Organizational learning: trends in the social construction of a field.

AuthorAlok, Kumar
PositionStatistical data - Abstract


Organizational learning (OL) is much researched, yet less understood of organizational topics (Crossan, Maurer & White, 2011; Dodgson, 1993; Easterby-Smith, Crossan & Nicolini, 2000; Friedman, Lipshitz & Popper, 2005; Miller, 1996). The central questions regarding 'what', 'how' and 'why' of learning are hardly settled. Such state of affairs can be significantly attributed to the presence of paradigms but lack of any theory of OL (Crossan et al., 2011). Absence of theories may prompt researchers to choose among the available OL frameworks as per their inclinations. In the process, certain OL frameworks may gain prominence and serve to anchor the fragmented field. It would be better possible to appreciate this social construction of OL field by looking at the dominant OL models that have anchored research over the years.

OL research gained momentum during 1990s (Easterby-Smith et al., 2000). Excellent reviews are available for the work done during these early years (Dodgson, 1993; Easterby-Smith et al., 2000; Miller, 1996). A look at the work done during 2000-2010 can help identify the latest social construction trends in OL research. Research published in the top journals significantly impacts the field and serves as the evidence of scholarship (Podsakoff, Mackenzie, Bachrach & Podsakoff, 2005; Tahai & Meyer, 1999). Therefore, the work published in the top 10 management journals during 20002010 can serve as the proxy for the trend of scholarship in the field.

'What', 'how' & 'why' of Learning: The current emphasis on learning can be largely attributed to the salience of adaptability in the face of rapid environmental and technological changes that have come to be the order of the day (Dodgson, 1993). Incorporation of learning into various organizational constructs introduces much needed analytical dynamism in them (Dodgson, 1993). The field of OL as it exists today offers researchers considerable choice. The choices pertain to what learning is, and how and why it occurs. Agreement is rare in these matters and researchers often have fairly arbitrary choices to make. Given below is a brief review of the literature to highlight the nature and extent of choices in these matters. The review is merely indicative and by no means exhaustive.

The 'what' of learning: In order to answer what learning is, choices need to be made regarding the level of analysis (Easterby-Smith et al., 2000) and the assumption of determinism or agency (Miller, 1996). Determinism in this context refers to the assumption that environment drives learning, whereas, agency refers to the assumption that individuals/groups/organizations drive learning, to whatever extent (Miller, 1996). Learning for individuals, under the assumption of determinism, means overt change in behavior (Skinner, 2002), whereas, under the assumption of agency, it may mean relatively stable change in cognitive structures (Bandura, 2001; 2007). Due to radically different assumptions, it may not be possible to reach a final settlement on cognition-behavior debate (Easterby-Smithet al., 2000).

At team level, under the assumption of determinism, learning means adaptation, whereas, under the assumption of agency, it may mean development of team capability to achieve collective goals (Senge, 1994). While the former is merely reactive, the latter can be proactive as well. Under extreme form of agency assumption, learning is often viewed as an emergent dialogue where it becomes a 'between persons' rather than a 'within person' affair (Easterby-Smith et al., 2000; Senge, 1994). Learning, from this perspective, is a social construct (Alok, 2011).

At the organizational level, learning for a determinist may mean environment-induced modification of organizational routines (Cyert & March, 1963). From agency perspective, it may mean acquisition of new knowledge or capability of organizational consequence (Miller, 1996). Economists take experience and efficiency for learning; however, it is important to recognize that these are outcomes of learning and not learning per se (Dodgson, 1993).

The 'how' of learning is directly linked to the 'what' of learning. Operant conditioning produces behavioral change through consequence generalization resulting from first-hand experiences, whereas, social cognitive approaches work through observational learning. Team learning of the adaptive kind may be a result of single-loop learning that involves detection and correction of errors without working on the underlying causes (Argyris, 1976). Learning for building capacity may involve double-loop learning where errors are detected and corrected with their underlying causes (Argyris, 1976). From a social constructionist perspective, people construct learning in the process of social interactions and contextual conversations (Easterby-Smith et al., 2000). At the level of organization, institutional forces shaping the organization can induce changes in organizational routines (Scott & Davis, 2007). Organizations may acquire new knowledge through actively putting in place supporting structures, processes, strategies and building their absorptive or learning capacities (Dodgson, 1993).

The 'why' of learning involves basic assumptions as well as the causal processes. Operant conditioning assumes that people favor consequences that they like. The social cognitive approaches assume that people model others in order to feel more in control of their environments. Team learning assumes that people want to reduce conflict between intended and actual outcomes. Learning at the level of organization assumes that organizations strive to achieve their goals or at least survival. While the causal mechanisms behind learning processes are considerably worked out at individual and to some extent, at team levels, they are hazy at the organizational level.

The idea that organizations have goals is severely contested (Scott & Davis, 2007). Behavioral theories of firm contend that organizational goals are political and members may have their own competing goals (Cyert & March, 1963; Scott & Davis, 2007). Natural systems perspective, on the other hand, holds that organizations exist to exist rather than pursue any goal, simple or complex (Scott & Davis, 2007). Open systems perspective contends that organizations may have shifting goals due to the changing environment (Scott & Davis, 2007). Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain what goal achievement means. In the absence of such clarity, it is difficult to articulate why organizations should learn.

The Learning Debates

The precise meaning of organizational learning is still debated (Dodgson, 1993; Easterby-Smith et al., 2000; Friedman, et al., 2005; Miller, 1996). The relationship...

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