning capability and understanding learning styles are identified. Each of these orientations is conceived as a bi-polar continuum that reflect learning processes.

Knowledge source is defined as the extent to which an organization prefers to develop new knowledge internally versus the extent to which it is more likely to seek inspiration in ideas developed externally. Product-process focus refers to a preference for the accumulation of knowledge related to product and service outcomes versus a preference to invest in knowledge about basic processes that support products. Documentation mode refers to attitudes as to what constitutes knowledge and to the repositories of knowledge that are supported. Dissemination mode pertains to the difference between establishing an atmosphere in which learning evolves and one in which a more structured, controlled approach is taken to induce learning. Learning focus has to do with whether learning is concentrated on methods and tools to improve what is already being done versus testing the assumptions underlying what is being done. Value-chain focus indicates which functional, core competencies are valued and supported. Skill development focus involves the orientation toward individual versus collective learning.

Organizational learning may be increased by building on existing capabilities or developing new ones. the latter involves a change in culture, the former involves improving current capabilities. Organizations can enhance their learning capability through either approach.