The Learning Imperative: Managing People for Continuous Innovation. Robert Howard. Harvard Business Review Press.

The Learning Imperative: Managing People for Continuous Innovation Book Cover The Learning Imperative: Managing People for Continuous Innovation
Robert Howard
Harvard Business Review Press
August 1, 1993

The steady, predictable, and relatively secure growth that characterize the post-World War II economy is over. Today’s business environment is one of constant change: rapidly shifting markets, nonstop technological evolution, and organizational innovation. Amid all this turbulence, one potential source of stability and continuity is an organization’s employees and their ability to exploit change before competitors do. Indeed, the premier organizations of the twenty-first century will be those whose employees consistently learn from their environment, readily discard old– yet comfortable – ways of doing business, and create new, effective strategies that encompass their learning. Herein is the challenge: How do managers ensure that continuous learning and forward-thinking innovation take place even as they and their employees grapple with the day-to-the demands of their jobs?

The Learning Imperative brings together for the first time 15 recent articles from the Harvard Business Review that spell out – with a striking blend of theory and example – the logic, organizational design, psychological challenges, and key implementation issues of the learning organization. Articulated by such well-known management thinkers as Chris Argyris, Peter Drucker, and George Stalk, the main themes of the book capture the fundamental parameters of organizational innovation: inventing more effective ways to put knowledge to work; designing appropriate networks that allow for superior execution; adapting to the social environment as traditional boundaries of hierarchy, function, and geography are dismantled; managing nondirective change processes that start at the grassroots; and using properly organized standardization and specialization to create a “learning bureaucracy.”

Detailed profiles and case studies of companies from around the world – including Canon, Honda, Levi Strauss, Motorola, and Wal-Mart – and interviews with leading CEOs illustrate companies and executives putting these ideas to work. Nicholas Hayek of SMH, the Swiss company that designs and builds the Swatch; Xerox’s Paul Allaire; Robert Haas of Levi Strauss; and Arden Sims of Globe Metallurgical (the first small company to win the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award) reveal how their organizations’ commitment to learning transform their own business practices – and performance.

From Peter Drucker’s theories of the knowledge economy to Arden Sims’ description of the gritty realities of global competition, The Learning Imperative is about management as innovation. Individually, these articles are important contributions to the managerial debate about organizational learning. Together, they are an invaluable resource for any managers striving to cope with the challenge of organizational innovation and change.

Robert Howard is a writer and consultant and the author of Brave New Workplace. A former senior editor of the Harvard Business Review, he was responsible for editing articles on organizational innovation and human resource management. His own writing on work, technology, and organizational change has appeared in a variety of publications including HBR, the New York Times Book Review, and MIT’s Technology Review.