Organizational Learning Defined

Although researchers once debated whether organizational learning should be defined as a change in cognitions or in behavior, that debate has declined (Easterby- Smith, Crossan, & Nicolini, 2000). Most researchers agree with defining organiza- tional learning as a change in the organization’s knowledge that occurs as a function of experience (e.g., Fiol & Lyles, 1985). Knowledge includes both declarative knowledge or facts and procedural knowledge or skills and routines.

Researchers have measured organizational knowledge in a variety of ways. One approach measures organizational knowledge by measuring cognitions of organiza- tional members (e.g., see Huff & Jenkins, 2002). Taking a behavioral approach, other researchers have focused on knowledge embedded in practices or routines and viewed changes in them as reflective of changes in knowledge (Gherardi, 2006; Levitt & March, 1988; Miner & Haunschild, 1995). Another behavioral approach that was described in Chap. 1 uses changes in characteristics of performance, such as its accu- racy or speed, as indicators that knowledge was acquired and organizational learning occurred (Argote & Epple, 1990; Dutton & Thomas, 1984). Acknowledging that an organization can acquire knowledge without a corresponding change in behavior, researchers have defined organizational learning as a change in the range of potential behaviors (Huber, 1991). Similarly, Pentland (1992) defined organizational knowl- edge as the capacity of an organization to act competently. Researchers have also measured knowledge by assessing characteristics of an organization’s products or ser- vices (Helfat & Raubitschek, 2000) or its patent stock (Alcacer & Gittleman, 2006).

The best approach to measuring organizational learning depends on the research question and empirical context. One limitation of current approaches to measuring learning by assessing changes in cognitions through questionnaires and verbal proto- cols is that these methods are not able to capture tacit or difficult-to-articulate knowl- edge (Hodgkinson & Sparrow, 2002). Physiological and neuroimaging techniques used to study individual learning (Keller & Just, 2009) might one day be adapted to study organizational phenomena, including learning (Senior, Lee, & Butler, 2011). With the exception of a few studies of dyads, these techniques are currently used on individual participants. Researchers using cognitive approaches—whether questionnaire, verbal protocol, or neuroimaging techniques—need to be sensitive to the distribution of cog- nitions. For example, every member of an organization would not necessarily need to show the same changes in cognitions for organizational learning to occur. Instead every member would need to know that certain members had experienced a change in cogni- tions and be able to access those members or the knowledge that they had acquired.

Approaches to assessing knowledge by measuring changes in practices or performance capture tacit as well as explicit knowledge. When using the latter behavioral approaches to measure learning, one has to be sensitive to control for other factors that might affect changes in behavior. For example, changes in routines might be driven by regulatory changes rather than experience. Changes in the speed or quality of performance might be driven by exogenous changes such as improve- ments in material that are not a function of the organization’s experience. Thus, it is necessary to control for explanations of performance gains that are alternative to experience and to show that performance improvements are a function of experi- ence when these alternative factors are taken into account. Organizational learning researchers taking a behavioral approach are typically not behavioral in the Skinnerian sense of not including cognitions in their theorizing but rather are behav- ioral in the sense of believing that changes in behavior at the organizational level are good indicators of organizational learning.

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

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