Learning in organizations – theory and practice

Picture: National Archives and Records Administration. WPA Adult Education (New Deal). Believed to be in the public domain (sourced from Wikimedia).

Learning in organizations. In recent years there has been a lot of talk of ‘organizational learning’. Here we explore the theory and practice of such learning via pages in The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. We examine some key theorists and themes, and ask whether organizations can learn?

contents: introduction · learning · learning in organizations experiential learningsingle- and double-loop learninginformal learning distributed cognitioncommunities of practice · can organizations learn? · further reading and references

linked pages: learning · experiential learning · chris argyris: single- and double-loop learning · informal learning · communities of practice

We have structured this page around three basic questions:

  • What is learning?
  • What is organizational learning?
  • Is it individuals that learn in organizations, or can organizations learn themselves?

From this exploration we suggest that there are particular qualities associated with learning in organizations. The page links into discussions on different pages of The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education.


For all the talk of learning amongst policymakers and practitioners, there is a surprising lack of attention to what it entails. In Britain and Northern Ireland, for example, theories of learning do not figure strongly in professional education programmes for teachers and those within different arenas of informal education. It is almost as if it is something is unproblematic and that can be taken for granted. Get the instructional regime right, the message seems to be, and learning (as measured by tests and assessment regimes) will follow. This lack of attention to the nature of learning inevitably leads to an impoverishment of education. In a similar fashion, when we come to examine the literature of human resource development and more generally that of organizational and management change, the idea that ‘learning’ may in some way be problematic is only rarely approached in a sustained way.

In order to start thinking about learning we need to make the simple distinction between learning as a product and as a process. The latter takes us into the arena of competing learning theories – ideas about how we might gain understandings. The former takes us to learning as either a change in behaviour or a change in our mental state. To explore these areas go to:

learning. What is learning? Is it a process or a product? How might it be approached?

Four different orientations to theorizing learning:

the behaviourist orientation. The behaviourist movement in psychology has looked to the use of experimental procedures to study behaviour in relation to the environment.

the cognitive orientation. Where behaviourists looked to the environment, those drawing on Gestalt turned to the individual’s mental processes. In other words, they were concerned with cognition – the act or process of knowing.

the humanist orientation. In this orientation the basic concern is for human growth. We look to the work of Maslow and Rogers as expressions of this approach.

the social/situational orientation. It is not so much that learners acquire structures or models to understand the world, but they participate in frameworks that that have structure. Learning involves participation in a community of practice.

Learning in organizations

As Mark Easterby-Smith and Luis Araujo (1999: 1) have commented the idea of organizational learning has been present in the management literature for decades, but it has only become widely recognized since around 1990.

Two developments have been highly significant in the growth of the field. First it has attracted the attention of scholars from disparate disciplines who had hitherto shown little interest in learning processes. A consequence of this is that the field has become conceptually fragmented, and representatives of different disciplines now vie over who has the correct model of organizational learning…. The second development is that many consultants and companies have caught onto the commercial significance of organizational learning… Much of the effort of these theorists has been devoted to identifying templates, or ideal forms, which real organizations could attempt to emulate. (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 1-2)

The central template or ideal form in the 1990s and into the twenty first century was the notion of the learning organization. A helpful way of making sense of writing on organizational learning is to ask whether writers fall into one of two basic camps. The dividing line between them is the extent to which the writers emphasize organizational learning as a technical or a social process. Here we can again turn to Easterby-Smith and Araujo (1999: 3-5):

The technical view assumes that organizational learning is about the effective processing, interpretation of, and response to, information both inside and outside the organization. This information may be quantitative or qualitative, but is generally explicit and in the public domain…. The social perspective on organization learning focuses on the way people make sense of their experiences at work. These experiences may derive from explicit sources such as financial information, or they may be derived from tacit sources, such as the ‘feel’ that s skilled craftsperson has, or the intuition possessed by a skilled strategist. From this view, learning is something that can emerge from social interactions, normally in the natural work setting. In the case of explicit information it involves a joint process of making sense of data… The more tacit and ‘embodied’ forms of learning involve situated practices, observation and emulation of skilled practitioners and socialization into a community of practice.

A classic expression of the technical view can be found in the work of Argyris and Schön on single- and double-loop learning (1978, 1996). Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998) provide a fascinating example of the social perspective in action in their studies of apprenticeship and communities of practice. Interestingly Donald Schön (1983; 1987) also provides some insights into the use of ‘tacit’ sources in his exploration of reflective practice. Those operating within the social perspective may view organizational learning as a social construction, as a political process, and/or as a cultural artifact (Easterby-Smith and Araujo 1999: 5-7).

Here we will explore the notions of single- and double-loop learning and community of practice. We will also look at the notions of experiential learning and informal learning.

Experiential learning. Christine Prange (1999: 27) in her review of organizational learning theory, notes that when we review the processes of organizational learning ‘we encounter “learning from experience” as a genuine component of almost all approaches’. We review Kolb’s (1984) famous formulation, go back to John Dewey’s (1933) exploration of thinking and reflection, and Kurt Lewin’s use of the notions of feedback and action learning; and take note of David Boud and associates useful contribution on the nature of reflection.

Single- and double-loop learning and organizational learning. This model of learning goes back to some work that Argyris and Schön did in 1974, but it found its strongest expression and grounding in organizational dynamics in 1978. Single-loop learning with it’s emphasis on the detection and correction of errors within a given set of governing variables is linked to incremental change in organizations. Double-loop learning involves interrogating the governing variables themselves and often involves radical changes such as the wholesale revision of systems, alterations in strategy and so on. We examine the notion of theories of action, single and double-loop learning, and the organizational orientations and practices linked to each.

Informal learning. All of a sudden a number of researchers and policy pundits have rediscovered ‘informal learning’. But is there really such a thing? We examine the current debates and conceptualizations and what some of the implications may be for those interested in developing the educative qualities of organizational life.

Communities of practice. This notion has been popularized by Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (1998). We explore the idea that organizations may be a constellation of communities of practice.

Can organizations learn?

Prange (1999: 27) comments that one of the greatest myths of organizational learning is the ‘who question’, that is, ‘the way in which learning might be considered organizational’. There are those who argue that it is individuals, not organizations, who learn. In other words, learning refers to the processes of thinking and remembering that take place within an individual’s brain.

Traditionally, the study of cognitive processes, cognitive development, and the cultivation of educationally desirable skills and competencies has treated everything cognitive as being possessed and residing in the heads of individuals; social, cultural, and technological factors have been relegated to the role of backdrops or external sources of stimulation (Salomon 1993: xii)

This notion relates to a particular view of selfhood. In this way of coming to understand our selves the body plays a crucial role. The skin becomes a boundary – everything that happens outside the wall it forms becomes the other – the world outside; what is inside is me – the world inside. In this three relatively simple and apparently ‘natural’ ideas rule (Sampson (1993: 34):

the boundary of the individual is coincident with the boundary of the body;

the body is a container that houses the individual;

the individual is best understood as a self-contained entity.

However, when we come to examine human behaviour in its everyday context, when we look at ‘real-life problem-solving situations, a rather different set of cognitive processes appear:

People appear to think in conjunction or partnership with others and with the help of culturally provided tools and implements. Cognitions, it would seem, are not content-free tools that are brought to bear on this or that problem; rather, they emerge in a situation tackled by teams of people and tools available to them… What characterizes such daily events of thinking is that the social and artifactual surrounds, alleged to be ‘outside’ the individual’s heads, not only are sources of stimulation and guidance but are actually vehicles of thought. Moreover, the arrangements, functions, and structures of these surrounds change in the process to become genuine parts of the learning that results from the cognitive partnership with them. In other words, it is not just the ‘person-solo’ who learns, but the ‘person-plus’, the whole system of interrelated factors. (Salomon 1993: xiii)

This is not a new idea – for example, John Dewey recognized the significant of the environment in being and learning. It links into a dialogical  understanding of selfhood and the work of people like George Herbert Mead  (Cole and Engeström 1993 provide a useful historical overview of the development of thinking around distributed cognition).

We can see how individual and organizational learning may connect in the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schön (1978; 1996). They suggest that each member of an organization constructs his or her own representation or image of the theory-in-use of the whole (1978: 16). The picture is always incomplete – and people, thus, are continually working to add pieces and to get a view of the whole. They need to know their place in the organization.

Hence, our inquiry into organizational learning must concern itself not with static entities called organizations, but with an active process of organizing which is, at root, a cognitive enterprise. Individual members are continually engaged in attempting to know the organization, and to know themselves in the context of the organization. At the same time, their continuing efforts to know and to test their knowledge represent the object of their inquiry. Organizing is reflexive inquiry….

[Members] require external references. There must be public representations of organizational theory-in-use to which individuals can refer. This is the function of organizational maps. These are the shared descriptions of the organization which individuals jointly construct and use to guide their own inquiry….

Organizational theory-in-use, continually constructed through individual inquiry, is encoded in private images and in public maps. These are the media of organizational learning. (Argyris and Schön 1978: 16-17)

With this set of moves we can see how Chris Argyris and Donald Schön connect up the individual world of the worker and practitioner with the world of organization.

Those interested in distributed cognition take this further. It can be argued that there are stronger and weaker versions of distributed cognition. The strong,or more radical, version would take the position that cognition in general needs to be reappraised and approached as principally distributed (see, for example, Cole and Engeström 1993; Pea 1993). The ‘proper unit of psychological analysis should be joint (often, but not necessarily) socially mediated activity in a cultural context’ (Salomon 1993: xv). A weaker, or less radical, version would hold that ‘solo’ and distributed cognitions are separate from one another, but should be taken in ‘an interdependent dynamic interaction’ (ibid.: xvi). Both ideas are often difficult to grasp as the notion of individual cognition is very deeply ingrained in much that is written about the area. As Salomon and Perkins (1998) put it, ‘we do not ordinarily consider possession of an artefact knowledge, yet possession of a database constitutes a kind of organizational knowing. Patterns of division of labour within an organization are kinds of know-how that have no easy individual analog’.

In their review of individual and social aspects of learning, Salomon and Perkins comment:

If organizations can learn, this does not mean that they learn very well. A strong theme in the literature on organizational learning is the weakness of the learning system involved. The learning of the collective suffers from a startling range of limitations… Some of these are equally characteristic of solo and collective learning entities. For instance, rare high-stakes events—marriage decisions in an individual or major shifts of direction in a business—are difficult learning targets because they do not occur often to disambiguate the lessons of experience, and because by the time they occur again circumstances may have changed substantially.

Other problems of learning are exacerbated by the specifically organizational character of the learning. For example, different individuals and units within an organization may hold somewhat different criteria of success. Also, advocates of a policy are likely to interpret any difficulties with it as reflecting an insufficiently vigorous pursuit of the policy, while opponents interpret the same data as signifying a bad policy. Feedback about the results of organizational actions may be distorted or suppressed as people rush to protect their turf or to maintain a positive climate….

In summary, organizations, like individuals, can learn. Many of the fundamental phenomena of learning are the same for organizations… However, organizational learning also has distinctive characteristics with reference to what is learned, how it is learned, and the adjustments called for to enhance learning. These derive from the fact that any organization by definition is a collective, with individuals and larger units in different roles that involve different perspectives and values, passing information through their own filters, and with noisy and loss-prone information channels connecting them.

As a result, it seems likely that organizational as against individual learning has a number of characteristic features. It will tend to be:

Situated and concerned with communities of practice.

More ‘informal’ and involve far less ‘teaching’ than in the individual case

Relatively unregulated.Contradictory. ‘The social entity can often be divided against itself, with different tacit beliefs and concealed agendas harboured by different subgroups or individuals’ (Salomon and Perkins 1998).

Further reading and references

Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organisational learning II: Theory, method and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley. Expands and updates the ideas and concepts of the authors’ groundbreaking first book. Offers fresh innovations, strategies, and concise explanations of long-held theories.

Easterby-Smith, M., Burgoyne, J. and Araujo, L. (eds.) (1999) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage. 247 + viii pages. A collection with a good overview and some very helpful individual papers. The opening section provides reviews and critiques, the second, a series of evaluations of practice.

Tennant, M. (1997) Psychology and Adult Learning 2e, London: Routledge. 182 + xii pages. While not written directly into the organizational learning field, this book does provide a dood discussion of the relevance of psychological theory to adult education. Includes material on humanistic psychology and the self-directed learner; the psychoanalytical approach; adult development; cognitive developmental psychology; learning styles; behaviourism; group dynamics; critical awareness. There is helpful material on experiential learning and situated learning plus updates on the literature.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 318+xv pages. A fascinating expression of a social theory of learning that examines the integral role that communities play in our lives. Organizations are approached as constellations of communties of practice. Includes chapters on community, learning, boundary, locality, identity, participation, belonging, organizations and education.


Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organisational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1996) Organisational learning II: Theory, method and practice, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Cole, M., & Engeström, Y. (1993) ‘A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition’ in G. Salomon (ed.) Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 1-46). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Malhotra, Y. (1996) ’Organizational Learning and Learning Organizations: An Overview’ http://www.brint.com/papers/orglrng.htm

Pea, R. D. (1993) ‘Practices of distributed intelligence and designs for education’ in G. Salomon (ed.). Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 47-87). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prange, C. (1999) ‘Organizational learning – desperately seeking theory?’ in M. Easterby-Smith, L. Araujo and J. Burgoyne (eds.) Organizational Learning and the Learning Organization, London: Sage.

Salomon, G. (1993) ‘No distribution without individual’s cognition: A dynamic interactional view’ in G. Salomon (ed.) Distributed cognitions—Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 111-138). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Salomon, G. and Perkins, D. N. (1998) ‘Individual and social aspects of learning’, Review of Research in Education 23.

Sampson, E. E. (1993) Celebrating the Other. A dialogic account of human nature, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester/Wheatsheaf.

Senge, P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organization, London: Random House.


A brief introduction to distributed cognition – useful piece by Yvonne Rogers.

Acknowledgment: Picture:  National Archives and Records Administration. WPA Adult Education (New Deal). Believed to be in the public domain (sourced from Wikimedia).

© Mark K. Smith 2001.