Learning Theories/Organizational Learning: Contributions by Discipline

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Introduction[edit]

Just as a wide variety of the social science disciplines have contributed to the study of Organization Behavior (OB), so too have they contributed to the subset of OB called Organizational Learning. Greenberg and Baron (2003) define an organization as “a social system consisting of groups and individuals working together to meet some agreed-upon objectives” (Greenberg & Baron). When one considers the key elements of that definition – individuals, groups, social systems, and objectives -- the disciplines of Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Anthropology, Political Science, Management Science and higher education as a whole would seem to have the most widespread and profound impact on the contributions to the understanding of organizational learning.

Organizational learning contribution from educational psychology[edit]

Educational psychology has contributed to the field of learning since the mid-nineteenth century. Johann Friedrich Herbart may be thought of as the first voice of modern educational psychology. His disciples, called Herbartians, were instrumental in enhancing the field. They wrote on the subject referred to now as the schema theory and promoted five formal steps for teaching:

  1. Preparation (of the mind of the student)
  2. Presentation (of the material to be learned)
  3. Comparison
  4. Generalization
  5. Application

It was this group who started the evolution of researching and studying the field of teaching. In addition to Herbart's work, we have the classic contribution by Bloom.

Bloom's taxonomy delineates six categories of learning: basic knowledge, secondary comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Bissell and Lemons (2006) aptly distinguish the first two categories, basic knowledge and secondary comprehension, both of which do not require critical-thinking skills, from the last four--application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation--all of which require the higher-order thinking that characterizes critical thought. The definitions for these categories provide a smooth transition from educational theory to organizational and adult learning. Researchers can use this taxonomy to evaluate the type of learning and the depth of thinking needed for effective knowledge sharing to take place.

Organizational learning contribution from sociology[edit]

Dierkes, Berthoin Antal, Child, & Nonaka (2003) state, "Sociologists approach learning not as something that takes place in the mind but as something produced and reproduced in social relations of individuals when they participate in society" (p. 47). This concept opens the realm of integrated learning as a part of our every-day life. It suggests that a large part of our learning comes from the informal source of social relationships. This further introduces the concept of practice as a prominent factor in the sociological discipline. Dierkes et. al. (2003) further states, "Practice is a system of activities in which knowing is not separate from doing and situations might be said to coproduce knowledge through activity" (p. 49). The sociological discipline presupposes that every activity in life is an opportunity to learn and that learning in casual social settings is as important as formal learning experiences.

Organizational learning contributions from economics[edit]

Contributions to organizational learning by the discipline of Economics have been most apparent in the development, usage, and mastery of analytical models used to improve decision making. Organizations or companies must be adept at quickly learning the implications of the competitive landscape for their particular sector. For instance, let's assess an economic model that seeks to optimize profitability based on current or anticipated market conditions. To achieve a perfect, optimal decision, the decision-maker must have complete and perfect information. Economic models and databases have been developed to improve this completeness and accuracy of information. By use of such models, learning is generated through the iterative review of outcomes predicted by models versus actual outcomes. This iterative process then perpetuates further development of models and inputs that lead to improved decisions or organizational learning (Greenberg & Baron, 2003).

Organizational learning contribution from anthropology[edit]

It’s hard to find a clear connection with anthropological studies and language concerning organizational learning, although this is changing. The cause of this lack of connection can be directly attributed as a result of literature and the use of language, for example, “in the social sciences, the word ‘organization’ was traditionally understood not as a social unit but as a state, an attribute or an activity, and the relevant adjective was ‘organized’, not ‘organizational’” (Czarniawska, 2001, p. 118). Anthropology began to use the term ‘organizational learning’, as it refers to the learning we do, in context of social structures. This is an important delineation of terms because it crosses disciplines. Understanding the use of the term organizational learning in this light helps focus on how we learn in social structures, which is diffused differently than in the context of independent learning.

Organizational learning contributions from political science[edit]

Research in the area of public sector learning is one example of the political science field's contribution to organizational learning. Allison's (1971) research indicated leaders in public organizations tend to use historical data to help make decisions and improve internal processes. One prime example is the use of historical data to develop war doctrine. The process begins with a war theory being transformed into a strategy. The strategy is field tested with exercises and experiments. Lessons learned from the exercise and experiments are evaluated and corrected. Once leadership is satisfied with the product, it is incorporated into an overall war-fighting doctrine. The ultimate test involves implementing the newly developed doctrine in battle. Thus, the battle generates more historical data for military leaders to use in improving their processes.

Organizational learning from management science[edit]

The concept of management science is best understood within the framework of post-modern learning theories. The post-modern notion that all existence is interrelated can be applied to organizational learning by way of management science - purposing toward a new awareness. Peter Pawlowsky defines this organizational learning approach as the

...transformation of informational and knowledge resources in integrated work systems. [He adds that] innovation, growth, and productivity gains do not result from separating tasks in the workflow of a knowledge-intensive operation but rather from integrating and combining knowledge in order to develop new ideas and jointly develop solutions through problem-solving processes (Dierkes, 2003, p. 61).

Margaret Wheatley (1999) conceptualizes it in her book Leadership and the New Science as a “focus on holism” (p. 10) rather than reductionism. She recalls Donella Meadows’ recitation of “an ancient Sufi teaching that captures this shift in focus: “You think because you understand one, you must understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and” (p. 10). It is the and that guides management science thinking into a new realm – with new perspective and learning gleaned through collective wisdom and realized in a dimension not solely supported by rational thought.

The manager plays a critical role in establishing the learning environment for his or her employees. Creating an effective learning environment will allow people to draw upon resources, make sense out of things and construct meaningful solutions to problems. This will emphasize the importance of meaningful, authentic activities that help the learner to construct understandings and develop skills relevant to solving problems. The environment for learning is best when the risk of failure is understood and the consequences non-threatening. In other words, the environment must be one that enables, even encourages, learning from mistakes. It is with regard to this risk of failure, where the differences can be seen in the contributions between the academics and the practioners. Often it is difficult for the practioner to encourage risk-taking and learning from mistakes, as the consequences could directly impact the organization's performance. It is clear that those in academics understand what a learning organization is. The difficulty lies in implementing practices in an organization that augment performance and make a difference. Applying the concepts of a learning organization to an operating company is difficult for both academics and practitioners (Albert, 2005).

Organizational learning in departments of higher education[edit]

Departments within institutions of higher education are forced to choose between two approaches; maintaining the status quo in practice and presentation or seek to develop new ways to engage students in the learning process. Apps (1994) noted a conversation he had with a high-level university administrator. "[The administrator] said, 'We develop the best and process the rest.' No matter how old the learners we are talking about, the emerging age requires more than developing a few and processing the many" (p. 167). Institutions of higher education and continued learning have to come to understand that they must be more than diploma and/or certification mills. Students must be engaged relationally, experientially, and academically. One of the ways this is accomplished is to assist students in the self-discovery process. This allows students to take ownership of who they are and what they perceive to be their life calling.

Case studies & workplace examples[edit]

IWU doctoral program[edit]

One example of management science (or holistic) learning is the ongoing process of creating a learning portfolio for the IWU doctoral program. It has become apparent that as the program progresses, doctoral student learning tends to become more exponential in nature – meaning that new knowledge is built upon prior knowledge and what is learned in one area is almost immediately applicable to another area. This was evidenced in a situation where one student went to a work-related seminar and attended a decision-making/problem-solving session. The decision-making/problem-solving tools gleaned at the seminar are currently being integrated into various aspects of the portfolio, being taught to others for their benefit, and combined with other knowledge and tools to construct workplace solutions.

Private school[edit]

Another example of organizational learning out of the field of education comes from a faith-based not-for-profit private school. Learning within a school setting only seems natural. However, effective learning can be taking place inside the classrooms, but a dearth of effective organizational learning taking place within the structure of the school system. Organizational hierarchy exists within a traditional school setting in similar ways to most business and companies. The DCS System is no exception to the paradigm. A parent corporation oversees a governing school board to whom the superintendent reports. The superintendent directs seven principals on three campuses. Each principal has a faculty and staff for which he/she is responsible. Every teacher ministers to an average of 112 students (families).

Parents[edit]

The lines of communication are vast and vital. One important line is the one connected to the parents. Although DCSS has struggled with parent communication over the years some of the attempts of knowledge sharing and organizational learning have been exemplary. The school system has an informative and current website. Parents can obtain “real-time”, up-to-date grades online. A monthly parent communication goes home in hard copy and can also be viewed online. Each teacher, administrator, and staff member has an email address assessable to students and parents. The traditional face-to-face parent/teacher conferences are still a critical piece of the school’s communication with the home. However, teachers use phone calls and personal conferences throughout the year for additional lines of information sharing. Additionally, the guidance office provides several evening meetings for parents interested in college and career preparation for their students. This serves not as an exhaustive list of the communication efforts of DCSS, but as a sampling of what a school can do to share knowledge with shareholders that are not physically present in the organizational environment.

The Salvation Army Canton Citadel Corps[edit]

The Salvation Army Canton Citadel Corps is engaged in a process to integrate learning in every area of employee life. Such tools as an annual cultural survey, quarterly leadership assessment surveys, monthly staff meetings, and quarterly staff day away events are in place to introduce shared knowledge and to learn through social interaction. A current exercise is underway in which each employee picks the name of another employee out of a hat. Each employee then has one month to learn about the other person through whatever means they see fit. At the end of the month, a simple survey is conducted to see what each employee has learned. This process will help to enhance the social ties among the employees.


Adult Learning Theories · Organizational Learning: Triggers

Adult Learning Theories · Learning Theories · Organizational Learning: Triggers
Introduction · References ·  This box: view  talk  edit 
Theories : Behavioralist · Constructivist · Post-Modern · Adult Learning
Organizational Learning : Contributions by Discipline · Triggers · Influencing Factors · Agents · Processes · Interorganizational · Practice
Knowldege Management : Challenges · Processes · Leadership · Change