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. 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 incorporate new knowledge to improve Organizational 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
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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 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
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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)
  • Contingency Theory
  • Cross-Functional Team (Project Team)
  • Deskilling
  • Knowledge Management
  • Management Information Systems
  • Organizational Creativity
  • Organization Development (Organizational Change; Organizational Development)
  • Theory of Action
  • Transformational Learning (of Organizational Learning)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Organizational Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

⇦ Back to Map
⇦ Back to List