Organizational Learning


Organizational Change


Creation, maintenance, and movement of knowledge across levels

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … the current scope of applied information
  • Knowing is … applying information
  • Learner is … a knowledge node – individual, team, and/or an organization
  • Learning is … measurable changes in practice (adaptations) over time
  • Teaching is … effecting and measuring adaptation




Organizational Learning attends to the creation, maintenance, and movement of knowledge in an organization. These dynamics are understood to occur across four distinct levels simultaneously: individual, team, organizational, and interorganizational. Associated discourses include:
  • Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Business Psychology, Employment Psychology, Industrial Psychology, Management Psychology, ManagerialPsychology, Organizational Psychology, Work Psychology) – a branch of psychology that combines interests in individual behavior, group behavior, and organizational coherence/effectiveness
  • Organizational Behavior Management (Organizational Behavior Modification) – the extension and application of Applied Behavior Analysis across the levels of individuals, groups, and organizations, designed to address problems that emerge at the organizational level
  • Organizational Cognition (Linda Smircich, 1980s) – a system of common knowledge and shared convictions within an organization, enabled and sustained by joint knowledge structures and collective communication rules. Subdiscourses include:
    • Theory of Social Organizing (Davide Secchi, Rasmus Gahrn-Anderson, Stephen Cowley, 2020s) – a model of an organization’s internal dynamics that looks across three simultaneous domains of activity: micro (individuals), meso (teams), and macro (organization). The meso, comprising social activity and information exchange among individuals, is asserted to be the center of Organizational Cognition.
  • Organizational Creativity – a subset of Organizational Learning that is focused on those innovations that emerge in the work of multiple people who are associated with the same organization – although not necessarily in direct communication or collaboratively engaged
  • Organizational Communication (Herbert Simon, 1940s) – the study of information flow within and among organizations, typically blending insights from Communication Theory and Organizational Learning
  • Organizational Culture (Elliott Jaques, 1950s) – the “personality” of an organization – that is, its distinguishing habits of thinking and acting, as manifest in communications, customs, and priorities. Associated discourses include:
  • Organization Development (Organizational Change) – an umbrella term that reaches across theories and practices associated with efforts to modify an organization – whether top-down or bottom-up, driven by opportunity or motivated by threat, focused on beliefs or concerned with skills
  • Organizational Ecology (Organizational Demography; Population Ecology of Organizations) (Michael Hannan, John Freeman, 1970s) – a statistics-reliant domain that focuses on the “life cycle” of organizations. To understand how an organization emerges, develops/grows, and dies, Organizational Ecology looks across its internal ecosystem, the ecosystem the organizations of which it is part, and the grander ecosystem of the community in which those organizations operate
  • Organizational Intelligence (Harold Wilensky, 1960s) – the capacity of an organization to generate knowledge useful to its goals and to adapt to emergent circumstances. Typically, Organizational Intelligence is understood to reside in and across individuals, but it is sometimes discussed as a trait of the organization as a unit.
  • Organizational Metacognition – a reference to what an organization knows that it knows, which is seen to enable and constrain Organizational Learning
  • Organization Studies (Organization Science; Organizational Studies) (Luther Gulick, 1930s) – a loosely structured, interdisciplinary domain with a focal interest in the relationship between collective activity and organizational viability.
  • Organizational Teaching (Christian Lahn, 2010s) – an ill-structured and often-implicit discourse concerned with principles and strategies for affecting Organizational Learning. Education-based concepts are rarely invoked in the Organizational Teaching literature.
  • Organizational Theory (Organization Theory) (various, early 1900s) – an umbrella category that reaches across various perspectives on the structures, dynamics, and interactions of social organizations. Particular attention is given to possible differences between an individual’s behavior when alone and when in a group.
  • Organized Anarchy Theory (Behavioral Theory of Organized Anarchy) (Michael Cohen, James March, Johan Olsen, 1970s) – an organization or situation in which purposeful action is expected, but the range of choices, the available technologies, and/or the criteria for participation are unclear, ambiguous, or otherwise problematical. Most organizations have moments of Organized Anarchy, and the phrase is frequently applied to educational organizations.
  • Sociotechnical Systems Theory (Eric Trist, Ken Bamforth, Fred Emery, 1940s) – a systems perspective (see Complex Systems Research) on organizations, the core assertion of which is that efforts to understand and improve an organization must treat its social and technical aspects as interdependent and inextricably intertwined
Prominent subdiscourses of Organizational Learning include:
  • Absorptive Capacity (Appropriability) (W.M. Cohen, D.A. Levinthal, 1990s) – the extent to which an organization is able to identify, incorporate, and exploit new knowledge
  • Action Science (Chris Argyris, Robert Putnam, 1980s) – a methodology aimed at improving organizational performance by prompting participants to interrogate personal attitudes, assumptions, and habits of thinking – which are seen as a likely source of some of the most intractable problems faced by the organization. Action Science is founded on:
    • Theory of Action (Chris Argyris & Donald Schon, 1970s) – a framework based on a conviction that, for individuals, teams, and organizations alike, there is almost always a gap between “Espoused Theory” (how agents explain their motivation and actions) and “Theory-In-Use” (the actual reasons agents act as they do). It is argued that becoming aware of and addressing such gaps requires Double-Loop Learning.
  • Adaptive Coping (not to be confused with the Adaptive Coping of Well-Being Discourses) – a mode of Organizational Learning in which established assumptions and practices a left unchallenged, focusing instead on incremental enhancements within an existing framework
  • Contingency Theory (Joan Woodward, 1950s) – a theory of organizational dynamics that rejects quests for optimality (in structuring, leading, or decision-making) and argues instead for adequacy based on immediate conditions
  • Emergent Learning (Marilyn Darling, Charles Parry, 2010s) – a business-focused process in which a team (or similar group) undertakes iterative “learning experiments” to improve performance in key aspects of their organization
  • Cross-Functional Team (Project Team) – a collective comprising individuals from across an organization who represent both subject-matter expertise and different levels of authority, typically called together for a well-defined project. A Cross-Functional Team is intended to simultaneously robust (based on such redundancies as common mission, shared values, and similar foundational knowledge) and creative (based on such diversities as distinct specializations and varied visions).
  • Cross-Training (of Organizational Learning) – a strategy to ensure the robustness of a group or organization through training members in multiple specialities (so they can step in for one another or shift collective focus, as need or opportunity arises)
  • Knowledge-Creating Company (Knowledge Creation Spiral) (Ikujiro Nonaka, Hirotaka Takeuchi, 1990s) – a model of innovation processes based on a “knowledge creation spiral” that involves four types of “conversion” – in sequence: Socialization (spread of tacit knowledge); Externalization (from tacit to explicit); Combination (from explicit to explicit); Internalization (from explicit to tacit)
  • Knowledge Management (Ikujiro Nonaka, 1990s) – variously defined as an organization’s strategies for maintaining and implementing its knowledge, a multidisciplinary approach within an organization to optimize its knowledge, and a well-defined academic domain concerned with such matters. A common theme across all descriptions is that Knowledge Management is intended to enable Organizational Learning. Associated discourses include:
    • Ignorance Management (John Israilidis, 2010s) – in effect, the suggestion that Knowledge Management might be better understood as Ignorance Management – that is, building into the system a recognition of and means of compensating for the limits of any individual’s or team’s knowledge
    • Knowledge Capture – any activity understood in terms of collecting, storing, and accessing knowledge – both explicit and tacit ­– to improve performances, outputs, and innovations
    • Personal Knowledge Management (Kirby Wright) – processes and structures associated with identifying and organizing one’s routine uses of knowledge (i.e., searching, retrieving, retaining, applying, etc.)
  • Knowledge System – the combination of a robust structure and a dynamic process for generating, maintaining, and distributing insights. The term is most commonly used in business applications.
  • Management Information Systems – systems designed to enable informed leadership decisions. They comprise managers, persons who assemble and represent data for those managers, and the technology and procedures used to capture data.
  • Organizational-Activity Game (Georgy Shchedrovitsky, 2000s) – a flexible-scenario game that is designed to support Organizational Learning
  • Organizational Listening (Corporate Listening) (Judy Burnside-Lawry, 2010s) – any deliberate strategy to solicit, interpret, and integrate information from stakeholders into an organizations functioning
  • Skill Gaps – disconnects between the skills required by an organization (or, more generally, a labor market) and the skills mastered by employees (or, more generally, the workforce)
  • Theory of Constraints (TOC) (Eliyahu Goldratt, 1980s) – a model of Organizational Learning that asserts every organization has at least one constraint – whether internal or external – that must be identified and addressed for the organization to move toward its goals. The theory includes principles, processes, and tools to manage desired change.
  • Transformational Learning – a mode of Organizational Learning that involves the examination and revision of established assumptions and practices


Organizational Learning might be regarded as a meta-theory comprising four sub-theories. Its major contributing insight is that, to appreciate the adaptive nature of effective organizations, it is necessary to look across multiple levels. However, it then parses the levels (i.e., individual, team, organizational, and interorganizational) and treats each in a distinct way, rather than considering the ways that each level is enfolded in and unfolds from the others. Consequently, the theory can come across as a compilation rather than a contribution – and this point becomes especially evident as principles from all over the learning map are invoked and juxtaposed (with a strong pull toward the object-based notions associated with the Acquisition Metaphor).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Organizational Learning is certainly about learning, but the perspective is presented more as a collection of theories on learning than a theory itself.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Organizational Learning is not a theory of teaching, but it is typically deployed as a framework to interpret and affect the functioning of an organization. In a sense, then, Organizational Learning is theory of organizational teaching – that is, strategies to enable and tools to measure an organization’s adaptation over time.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Because Organizational Learning is presented more as a collection of perspectives on learning that operate at different levels, versus a coherent theory that applies across levels (compare Eco-Complexity Discourses), it falls short on multiple of our criteria for a scientific theory. For example, the evidence bases of its different sub-theories vary significantly, as do the critical awarenesses of metaphors invoked within sub-theories.


  • Absorptive Capacity (Appropriability)
  • Adaptive Coping (of Organizational Learning)
  • Action Science
  • Contingency Theory
  • Cross-Functional Team (Project Team)
  • Cross-Training (of Organizational Learning)
  • Deskilling
  • Emergent Learning
  • Ignorance Management
  • Industrial and Organizational Psychology (Business Psychology, Employment Psychology, Industrial Psychology, Management Psychology, Managerial Psychology, Organizational Psychology, Work Psychology)
  • Knowledge Capture
  • Knowledge-Creating Company (Knowledge Creation Spiral)
  • Knowledge Management
  • Knowledge System
  • Management Information Systems
  • Organization Development (Organizational Change; Organizational Development)
  • Organization Studies (Organization Science; Organizational Studies)
  • Organizational-Activity Game
  • Organizational Behavior Management (Organizational Behavior Modification)
  • Organizational Cognition
  • Organizational Creativity
  • Organizational Culture
  • Organizational Ecology (Organizational Demography; Population Ecology of Organizations)
  • Organizational Communication
  • Organizational Intelligence
  • Organizational Listening (Corporate Listening)
  • Organizational Teaching
  • Organizational Theory (Organization Theory)
  • Organized Anarchy Theory (Behavioral Theory of Organized Anarchy)
  • Personal Knowledge Management
  • Skill Gaps
  • Sociotechnical Systems Theory
  • Theory of Action
  • Theory of Constraints (TOC)
  • Theory of Social Organizing
  • Transformational Learning (of Organizational Learning)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2024). “Organizational Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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