Organizational Learning Theories
There are two prevailing schools of learning theory at the organizational level. The first is based on the idea of organizational knowledge management in which knowledge is codified into information which the organization and individuals can access, monitor, acquire, and store (Allee, 1997; Contu & Willmott, 2003; Raelin, 2008). Similar to Kolb’s (1980) apprehensive and comprehensive knowledge, this school of organizational learning theorizes that the process of codification creates knowledge which can be stored and accessed for use when needed by those within the organization (Raelin; Yakhlef, 2002). Organizational knowledge then becomes the aggregate of individuals’ knowledge and experience (Allee, 1997; Cook & Yanow, 1995). As Raelin describes DiBella, Nevis, and Gould’s three-step approach to organizational learning from a knowledge management perspective, knowledge is acquired, shared, and utilized by members of the organization. Rouwette and Vennix (2008) describe the information processing approach used within knowledge management which includes attention to identification of problems, encoding information so group members create shared meaning, store information perceived as valuable which creates organizational memory, create informational retrieval processes, create workspace processes that support organizational culture, and create communication structures that support sense-making and feedback from individuals and groups within the organization.
Knowledge management based theories of organizational learning begins with codified knowledge that can be retrieved and stored from members of the organization (Cook & Brown, 1999, Nonaka, 1994). For knowledge to be useful, therefore, individuals need to be able to transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Knowledge that cannot be codified would not be useful to the organization as knowledge would not be able to be retrieved and stored for use by others within the organization. As a result, organizational processes need to be structured so that tacit information can be transformed into codified knowledge thus resulting in organizational learning. Using Anderson’s ACT cognitive model, Nonaka explains, “declarative knowledge has to be transformed into procedural knowledge in order for cognitive skills to develop…it can be argued that transformation is bidirectional (p. 18).” In other words, codified knowledge needs to be in a form that fits into organizational procedures, but also organizational procedures can produce knowledge that then needs to be codified for organizational use.
My working definition of knowledge management is the access, monitoring, acquisition, and storage of organizational information which is codified into a common format in order for those within the organization to participate in sense-making, group decision making and problem solving, and the creation of shared mental models at the group, departmental, and organizational level. While organizational learning may need to access some forms of knowledge management, organizational learning is not synonymous with knowledge management. In addition, not all organizational learning requires knowledge management, although knowledge management might augment organizational learning.
The second school of organizational learning theory is based on organizational members’ social and cultural interaction with the environment, often through the establishment of communities of practice within the workplace (Akgun, Lynn, & Byrne, 2003; Cook & Brown, 1999; Cook & Yanow, 1995; Nonaka, 1994). Those within this school of organizational learning believe that learning within the organization is not based on individuals possessing needed knowledge, but rather learning is a construction of knowledge within the organizational environment. Cook and Yanow go one step further by placing learning into the organizational culture which establishes patterns of activity that create knowledge. They define organizational learning as, “acquiring, sustaining or changing of intersubjective meaning and/or the artifactual vehicles of their expression and transmission, through the collective actions of the group (p.280).” In other words, it is the interaction with the environment, stimulated through organizational practices such as collaborative writing, project management, and both formal and informal group discussions that create organizational learning opportunities. These work activities, both cognitive and social, create both tacit and explicit knowledge through social interaction and the organization of work patterns (Cook & Brown, 1999).
Akgun, Lynn, & Byrne (2003) further define the organizational learning process as “ a social process mediated by artifacts. This view thus emphasizes the importance of culture, communication, and group activities in organizations (p. 843).” While the first model presented above (knowledge management) assumes that knowledge is created and possessed at the individual level and is then dispersed collectively at the group and organizational level, this second model (constructed knowledge) theorizes that there are different types of knowledge created at each level (individual, group, and organizational). Organizational learning, therefore, is influenced by the social environment, organizational culture, and work patterns that are the result of political influences within the organization’s powerstructure (Akgun, Lynn, & Byrne, 2003; Cook & Yanow, 1995; Nonaka, 1994). As a result, not all organizational knowledge can be culled and transferred to others within the organization (often through training) because the knowledge is imbedded in organizational practices and culture.
Both Cook (1995, 1999) and Nonaka (1994) concluded that there is implicit or tacit knowledge that is created within the confines of organizational boundaries. Looking at work patterns in various industries, they both concluded that knowledge is created through perspective taking, meaning making, and dialog necessitated when there was dissonance or differences in understanding within the work patterns. Perspective, meaning, and the form that communication takes are dictated by culture. In this study, we will use Cook & Yanow’s definition of culture:
We define culture in application to organizations as a set of values, beliefs, and meanings, together with the artifacts of their expression and transmission (such as myths, symbols, metaphors, rituals and ritual objects), that are created. Inherited, shared, and transmitted within one group of people (p. 388).”
Therefore, those who adhere to the second theory of organizational learning would conclude that organizational learning is bounded by organizational values, beliefs, and meaning, and transmitted and stored using organizational forms, formats, and processes that create the myths, symbols, metaphors, rituals, and ritual objects that become organizational artifacts representing the organizational culture. As a result, knowledge that is embedded within the organizational culture, would change when used outside of the environment in which it was created. Knowledge, therefore, can be dynamic as its affordance is dynamic (Cook & Brown, 1999).
The second theory of organizational learning has broader implications as knowledge could be created and transmitted both formally and informally. In the knowledge management perspective of organizational learning, knowledge is viewed as something that can be stagnate and captured for others outside of the culture and environment in which it was created. In the constructed perspective of organizational learning, knowledge may be converted from implicit to explicit formats, but any knowledge captured would need to be modified (or recreated) for a specific environment. As such, the process of knowledge creation could be learned, but the content would change depending on the environment.
Organizational learning is distinguishable from knowledge management. Organizational learning may not result in operational or behavioral changes at the individual, group, or even organizational level, and as such may be difficult to measure. In fact, Cook & Yanow (1995) give examples in which organizational learning may make subgroups or individuals less productive. Rather, organizational learning is the interaction that results in deeper knowledge and understanding at the organizational level. For this study, I will use Cook & Yanow’s definition of organizational learning:
The acquiring, sustaining or changing of intersubjective meanings and/or the artifactual vehicles of their expression and transmission, through the collective actions of the group.
Akgun, A., Lynn, G., & Byrne, J. (2003). Organizational learning: A socio-cognitive framework. Human Relations, 56 (7), 839-868.
Allee, V. (1997). The Knowledge Evolution. Newton, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Contu, A. & Willmott, H. (2003). Re-embedding situatedness: The importance of power relations in learning theory. Organizational Science (2003) 14 (3), 283-296.
Cook, S. & Brown, J. (1999). Bridging epistemologies: The generative dance between organizational knowledge and organizational knowing. Organization Science, 10 (4), 381-400.
Cook, S & Yanow, D. (1993). Culture and organizational learning. Journal of Management Inquiry, 2 (4), 373-390.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as a the source of learning and development. Englewood-Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.
Nonaka, I (1994). A dynamic theory of organizational knowledge creation. Organization Science, 5(1), 14-37.
Raelin, J. (2008). Work-Based Learning. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Yakhlef, A. (2002). Towards a discursive approach to organisational knowledge formation. Scandinavian Journal of Management, 18, 319-339.