Which Comes First? Individual Learning or Organizational Learning as a Whole?

While I realize that perhaps part of the premise of this class is to explore the possibility of whether an organization’s learning begins with the individual, especially an individual perhaps in a position of power, or does it in fact occur at times as an entire organization comes upon a new realization? One could argue the point either way, for when an error occurs is it just the one person that learns from the mistake or instead, the entire organization learns a new way not to do things? Especially when there is something in place that allows for the sharing of that new knowledge? And yet, must the knowledge be embraced by someone in a position of relevance before someone will truly listen to this new way of thinking? But better still, what causes someone to be in a position of what one would consider relevance? Is it because they are charged with making decisions? Or is it simply because they have gained the respect of those that are listening? But with this point perhaps I digress…

As we read the article recently, Culture & Organizational Learning by Cook and Yanow, we were introduced to the idea that Bolman (1976) believed organizational learning to be “learning experiences for key decision makers”. (pg. 375) And I have to agree, for in order for the change in the organization that many look for as a sign of organizational learning to even take place, do we not need those in upper management (or in a position of decision making, change making, power) to support and/or assist in incorporating these new ideas? I have always been a tremendous proponent of ‘from the top down’ in order to achieve the change that an organization seeks. So in this case I do wonder, does organizational learning begin with the individual and then become an organization that learns together?

And, as the article seems to point out in a variety of ways, how are most key decision makers influenced to make a change in the first place in their organization? Typically due to a need, something isn’t working well, the company is doing poorly, the employees are collectively not working as productively or collaboratively as possible and perhaps it’s beginning to effect the bottom line…Regardless the point remains the same, those that are charged with making decisions decide to make a change. They are then ready to take in the Org. Learning opportunity that is necessary at the time, they embrace it and then put it out to the larger organization. The organization as a whole then begins to collectively learn and change together. That new knowledge then becomes a part of the culture of that organization and as individuals come and go in the company, the learning is passed on and embraced by them as the current way of knowing. In this instance it may then return to being considered as an individual learning opportunity; the new person is learning, but yet the way of knowing still remains rooted within the culture of that organization until another change uproots it. And yet it also remains rooted in the individual as something that has been learned, whether they are still a part of the organization or not. Consider how many have resisted change by saying, “we’ve always done it this way so why change now?” So then can it be both depending on how it is viewed?

So as I try to gather these rampant thoughts that seem to continuously contradict conclusions as to which came first; I think back to a quote from page 378 of the article, “Organizational learning, then, describes a category of activity that can only be done by a group. It cannot be done by an individual.” So perhaps then, the true argument is who has the power to turn their individual learning into something that may spark what can only be described as organizational learning. But then, can we have one without the other?

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About hdjackson

Graduate Student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying the theoretical world of Adult Learning along with its relation to Human Resources Developement. View all posts by hdjackson

One response to “Which Comes First? Individual Learning or Organizational Learning as a Whole?

  • Irene Lubker

    Hi Holly,

    What an insightful posting! You raise a very interesting point when you ask whether the organizational learning is individual or collective. I think you nailed it when you quoted Cook and Yanow about organizational learning being both. Most of the time it may indeed start with an individual before it becomes collective learning. Another way to explain it is that the individual is not an organization by themselves so if they learned something, it would not be an organizational learning. Starting from page 9 Dixon says that the knowledge has to be shared in order for it to become common in the organization. I think this is the key to organizational learning. The learning has to be collective in order to become organizational learning. So yes, you are right, the question is: “who has the power to turn their individual learning into something that may spark what can only be described as organizational learning.” I think in any organization, who has the power depends on the culture of the organization. If the organization is truly run by consensus where everybody’s voice is heard and respected, then anybody can turn their individual learning into organizational learning.

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