A Theoretical Framework of Organization Learning

Figure 2.1 depicts a framework for analyzing organizational learning (Argote & Miron-Spektor, 2011). The figure portrays an ongoing cycle through which task performance experience is converted into knowledge through organizational learn- ing processes. Task performance experience interacts with the context to create knowledge. The knowledge flows out of the organization into the environment and also changes the organization’s context, which affects future learning.

Fig. 2.1 A theoretical framework for analyzing organizational learning. Reprinted by permission, from Argote, L., and E. Miron-Spektor, 2011. Organizational learning: From experience to knowl- edge. Organization Science, 22(5), 1123–1137. Copyright 2011, the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences, 7240 Parkway Drive, Suite 300, Hanover, MD 21076 USA

Experience accumulates as the organization performs its tasks. The total or cumu- lative number of task performances is typically used as the measure of organizational experience. For example, in a medical device assembly plant, the cumulative number of devices produced would be a measure of the organization’s experience. In a hos- pital surgical team, the cumulative number of surgical procedures performed would be a measure of experience. Because organizations learn from attempts to perform tasks that are incomplete or unsuccessful, I define experience in terms of the number of task performances rather than the number of task completions.

Organizational learning occurs in a context (Glynn, Lant, & Milliken, 1994), which includes the organization and the external environment in which the organi- zation is embedded. The environmental context includes elements outside the boundaries of the organization such as competitors, clients, educational establish- ments, and governments. The environment can vary along many dimensions, such as volatility, uncertainty, interconnectedness, and munificence. The environmental context affects the experience the organization acquires. Orders for products or requests for services enter the organization from the environment. For example, a hospital emergency unit in one location would receive different kinds of patients than an emergency unit in another location, which serves a community with different characteristics. The organizational context includes characteristics of the organiza- tion, such as its structure, culture, technology, identity, memory, goals, incentives, and strategy. The context also includes relationships with other organizations through alliances, joint ventures, and memberships in associations.

The context interacts with experience to create knowledge. Ella Miron-Spektor and I proposed differentiating the organizational context into an active context through which learning occurs and a latent context that influences the active context (Argote & Miron-Spektor, 2011). The active context includes the organization’s members and tools, which interact with the organization’s task. As the name implies, the active context is capable of taking actions to perform tasks. The latent context affects which individuals are members of the organizations, which tools they have and which subtasks they perform to accomplish the overall task of the organization. The difference between the active and the latent contexts is their capability for action. Members and tools perform tasks: they do things. By contrast, the latent context is not capable of action.

This conceptualization of the active context builds on a theoretical framework developed by McGrath and colleagues (Arrow, McGrath, & Berdahl, 2000; McGrath & Argote, 2001). According to the framework, the basic elements of organizations are members, tools and tasks, and the networks formed by crossing the basic elements. The member–member network is the organization’s social network. The task–task and the tool–tool networks specify the interrelationships within tasks and tools, respectively. The member–task network, the division of labor, assigns members to tasks. The member–tool network maps members to the tools they use. The task–tool network identifies which tools perform which tasks. Finally, the member–task–tool network specifies which members perform which tasks with which tools.

These elements of members, tools, and tasks and their networks are the primary mechanisms in organizations through which organizational learning occurs and knowledge is created, retained, and transferred. Members are the media through which learning generally occurs in organizations. Individual members also serve as knowl- edge repositories in organizations (Walsh & Ungson, 1991). Further, rotating mem- bers from one organizational unit to another is a mechanism for transferring knowledge across the units (Kane, Argote, & Levine, 2005). Tools can aid learning, for example, by helping to identify patterns in data. Tools can be a knowledge repository. Moving tools from one unit to another is a mechanism for transferring knowledge (Galbraith, 1990). Tasks sequences or routines can also be knowledge repositories and serve as knowledge transfer mechanisms (Darr, Argote, & Epple, 1995).

The latent context affects the active context through which learning occurs. For example, contexts where members trust each other (Levin & Cross, 2004) or feel psychologically safe (Edmondson, 1999) promote organizational learning. A context with detailed process specifications enables knowledge retention (Ton & Huckman, 2008). A context where members share a superordinate identity facilitates knowl- edge transfer (Kane et al., 2005).

A significant amount of the organization’s knowledge is embedded in its prod- ucts or services, which flow out of the organization into the environment (Mansfield, 1985). For example, a patient might receive a new treatment from which the medical staff of other hospitals could learn. Or a medical devices firm might introduce a new product that other firms are able to “reverse engineer” and imitate.

In addition to flowing into the external environment, knowledge acquired by learning is also embedded in the organization’s context and thereby changes the context. Knowledge can be embedded in the active context of members, tools, and tasks and their networks. Knowledge can also be embedded in aspects of the orga- nization’s latent context such as its culture. Thus, knowledge acquired through learning is embedded in the context and affects future learning.

The learning cycle shown in Fig. 2.1 occurs at different levels in organizations (Crossan, Lane, & White, 1999)—individual, group, organizational, and interorga- nizational. When analyzing learning at a particular level of analysis, the context for that level includes the higher levels. For example, when studying group learning, the organization in which the group is embedded is part of the group’s context.

Individual learning is a mechanism through which group and organizational learning occurs. Individual learning, however, is not sufficient for group or organi- zational learning. In order for learning to occur at these higher levels of analysis, the knowledge the individual acquired would have to be embedded in a supra-individual repository so that others can access it. For example, the knowledge the individual acquired could be embedded in a routine (task–task network) or a transactive memory system (member–task network).

Major components of the framework for analyzing organizational learning shown in Fig. 2.1 are now discussed. Because organizational learning begins with experi- ence, organizational experience is discussed first.

Source: Argote Linda (2013), Organizational Learning: Creating, Retaining and Transferring Knowledge, Springer; 2nd ed. 2013 edition.

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