Originally published on April 24, 2018

This is the 18th article in the Profiles in Knowledge series featuring thought leaders in knowledge management. It is also the ninth of these about key contributors who are gone but not forgotten. Thanks to Raj Datta for suggesting this article and sending me the link to the obituary.

Obituary by Jim Aisner of Harvard Business School

David Alan Garvin, Harvard Business School’s C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration, was born on May 12, 1952 and died on April 30, 2017. In 1974, he received an AB in economics, summa cum laude, from Harvard College, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He earned a PhD in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979.

After completing his doctoral studies, Garvin came to HBS as an assistant professor. Among his mentors was the late Professor C. Roland Christensen, who was widely regarded as the world’s greatest authority and exponent of the case method.

An influential and prolific scholar, during a distinguished career that spanned almost four decades, Garvin studied business and management processes; the principles of organizational learning; the design and leadership of large, complex organizations; graduate management education; and case method pedagogy. He authored or coauthored 10 books and 37 articles.

“David Garvin was an extraordinary teacher and gifted scholar who excelled in reaching a wide audience on a broad range of topics,” said Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria. A member of the HBS faculty since 1979, first in what was then known as the Production and Operations Management Unit (now Technology and Operations Management) and then in General Management beginning in 1994, Garvin taught a variety of courses in the School’s MBA and Executive Education programs. He served as faculty chair of the MBA program’s Elective Curriculum from 2006 to 2009.

Promoted from assistant to associate professor in 1984 and then to full professor in 1989, Garvin was named to the Robert and Jane Cizik Professorship in 1991. He became the C. Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration in 2002.

At Harvard Business School, Garvin developed more than 70 case studies, along with multimedia exercises and technical notes. Nearly a dozen of his cases are among the most popular in the School’s case collection, including Paul Levy, Boeing 767, and Emerging Business Opportunities at IBM.

“He was an amazing case writer,” said Nohria, “and anyone who saw him in the classroom, whether in the MBA or Executive Education programs, can attest to his mastery of participant-based teaching –and his love of a good quip to start off the discussion. What set David apart even further was his ability to help others understand the magic of case method teaching, whether through the ‘Participant-Centered Learning and the Case Method’ multimedia instructional series or through his long-time role as faculty chair of our Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning, which promotes and supports teaching excellence and innovation within the School.

“But what most people will remember David for is his incredible generosity,” Nohria continued. “He was a true collaborator, mentor, and steadfast friend to countless students, faculty, and staff on campus. He made everyone feel as though their relationship with him was a special one, and we all became better for knowing him.”

As a researcher and author, Garvin made important contributions to the understanding of American manufacturing, beginning with his 1982 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article “Managing as if Tomorrow Mattered” (co-authored with HBS professor Robert H. Hayes), which won the annual McKinsey award for the best article in the magazine that year.

Garvin then gained prominence with his indictment of American product quality in his 1983 HBR article “Quality on the Line,” which earned him another McKinsey Award. Covered by newspapers around the world, that article reported the results of his multi-year study of the quality and performance of U.S.- and Japanese-made air conditioners, documenting American failure rates that were more than a thousand times greater than those of Japanese competitors.

In his landmark 1988 book Managing Quality: The Strategic and Competitive Edge, Garvin examined what U.S. manufacturers needed to do at the time to close the quality gap with foreign rivals. Through his exhaustive research, he showed how a strategic approach that is more sensitive to consumers’ needs and preferences can be used to compete effectively. He also identified eight critical dimensions of product quality — including performance, features, reliability, conformance, and durability — that could serve as a framework for strategic analysis.

A theme in much of Garvin’s work was that general managers need to think about processes rather than organizational structures or discrete tasks to move their organizations forward and achieve results. In his 2002 book General Management: Processes and Action, he provided executives with a powerful foundation for designing, directing, and influencing the functioning of key processes, from strategic planning to business development to budgeting.

A thought leader on organizational learning, Garvin believed that enduring success requires building a strong culture of learning in an organization to counter the unpredictability brought about by shifts in customer preferences, market downturns, and technological advances. In Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work, published in 2003, he provided managers with practical guidelines and tools for building organizations that are adept at acquiring, interpreting, and applying knowledge to stay ahead of change and the competition. He argued that at the heart of organizational learning lies a set of processes that can be designed and deployed, while providing detailed examples of organizations that have successfully used learning to pursue improvement and change.

Garvin’s 2010 book Rethinking the MBA: Business Education at the Crossroads reported the findings of a comprehensive research study on the future of MBA education, which began in 2008 as Harvard Business School celebrated its Centennial. Based on extensive interviews with dozens of business school deans and executives and a detailed analysis of eleven top MBA programs, the authors identified a large set of unmet needs in MBA education in areas such as leadership development and critical thinking. In-depth case studies of leading business schools illustrate a diverse set of approaches to meeting 21st-century challenges, including radically redesigning curricula, offering greater customization, and linking knowledge to application through experiential learning. “Much of what we talk about is the need for more applied or field work, where students work on global experiential projects and engage in reflective exercises that underpin effective leadership,” Garvin said.

This research led to changes in the Harvard Business School’s curriculum, including the creation of a new experiential course in the first-year required MBA curriculum called FIELD (Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development). In keeping with the prescriptions provided by Garvin and his coauthors, the FIELD Method now complements the Case Method at HBS and provides opportunities for Harvard MBA students to learn by thinking, doing, and reflecting.


1. HBR

2. ResearchGate

3. The Processes of Organization and Management

4. Note on Knowledge Management with Artemis March

Provides an overview of knowledge management, including descriptions of knowledge management strategies, processes, organization, infrastructure, systems, and challenges. Describes the approaches at two leading consulting firms, Arthur Andersen and Ernst & Young, that have been pioneers in knowledge management strategies.

5. Is Yours a Learning Organization? with Amy C. Edmondson and Francesca Gino (PDF)

Organizations need to learn more than ever as they confront these mounting forces. Each company must become a learning organization. The concept is not a new one. It flourished in the 1990s, stimulated by Peter M. Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and countless other publications, workshops, and websites. The result was a compelling vision of an organization made up of employees skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge. These people could help their firms cultivate tolerance, foster open discussion, and think holistically and systemically. Such learning organizations would be able to adapt to the unpredictable more quickly than their competitors could.

For maximum impact, knowledge must be shared in systematic and clearly defined ways. Sharing can take place among individuals, groups, or whole organizations. Knowledge can move laterally or vertically within a firm. The knowledge-sharing process can, for instance, be internally focused, with an eye toward taking corrective action. Right after a project is completed, the process might call for post-audits or reviews that are then shared with others engaged in similar tasks. Alternatively, knowledge sharing can be externally oriented — for instance, it might include regularly scheduled forums with customers or subject-matter experts to gain their perspectives on the company’s activities or challenges. Together, these concrete processes ensure that essential information moves quickly and efficiently into the hands and heads of those who need it.

Organizational learning is strongly influenced by the behavior of leaders. When leaders actively question and listen to employees — and thereby prompt dialogue and debate — people in the institution feel encouraged to learn. If leaders signal the importance of spending time on problem identification, knowledge transfer, and reflective post-audits, these activities are likely to flourish. When people in power demonstrate through their own behavior a willingness to entertain alternative points of view, employees feel emboldened to offer new ideas and options.

6. Book Excerpt: Learning in Action

Today managers and leaders are considered to be very different. Managers are action oriented; they spend their days doing, delegating and deciding. Their eyes are on the present, and they measure success by skilled execution and effective implementation. Consistency and stability are the primary goals.

Leaders, on the other hand, focus on the future; they spend their time setting targets, developing strategies, communicating vision and aligning individuals and departments. Change is the primary objective, and the challenge is to get all parts of the organization moving in the desired direction at a rapid enough rate. Clearly, companies need both managers and leaders to succeed, for together they ensure attention to both short- and long-term goals.

Yet enduring success requires that both groups broaden their horizons. Both need to add a new goal, “improving organizational learning,” to their already lengthy agendas. Superior intelligence gathering, experiential learning and experimentation are all required. Otherwise, atrophy and drift are inevitable. The challenge is great and becomes ever more pressing with time.

It is for this reason that learning is the key to long-term survival and growth, and that organizational effectiveness is so intimately linked to adaptability and flexibility.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching puts the instructor front and center. Concepts and ideas flow from the top down or the center out, and the focus is on knowledge transfer. Teachers are the experts; their role is to deliver content, communicate clear messages and instill better ways of working. Students are regarded as novices; their role is to absorb and accept. The effectiveness of the process is usually measured by the degree to which important information makes the trip from the first group to the second without distortion or loss.

A process designed to foster learning is quite different. New ways of thinking become the desired ends, not facts or frameworks. Discussion and debate replace ex cathedra pronouncements. Questions become as important as answers. And success, to use a currently popular phrase, is measured by the degree to which students “learn how to learn.” Because the focus shifts from transferring knowledge to developing organizational skills and capabilities, executives’ roles must change as well. They become shepherds of learning, responsible for creating supportive environments, probing for insights and deeper thinking and constructing settings where employees can collect, interpret and apply information. This, in turn, requires a significant shift in mind-set and attitudes.

Learning, after all, is simply another organizational process, not all that different from strategy formulation, product development or order fulfillment. Like other processes, it unfolds over time, has inputs and outputs, involves diverse departments and levels, and consists of interconnected activities and steps. And like other processes, it must be crafted and led. The concept of a “process owner” is as relevant to intelligence gathering, experiential learning and experimentation as it is to better-known operational and business processes — and for many of the same reasons: lack of attention, diffused responsibility, fragmentation and inefficiency. According to one expert on reengineering: “Why did we design inefficient processes? In a way, we didn’t. Many of our procedures were not designed at all; they just happened.”

There are three primary tasks to developing the learning organization. First, leaders and managers must create opportunities for learning by designing settings and events that prompt the necessary activities. Second, they must cultivate the proper tone, fostering desirable norms, behaviors and rules of engagement. Third, they must personally lead the process of discussion, framing the debate, posing questions, listening attentively, and providing feedback and closure. Done properly, these three tasks go a long way toward building an organization’s enduring capacity for learning.

Creating the Opportunity

Today’s managers and employees are inundated with work. They have far too much to do and far too little time to do it. Head counts are down, while workloads continue to rise. Products and services are proliferating, markets are globalizing and technology is forcing radical changes. The pressure to produce is high and unrelenting. In such settings, the urgent frequently drives out the important, and learning becomes an unnecessary frill. It is easily postponed in the face of more immediate demands.

To raise its visibility, executives need to create learning forums — assignments, activities and events whose primary purpose is to foster learning. Think, by way of analogy, of the ancient Roman forum, a central gathering place where citizens discussed the great issues of the day. Organizations are equally in need of public and private settings where they can wrestle collectively with difficult questions.

Learning forums can take many other forms. They include systems audits, which review the health of large, cross-functional processes and delivery systems; internal benchmarking projects, which identify and compare best-in-class activities within an organization; and study missions, which dispatch employees to leading organizations around the world to better understand their performance and distinctive skills.

In more formal terms, executives must shift from a pure performance orientation- in which results are all that matter — to one that balances performance and learning goals. According to scholars, when people find themselves in settings such as the classroom or the workplace, they typically display one of two orientations. Some focus primarily on performance; their goal is to gain favorable evaluations from superiors and perform well relative to peers. Others focus primarily on learning; their goal is to increase their competence and skills and develop increased mastery of the task at hand.

While the two orientations are to some degree ingrained, they also reflect the surrounding environment. Psychologists have found that when teachers focus exclusively on results, respond negatively to errors and praise students for their innate abilities, they tend to encourage a performance orientation. When they pay attention to personal development, use errors as opportunities for improvement and praise students for their effort and hard work, they tend to encourage a learning orientation. The analogy to management should be obvious. Just as teachers are responsible for the environments of their classrooms, leaders are responsible for the climates of their organizations. For both short- and long-term success, they must attend to more than results alone. A performance orientation remains vital — otherwise, employees will engage in activity for activity’s sake, with little direction or design — but its impact can be magnified when coupled with efforts to stimulate more of a learning orientation.

Leading the Discussion

Once leaders have created the desired climate, learning can begin in earnest. Whether the focus is intelligence gathering, or learning from experience or experimentation, some discussion is usually involved. In fact, virtually every example in this book involved intensive discussions at several points along the way. Findings were seldom self-evident. Meaning often had to be constructed, and participants usually found it necessary to engage actively with the material and with one another, debating alternatives until they reached a decision or conclusion.

Such discussions seldom proceed smoothly or of their own accord. They can easily derail, resulting in entrenched positions, superficial debate, finger-pointing, miscommunication and an inability to move forward. For real progress to occur, considerable shaping and direction are required. Someone has to lead the process. Skilled executives recognize that this is one of their primary responsibilities.

Three Keys to Discussion Success

To succeed at this process, executives need skills in three broad areas: questioning, listening and responding. All are tools of effective discussion leaders. And all can be used equally effectively in corporate settings.

Questions, for example, are enormously powerful tools for leading learning. They are the motive and force that gives shape to inquiry. Unfortunately, managers often treat questions as second-class citizens and regard them as a badge of ignorance. They prefer bold assertions and strong statements because they convey a sense of mastery and control. Yet questions are vital for moving groups forward. Good questions get to the heart of a matter; they force deep thinking and reflection. They must therefore be formulated with care and applied with a deft, sensitive touch.

To begin, it is important to recognize that not all questions are alike. They come in many forms and play diverse roles. There is no single best type of question; the preferred form depends on the situation and current needs. Questions can be used to frame issues, offer instructions, solicit information, probe for analysis, draw connections, seek opinions and ratify decisions.

In a similar fashion, questions should be designed to draw out assumptions and ensure that people are talking to one another rather than past each other. Discussions often founder needlessly because of unstated differences in meaning. Especially when groups span geographies or are composed of members with diverse backgrounds and experiences, even the simplest communication presents a challenge. Common problems include different uses of the same terms and different reference points.

The one thing people tend to take for granted when talking to others is that they understand each other. People often think they disagree when actually they simply are not talking about the same experiences. In such cases they do not draw each other out far enough to realize that, although they are using the same words, they are thinking about different experiences.

Such problems would disappear if discussion leaders, as well as participants, probed more actively for the roots of differing positions. Of course, skilled questioning is not enough to ensure that discussions are productive. If real learning is to occur, there must also be active listening. The two go hand in hand, like the blades of scissors.

Perhaps the most important is practicing patience. All too often, managers interrupt before others have finished, short-circuiting the learning process. They jump to conclusions, assuming that they have understood someone’s position before receiving a full briefing. Or they project so much of their own thinking into the conversation that the original message is lost.

In the same spirit, executives must learn to listen for “disconnects” during discussion. Effective communication requires a strong link between source and receiver. But these connections take work, as well as empathy and rapport. Members of a group must be willing to suspend their preconceptions long enough to internalize what others are actually saying. Here, a useful technique for leaders is to insist that participants repeat what they have just heard and then to ask the original speaker to verify that his or her point has been correctly stated. Only after participants have agreed that the message has been heard is debate allowed to begin.

If leaders did no more than ask questions and listen for answers, many discussions would eventually bog down. Executives must also be able to respondusually, on the spot and in real-time. An issue is raised, an opinion is ventured, an argument breaks out and all eyes turn to the most senior person in the room. How should she react if she hopes to stimulate learning? There are an almost infinite variety of choices and many paths to success. But there are also a few practices that should be avoided at all costs because they are extremely damaging.

Two of the most pernicious practices are “depreciation of the learner” and “drowning of the learner.” The former asserts an executive’s superiority by dumping cold water on anyone else’s comments; the latter asserts his expertise by responding to simple queries with prolonged, mind-numbing lectures. In both cases, further contributions are unlikely to be forthcoming.

From organizational to individual learning

Without individuals who learn, there can be no learning organizations — they are, of course, essential for success. For executives, the first step in building a learning organization is a personal one. They need to develop these four skills as learners:

1. Openness to new perspectives

Openness requires that leaders accept the provisional nature of knowledge. Even long-established truths must eventually be revised and replaced. To remain current, they must continuously seek out competing concepts and evidence, wrestle with surprising and unfamiliar ideas, and consider new and unpopular points of view.

2. Awareness of personal biases

A second requirement for effective learning is an awareness of one’s personal biases. These biases may appear as distinctive cognitive styles or as pervasive learning disabilities. The former are unique to individuals, while the latter are common to all.

3. Exposure to unfiltered data

Leaders need a greater contact with raw, unfiltered data. Many executives are distressingly detached from the realities of their organizations. They need to tour factories, drop in on service centers, meet with disgruntled employees and talk with customers.

4. A sense of humility

Finally, if they are to progress as learners, leaders need to develop a sense of humility. They must recognize that they do not have all the answers. They must acknowledge that superior insights lie elsewhere — outside their offices, and at times outside their organizations. Learning, after all, is a profession of faith in the future, an admission that progress is possible.

Articles by Others

  1. The Enduring Work of David A. Garvin by Paul Michelman
  2. Reflecting on David Garvin’s Imprint on Management by Sarah Cliffe
  3. Why Knowledge Management Is Important To The Success Of Your Company by Lisa Quast


1. Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management by Osama Solieman

2. Building a Learning Organization

3. Is Yours a Learning Organization?


  1. A Better Approach to Making Decisions
  2. Learning Organizations with Amy Edmondson
  3. Improving Management at Google


1. The Importance of Learning in Organizations

2. Building a More Effective Learning Organization

3. Rethinking the MBA

4. The Challenge of Giving and Seeking Advice

5. Teaching With Cases: Lessons From a Harvard Business Professor

6. Readiness Versus Skills

7. Distance Learning and Guided Reflection


  1. Amazon Author Page
  2. Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management — Chapter 3: Building a Learning Organization
  3. Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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