Hopefully, learning professionals realise by now that acquiring content and implementing formal learning solutions (e.g, training) aren’t enough to support organisations and the people who work there to be successful. With Marsick and Watkins (2003), I also hope that both learning professionals and organisations see that simply holding individuals accountable for learning continuously isn’t going to do the trick. We need more. It’s up to organisations to build their capacity to support, encourage, and make use of that learning. Only then can they positively influence organisational performance, job satisfaction, innovation, and so on (Watkins & O’Neill, 2013). And we, the learning professionals, need to step up and help organisations get there.
When looking at research on learning in organisations and how to support it, the terms ‘organisational learning’ and ‘learning organisation’ are right in your face. So, what does the research on organisational learning and the learning organisation tell us about what we can do to effectively holistically support learning in organisations?
Often, the terms organisational learning and learning organisation are used interchangeably, as if they’re two and the same. But they aren’t; they’re two different things.
Organisational learning refers to what an organisation is actually doing when it comes to learning. There’s not one definition for organisational learning and the likely reason is that researchers look at the construct from either a behavioural, cognitive, or cultural lens. The behavioural lens focuses on how organisations adapt to changing environments based on experiences and how they find new routines (e.g, Cyert & March, 1963 and Levitt & March, 1988). The cognitive lens looks at how current knowledge and new knowledge leads to improvements in organisations (March, 1991) or it defines organisational learning as knowledge creation through the process of transforming tacit into explicit knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). The cultural lens is concerned with the vision, values, history, and memory shared across the organisation. According to Schein (1996), organisational culture fundamentally influences what organisations do – and, although it’s people who learn culture, it consists of more than the aggregate learning of individuals.
What these definitions have in common, is the idea that organisational learning is about the current state. In contrast, a learning organisation refers to an organisation “with the necessary organisational structures and capacities to create an environment that will stimulate knowledge and ultimately financial performance” (Watkins & Kim, 2018). It’s what an organisation wants to become. Of course, we need to be able to describe the current state first, before we’re able to prescribe ‘better’. After all, we need to understand what change we’re trying to drive. We need to determine the gap between the current and the desired state (hey, it sounds as if we’re talking about a learning intervention!).
What’s A Learning Organisation?
Yang, Watkins, and Marsick (2004) have a short and sweet definition for a learning organisation, namely that it’s an organisation that learns continuously to drive continuous improvement. In other words, it’s about an organisation’s capacity for change.
Of course, if we want to determine to what extent this actually happens, we need dive more deeply into the matter. To help us here, we can use a model.
Ghaffari and colleagues (2011) compared 11 learning organisation models, including those from Argyris and Schön (1978), Pedler (1989), Senge (1990), Garvin (1993), Nevis (1995), Gardiner and Whiting (1997), Porth (1999), Griego (2000), Goh (2003), Armstrong and Floey (2003), and Marsick and Watkins (2003) as to which model was best suited to describe a learning organisation. They concluded that Marsick and Watson’s model was the best because it integrates all elements of an individual’s learning processes, team-based learning, and the influence of the organisation and their environment on learning. The model (see Figure 1) also illustrates the relationship of each of these components with each other and with the environment. The Marsick and Watson model includes seven dimensions, or ‘action imperatives’, that are required for organisations to be capable of continuous learning and transformation.
Figure 1. Learning Organisation Action Imperatives (Marsick and Watkins, 1999)
The question is, how do we figure out what the current state (organisational learning) is and how do we move from the current state to the desired state (the learning organisation), keeping in mind that “The learning organisation … is not a formula, but it does involve some key principles that can be used to tailor a flexible structure to one’s unique needs.” (Watkins & Marsick, 1996, p. 282).
From organisational learning to a learning organisation
The seven action imperatives in Figure 1 create conditions that add value at the four systemic levels (individual, team, organisation, global). What this means is (and remember, this is about the ‘ideal state’) that:
The individual (e.g., a knowledge worker) recognises the importance of workplace learning and seeks to learn in order to enhance their professionalism (of course, there can be other motivators as well). They take responsibility for their career and hence, establish information networks and professional communities.
The team produces knowledge and support structures and renews themselves (this is about learning teams, not work teams). The relations within these teams are way more important than formal hierarchical structures; they’re essential when it comes to how people learn about new concepts, instruct each other to try them out, and share experimental tips and lessons learned.
The organisation must offer the infrastructure and resources that foster the individual knowledge worker and the learning teams. It needs to support and motivate the individual and have systems in place that can capture and share the knowledge of the individual. The organisation also needs to be receptive and flexible when individuals or teams try to drive change.
Global refers to looking outwards. For meaningful learning to take place (whether at the individual, team, or organisational level), people must be aware of developments in the environment. One example, of course, is awareness of the developments in knowledge workers’ domains of expertise, but it can also be more broadly around how technological advances influence their lives/jobs and what they need to do to keep up with changes and adapt to them.
Somehow, we as learning professionals need to find a way to diagnose the current state of an organisation first. Without that, we can’t drive change for the better. And we can.
How to diagnose the ‘state of the learning organisation’ and beyond
In 1997, Watkins and Marsick developed an instrument to help learning professionals diagnose the current state of organisational learning and then map out a strategy to improve it based on the results.
It’s called the Dimensions of a Learning Organisation Questionnaire (DLOQ; see Figure 2 for a snapshot). It consists of 43 items that measure respondents’ perceptions of the seven dimensions (Figure 1) and 12 items that measure organisational knowledge and financial performance.
More than 70 articles have been published using the DLOQ and it has been validated through numerous studies (e.g., Kim, Egan, & Tolson, 2015). Although there have been some suggestions to increase its validity (e.g., Kim, Egan, & Tolson, 2015), there’s a general agreement that it provides sufficient reliability and validity across languages, cultures, and types of organisations (e.g., Watkins & Dirani, 2013 and Kim, 2016).
Figure 2. Snapshot of the DLOQ
Can the DLOQ add value? Can it help to look at learning in an organisation holistically and can it help determine the strengths and weaknesses of learning within an organisation? I’d say… it might be worth a try.
First off, the DLOQ isn’t a measure of all that a learning organisation is. Rather, it’s an indicator for an organisational learning culture. Its results suggest that, if all the included characteristics are present, others that are equally essential to creating a learning culture are probably also present. So, the DLOQ results can be used to derive if an organisation has a weak or strong learning culture.
The DLOQ should only be used for groups and not for individuals. Yes, it assesses individual perceptions of organisational norms and expectations, but the point is to aggregate those results as a starting point to examine learning culture, comparing it to perceptions or measures of organisational performance.
All dimensions are equally important. You must look at the overall profile or pattern of responses. Also, it’s best to interpret the DLOQ by looking at the average response and the range or variations in responses, and by looking for patterns and themes by comparing responses within each category. Then you figure out which items and dimensions are above and/or below the overall mean in the organisation (I think the results need to be approached with some caution; it’s not a very strong Likert scale in the first place and then you need to take the mean of it? I’m not sure what that means).
To put it simply, areas that have higher scores provide strategic advantage and the ones that are lower … need work. The DLOQ also provides insights into what dimensions to examine within those areas and may even help reveal ways those dimensions might be interacting. Also, focus on internal comparison (e.g., across divisions, roles, or years). Each organisation has its own need/context.
Watkins and O’Neill (2013) warn to NOT adapt any items. First, this is a copyrighted instrument and second, it affects reliability. That makes sense. Although I have questions around how much information this questionnaire actually provides when it comes to the current ‘organisational learning’ state, I still think it would be useful to diagnose the status of, and changes in, organisational learning practices and culture. It’s better than just guessing or going with your ‘gut feeling’.
The concepts of ‘organisational learning’ and ‘the learning organisation’ are wishy-washy and an instrument like this can help to make them more tangible and find some focus.
That said, you’d really need to dig deeper to understand ‘the why’ behind the responses in order to determine what interventions you need to put in place to improve learning practices in an organisation. The questionnaire is a diagnostic tool intended as a starting point to figure out where you should start investigating.
I’d say that if you want to understand better what currently happens in your organisation when it comes to learning OR perhaps you already have identified a goal and you want to understand where you can best begin to achieve it, the DLOQ would be a good research based tool to get started. Of course, it’s a continuous learning process. Just like the journey towards a learning organisation itself. We can just all join the ride!
Cyert, R. M., & March, J. G. (1963). A behavioral theory of the firm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Ghaffari, S., & Shah, I. M. (2011, December). The analysing of Marsick and Watkins theory in comparison with other learning theories [Paper presentation]. In Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD), 10th International Conference of the Asia Chapter (Malaysia), Kuala Lumpur
Kim, K. (2016). The impact of learning organisations on knowledge performance, adaptive performance, and financial performance. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Georgia].
Kim, J., Egan, T., & Tolson, H. (2015). Examining the dimensions of the learning organisation questionnaire: a review and critique of research utilizing the DLOQ. Human resource development review, 14(1), 91-112.
Levitt, B. & March, J. D. (1988). Organisational learning. Annual Review of Sociology, 14, 319–388.
March, J. G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organisational learning. Organisation Science, 2, 71–87.
Marsick, V.J. and Watkins, K.E. (1999), Facilitating Learning Organisations, Gower, Brookfield, VT.
Marsick, V. J., & Watkins, K. E. (2003). Demonstrating the value of an organisation’s learning culture: the dimensions of the learning organisation questionnaire. Advances in developing human resources, 5(2), 132-151.
Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The knowledge creating company. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Schein, E. H. (1996). On organisational learning: What is new? In The Third Biennial International Conference on Advances in Management. Framingham, MA. Retrieved from http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/2628/SWP-3912-35650568.pdf?sequence=1
Watkins, K. E., & Dirani, K. M. (2013). A meta-analysis of the dimensions of a learning organisation questionnaire: Looking across cultures, ranks, and industries. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15(2), 148-162.
Watkins, K. E., & Kim, K. (2018). Current status and promising directions for research on the learning organisation. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 29(1), 15-29.
Watkins, K., & Marsick, V. (1996). (Eds.). In action: Creating the learning organisation (Vol. 1). Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.
Watkins, K. E., & Marsick, V. J. (1997). Dimensions of the learning organisation questionnaire. Warwick, RI: Partners for the Learning Organisation.
Watkins, K. E., & O’Neil, J. (2013). The dimensions of the learning organisation questionnaire (the DLOQ) a nontechnical manual. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15(2), 133-147.
Yang, B., Watkins, K. E., & Marsick, V. J. (2004). The construct of the learning organisation: Dimensions, measurement, and validation. Human resource development quarterly, 15(1), 31-55.
 There’s also a shorter version with 21 items (three items for each dimension).