Why Study Group Learning?

Research on group learning is relevant for understanding organizational learning for two reasons. First, groups are increasingly being used as a form of organizing— both in the executive suite (Ancona & Nadler, 1989) and on the factory floor (Hoerr, 1989). Understanding how groups learn helps us understand how the organizations they constitute learn.

The second reason why understanding group learning helps us understand orga- nizational learning is that many of the social processes such as coordination, com- munication, and influence that transpire in organizations also occur in groups—only on a smaller scale. The smaller scale of groups makes it easier to capture and under- stand these processes. Additional processes such as managing relationships across groups come into play in organizations. And there are issues about how well the processes “scale up” as one moves from the group to the organizational level of analysis. These complexities notwithstanding, the important information about social processes gleaned from studies of group learning helps us understand the processes of organizational learning more fully.

Research on group learning has increased dramatically in recent years (see Edmondson, Dillon, & Rolloff, 2007, for a review). Theoretical pieces on groups as problem-solving and information-processing systems have appeared at an increas- ing rate (e.g., Argote, Gruenfeld, & Naquin, 2001; Hinsz, Tindale, & Vollrath, 1997; Klimoski & Mohammed, 1994; Larson & Christensen, 1993; Levine & Moreland, 1991; Sandelands & Stablein, 1987; Wegner, 1986; Wilson, Goodman, & Cronin, 2007; Wittenbaum & Stasser, 1996). Empirical studies examining how groups recall, share, and combine information to create a collective product are also more common (Gruenfeld, Martorana, & Fan, 2000; Phillips, Mannix, Neale, & Gruenfeld, 2004; Stasser, Vaughn, & Stewart, 2000; Thomas-Hunt, Ogden, & Neale, 2003). Group cognition has been found to contribute to effective teamwork (De Church & Mesmer-Magnus, 2010) and is included in current models of team performance (Ilgen, Hollenbeck, Johnson, & Jundt, 2005; Kozlowski & Ilgen, 2006).

Many studies of group learning have been conducted in the laboratory where groups are asked to solve a problem or perform a collective task. By observing group processes and performance or videotaping them for subsequent analysis, researchers are able to capture and analyze group processes. These studies have provided rigorous theoretical models and empirical evidence on the processes of group “remembering,” knowledge sharing, social influence, and the like. The stud- ies have increased our understanding about the mechanisms through which one variable affects another—about why variables have the effects that they do.

Another strength of laboratory studies of group learning is that researchers can design experiments to disentangle various theoretical models. The control afforded by the laboratory enables one to construct experimental conditions for which differ- ent theories would predict different outcomes. By observing the outcomes of the experiment and assessing their correspondence to various theoretical predictions, one can determine the degree of empirical support for various theories. For exam- ple, Turner, Pratkanis, Probasco, and Leve (1992) tested social identity theory as an explanation of a form of flawed group decision making, “groupthink” (Janis, 1972). According to social identity theory, groupthink occurs only under certain condi- tions. By observing whether groupthink occurs under the conditions predicted by the theory and not under others, one can determine whether social identity is a via- ble explanation for groupthink. Further, because laboratory studies enjoy the benefits of random assignment to condition, researchers can more readily determine the effect of variables of interest than one can in studies that do not have the benefits of randomization.

Field research, of course, has its own strengths, especially that of external valid- ity. When conducting field research, one can study groups that exist in an organiza- tional and temporal context. Thus, field research facilitates analyzing external group processes (how groups learn from other groups) and studying how group processes change over extended time periods. Laboratory and field methods each have much to offer our understanding of group and organizational learning. By incorporating information obtained from each method, one arrives at a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.

This chapter focuses on internal information processing by groups. Information processing is involved when groups perform cognitive tasks such as making a deci- sion, solving a problem, or generating ideas. Information processing is also involved when groups perform a production task such as building a product or assembling its components. Thus, the chapter focuses on how groups develop knowledge. How groups retain and transfer knowledge are discussed in Chaps. 4 and 6.

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

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