Organizational Learning

The long and fruitful collaboration between Chris Argyris and Donald SchOn led to a number of books; two of the most important are Organizational Learning ( 1978) and Organizational Learning II ( 1996). Though the term OL is now common, Argyris and Schon created it in 1978, at a time when organiza­tional behavior thinking was pointing in very different directions. Now there are hundreds of works and high-profit consulting businesses based on promises about OL (for example, Senge, 1990).

Many arguments are similar to those presented in relation toAS, but some issues of organizational dynamics are taken up only in these works. Here we deal with the second book, Organizational Learning II (1996). It provides an excellent critical overview of the OL literature. The authors offer their own well-grounded and nuanced view of OL, followed by an extended and clear presentation of the basic single-loop, double-loop, Model I, and Model II schemes already discussed.

What is important about this book for the overall AS perspective is that the authors strive hard to get beyond dyadic relationships in which power is not an issue. They discuss organizational politics and show an awareness of the complexities that the symbolic-cultural life of organizations creates not evident in the earlier work (Argyris & SchOn, 1978). They also succeed in mak­ing inquiry-enhancing intervention a much clearer concept and process than in Argyris et al. (1985).

Particularly valuable too is the Afterword by Argyris and Schon, which is built around a robust critique of academic practice, arguing that academics are unlikely to confront theory-practice relationships. We concur with their AS analysis that universities are particularly unlikely to become learning organiza­tions in a meaningful sense.

Few books address the complex issues of AS and OL as effectively as Argyris and Schon. Perhaps only Robert Flood and Norma Romm’s (1996) Diversity Management shares their epistemological, methodological, and prac­tical ambitions. Argyris and SchOn advanceover Action Science by showing that they are aware of the need to speak to the issues of organizational culture inherent in OL, an awareness not visible in the earlier work.

Yet this dimension needs more attention, because the treatment of organi­zational culture remains rather limited and mechanistic in contrast to their dynamic and more differentiated behavioral perspectives. The richness of cultural productivity in organizational contexts and around the kinds of processes Argyris and SchOn are attempting to stimulate requires greater analyt­ical development. This richness is one of the most enduring experiences of search conferences.

Argyris and Schon also make a number of attempts to get beyond a view of organizations as collectivities of individuals struggling with each other dyadically to a more truly social concept of organizational structure. This is important, but the issue is not well resolved.

The authors show their awareness of criticisms that their perspectives are either blind to power relations or actually reinforce certain kinds of hierarchies in organizations. Nevertheless, the fact that Model I behavior is the default for people in organizations is still treated pretty much as a law of nature rather than as a possible product of particular systems of political economy. This leaves the sources ofModel I and Model II still unexplained, just as in Argyris et al. ( 1985). Not explaining the ultimate sources of Model I leaves us without an explanation of why certain individuals (in this case, the authors) are capable of transcend­ing ordinary human limits and then leading others to do so. This opens up legit­imations of authority and expertise that deserve more open inquiry.

Though the book is clearly in the AR tradition, just like Action Science, Organizational Learning II does not speak strongly to the issue of the norma­tive and ethical ends of OL. The clear interest in nondefensive human behav­ior is positive, but no explicit connection is made between this commitment to democratization. The approach can easily be adopted by conventional consul­tants for whom participation and democratization are not high priorities.

Source: Greenwood Davydd J., Levin Morten (2006), Introduction to Action Research: Social Research for Social Change, SAGE Publications, Inc; 2nd edition.

4 thoughts on “Organizational Learning

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