Defining Organizational Learning; do you work in a Learning Organisation?

Organizational Learning (OL) is a very broad field within management that addresses the way that organizations learn and evolve (Nonaka, von Krogh, and Voelpel, 2006). Synthesising insights of Ancient Greek Philosophy with the cutting edge breakthroughs in theory and practice of several sciences, it has been researched extensively during the last thirty years producing a vast amount of literature (Shipton, 2006), yet is still considered in 2006 as a “nascent science” (Spector and Davidsen, 2006, p68). Further, in terms of the management adoption of such a construct, it is still at the early adopters stage of its life cycle (Salvatore, 2006).

Organizational Learning is a multidisciplinary science (Karatas, Özkan and Murphy, 2010) drawing together and synthesizing a big and diverse set of human knowledge aimed to understand the evolution of learning at the -organizational-level. The diversity of OL scholars’ backgrounds, starting points, knowledge bases and approaches has created an unprecedented “confusion” (Shipton, 2006; Popper and Lipshitz, 2000) that as Jankowicz (2000, p472) suggests “characterises the field”.

Lyles (1985, p803), Easterby-Smith, Snell and Gherardi (1998, p260), Spector and Davidsen, (2006, p65) and Lopez, Peon and Ordas (2005) point out that the multidisciplinary nature of organizational learning resaerchers has produced confusion due to the lack of a clear or at least widely accepted definition. As Schmidt (2010, p122) suggests “every discipline refers, with the help of “learning”, to a different domain of reference, which is then conceptualized and communicated as learning.” Definitional consensus is considered the major gap in this field (Templeton, Lewis and Snyder, 2002).

Defintions of OL have many similarities yet cover a spectrum of activities and also actors: Lyles’ (1985) suggests that organizational learning is “the process of improving actions through better knowledge and understanding”, similar to Falconer’s (2006), Garvin’s (1993), Nevis, DiBella, and Gould’s (1995), Nonaka, von Krogh, and Voelpel (2006). Argyris and Schön’s (1978) suggest that OL is the process of “detecting and correcting errors”. Khandekar and Sharma (2006) define it as the ability of the workforce to combine their efforts together in achieving desired goals, a defintion that is similar to Senge’s (1990), Stata’s (1989) and Kim’s (1993). Child (2005) defines OL as one of “the most effective approaches to change”, similar to Huber’s (1991), Levitt and March’s (1988) and Crossan’s et al (1995) to Stopford’s (2003) definition as the sense-making process of information and market signals, composed by the sub-processes of sense-making, selection, administrative systems, leadership and strategic intent, similar to Levinthal and March (1993) and Garvin (1993).

The extent of OL’s definitional confusion is such that researchers, most probably in an attempt for clarity, chose to differentiate through alternative terminology like in the example of Nonaka (1994) adopting the term ‘knowledge creation’ for what appears to be just one more definition and approach to organizational learning, no matter if an insightful one. The interchangeable use of the terms organizational learning and knowledge further feeds the confusion (Bontis, Crossan and Hulland 2002) . Knowledge management is often considered a subfield of organizational learning. The incongruous separation among the learning organization (LO) and the organizational learning (OL) literature appears to be another reinforcing factor of the field’s confusion although a simple separation is that that OL refers to the function and LO to its ideal outcome. LO is “a certain type of organization” as Lee, Bennett and Oakes (2000, p550) point out, i.e. the type that manages its OL process. Additionally, another part of the OL/LO literature uses the term Organizational Learning Capability (OLC).

In addition to these stream os literature, additional literature on teams, networks, decision-making, innovation, TQM and others extensively overlap can also be considered critical to the topic.