Is Your Museum a Learning Organization?

10 12 2013



Sure, you work at a place that supports the learning process of visitors of all ages by giving them access to interesting historical artifacts, cool hands-on science interactives, and/or wondrous works of art.  You even provide regular training for your interpretation/education/docent staff to learn new programs or the content of new exhibits.  Perhaps you yourself are encouraged to attend professional development workshops or conferences, with your organization footing the bill if you’re lucky.  Does that mean your museum is a learning organization?

David A. Garvin, the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, defines a learning organization as “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge, and at purposefully modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights (2000, p. 11).”  I think we can all agree that museums for the most part are pretty darned good at the actions outlined in the first part of the definition, but they rarely pass muster when it comes to using some of their copious knowledge to modify institutional behaviors.

Let’s be honest here.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard comments along these lines from your coworkers:

  • But we’ve always done it this way!
  • We’ve never preserved the history of our museum as an institution.
  • I don’t believe in working together.  Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
  • It’s that fill in the blanks situation all over again.
  • Whatever you do, don’t rock the boat.  Just keep your head down and do your work.

I’m sure one or more of these comments are sadly familiar to some of you.  All of them indicate that your museum may not be a learning organization for different reasons.

According to Garvin, there are indicators for determining if you work at a learning organization:

  • The organization has a “defined learning agenda” (2000, p. 13) for the future.  In other words, they know what they need to learn in order to serve the needs of their staff, audience, and other stakeholders.  And they have a plan for achieving that learning.
  • The organization is open to hearing about problems and works towards resolving them.
  • The organization avoids repeating mistakes by distilling useful lessons from past experiences and sharing the knowledge internally.
  • The organization doesn’t lose critical knowledge when key people leave. That means it treats essential knowledge as common property and institutionalizes it through policies, procedures, and operating practices.
  • The organization acts on what it knows rather than sitting on its knowledge.

Hmm, anybody work in a place like this?  If so, the rest of us are jealous.  We’re all over here putting out fires and frantically scrambling to complete one short term project after another.  We can barely think about what we need to accomplish next month, much less create a defined learning agenda or institutionalize essential knowledge for the long term.  On occasion we may get to review past events, programs, or exhibits for successes or failures.  But for the most part museums exemplify what Candace Matelic (2008) describes as the “organizational learning paradox” whereby they “focus on the learning of visitors but often do not value the learning of stakeholders and the organization (p.12).”

Eeyore faces another round of strategic planning

Eeyore faces another round of strategic planning

As a general rule museums are not accustomed to, as Garvin was quoted above, “purposefully modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge and insights” unless they are undergoing strategic planning.  Sorry, did I just make you cringe, or heave a deep sigh like Eeyore? Then I’m guessing you’ve probably been through strategic planning at some point in your career.  Whether you go into the process with hopeful optimism or cynical wariness, it doesn’t take long to realize that collectively agreeing on a future plan for the institution is extremely difficult and actually implementing that plan rarely happens.  Although what people may or may not learn from the strategic planning process is a topic for another day.  The point here is that strategic planning is usually the only active manner in which museums attempt to create a defined learning agenda for themselves.  And it’s a torturous one.

If it’s so difficult, why should museums go through the effort to become a learning organization?  Most of the research on organizational learning comes from the business world, where companies need to anticipate and respond to the ever changing needs of their clientele if they want to survive.  In order to be competitive, companies must value and draw upon the knowledge, creativity, and insight of their employees.  While the museum field might move at a slower pace than the business world, their need for survival is no less urgent.  Back in 2006, Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA, was on the edge of financial collapse.  As told to attendees at the New England Museum Association conference in 2008, they did the usual things to survive – laid off staff, cut back on programs, and embarked on a desperate plan to increase visitation through a series of special events that were not necessarily reflective of their mission.  Once the sale of a piece of property stabilized the finances of the museum, they regrouped to come up with a more thoughtful plan to increase visitation and revenue.  Through an evaluation process they discovered that instead of attracting new visitors with non-mission related programming, they were alienating people who came to learn about American life in the early nineteenth century.  Apparently their core audience did not want to see an Abraham Lincoln ice skating show.  So Old Sturbridge Village refocused on its mission and found ways to both enhance its core programming and increase revenue, like offering visitors a chance to create a 19th century craft with a skilled interpreter for a fee.  It was an organizational learning process that enabled Old Sturbridge Village not just to survive but to thrive again.

Credit: Old Sturbridge Village

Implications for Museums:

Right now you’re wondering if there is an easier and less expensive way to become a learning organization than conducting evaluation studies or undergoing strategic planning.  Here are some ideas from other types of organizations that might help nudge your museum in the right direction:

After Action Reviews (AAR)

This idea comes from the U.S. Army and it’s pretty much what it sounds like.  Formally or informally, “all participants meet immediately after an important activity or event to review their assignments, identify successes and failures, and look for ways to perform better the next time around. (Garvin, 2000, p. 106)”  All After Action Reviews revolve around these 4 questions:

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What are we going to do next time?

The Army has strict guidelines on maintaining civility during these conversations and they recommend using a skilled facilitator to keep the conversation on track.  The idea is not to point fingers but to learn from mistakes.  The beauty of this process, besides being free and easy to implement, is that it can become an engrained learning process with consistent use.  Everyone will start thinking about what they can do better next time with practice.  Eventually the focus will shift from solving problems, because you’ve already done that in previous AARs, to sustaining best practices for your organization.  Before you know it, you start understanding what it is your organization needs to learn for future success.

Listen to Everyone

What? Everyone?!  Even the odd ducks in the interpretation department?  Uh, yeah.  According to Laura Bierema, assistant professor at the University of Georgia,  “employees learn constantly, and that learning is usually beneficial to the organization regardless of the reason it is undertaken  (2001, p. 46).”  Borrow a page from the Rotary Club which has a guest speaker built into every meeting so they can learn about different organizations in the communities they serve.  Instead of inviting outside speakers, though, invite staff/volunteers to share what they’ve learned from a professional development opportunity or on an area of expertise they may have.  Make it a priority by setting a regularly scheduled time, like a brown bag lunch once a month.  Not only does this demonstrate to staff/volunteers that their own learning is valuable to the institution, you may discover that someone on your staff already has the capacity to help the institution move forward in a particular area.  Maybe somebody knows how to promote their own crafts on Pinterest and could help the Education Department post kid’s activity ideas.  Perhaps a new board member is a certified Master Gardener and could help the volunteer gardeners diagnose a problem with plantings that aren’t thriving.  And the next time you come back from a conference jazzed about a new idea, you’ll have a structured venue through which to share it.  No longer will your conference bag lay untouched in your office for months after you return.


Ultimately the key to being a learning organization is allowing staff/volunteers the opportunity to reflect on what they have learned and how they can put that learning into action to benefit the museum.  Easier said than done, I know.  When was the last time you had uninterrupted time to sit and think?  Museums are no different than other organizations in that they are “dynamic and complex social systems formed to accomplish goals (Dean, 2001, p. 141).”  And since we are all human, it is easier to keep ourselves busy with short term goals.  Exhibit open? Check. New program created? Check. Annual fundraising event held? Check. Volunteer training conducted? Check.  To say nothing of the fact that museum people are gifted at creating more work for themselves by constantly coming up with ideas for cool new projects.  Before you launch yourself into the next action item on your list though, stop and ask yourself if there is anything you can learn from the last project you completed.  And here’s a crazy idea – write it down!  Start a reflection journal so that you don’t have to keep relearning the same thing over and over again.  Along the same lines, having an After Action Review is a way for a whole group to reflect together.


(Before you write to tell me that my citations are incorrect, you should know that I’m using the format stipulated by the American Psychological Association.  So it’s really okay if the title words are not all capitalized. Really.)

Garvin, D. A. (2000). Learning in action: A guide to putting the learning organization to work.  Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Matelic, C. T. (2008, Spring). Understanding change and transformation in history organizations.  History News, 7-13.

Gilley, J. W., Dean, P., & Bierema, L. (2001). Philosophy and practice of organizational learning, performance, and change.  Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

New England Museum Association Conference, 2008, Warwick RI




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