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Heather Weiss

The notions of “learning organizations” and “organizational learning” are very popular these days. Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, who first discussed organizational learning in the 1970s, promote the idea of double-loop learning. This learning results in changes in organizational values and promotes a fundamental transformation of the organization such that it is more successful and productive.¹ Peter Senge, who has popularized organizational learning with his book, The Fifth Discipline, describes five characteristics of learning organizations: systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning.²

As we struggle to face the large-scale changes affecting our work—accountability, devolution, information technology, a new century—the dynamism, flexibility, and opportunity implied by an organizational learning approach is compelling. But what does it take for organizations that serve children and families to become “learning organizations”? What constraints do they face? How do they actually do it? Who needs to be involved?

This issue of The Evaluation Exchange is the first of two which examine these questions. We have brought together a variety of perspectives that we hope will stimulate thinking and discussion on this important topic. Our Theory and Practice section summarizes a paper that William Morrill and I authored on how to develop and promote useful learning in public programs. The article suggests that organizational learning in the policy arena must involve the creation of a“learning community” of policymakers, researchers, evaluators, and practitioners and sets forth for discussion a model for implementing a learning approach in the public sector. In our Promising Practices section, we include two articles about approaches for creating a public policy learning community that actively involves citizens. William Novelli of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids writes about implementing an information campaign to inform citizens and policymakers about children’s health. HFRP researcher Serene Fang writes about the Citizens Research process, a technique to better inform and engage citizens in understanding and influencing the policy-making process. Our Questions and Answers section presents a conversation with Patricia McGinnis of The Council for Excellence in Government about how accountability and organizational learning in the public sector come together. As interest in and experimentation with learning endeavors grow, being able to evaluate their effectiveness will be important. In our Evaluations to Watch section, Andy Mott of the Center for Community Change and Vicki Creed of Learning Partners discuss an approach they used to evaluate learning through the National Learning Initiative of the Empowerment Zones/Enterprise Communities Project. In one of our Spotlight sections, Lisa Plimpton of the Center for Law and Social Policy discusses work that CLASP is doing to document state policies on welfare reform. In another Spotlight article, Michael Quinn Patton of The Union Institute and Ricardo A. Millett of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation look at criteria that distinguish casual/informal notions of lessons learned from “high quality” lessons learned. In our Beyond Basic Training section, Robert Kirchner of the U.S. Department of Justice discusses work that his agency has been doing to strengthen evaluation capacity at the state and local levels. Finally, in our New and Noteworthy and Electronic Mailbox sections, we provide information on current resources to assist those interested in learning organizations.

Organizations are increasingly asked to undertake many challenges with fewer resources and under greater scrutiny. Organizational learning theory and practice may help us to better understand and implement productive and relevant ways in which to do so.

¹ Argyris, C.,& Schön, D. A. (1996). Organizational learning II: Theory, method, and practice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing.
² Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Heather B. Weiss, Ed.D.
Founder & Director
Harvard Family Research Project

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© 2014 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project