Models of Organizational Learning: Paradoxes and Best Practices in the Post Industrial Workplace

Article excerpt


In the light of current examples of reengineering, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, some Canadian organizations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors provide an environment for individuals and teams to negotiate effectively the kind of organizational change, which has become endemic in today's workplace.

This article presents the results of a three-year research project, conducted between 1998 and 2001, that located and studied, in-depth, four such organizations using organizational learning approaches to embed continuous learning within the actual work context.


In the light of current examples of reengineering, restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, some organizations across sectors provide a context for individuals and teams to negotiate effectively the kind change which has become endemic in today's workplace. A focus on organizational learning contributes to employees' collective ability to move beyond simply coping with stress to engaging in creative action, for the benefit of both the individual members and the organization as a whole.

A three-year research project was conducted between 1998-2001, to locate and study Canadian organizations, which are using such organizational learning approaches to embed on-going learning within the actual work processes - whether at an individual, team or strategic level. One of the challenges which organizations face in proceeding with such transformative experiments is their lack of knowledge about current examples of successful projects. This research intended to be a voice for Canadian models of organizational learning which have benefited the organization and its clients or customers, as well as its employees or volunteers, whose lives are dramatically affected by these new organizational forms. Our hope was that, by providing visibility to such "models" of organizational learning, the research would not only reinforce best practices already in existence, but also demonstrate the potential of such practices across work sectors, organizational size, and widely diverse employee populations.

The study initially identified forty-two Canadian organizations which either self-reported or appeared in the literature as examples of those attempting to become or demonstrating features of a earning organization. Ten of these organizations agreed to participate in the research and ten randomly selected employees from all levels of the organization in each completed The Learning Organization 5 Stage Diagnostic Survey (Woolner, Lowy, and Redding, 1995). In response to this survey, five organizations self-identified at mature stages of development as learning organizations in the areas of individual, team and strategic learning.2 Of the five, four of these organizations - a medium-sized hospital, a large retail chain, a small not-for-profit government funded organization and a large electronics manufacturer3 volunteered for more in-depth study through two hour individual interviews with 8-10 employees at all levels (totaling approximately 35 participants), on-site observation and a review of organizational documentation.

All data were taped and transcribed, and the transcripts analyzed across the organizations using a grounded theory approach, to generate twelve primary codes and multiple sub-codes. These codes were then used by each member of the research team, through an on-line qualitative data analysis program, to analyze all transcripts from each individual organization. The resulting themes, represented in this chapter as "paradoxes", emerged from a cross-analysis of the data from all four organizations, which also informed a narrative case description written about each (see Laiken et al, forthcoming).

The research surfaced key thematic insights, which seemed to be common across the four case organizations, but could be further informed by future studies that investigate larger sample sizes in relation to our findings. …