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

The Learning Organization

ISSN: 0969-6474

Article publication date: 1 May 2000



Easterby‐Smith, M., Burgoyne, J. and Araujo, L. (2000), "Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, Developments in Theory and Practice", The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 112-115.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

One of the criticisms of the construct The Learning Organization is that the concept carries a positivistic connotation that reifies much of what has been learned from the great debates of the twentieth century. It may well have something to do with the more limited development of the subject in management studies per se rather than in the wider debates of the social sciences. The other twin concept Organizational Learning is also criticised for not being tangible enough to manage an organizational context. There is, however, a growing acknowledgement in the literature that knowledge and learning has to move away from the simplistic mechanisms required to manage change. Thus if we recognise that learning and knowledge are processes that include the essentially human ability to appreciate, discriminate, reason and apply judgement, then we come to see that the idea of the learning organization cannot just be the accumulated sum total of learning experiences resulting in knowledge acquisition. Equally we have to recognise that organizational learning is not a topic to be learned and mastered. Rather it is a fluid process of continuous development. But how far does that get us?

An attempt to answer these questions is provided in Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization edited by Mark Easterby‐Smith, John Burgoyne and Luis Araujo. In the first chapter Easterby‐Smith and Araujo argue that “The most significant distinction between authors who write about organizational learning can be summarized according to whether they emphasize it as a technical or a social process” (p. 3). From the technical perspective it is assumed that organizational learning is regarded as a form of information processing by which the mechanisms of double‐loop learning involve an ability to change the governing variables of the organization from one of simple detection and correction of error. Therefore, while double‐loop learning is seen to convey the superior notion of radical change it is unable to convey the more subtle qualities of interpretation and the construction of meaning. Thus, if we are to remain at the level of data and information processing then value, ethical judgement and the application of intelligence is irrelevant because the nature of truth is not contentions. Meaning is therefore usually treated unproblematically.

This appears to be what Easterby‐Smith and Araujo are suggesting they do although do not state it as formally as that: for example, when looking at financial data there are always debates about whether figures are good or bad, and what kind of action is required. The more tacit and “embodied” forms of learning involve situated practices, observation and emulation of skilled practitioners and socialization into a community of practice” (p. 3). In acknowledging the impact of the social perspective they are expressing the view that knowledge and learning are politically and socially constructed.

While the technical perspective has its roots in a positivistic frame of reference the social or constructivist view is firmly located in the phenomenological. The problem is that much of the management literature that refers to the concept of learning tends to move unproblematically between these two positions consequently overlooking the incommensurability of positivist and interpretive approaches to their subject. Thus, although the “idea of organizational learning as a political process is touched on by many of the authors of the “technical school” including Argyris (1986) and Senge’s (1990) demonstration of organizational defensive routines from the social perspective they naively seek to eliminate organizational politics through dialogue and the management of culture.

When he turns to the subject of the learning organization Easterby‐Smith expresses similar concerns over interpretation. For example,

the literature on the learning organization is becoming increasingly distinct from that which addresses organizational learning. The key reason for this is that the two communities of authors recognize distinct purposes for their work, the former concentrating on the development of normative models and methodologies for creating change in the direction of improved learning processes, the latter concentrating on understanding the nature and processes of learning (and unlearning) within organizations. Typically, the former group is represented by consultants (or academics in their roles as consultants), while the latter group is represented by academic researchers. That being said, the learning organization literature is not devoid of theory; it draws very heavily from ideas developed within organizational learning but it is selective on the grounds of utility. So it is not surprising that a similar divide exists here between the technical and social approaches to the creation of learning organizations.

While the “technical variant” has emphasized interventions based on measurement such as the “learning curve”, and advocates the use of other measurement tools including the costs of quality and attitude/behavioural surveys the jury is out when it comes to the direct measurement of personal and management development activities.

The chapter by Christiane Prange on “Organizational learning – desperately seeking theory” not only provides a useful list of the historical developments of the subject but deals informatively with epistemology. Prange addresses three common criticisms of organizational learning. These are that:

  1. 1.

    (1) organizational learning lacks theoretical integration and research and is being done in a non‐cumulative way;

  2. 2.

    (2) organizational learning does not provide “useful” knowledge for practitioners; and

  3. 3.

    (3) organizational learning is mostly used in a metaphorical and/or analogous sense.

Her argument is based on the methodological approach one takes in relation to the positivist/ phenomenological debate. Thus, a positivist would find that answers to the three questions are negative and do not provide for good theory building. This would lead to the conclusion that the concept is without foundation and valueless. The phenomenologist, on the other hand would be more concerned to recognize that “knowledge and truth are created by the researcher” thus emphasizing the pluralistic character of reality revealing that there is no unique “real world” that pre‐exists, “independent of human mental activity and human symbolic language”. The question one should be asking is how practical is the concept in helping us to influence change in organizations?

The argument unfolds further with David Sims’ chapter “Organizational Learning as the development of stories” when he develops the phenomenology of storytelling. Seen from this position it is not difficult to recognise the practicality of storytelling to the development of organizations. The organization of Christianity or the Church as an organization, for example, could not have developed without the power of storytelling and of the use of metaphor in particular. Indeed all organizations will have their share of sanctioned and subterranean stories but it is the effect they have on the organizational memory that determines the direction of organizational learning.

While these are fascinating academic debates which are underpinned by a rich body of scholarship they are likely to confuse the wo/man in the Clapham Omnibus Company who is looking to turn the company into a learning organization by applying organizational learning. But life is not that simple. Nevertheless, certain contributions to the book offer some very pragmatic lessons which will encourage readers of a more practical bent to develop skills and competencies in their organizations. One example is the chapter on “The role of evaluative enquiry in creating learning organizations” by Hallie Preskill and Rosalie Torres. This not only is highly imaginative but also needs to be read by anyone of a more cynical disposition since it focuses on the processes on internal and external evaluation from which there is much to be learned. The mentor, coach facilitator, team leader, change manager be warned of a text that will certainly make you think and influence the way you practice your art.

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