Definitions of Group Learning

What is a group? Guzzo and Dickson (1996) defined a group as “made up of indi- viduals who see themselves and who are seen by others as a social entity, who are interdependent because of the tasks they perform as members of a group, who are embedded in one or more larger social systems (e.g., an organization), and who perform tasks that affect others (such as customers or coworkers)” (pp. 308–309). Similarly, Cohen and Bailey (1997) defined a team in an organizational setting as a collection of individuals who are interdependent in their tasks, who see themselves and are seen by others as an intact social entity, and who are embedded in a larger social system (see also Hackman, 1990).

Dimensions of definitions of groups that are particularly important are as fol- lows: task interdependence (what one group member does affects and is affected by another group member); social–psychological awareness (members perceive them- selves as a group and are perceived by others as a group); and social embeddedness (the group exists in a larger social system). Thus, while group members may be geographically dispersed, they should have some degree of awareness of one another and some sense of belonging to a group. McGrath (1984) further noted that a distin- guishing feature of groups relative to other social aggregates such as communities or organizations is their relatively small size (see also Shaw, 1981). A new product development team, a self-managed work group, and a strategic planning committee are a few examples of the many groups found in organizations today.

Analogous to the definition of organizational learning, group learning is a change in the group’s knowledge that occurs as it gains experience. Group learning mani- fests itself through changes in cognitions or behavior of group members. For exam- ple, as groups gain experience, they might acquire information about which group members are good at which tasks or about how to use a new piece of technology more effectively. They also might develop routines for coordinating their activities.

Groups can “learn” without evidencing performance changes. For example, a team that develops new software might learn that consumers are not willing to pay for the capabilities built into the software (e.g., Rhodes, 1986). The team might not be given opportunities, however, to produce other software products that manifest the knowledge it acquired. Hence, there might not be an apparent effect on perfor- mance of the knowledge the team acquired. Conversely, performance can change without any corresponding change in the group’s knowledge. For example, a group’s competitor might experience a strike or a materials shortage that prevents the com- petitor from producing products. The dearth of competition could result in an increase in the demand for the focal group’s product, which in turn could lower the cost of producing each unit because the group has more units over which to spread its fixed costs such as equipment. In this example, although the group did not “learn” anything, its performance improved.

Understanding how group knowledge changes as a function of experience can be challenging. In studying group knowledge, it is important to be sensitive to the tacit nature of a significant component of the knowledge groups acquire as they gain experience. It is also important to be aware that knowledge can be distributed in groups in various repositories (see the discussion of knowledge repositories in Chap. 4).

When assessing group learning by measuring characteristics of group perfor- mance, it is imperative to control for factors in addition to changes in experience that may affect performance. For example, consider the scenario described earlier where a competitor temporarily stopped production and the focal group was able to sell more units of its product and, thus, had lower unit costs. The lower unit costs in this example might not have been a function of experience, a prerequisite for learn-ing to occur, but rather a function of the changing scale of operation. Thus, in order to demonstrate that learning occurred, it is important to demonstrate that the perfor- mance gains observed are a function of experience and not a function of other fac- tors such as the scale of production. Chapters 1 and 3 discussed how one might control for these alternative explanations to determine whether performance changes are in fact indicative of “learning.”

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

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