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Investigating work and learning through complex adaptive organisations

Amanda Louise Lizier (School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology Sydney, Ultimo, Australia)

Journal of Workplace Learning

ISSN: 1366-5626

Article publication date: 11 September 2017




The purpose of this paper is to outline an empirical study of how professionals experience work and learning in complex adaptive organisations. The study uses a complex adaptive systems approach, which forms the basis of a specifically developed conceptual framework for explaining professionals’ experiences of work and learning.


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 14 professionals from a variety of organisations, industry sectors and occupations in Sydney, Australia. The transcripts were subjected to an adapted phenomenographic analysis, and an analysis using the complex adaptive organisations conceptual framework (CAOCF).


The findings indicated that professionals experienced learning mainly through work, where work was experienced as fluid and influenced by varying degrees of emergence, agency, complex social networks and adaptation. Further, the greater the degree of work fluidity, the greater the impetus towards learning through work, empirically indicating that the experience of learning in contemporary organisations is entwined with work.


This study used the concept of complex adaptive organisations as a conceptual framework, coupled with an adapted phenomenographic methodology, to investigate individual professionals’ experiences of work and learning. The adoption of the concept of complex adaptive organisations provided a rigorous way to adopt a complexity approach. In particular, the concept of emergence provides insights into how organisational complexity influences work and, subsequently, learning and adaptation.



This paper is based on one originally presented at the 9th International Researching Work and Learning Conference held at the Singapore School of Arts, Singapore, in December 2015. The author would like to acknowledge the valuable comments provided by the anonymous reviewers of earlier versions of the paper, as well as the assistance of Dr Ann Reich and Dr Günter Plum in providing comments on the manuscript.


Lizier, A.L. (2017), "Investigating work and learning through complex adaptive organisations", Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 29 No. 7/8, pp. 554-565.



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