Building organisational learning capabilities

This account of insider action research focuses on how organizational learning capabilities were built in the biopharma firm, AstraZeneca. The insider action researcher was an R&D manager in the firm and his insight was that while the company was fairly good at sharing scientific medical knowledge about their products, but when it came to sharing management knowledge, such as knowledge about project management capabilities – experience of how to cut time in their process, how to build relationships with collaborating partners, or project planning logic and tools – it was less successful. Accordingly, he set about building knowledge sharing and learning capabilities that were structured around three longitudinal insider action research projects and through them he developed a model of new capabilities development. In the insider action research project, as the interventions developed they became more focused on creating learning within and between teams and he created a ‘knowledge facilitation model’ whereby management teams wrote yearly knowledge sharing objectives and stated in project management process documents that knowledge would be shared at certain milestones using the method developed out of the action research project. This was supported by a knowledge facilitator tool whereby a community of knowledge facilitators was developed to improve facilitation and to share experience among facilitators.

The knowledge facilitator role was developed using normal project arenas. A knowledge facilitation method was created which included dialogues with upper management, local management and both sides of the matrix organization. The dimensions of this design were that the ways of working were integrated in the R&D project process. The need for facilitators led to the identification and training of knowledge facilitators throughout the company. A community of facilitators from all over the organization was established and was responsible for the accomplishments of the learning goals set in each project. Each R&D project had the freedom to design the structure and process that fit the task and its challenges. 

Drawing on business strategy, insider action research and learning mechanisms he constructed a model of new organizational capabilities. He noted that when experimenting with different ways of creating learning between project teams, he created an arena for reflection and dialogue about operational practices and team behaviours. This intervention became more focused on creating learning within and between teams in a systematic manner. The concept of learning was developed across the organization, supported by a knowledge facilitation method and a team of facilitators. This structure became the preferred way of approaching team learning, and became an organizational capability.

Reflecting on his insider action research work, the insider action researcher identified challenges with regard to multiple roles. He noted that the insider action researcher had three roles: an employee of his/her organization, a researcher an internal consultant to the organization. Four challenges emerged in enacting these roles.

  1. Knowing how to operate successfully within each role.
  2. Translating ideas into the appropriate language for each world.
  3. Knowing the language of the organization and the academic community – this is important for reporting back data from relevant interventions in the proper context.
  4. Learning to ‘put on different hats’, so that multiple roles are an asset rather than a burden.

Questions for reflection and discussion

This insider action takes place within a large knowledge-based organization, where coordination across multiple departments and functions is a major challenges. Hence the focus on using learning mechanisms to building learning capabilities

[1] Source: Insider action research: Facing the challenges of new capability development within a biopharma company. Jonas Roth, Abraham B. (Rami) Shani, & Myleen M. Leary. Action Research, 5(1), 2007, 41–60.

  • What learning capabilities were set up in this insider action research project?
  • What learning capabilities does your organization need? How might you go about building them?