Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization; Developments in Theory and Practice

Stephen Gibb (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Employee Relations

ISSN: 0142-5455

Article publication date: 1 June 2000




Gibb, S. (2000), "Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization; Developments in Theory and Practice", Employee Relations, Vol. 22 No. 3, pp. 293-298.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

This book aims to provide an overview of key debates in “organizational learning” and “learning organizations”. It is based on a symposium held in 1996, with contributions from academics and practitioners in Europe (actually the UK, The Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland) and the USA. When an early UK text in this area was first published in the early 1990s the editors then (one of whom is involved with this text) talked about only being able to provide “glimpses” of the learning organization, as it was an evolving concept. The question this book attempts to answer is what progress has been made since then.

The editors are all too keenly aware that they have a difficult job on their hands with this task. They know that, instead of progress, there has been what many see as a spiralling into greater complexity, obscurity and increasing criticism of the two concepts. Indeed, perhaps more than any other concepts in recent times, “organizational learning” and the “learning organization” have baffled and bemused both academics and practitioners. In particular, despite a decade of intensive interest, the “glimpses” drawn from research have been seen to become even more vague due to problems with defining, modelling and providing empirical evidence for these concepts.

The editors’ approach to recovering the reputation of these concepts is to make a clear distinction between the “organizational learning” and the “learning organization” traditions. This is attempted by dividing the book into two sections. The former is concerned with “classic” research concerned with theory development, the latter with practice and implementation, based on action research and problem solving. Hence the subtitle “developments in theory and practice”. Yet even this distinction is not necessarily the critical one, as in each tradition there are different approaches to defining, investigating and discussing, respectively, “organizational learning” and “learning organizations”. The theory‐practice distinction does not hold; and once again instead of a clear description there is a branching into the complexities of accounting for different traditions. The most fundamental confusion of expectation and actuality in my experience perhaps arises from the combination of organizational theory and employee development practice.

For the editors one problem in accounting for developments in theory and practice is then the different streams in each tradition. The other problem is the existence of the different traditions themselves. In addition, the editors suggest that a further problem is the distinctiveness of European and North American approaches to these concepts in a context where the USA is, broadly, hegemonic. While this may all be true, it still does not explain why developments in theory and practice have proven so problematic, for these issues exist in many other areas of the human sciences.

The editors’ overall assessment is that there has been insufficient dialogue between the two camps of action research and theorizing. The editors’ solution is that further dialogue is needed to bridge this divide in order to provide a useful and meaningful conception of the field of study. As a contribution to mapping this divided house, the text is an apt illustration of these problems. The editors’ overview is of more interest, however, than the individual contributions. Reading the contributions only reinforces what the editors have identified as problems, rather than providing a deepening of understanding of the field. Each contribution in its own right is interesting enough, but having entered the maze of these chapters, even with the editors’ map in hand, the cumulative effect is still akin to getting more and more lost rather than finding a way through.

Moreover, since 1996 things have moved on, so the text is somewhat dated as it fails to cover recent important changes. The central change is probably the concern with knowledge management, which can be seen to encompass and extend the themes and debates reviewed here. This is not to say the field of knowledge management transcends the problems identified here. Problems exist with conceptual confusion, different traditions and streams of thinking, and distinctive traditions in Europe and USA approaches.

In conclusion, in the early 1990s we were offered “glimpses” into the key debates surrounding “organizational learning” and the “learning organization”. These readings show that since then developments in theory and practice have not provided us with a fuller and more complete picture. It seems as if advances in organizational theory, such as knowledge management, and in practice with more prosaic developments such as better systematic training systems, employee development and assistance programmes (EDAPs) and corporate universities, have left the concepts of “learning organizations” and “organizational learning” stranded. Perhaps there was always too much bundled up in these grand synthesizing concepts, and the most productive way ahead in theory and practice is to stick to smaller, more specific and more discrete developments in organizational theory and employee development practice. For example, producing competent trainers, improving the quality of training interventions in organizations, and increasing the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). Each of these presents pressing challenges that can be overshadowed or neglected in the pursuit of a grander vision.

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