Organizational Learning

Organizational Learning: Literature Review


The business environment is changing at a rapid pace and this has necessitated a search sufficient means to adapt to the changing situations. One of the strategies that are seen as emailing humans to remain very competitive in an otherwise changing environment is the ability to learn. According to Stata, the rate at which organizations or individuals are able to learn could become the sole sustainable competitive advantage, and more so with regard to knowledge-intensive industries. As Garvin (2000) has noted, lack of learning will result in both individuals and companies merely replicating older practices.  As such, the growing desire to learn has elicited a lot of attention in as far as learning theories are concerned. According to Starkey, learning can be defined as “the creation of useful meaning, individual or shared. Learning generates knowledge which reduces uncertainty” (Starkey 1996).  Separately, Beach has defined learning as “the human process by which skills, knowledge, habit, and attitudes are acquired and altered in such a way that behavior is modified” (1980). On the other hand, Marsick and Watkins (2000) talk of learning as nothing more than a social experience that develops as a result of dialogue and interaction within significant others in a situation whereby individuals are ready and willing to share the ideas that they have with other people.  The authors consider conventional techniques as limiting because they only try to teach people on what to think, even as the most ideal solutions usually take place when various arguments have been incorporated into the dialogue.  As such, Starkey (1996) shares the importance of ensuring that people are aware of the best ways to learn.  On his part, Loermans (2002) has succinctly defined organizational learning as “increasing an organization’s capability to take effective action” (p.  286).

 Organization Learning Systems Model (OLSM)

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According to Schwandt, organizational learning can be defined as “a system of actions, actors, symbols and processes that enables an organization to transform information into valued knowledge which in turn increases its long-run adaptive capacity” (Schwandt, 1997, p. 8).  Schwandt has further opined that in organizational learning, there is an interface subsystem that interacts with the environment, in effect function as a mechanism for imputing information into the organizational learning system (Schwandt, 1997: 9). The aforementioned subsystem has an external focal point and it tries to link the environment with the organizational learning system (Crossan & Berdrow (2003). It is important to note that the environmental interface subsystem is able to generate novel information that other subsystems affiliated with the OLSM can also utilize. In this case, the diffusion/dissemination subsystem transfers, retrieves, moves and obtains knowledge and information for the learning system.

The subsystem is also able to fulfill the integrating conditions of additional learning systems (Schwandt & Marquardt, 2000). Other than the subsystems mentioned previously, OLSM also involves memory, reflection, meaning, and action subsystems. These specific subsystems determine the kind of action experienced in the system (Fulmer, Gibbs & Keys 1998). The inputs of both the memory and meaning can be obtained from other systems (Fiol & Lyles 1985).  In other words, it digests the structuration and new information from the aforementioned subsystems and the goal-referenced knowledge that originates from the subsystems mentioned above, and also the goal-referenced knowledge that originates from the reflection and action subsystems provided below.

The memory and meaning subsystem develops these inputs with a view to creating sense out of them.  The reflection and action subsystem obtain its inputs from other subsystems in order to facilitate collective action. The results that transpire from this action have to be compared with the objectives, before being reflected upon (Crossan & Berdrow 2003). Finally, these results have to be outputted as goal-referenced knowledge.  In this regard, goal-referenced knowledge acts as an input to the additional subsystems, in effects affecting the new information importuned and structuration into the collective past the organizational limit.

Historical Perspective

Organizational learning appears to have gathered momentum in the past few decades mainly due to the enhanced pace of change. Previously, the workplace was characterized y a high level of conservatism and as such, peeped found it rather hard to change work (Lave & March 1975; Kieser & Koch 2000).  Learning was far removed from both organization and work and was largely regarded as the suitable but disorderly route to change. However, it became clear to a number of scholars that those organizations that managed to quickly learn and embrace innovation were also better placed to alter their work practices, resulting in enhanced performance (Crossan & Berdrow 2003). Although low key organizational learning may have taken place in the late 18th century, nonetheless, major research into this field did not take place until the 1900s (Dierkes et al. 2003).  One of the major developments in the field of organizational learning took place in the 1950s, during the introduction of the Systems Thinking concept. A number of authors have noted that this particular concept was never executed (Schulz 2001; Schulz & Jobe 2001). The impression created here is that there was a need for organizations to recognize not just the company as an entity, but the individuals within it as well.  Prior to the introduction of this concept, organizations were mainly concerned with their individual needs, as opposed to the needs of their workers.

Systems Thinking endeavors to alter the managerial perspective in order to take account of the ambitions of individual employees, as opposed to the business objectives only. Most of the ideas of organizational learning achieved prominence in the 1950s following ongoing debates between economists and behaviorists. During and after the Second World War, economic models of the organization were very popular; nonetheless, most scholars, and more so those with a behaviorist inclination, appeared to be extremely disgruntled with those models.  Such behaviorists as Cyert and March (1963) put the classical economic theory of the organization to the task, arguing that its models were exceedingly basic and challenged experimental evidence.

Cyert and March (1963) disagreed with the argument held by economic models that organizational decision results are exclusively contingent on environmental constraints.   To do so, the authors compiled a remarkable set of opinions which suggests that organizational processes are vital to organizational behavior since they introduce huge randomness into organizational decision making.  This created the perfect environment for the development of Decision Support Systems (DSS). Corporate executives found it useful in making decisions regarding the future of the organization.  The models that defined this particular system were beneficial to the management, and not the system’s operation. The reason behind this is that while designing the model, the main focus was on the business that they were meant to serve, as well as the future options (Beach 1980).

In the 1970s, scholars rebranded the DSS idea into organizational learning. Chris Argyris, a scholar at Harvard, was among the pioneer researchers in this particular file.  In 1978, he published a book on organizational learning in a bid to create more awareness about the concept and its importance for both the organization and the workers.  However, companies were still reluctant to embrace the idea.  The emergence of the Behavioral Theory of the Firm as popularized by Cyert and March (1963) helped to sharpen the focus on organizational learning. The organization was not viewed as an adaptive and complex system. Owing to its complexity, the system could not exhibit significant autonomy since the outcomes that it produced could not be distinctively determined by external restrictions. A life cycle in which firms responded to external shocks by regulating the probability of recycling specific operating procedures (SOPs) helped to capture organizational learning (Snege 2006).  During this time, organizational learning theory suggested an innovative tension between duo representations of adaptation.

In contrast, one could also view learning as a coherent organizational trait, in agreement with rationalistic assumptions of economic theories. As such, learning processes were seen as rational form the point of view of the organization, in that they were aimed at improving performance and ultimately, could lead to an enhanced match between environmental constraints and organizational arrangements (Torres 2001). Conversely, there are those scholars who chose to view learning as contributing to non-rational. From this perspective, adaptation processes were seen as slow, complex and susceptible to small changes in organizational limits- characteristics more in agreement with ideas of limited rationality, if not lack of rationality. In the 1980s organizations realized that time could be used as a competitive advantage. This paved the way for the emergence of ‘capabilities-based competition’ (Marsick & Watkins 2000). Most modern-day management scholars commenced their research in organizational learning from this point. A good example is Peter Senge.  

Separately, Easterby-Smith, Arujo, and Burgoyne (1999) note that although the concept of organizational learning has been present in much of the management literature for a couple of decades now, on the other hand, the idea only gained wide acceptability in the 1990s.  There is two crucial development that has proved quite significant in enhancing the growth and development of organizational learning.  To start with, it is important to note that the idea of organizational learning has caught the attention of numerous scholars from various fields who had up to this point demonstrated little interest in as far as learning processes are concerned.   As a result, the field has become theoretically disjointed, with representatives from diverse disciplines now embroiled in heated debates about who among them has the right model of organizations learning. In the second development, the majority of the companies and consultants have found themselves entangled in the commercial importance of organizational learning. In this regard, these theorists have dedicated most of their efforts towards the identification of the most suitable forms or templates that real organizations may try to imitate (Easterby-Smith et al. 1999, p. 1-2).

The 4I Framework of Organizational Learning

Crossan and colleagues (1999) were instrumental in proposing the “4I framework” of organizational learning. The 4I framework assumes that organizational learning is more of an ongoing and dynamic process.  This particular framework hinges on the premise that it is possible to conceive organizational learning with a view to attaining strategic renewal. The framework also assumes that there is a need for organizations to ensure that they handle the tensions that arise between learning and exploring novel ways and utilizing the knowledge already acquired (Starkey 1996). Both the exploitation and exploration process compete for limited resources, in effect generating tensions that can be best exemplified through “feedback” and “feed-forward” processes of learning”. The association between exploration and the feed-forward process facilitates knowledge transfer in the institution using systems, procedures, structures, and strategies (Locke 2001). On the other hand, the feedback process is concerned with the manner in which the institutionalized learning impacts on groups and individuals.

The 4I framework also enables us to recognize that organizational learning takes place at the organizational, group, and individual level, and that each of the three categories of learning takes place across four psychological and social processes of interpreting, intuition, institutionalizing, and integrating.  The first process is intuition, and this normally takes place at the individual level. It often entails “the preconscious recognition of the pattern and/or possibilities inherent in a personal stream of experience” (Crossan et al., 1999, p. 525).  In contrast, interpreting takes place at both the group and individual level, and often entails “the explaining, through words and/or action of an insight or idea to one’s self and to others” (ibid, p. 525).

The other level of learning, integrating, takes place at both the organizational and group level, and is “the process of developing a shared understanding among individuals and of taking coordinated action through mutual adjustment” (ibid, p. 525).  The fourth level of learning, institutionalization, takes place at the organizational level. According to Crossan and colleagues (1999), institutionalization can be referred to as “the process of embedding learning that has occurred by individuals and groups into the organization and it includes systems structures, procedures, and strategy” (ibid, p. 525).

At the institution stage, learning normally takes place at the subconscious level. In addition, this kind of learning entails both entrepreneurial and expert learning.  Expert intuiting usually takes place as the learner begins to gain experience with regard to a specific context (for example, through repetition). As a result, the learner in question starts the process of matching the pattern on learning (Stata 1996). This form of intuiting may be seen as a way of exploiting knowledge. On the other hand, entrepreneurial intuiting occurs at a time when the learner is in a position to distinguish future possibilities as well as novel connections between contexts (Crossan et al., 1999). At the interpreting stage, learning takes place at the conscious level since individuals are in a position to build cognitive maps within environment and domains.  Individuals can also start to describe concepts and ideas to others as well (Crossan et. al., 1999).  At this stage, language is very important, because this will be a pointer to the nature of the task and domains being executed. Moreover, it will also affect the construction of shared understanding (Crossan et. al., 1999).

In contrast, interpreting enables the refining and creation of common language, in addition to helping to create shared understanding, meaning and clarifying images (Crossan et. al., 1999). At the integrating stage, a lot of attention is given to the group, as opposed to an individual. During this stage, the ongoing shared practice and conversation between members of the organizations take place, resulting in shared understanding (Cook &Yanow 1993).  The stage also takes into account the realms of communities and teams. Another important element of the integrating stage is the issue of storytelling. This is because stories offer rich understanding to the various members of the organization.

At the institutionalization phase, learning is mainly entrenched in the structures, systems, routines, strategy, and approved practices of the organization (Levintha & March 1981). Therefore, even as employee recruitment and downsizing remain an ongoing process, it does not mean that the knowledge that they have acquired as individuals will be lost once they leave the organization. Crossan et al. (1999) opine that changes in structures, routines, and systems takes place occasionally in organizations and as such, the fundamental processes of intuiting, integrating and interpreting are more continual and fluid. Profound changes with regard to institutionalized organizations remain quite punctuated and the transfer of this kind of learning to the organization normally takes time.

Reference List

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