Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management

Fiol and Lyles (1985) describe organizational learning, as being the process wherein organizations being cognitive enterprises, have the capability to accumulate information regarding their own actions, understand the effects against those of alternatives, then adopt the most relevant action in relation to future decisions. Therefore improvements within organization is based on how well they can understand past actions and external information, disseminate and reflect on them with the aim of making better future decisions (Anand et al, 1998).
Studies on organisational learning are diverse, and a number of theorists have proposed several methods of understanding and applying relevant them within organizations. The most notable of these are the single and double loop learning styles proposed by Argyris and Schon (1978); the five disciplines proposed by Senge (1990); and the four learning constructs of Huber (1991). The aim of this literature critique is to consider each of these theories in line with development of knowledge management systems within organizations. The following chapters describe each theory, critically analyses their viewpoint, and then ascertains their relevance to knowledge management system development.

Argyris and Schon identify two major forms of learning that occur at the organizational level, described as single and double loop learning. These processes occur at different capacities and usually determine the extent to which innovation and new ideas surface (Sun and Scott, 2003). According to these theories, all individuals, groups or organizations have their preconceived notions about particular processes (Argyris, 1994). These preconceived notions might often contradict with the general process of doing things.
In the single loop learning model, these preconceived notions would be adjusted to fit in with the general process of doing things. The individuals, group or organization would react based on what they believe to be the most convenient method, which is usually to follow suit on the general process of having things done (Sun and Scott, 2003). The deeply held assumptions or beliefs do not resurface and become buried under the auspice of following suit on the general trend. This according to Argyris and Schon is described as single loop learning, wherein one entity influences the other. In the double loop learning method, individual, group or organizational beliefs, begin to surface (Argyris, 1995). They are considered in line with the general belief, and these beliefs are questioned or even modified in the event that they are deemed unsuitable for the organization.
This theory was developed using Action workshops, wherein individuals were requested to write their preconceived notions and their eventual actions in line with new information. If they conducted their actions based on information provided, then single loop learning was recorded, while double loop learning occurred if they adjusted their actions in line with their individual beliefs. This theory has however been criticised broadly. Sun and Scott (2003) argue that organizational policies, processes and routines act as “defense mechanism” against the prevalence of double loop learning. These policies may restrict the ability of individuals or groups to freely challenge generally accepted principles, which could have otherwise led to double loop learning.
The action research method through which this experiment was first conducted has been criticised by Nonaka (1994) who states that asking individuals to outline their preconceived thoughts and subsequent actions on two separate notes do not accurately depict how an organization would react to single and double loop learning situations, except if a probability sample was utilized in the study. Robey et al (2000) also brings up the scenario wherein individuals with different backgrounds are brought in on a project, each with a different preconceived notion about the project. These individuals are usually advised to act in line with generally accepted practices in a bid to deter conflict in the decision making process, thereby alienating double loop learning processes. Schultz (2001) therefore states that the most ideal learning process, being double loop learning, would be most ideal in environments that actively promote creativity and innovation, as they are the backbone through which individuals can actively express their ideas and through that, change generally accepted practices.
Senge (1990) outlines “personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning and systems thinking” as ideal methods for organizations to learn from their previous actions and environmental changes. Senge’s disciplines address the major shortcomings in Argyris and Schon’s model as it identifies effective methods through which organisations can promote double loop learning processes within the company. Mental models and team learning, especially in informal environments, can promote the transition of learning from single to double loop, as it gives individuals and groups the opportunities to share information and ideas across all tiers of the organisation (Robey et al, 2000).
Sun and Scott (2003) note that it is through the creation of social relationships that individuals can engage in dialogues that actively promote reflective conversations and inquiry. However, Wang (1999) criticises this approach as it does not thoroughly promote double loop learning. He states that learning may occur, but it does not lead to change in preconceived notions. The other three disciplines however have a more profound effect on organisational learning. Senge depicts that personal mastery aids individual development; shared vision engages all individuals within the organization towards a common vision and objective, while systems thinking aligns all the different disciplines in a method that promotes active learning.
These fives disciplines have been corroborated by several other theorists as it actively brings in all forms of learning at the individual, group and organizational level (Sun and Scott, 2003). These stages have been viewed as logical and coherent for an organization aiming to transform its learning processes. However, this study fails to account for barriers that may exist between different stages of learning (Robey et al, 2000). The five disciplines highlights how individuals, groups and organizations can learn, but it does not identify how individual learning can be transformed to groups, and groups into organizations. Wang (1999) also states that little information is provided on how these different learning stages apply in the realm of knowledge management systems and how it differs according to different structures within organizations. According to Sun and Scott, these models just like that of Argyris and Schon, fails to account for the main determining factors influencing organizational learning.
Amongst all the organizational learning theories highlighted in this critique, Huber was the first to highlight the relevant process for organizational learning and also identify how it could be utilized in a knowledge management and sharing environment. Huber (1991) identifies four major constructs that are crucial to organizational learning and these are: Information acquisition, information distribution, information interpretation and organizational memory.
Crossan and Hulland (1996) identify information acquisition as a unique addition to the organizational learning theory, as it is one major facilitator determining how organizations learn in the first place: by first acquiring information. Schultz (2001) also highlights the importance of information acquisition; particularly in terms of the effect external information has on organizational competitiveness. He found a positive correlation between external information acquisition and competitive advantage. Stein and Zwass (1995) also found significant relationship between external information acquisition and organizational performance.
Information distribution highlights methods through which the organization shares information across all departments, while information interpretation depicts the methodology through which individuals and groups interpret information and utilize them in decision making. These constructs highlight important factors that previous theories of Argyris and Schon; and Senge have failed to identify especially in the realm of acquiring information and sharing it. Argyris and Schon only focused on methods through which individuals, groups and organizations accept and interpret data; while Senge focused mostly on the social aspect of organizational learning. Huber in contrast identifies the major logical sequences through which an organization can truly acquire data, share it, store it and learn from it.
However, Garvin (1993) depicts that Huber’s theory fails to account for social factors already identified by Senge. It fails to account for human factors that are actually meant to be the major parties in organizational learning. Nonaka and Tekeuchi (1995) also assert that though Huber accounts for explicit knowledge that are externally available, it fails to account for tacit knowledge that is truly beneficial for competitiveness. Sun and Scott (2001) also identified difficulties inherent in transferring information across all constructs, as learning transfer between entities, just like the other theories criticized, have not been considered.
In relation to the main critique question, which is on the organizational learning theory that accurately discusses the importance of knowledge management systems in learning organizations, Argyris and Schon (1978) and Senge (1990) failed to account for relevant methods, while Huber (1991) was the only to identify the major sequences through which information could be shared across an organization, and also applied in knowledge management system development. However, further research is required on how to utilize knowledge management systems in engaging individuals to criticise generally accepted principles, and promote sharing through social interaction.
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