(Scott D. N. Cook and Dvora Yanow)
Theories of organizational learning, on the whole, can be seen as taking one of two approaches to the subject. These approaches differ in focus, yet share a common characterization of learning. One focuses on learning by individuals in organizational contexts, while the other focuses on individual learning as a model for understanding certain sorts of organizational action. Both base their understanding of organizational learning on the cognitive activity of individual learning. Yet, there is something that organizations do that may profitably be called organizational learning, which is neither individuals learning in organizations nor organizations engaging in cognitive processes akin to those entailed in learning by individuals. While contributing a great deal to our understanding of the topic, neither of the existing approaches enables us to address these distinctions effectively.
The Cognitive Perspective
Most of the literature on organizational learning has addressed the concept from a perspective that suggests various aspects of cognition. Etheredge and Short (1983), for example, see governmental learning as a reflection of increased intelligence and behavioral effectiveness: if government behaves effectively, then we may say that it has learned, often from its own mistakes.
Knowing and Learning by Organizations
Organizations act. The Boston Celtics play basketball. The Concertgebouw Orchestra performs Mahler symphonies. These are activities done by groups; they are not and cannot be done by single individuals. A single basketball player cannot play a game of basketball by herself; only the several players, together as a team, are able to carry out the team’s strategies, moves, and style of play. A violinist alone cannot perform Mahler’s Third Symphony; the execution of the phrasing, dynamics, and tempi of the piece requires the collective actions of the orchestra as a group.
The Finest Flutes in the World: Organizing Craftsmanship
Instruments made by these three companies have been regarded by flutists internationally as the “best flutes in the world.” The idea of excellence has been central to the identities of all three companies. Until the early 1980s, when changing economics and a growing challenge by large-scale, highly-tooled Japanese flute manufacturers affected demand, it was common for the Boston companies to have a five-year backlog of orders.
Reflections on Cultural Learning
There are several aspects of the cultural perspective on organizational learning that can be noted at this point. First, intuitively it is a much shorter conceptual leap to see organizations as cultural entities than it is to see them as cognitive ones. Second, since organizational learning here is understood to involve shared meanings associated with and carried out through shared cultural artifacts. Third, it is also, then, unnecessary to argue that organizations learn in a way that is fundamentally the same or similar to individual learning.
Culture and Organizational Learning: Conclusion
We began this paper by focusing on two questions: Can organizations learn? and, What is the nature of learning when it is done by organizations? It is our view that in addressing these questions, most authors have adopted a cognitive perspective. They have taken as their common point of reference learning by individuals and have seen organizational learning as either learning by individuals in organizational contexts or as activities of organizations that are akin to learning by individuals. We have noted that, in ways rarely addressed, the cognitive perspective and its insights are dependent upon or conceptually linked to theories of individual cognition that are themselves controversial, complex, multiple and changing. Finally, we have argued that the cognitive perspective’s tendency to associate learning with behavioral change derives perhaps as much from its own conceptual predilections as from the realities of organizational life.
Origin Journal of Management Inquiry 2, 373-390. Reprinted in Organizational Learning, eds. Michael D. Cohen and Lee Sproull (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1995, 430-459); and in Classics of Organization Theory, 5 th edition, eds. Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott (NY: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001)