At Strhive, we believe in creating a more positive impact through learning and collaboration. We are on a mission to empower organisations to achieve more impact by learning from the past and building on what they know. To put this mission into practice, we support organisations to become future-proof, adaptive learning organisations through our software tool Propel for organisational learning, our advisory services, and the Learning for Development Community.
The assumption that undergirds Strhive’s work is the theoretically informed idea that a learning organisation is an organisation that can increase its impact (see Hernaus, Škerlavaj & Dimovski, 2008; Fard, Rostamy & Taghiloo, 2009; Sadaat & Sadaat, 2016). As Yanguas (2021) calls it: the learning hypothesis.
As Britton (1998) points out, “if NGOs do not learn they are likely to cease to exist as they will not be able to adapt sufficiently well to the changing circumstances in which they find themselves” (p. 7). Therefore, it is imperative for development organisations to understand how organisational learning affects their organisation’s operations.
To grasp what is known about the link between organisational learning (OL) and impact, this article provides a thorough overview of the literature on the subject. This research aims to map the key findings regarding the connection between organisational learning and organisational impact to find out how the state of learning of an organisation relates to its effectiveness. As such the guiding question of this review is: What is the relationship between organisational learning, organisational effectiveness, and the impact that international developments organisations can achieve?
On a theoretical level, this research contributes to an understanding of the current state of the literature on the link between OL, effectiveness, and impact. The focus and aim of this research is to translate the theoretical interlinkages to practice. Furthermore, the findings of the research will be fed into the development of Strhive’s Propel tool to render it most effective to support organisations’ learning journeys.
The structure of the literature review is as follows. First, a definition of the key concepts will be provided and the methodology behind this review will be explained. Subsequently, the key findings on organisational learning and organisational impact will be outlined in the main body. The main body will be divided into different sections about organisational learning in international development, organisational effectiveness, and organisational impact. Finally, the conclusion will connect the main insights and spell out the implications for Strhive’s work.
Before reviewing the existing body of literature, the section below will provide an overview of the main concepts. Though the key terms are subject to discussion and change, the conceptualisation below aims help the reader grasp the key concepts from the literature.
The concept of organisational learning sometimes leads to theoretical confusion as there is no one universal definition. Broadly, it can be defined as “a learning process within organisations that involves the interaction of individual and collective (group, organisational, and inter-organisational) levels of analysis and leads to achieving organisations’ goals” (Popova-Noak & Cseh, 2015, p. 299) or as Odor (2018) states: “a multilevel process where members individually and collectively acquire knowledge by acting together and reflecting together” (p. 1). Organisational learning enables organisations to transform individual knowledge into organisational knowledge (Basten & Haamann, 2018). The categorisation between individual, group and inter-organisational also serve as a guiding thread throughout the literature analysis.
Another useful distinction is provided by Whatley (2014), claiming that learning is both a cognitive as well as a behavioural process: “Organizational learning means the process of improving actions through better knowledge and understanding.” (p. 966).
Depending on the theoretical perspective, multiple authors have sought to identify the key elements and the subprocesses that describe the process of organisational learning. Argote’s (2011) literature review provides a useful overview of these key subprocesses. They can be summarised as 1) knowledge creation, 2) knowledge retention and 3) knowledge transfer.
Given the scope of this literature review, the definition by Popova-Noak and Cesh (2015) will be adopted as it is sufficiently comprehensive but also leaves room for the different practical applications of what OL entails. For different perspectives on the key elements of organisational learning, see Levitt and March (1988), Basten and Haamann (2018), Argote (2011) and Odor (2018).
The Learning Organisation
Closely related to the concept of organisational learning is the learning organisation. Broadly speaking, organisational learning refers to the learning process of interventions, adaptations, and strategies (Edmondson & Moingeon, 1998) whereas according to Goh (1998), the learning organisation describes “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behaviour to reflect new knowledge and insights” (p. 15). Therefore, OL is considered to be an ongoing and long-term activity while the learning organisation is more reflective of a conceptual ideal.
Key thinkers in the field of organisational learning like Senge (1990) describe the learning organisation as a place where learning is an integral, continuous process embedded in processes and behaviours across the whole organisation. He outlines five disciplines that characterise a learning organisation: (1) A Shared Vision, (2) Mental Models, (3) Team Learning, (4) Personal Mastery, and (5) Systems Thinking.
Others, like Goh (1998), have also listed five key building blocks of the learning organisation: (1) Mission and Vision, (2) Leadership, (3) Experimentation, (4) Transfer of Knowledge, and (5) Teamwork and Cooperation that is needed to build a learning organisation. The large building blocks by Senge (1990) and Goh (1998) can in turn be broken down into concrete sub-characteristics. Applied to the NGO and not-for-profit sector Britton (1998) presents a list of 11 key characteristics of learning organisations.
Furthermore, Britton’s (1998) research on learning organisations in the NGO sectors describes learning organisations as “an organisation that facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transforms itself. This process requires “the changing of organisational behaviour” (p. 3) which occurs through a collective learning process. In his work, Britton (1998), provides a working definition of a learning organisation with not-for-profit organisations in mind: ”an organisation which actively incorporates the experience and knowledge of its members and partners through the development of practices, policies, procedures and systems in ways which continuously improve its ability to set and achieve goals, satisfy stakeholders, develop its practice, value and develop its people and achieve its mission with its constituency” (p. 2).
Impact has become a buzzword that is used in many different contexts. Hence, it needs to be established what is meant by the concept. The intangible nature of impact poses a challenge for defining impact. Additionally, non-profit organisations may feel like the quantification of intangible assets does not fit their work ethos as it reminisces corporate practice (Hume, Clark & Hume, 2012). Furthermore, it is important to note that the impact or outcomes of an organisation do not necessarily establish a causal relationship, meaning that intervention A does not have to be the direct cause of positive effect B since there are always multiple variables at play (Belcher & Palenburg, 2018). A widely adopted definition by the OCSE/DAC (1991): “the positive and negative, intended and unintended, direct and indirect, primary and secondary effects produced by an intervention” accounts for both causal and non-causal outcomes. For this review, the main aim is to establish how OL can contribute to an organisation’s positive impact, whereas the OSCE/DAC definition covers impact in general, both positive and negative.
This literature review builds on key theories in the field of organisational learning, international development and public administration and management. Additional sources were gathered via several digital libraries of education institutions. The sources consist of academic literature as well as more practical reports by think thanks and other relevant institutions.
This literature review aims to provide a representative but non-exhaustive overview of the relevant literature out there. The main limitation of this research is that the specific elements of the causal relationship between organisational learning, organisational effectiveness and organisational impact are difficult to establish due to measurement challenges. Nonetheless, this literature review will gather an overview of findings that reveal how organisational learning relates to the impact of international development organisations. As such this literature review is exploratory and aims to bridge the gap between empirical realities and future approaches and solutions.
Another challenge is the availability of OL literature in the field of international development. Where possible, this research makes use of research that applies to the context of international development. However, this review will also make use of research conducted in different contexts.
Organisational learning in international development
Whatley (2014) describes how “the inability to learn and remember is a widespread failure of the development community” (p. 963). While the concept of organisational learning and the learning organisation originates from the private and corporate sectors (Britton, 1998; Carlsson & Wohlgemuth, 2000; Roper & Pettit, 2002), the international development field has progressed over the years, focusing more on learning and M&E (Hovland, 2003). Nonetheless, there is still plenty of space for future research according to Hovland. The lack of solid knowledge about the impact of aid spurred the question of OL in development cooperation (Carlsson & Wohlgemuth, 2000).
Learning for either individuals or organisations can already be challenging but as Roper and Pettit (2002) put it, “it is important to mind the characteristics of the development and humanitarian work that may present particular learning challenges” (p. 263). According to Roper and Pettit, the challenge in international development is to build a culture where learning capabilities are instilled and where learning is considered to be part of a continuous and effective working process (p. 264). Roper and Pettit (2002) summarise several studies on OL in international development that find that different organisational cultures can undermine otherwise promising partnerships. As such, awareness of each other’s differences is key. A study by Musyoki, quoted by Roper and Pettit (2002) also notes that staff rotation, politics and shifts in the international development agenda can hinder learning.
Organisational Learning, Organisational Effectiveness and Organisational Impact
As Goh (1998) points out, the key question that is posed by any organisation, including those in the field of international development is whether being a learning organisation can improve the organisation’s bottom-line results. Furthermore, the complexity of what becoming a learning organisation entails poses another challenge. Serrat (2009) argues that even if the dimensions were understood, the connection between learning (or lack thereof) and performance remains unclear because organisations are not aware of where knowledge is lost, what the costs of lost knowledge are and how this affects their overall impact. As Tsang (1997) claims, even when “learning usually, but not always, increases an organization’s capacity to perform better”, becoming a learning organisation will pay off.
Others like Johnson and Thomas (2007) dive into the connection between individual learning and organisational capacity-building. As they admit the complicated relationship between OL, effectiveness, and impact, they argue that the development industry is characterised by “learning and capacity building as central values in their own right”. The authors argue that, although individual learning does not equate with or translate to organisation-wide learning, organisational learning fits the spirit of the development industry. According to this perspective, investing in OL has the potential to transform the industry’s impact as a whole.
Consequently, after outlining the relationship between organisational learning, organisational effectiveness and organisational impact, the following subsections present the key elements and outcomes of organisational learning that are likely to enhance organisational effectiveness and consequently organisational impact.
Learning strategies and learning culture
In his work on the learning hypothesis Yanguas (2021) describes how a bottom-up, learning-oriented approach can lead to better outcomes. Yanguas refers to empirical evidence of results-based management by the Swedish Development Agency, SIDA, who has demonstrated how outcomes can be improved through an overall learning culture within the organisation, accompanied by continuous monitoring and risk management to enable timely action by managers.
Consequently, Young’s (2019) USAID learning assessment reiterates that the way we learn matters when it comes to making informed decisions. The participation of key decision-makers is a success. Therefore, the learning strategy matters for the participants’ perspective on learning which in turn affects the chances of OL being a positive driver of impact. For example, non-hierarchical and organic communities are more likely to learn than hierarchical organisations. Another example by Bustinza Sánchez, Molina Fernández and Arias Aranda (2010) states that learning modes matter as more flexible learning capabilities increase a firm’s performance and competitive advantage. However, Garvind, Edmondson & Gino (2008) do point out that a high score in a certain area of learning behaviour does not directly equate to a source of competitive advantage.
Additionally, the USAID (2017) research on the impact of learning outlines several practices related to learning strategies and learning culture. For example, “taking the time to pause and reflect on our work is critical to learning and improving performance” (p. 3) Secondly, the individual’s adaptive learning mindset is demonstrated “to show sensitivity to the feelings and needs of their colleagues”. This in turn has a “direct impact on a team’s ability to learn and adapt to effect change” (p. 3). According to Young (2019), the learning organisation builds on empowerment and engagements that builds trust. Consequently, the organisation’s culture will “translate into openness to new information, commitment to collaboration, and the likelihood of staying with the organization, thus deepening collective experience and knowledge, as well as institutional memory” (p. 72). Taken together, these factors result in improved performance, higher quality learning and adaptive management, and improved outcomes
Recent research by Pham and Hoang (2019) finds that two elements of OL in particular: management commitment to learning and knowledge transfer and integration, positively contribute to business impacts. Do and Mai (2021) confirm that leadership can improve a business’s performance. The USAID (2017) study also reiterates the role of leadership in a learning organisation. Additionally, Yang, Watkinds and Marsick (2004) say that leadership for learning has a direct influence on financial performance. Overall, the idea of leadership being conducive to OL fits resonates with Goh (1998). Furthermore, leadership can be linked to personal mastery, one of Senge’s (1990) key elements of OL (Whatley, 2014). Overall it can be suggested that OL leadership can positively reflect on other OL elements and the broader learning culture within the field of international development.
When looking at case study evidence, the work by Hailey & James (2002) on South Asian NGOs finds that a learning leader is key when effectively responding to changing circumstances while upholding the organisation’s mission. Additionally, learning leadership together with a learning culture can position NGOs to become effective learning organisations (Whatley, 2014). USAID (2017) also argues that decentralisation by transferring authority to local partners and frontline staff will likely improve outcomes when they are granted decision-making autonomy. Empirical evidence for the positive impact of OL can be found in the BRAC project in Uganda which already employs over 1,800 Ugandans and is expanding its activities in the country, due to its continuous learning approach according to the author. This example demonstrates how learning leaderships allow the organisation to expand its activities which has the potential to increase its impact in the long run.
Also interesting, though not directly related to leadership in the conventional sense, Young’s (2019) research on USAID outlines how practitioners in international development “are more likely to ask someone they knew about their experience with an approach, rather than to seek hard evidence” (p. 64). Hard evidence refers here to quantifiable impact or outcome measurement.
Open dialogue and collaboration
Roper and Pettit (2002) point out how cultural differences can especially be salient in the context of international development. As such, they argue that research on “organisational effectiveness and change concerns the cultural aspects of organisational learning” is needed (p. 269).
The literature outlines that careful consideration of cultural sensitivities positively impacts feedback dialogues. A case study on small-scale farms in Nicaragua demonstrated that there was a need for a more decentralised and culturally sensitive learning approach that “will be more effective in facilitating sustainable innovation among small-scale farmers” (Dyck & Silvestre, 2019). Other research on the WASH sector (Weekly, 2021) finds that an OL approach to failure will pave the way “to productive conversations on failure that enable organizational learning and new development solutions to complex problems“(p. 2). USAID (2016) also mentions that locally-led solutions yield the most effective outcomes and better development results. The literature assessment by USAID (2016) finds that embedding the local context and negotiating in a local setting “requires that implementers think and work politically, which in turn requires strategic partnership and iterative learning by doing that leads to continuous improvement”. Empirical evidence for this is found in a case study on Liberia’s Ebola response. Because of leadership support and community engagement that led to local ownership and behaviour change, local communities transformed failing intervention into a much more successful one that contributed to the decline in new cases of Ebola (Shapiro, 2018 & Young, 2019).
Closely linked to dialogue is intra team collaboration. According to USAID (2017), strategic collaboration improves performance: “by collaborating effectively, groups and teams develop transactive (or shared) memory systems, which enable better group goal performance” (p. 2). Strategic collaboration consequently fits Goh’s fifth building block: teamwork. Related to this is the fact that continuous learning is linked with job satisfaction, empowerment, employee engagement. According to Young (2019), the strategic and targeted collaboration will ultimately improve performance and outcomes. Bloch & Borgers (2002) and Edwards (1997) also mention that individual commitment and a feeling of safety are imperative to the success of OL in development.
The quantitative analysis by Yang et al. (2004) on the multilevel nature of OL, assesses seven dimensions of the learning organisation. They find that continuous learning, dialogue and inquiry, team learning, and empowerment were found to have indirect significant effects on organisational outcomes. Overall, Yang et al. (2004) found that “connecting the organization to its environment may be much more important than creating systems to capture and share learning in an ever-changing world.” (p. 50).
Others like Rezaei, Allameh and Ansari (2018) explore the link between OL, knowledge creation and organisational innovation. Because higher innovative products, services or methods will be associated with higher critical capacity, skills and knowledge required, learning will spur innovation which generates a competitive advantage. Though more applicable in a corporate context, their findings lead to questions about how innovation could also be applicable in international development organisations. Similarly, the connection between innovation, organisational learning and performance is reiterated by Kalmuk and Alcar (2015) who have concluded that “innovation’s positive impact on company’s performance can be increased more as a result of mediating role of the organisation’s learning capability to implement supportive and facilitating structures and procedures of learning with appropriate administrative activities” (p. 168).
Additionally, Britton (1998) points out that learning to be effective requires “experimentation, risk-taking, creativity and an ability to build on experience”. Learning to be effective then turn into learning to be efficient and learning to expand and scale-up. Following these three steps will “involve increasing the developmental impact of the organisation” according to Britton (1998, p. 8). As such, experimentation can lead to greater impact (Goh, 1998).
Organisational Learning and Knowledge Management Tools
Key to OL is the role of knowledge management (KM) for without knowledge infrastructure, organisations cannot effectively access or make use of existing knowledge (King, 2009). According to USAID (Pierce-Quinonez, 2015), organisational efficiency is decreased by more than 12% of organisations do not have the right infrastructure. As such, organisations need proper KM systems which have a significant impact on project performance (USAID, 2017).
Moreover, without proper KM practices in place, organisations risk losing up to 90% of knowledge due to employee transitions (Pierce-Quinonez, 2015). Research has also suggested a correlation between the development of institutional memory and operational effectiveness, as it can prevent the repetition of mistakes (USAID, 2017). Finally, a case study on OL and KM in non-profit organisations by Hume, Clark and Hume (2012) links the importance of KM to other elements of OL and successful learning organisations to shared values and goals.
As established above, knowledge management is a key element of a successful learning organisation. When not taken seriously, the lack of proper KM can harm the organisation’s overall mission. When looking at the time spent on finding knowledge, the average interaction worker spends an estimated 28 per cent of the workweek managing e-mails and nearly 20 per cent looking for internal information or tracking down colleagues who can help with specific tasks (McKinsey, 2012). But when companies use social media internally, messages become content; a searchable record of knowledge can reduce, by as much as 35 per cent, the time employees spend searching for company information. Improved communication and collaboration through social technologies could raise the productivity of interaction workers by 20 to 25 per cent according to the McKinsey report. The McKinsey report examined five different sectors to gauge the overall economic impact of social technologies. One of these is the social sector which they count non-profits and NGOs. They make the case that “social technologies provide a new and powerful way for new social-sector organizations to organize and for existing ones to function more efficiently and effectively” (p. 107).
Currently, the impact of digital tools on “lifelong learning processes and practices is still under-researched” (Za, Spagnoletti & North-Samardzic, 2014, p. 1025). However, the small body of research on the topics suggests that digital tools have the potential to spur innovation. Furthermore, Za et al. (2014) argue that digital tools are particularly useful when fostering informal learning. Through three building blocks: reflection on daily activities, knowledge sharing and innovative behaviour, digital tools can advance technology-mediated informal learning practices.
In turn, the research by Martínez Leon, Mercader and Martínez Leon (2008) on information technology tools confirms the positive impact of OL tools. Already in the 1990s, several authors found that OL tools are conducive to the development of a set of competencies that can improve both financial (profits and sales volume) as well as non-financial assets (operative outcomes). Despite the positive effects of OL on business results, it must be noted that IT only has an indirect effect, also described as an enabler of the OL process according to Real, Leal and Roldán (2006).
Generally, the literature on organisational learning, learning organisations and organisational impact is scattered and diverse. Furthermore, the multitude of definitions, albeit often complementary, provides another layer of complexity. Additionally, much of the foundational literature is geared toward the private sector. Nonetheless, we have distinguished several key patterns and factors in the existing literature.
Adopting the different levels of learning: individual, group and inter-organisational, inspired by Basten and Haamann (2018), the literature assessment found several elements and outcomes of organisational learning that are likely to enhance organisational effectiveness and consequently organisational impact.
Though the direct causal relationship between organisational learning and impact has to be further solidified, there is sufficient evidence to support the idea that these factors strengthen the learning infrastructure of an organisation which has been shown to lead to better outcomes. As such, development organisations should capitalise on these elements.
Organisational learning and Propel
Our work at Strhive builds on theory and evidence. Hence, our practice and approach is informed by the key elements of organisational learning as presented in this review. Our software tool Propel for organisational learning incorporates these key elements to render OL effective and make organisational learning easy and accessible to organisations in international development.
Based on the literature assessment, Propel will promote dialogue between team members while fostering an overall culture of learning. Furthermore, the importance of the learning environment and the role of leadership is repeated throughout the literature. As such, Propel contributes to fostering a safe space that spurs dialogue and where learning and different modes of learning are promoted by so learning leaders and enhances individual commitment to learning. Finally, Propel is designed in such a way that sharing knowledge within and across organisations can easily be facilitated since the literature suggest that development practitioners are likely to turn to experts. In conclusion, Propel provides organisations with one space for learning by fostering the learning culture, guiding the processes and practices, and building organisational memory through connecting the three different levels: individual, group and intra organisational to render learning effectively to contribute to enhanced organisational outcomes.
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