Innovation = Learning

Innovation is the flavor of the month; has been for more than a few months now.  Organizational learning is another management trend–it refers to the ability of an organization to learn–to become more effective over time, to develop new knowledge and retain it to respond to future situations.  What both innovation and learning have in common is adaptability and improvisationality.

In an article in the Fall 2007 issue of Sloan Management Review, Joaquín Alegre and Ricardo Chiva studied organizations high in organizational learning capability (OLC) and identified five core features of high OLC companies: experimentation, risk taking, interaction with the external environment, dialogue and participative decision making.  This is fascinating because in my research, I’ve found that these five characteristics also hold true of organizations that use the power of collaboration to generate innovation.

(1) Experimentation, as defined by these authors, produces a flow of new ideas that challenge the established order.  (2) Risk taking is just what it sounds like: the tolerance for ambiguity and errors.  And as I’ve found, innovative organizations foster idea generation and tolerate failure.

(3) Interaction with the external environment is what I call “collaborating with customers” and is associated with innovative networks that I call collaborative webs in my book Group Genius.  Deborah Ancona, in her 2007 book X-Teams, has likewise discovered that successful teams have an outward focus, and strong social network ties with people outside of their team.

(4) Dialogue and (5) participative decision making are what I call improvisation–a style of communication and an organizational culture that is egalitarian, open to flows across status levels.  Improvisational organizations excel at a type of dialogue that opens up possibilities, a style of conversation in which new and unexpected ideas emerge.

I firmly believe that organizations high in learning ability are more likely to be innovative organizations, and I’m delighted to read of this fascinating study confirming the link.