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The dialectical development of “storytelling” learning organizations: A case study of a public research university

Yue Cai Hillon (Department of Economics, Management and Project Management, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, North Carolina, USA)
David M. Boje (College of Business, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA)

The Learning Organization

ISSN: 0969-6474

Article publication date: 8 May 2017




Calls for dialectical learning process model development in learning organizations have largely gone unheeded, thereby limiting conceptual understanding and application in the field. This paper aims to unify learning organization theory with a new understanding of Hegelian dialectics to trace the development of the storytelling learning organization. The “storytelling learning organization” is a conceptual framework presented along with criteria to evaluate different kinds of dialectical development claims in “storytelling learning organization” work that are bona fide instances of one or another dialectical ontology ranging from Marxian, to Hegelian, to Brierian, to Žižekian.


Ontological evaluation and critique of a variety of “storytelling learning organization” practices posit different dialectical ontology and consequences for theory and practice. Through a case example of business process reengineering (BPR) in a “public research university (PRU)”, the storytelling of “schooling” versus “education” ideas and practices, in a place, in a period and in material ways of mattering, never achieves synthesis. The dialectical development of resistance to implementation evolves toward transcendence into irreducible oppositions of ontological incompleteness – the essence of a learning organization.


This ontological analysis focuses on the use of ideas and practices by opposing storytelling agents and actants to uncover a learning organization’s dialectical development in its own storytelling, its narrative and counter-narrative enactments, and its attempts to unpack contradictions. The PRU under study has gone through a series of financial crises, and its learning organization responses were downsizing staff and faculty positions and implementing BPR in ways that worsened the situation. The process resulted in staff and faculty leaving even before the reorganization was completed and enrollment dropped dramatically, in great part due to the negative press and the excessive standardization of the curriculum that accompanies “schooling” displacing acts of “education” practices and ideations. Meanwhile, the administrators are still trying to manage the narrative and control it so as to forestall additional attrition.


The theory of “storytelling learning organization” is original. The question answered here has practical value because institutions have choices to make concerning the kind of dialectical narrative and counter-narrative development that is cultivated, and there are options for transforming or moving to an alternative narrative and counter-narrative development process. The analysis of the case also illustrates a pattern of intervention that is, on the one hand, unsuccessful in developing “higher” education and, on the other hand, successful in shutting down the efficacy of a PRU by centrist use of reengineering to accomplish more schooling, more downsizing and more installation of “academic capitalism” ideas and practices.



Hillon, Y.C. and Boje, D.M. (2017), "The dialectical development of “storytelling” learning organizations: A case study of a public research university", The Learning Organization, Vol. 24 No. 4, pp. 226-235.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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