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Scaffolding Learning: Conceptualizing and measuring an organization that learns.

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Scaffolding Learning: Conceptualizing and measuring an organization that learns, with Professor Karen Watkins.

(Click here to download the summary from the member call)

Learning Organizations

Dr. Watkins invited LILA members to reflect on their organization’s learning responsibilities. She distinguished between organizations that learn, and people that learn on behalf of their organizations.

Organizations themselves can learn, but often in ways that differ from formalized Learning and Development initiatives. Learning organizations pair an awareness and respect for learning with flexibility, recognizing that rich learning often unfolds organically and unintentionally. Learning organizations incorporate learning as “part of their DNA”.

What is a Learning Organization?

Learning organizations are aligned groups with the ability to sense and interpret changing environments. These groups then apply shared knowledge to generate innovative programs and services.

Organizational learning is also organizational transformation: true learning organizations integrate learning with work and encourage learning in parallel with operations. Learning must be systematically embedded in organizational culture and ideology in order for transformation to occur. Learning organizations translate learning into everyday norms and values, into the ‘way we do things around here’. It is a continuous, strategically used practice.

In practice: Is a Ferrari Pit Crew a “learning organization”?

Dr. Watkins contrasted a Ferrari race car pit crew with NASA scientists responding to crisis in the film Apollo 13. She asked LILA members to consider whether these respective teams were ‘learning organizations.’ LILA members identified the pit crew as a result of a learning organization, rather than a learning organization itself. The Apollo 13 team, in contrast, engages in complex decision-making within an ambiguous context. Dr. Watkins argues that this generative problem-solving embodies more of the features of a learning organization in action.

To watch the videos click the links below:

Ferrari Pit crew

Apollo 13

The Watkins and Marsick Model

The Watkins and Marsick model of learning organizations emphasizes three key components: systems-level learning, knowledge outcomes, and improvements in knowledge performance. Here, knowledge performance is understood as an organization’s ‘balanced scorecard’ including financial execution, individual well-being, and mission execution.

These components map onto a series of action imperatives at each level of an organization.

Learning at the Individual Level

Organizations must promote dialogue and inquiry as cultural norms. Simple things, such as routinely asking others what they think, can go far in promoting a culture of inquiry. Dr. Watkins offered Texas Instruments’ suggestion system as an example: the financial incentive actually inhibited individuals from offering feedback.

Create continuous learning opportunities, such as wrapround services or just-in-time learning experiences.  For example, at two different Texas Instruments facilities there were two different suggestion systems – one with high dollar amount and one with no strong financial incentive.  The research showed that the high dollar amount actually resulted in fewer suggested innovations.

Learning in Teams

Promoting team learning involves creating the capacity for mutually constructed knowledge. This sounds simple, but it can be challenging to foster a collaborative mindset and collaborative spirit. Organizations must proactively encourage team learning.

Organizational Learning

Organizations must establish systems to capture and share learning. These systems can be low tech or high tech and include practices like Town Hall meetings. Failing to implement systems risks knowledge loss.  Organizational learning must also empower individuals towards a collective vision, while fostering individuals’ capacity to take action.

Outmoded systems and policies can hinder individual learning. Dr. Watkins offered the example of a hospital where physicians were punished for working on their laptops.

Learning at the System Level

System-level learning connects an organization to its context. People at all levels of an organization – not just senior management – must feel empowered and motivated to routinely scan the external environment and identify promising or threatening ideas.

How Leaders promote learning organizations

Leadership was the most critical variable in fostering and maintaining learning cultures and organizations. Dr. Watkins offered examples of CEOs that created internal book clubs, modeling individual responsibility for learning, and discussed how learning-oriented leaders consider the learning and development needs of all their reports. Leaders mentor and coach others in their learning, and support requests for learning and development.

Support at the top is critical for open cultures of dialogue and inquiry. Organizational development professionals can act in concert with leadership to build these cultures.

  • Creating a learning culture correlates with knowledge performance which correlates with financial performance– we suspect that this relationship is linear and causal

Measuring a Learning Culture: The DLOQ Questionnaire

Dr. Watkins and her colleagues surveyed governmental and non-governmental organizations across five different countries to assess organizational learning cultures.  The survey asked employees to score their organizations across the seven different metrics described above: continuous learning, inquiry and dialogue, team learning, system capture, collective vision, connecting an organization to its environment, and strategic leadership.

The survey’s results generated remarkably consistent patterns. Specifically, scoring high on the seven metrics was correlated with high knowledge performance, mission performance and financial performance. Organizational-level changes, unsurprisingly, have a greater impact on performance than individual level interventions.

Building a ‘learning architecture’ at individual, team, and organizational levels is the ultimate goal.

There are two versions of the DOLQ.  If you are pressed for time, you can take the short version. To get a more in-depth sense of the elements that make up a learning organization, you may want to take the long version.

Harvard LILA DOLQ – short

Harvard LILA DOLQ- long


What prevents organizations from adopting these practices?

Dialogue and team-based work takes time and effort. Yet, the larger obstacles center on fear: people are worried that they’ll lose their positions if they seek out learning opportunities, or risk appearing insubordinate. Dr. Watkins argues that learning needs to be seen as a way for employees to protect and promote themselves, rather than a fear.

Key Takeaways


  1. Learning occurs in the interstices and intersections where people come together to accomplish work.
  2. Organizations must create agile informal systems that encourage human creativity and invention. Informality is key: these learning norms can support knowledge performance, which is critical to the long-term sustainability of organizations and systems.


To listen to the November 2019 LILA Member Call click Learning Organization



What practices does your organization have in place that suggest it has a Learning Culture?

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