The Collective Dynamics of Organizational Learning: On Plurality and Multi-Social Structuring
Abstract: The notion of organizations as learning entities has gained considerably in popularity over the last decade, and is now regarded an important issue both theoretically and in practice. Many organizational activities and events have been referred to as learning phenomena, and learning theory is being applied to increasingly varied and complex settings of organizational life. This divergence would suggest a flourishing area of research, yet at the same time it also indicates that organizational learning remains a difficult concept in many respects, not least empirically. This study calls for further examination of the concept of organizational learning and its application to pluralistic and ambiguous settings. It takes up a number of unresolved complications in organizational learning theory, such as a restrictive bias towards context-free theorizing and a static level-linking dilemma. In particular, it argues how present conceptualizations with their emphasis on the continued survival of an ongoing organization do not sufficiently reflect ever-changing, nonpermanent realities both within and without organizational boundaries. Indeed, in some cases it is even questionable as to what can and should be viewed as the stable ‘ongoing concern’ and collective identity, i.e. the body of learning that will continue to survive. A more appropriate conception that emerges is one of organizations as temporarily negotiated places and learning as a socially constituted phenomenon. The objective of this study is then to attempt to expand the theoretical construct of organizational learning into a conceptual framework which is able to capture and express the complex social process dynamics entailed in learning in pluralistic settings. A central argument is that this presupposes an ontological point of departure that reconciles the being and becoming of learning — an ontology which allows us to both explore and interpret patterns, to speak of the properties of identities and organizations as orders, as well as the sensemaking dynamics underpinning them. A sociology of knowledge perspective in effect problematizes and makes the traditional view of culture in organizational learning theory accessible for exploration. The arguments and framework put forward in this study are examined empirically in the context of the organizing and implementation of an international collaborative project — the Transmanche-Link joint venture formed to construct the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France.
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