Want a Learning Organization? Invest in Individuals from the Shop Floor to the C-Suite

Want a Learning Organization? Invest in Individuals from the Shop Floor to the C-Suite

Last week, my colleague, fellow researcher and Books@Work Board Member, Karen Nestor, encouraged us to rethink workplace learning for the 21st century. By separating “learning to be” from “learning about,” she reminded us that an organizational learning culture requires a fundamental shift from training employees to creating regular, varied and meaningful opportunities for individual learning.

But how does a focus on individual learning benefit the organization?

In 1990, scholars Wesley Cohen and Daniel Levinthal wrote a provocative paper on organizational learning and innovation. Coining the phrase “absorptive capacity,” they asserted that a wide variety of individual skills provides an organization the best opportunity to recognize and apply new knowledge and capabilities. In organizations with the highest absorptive capacity, these individuals, with diverse prior experience and expertise, extend their reach through “links across a mosaic of individual capabilities,” bringing in new ideas, and driving innovation and productivity.

I fear that the complexity of this theory – and of the hundreds of scholarly papers citing it since – has prevented its wider dissemination, but Cohen and Levinthal’s underlying principles are critical to a deeper understanding of how organizations learn.  


Peter Southwood, Sponge and Sea Fan at Middlemas

Let’s visualize a sponge. Through its vast network of individual cells, a sponge can hold far more than its weight in liquid. But we need to pause and consider the role of each cell. In the rush to assume that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, we run the risk of lauding the sponge at the expense of the cell.

Like a sponge, the organization is an amalgam of diverse individuals. We tend to believe that creativity and innovation come from the employees assigned to these tasks – R&D, marketing, innovation teams and the like – but to limit our beliefs this way ignores a wealth of potential at every level of the organization.

Books@Work mines the depths of individual experience, both personal and professional, and creates opportunities to build the trust and the active networks to openly share them. In marveling at the skills of her peers, one participant imagined her team stranded on a desert island. In discussing Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, an end-of-the-world novel, the team explored what skills they would each contribute to their own survival. She explained:

“Oh right, I’m such a survivor. I can live without my curling iron. The [team] just looked at me and laughed. [But] they really pushed me to try to find a skill that I would have that would help the group. On a mission trip one time, I did learn how to make a water purifier out of just things that you have around. They said, ‘See, there you go. You’d be a survivor.’ I found out that we have very, very resourceful people in our group.”

The realization that each individual has a deeper, often unexpected, well of skills permits participants to envision ways to see the potential in partnership and collaboration. This practice in trust and openness can’t help but bleed into the workplace – relationships, once formed, present new avenues to solve problems and approach challenges collectively.

In reflecting on learning together, the participant Karen quoted last week brings this home: If you want to learn, you’re going to be paying more attention to not just your job, but the jobs around your job.” Cultivating these learners creates the web of workers who see their jobs as inextricably linked to a larger objective – to the mission and purpose of the organization.

So must we consider the critical role of employees at every level of the organization. By focusing on the power of individual learning, we can’t help but increase the power of the organization to learn. Investing in individuals from the management team to the shop floor in discussions of literature unlocks their prior experience and embedded knowledge, revealing surprising wells of individual capacity and interpersonal connection.

Books@Work’s research demonstrates that the adaptive learning capacity of the individual – all individuals – drives the absorptive capacity of the organization. American poet Wallace Stevens once wrote, “In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.” Let’s not leave any parts behind!

Image: M.C. Escher, Cubic Space Division, 1953 [Fair Use] via WikiArt.org

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith


Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.