Criteria for "Learning Organization" LO29630

From: Mark W. McElroy (
Date: 12/02/02

Replying to LO29613 --

Hello Rick:

Thank you for calling attention to what may be some fundamental vocabulary
and/or conceptual discrepancies between us. I think we may still be
talking past each other, though. Here is yet another attempt to clarify
things. See below.

Richard Karash wrote:

>You wrote,
>> Let's not confuse learning (the process) with knowledge (the outcomes).
>When I say learning, I _am_ talking about a result, not a process. To me,
>learning is an increase in knowledge, an increase in one's capacity for
>effective action in the world.

OK, two comments. I emphatically disagree with the claim that learning
and knowledge are synonymous. This just seems wrongheaded to me. I do
see, however, that learning (the process) can be viewed as an outcome, and
that we can have different qualities of learning processes in
organizations. Thus, we could make interventions of one kind or another
in a firm with the idea of changing the quality of learning processes and
expect to see different outcomes in how learning happens as a result.

But this is not to say that the knowledge that follows from learning
(i.e., that we produce or create from learning) is the same as learning,
itself. No, knowledge is held, and expressed, in the form of assertions,
hypotheses, propositions, conjectures, or other such declarative or
procedural beliefs and/or claims, the essence of which are not at all the
same as the processes that account for their production or integration in
human social systems. This very claim of mine, for example, is a
statement of my own belief that I produced as an outcome of my own
learning, but it is not the same as the process I experienced in coming to
embrace it and regard it as true. That was learning, whereas my claim is
the knowledge outcome I produced as a result of it.

Next, the 'knowledge is the capacity for effective action' claim is well
known in the field of OL, one which I regularly and emphatically disagree
with. While it does offer the 'halo effect' of sounding good, it doesn't
stand up to testing -- in my view. Why? Because effective action calls
for more than just knowledge. It also calls for the means, the will, and
the power to TAKE effective action. Moreover, while all of these things
in combination with one another may support and enable effective action,
they are not the SAME AS effective action. Action is behavior.
Knowledge is not. Nor is power, will, or means. And so I feel this
popular definition of knowledge has been wrong all along and ultimately
does us all a disservice if by using it we purport to have insight that is
actionable and valuable to us in practice.

So on this point, I might say in sum that 'knowledge contributes to our
ability to take effective action, but it is not the same as effective
action, nor is it the only variable that contributes to it. It is
necessary but insufficient for effective action.

>From your note (below), I think you might say "learning is the process
>that produces knowledge." Your statement sounds OK at first, but fails
>for me after some thought. I think there is ambiguity in our language
>between the process and the change that process produces.

Not if you distinguish between the process and its knowledge outcomes.
Learning produces beliefs and claims. Learning is the process we
experience as we attempt to close our epistemic gaps (i.e., gaps in what
we know versus what we think we need to know). It accounts for the
production of new beliefs or claims (knowledge) and their integration in
our operational behaviors. Knowledge consists of the subjective beliefs
and belief predispositions we produce as a result of learning, and can
also take the form of claims that we express linguistically in objective
form. Is a book that conveys Einstein's theory "the capacity for
effective action"? No, it's a book. Effective action calls for an
understanding it along with some other things, like the will, the means,
and the power to act.

And even when I grant you the use of the term 'outcomes' in the sense that
there can be outcome changes in the quality and composition of learning
itself (the process), that is not to say that outcomes OF learning (or
knowledge) are the same as learning. There is a difference between
outcomes IN learning processes versus outcomes OF learning processes.

>If I see some people going through the motions with no result, I would not
>say, "Look over here, these people are learning." On the other hard, if I
>see at the end of a year that a group can confidently and correctly do
>things they could not do at the beginning of the year, then I would say,
>"Wow! This group is really learning!"

I think I agree with this, Rick. But where's the confusion? What I hear
you saying is that some people go through the learning process without
success, whereas others experience it WITH success. That is not to say
that either group is not engaged in a process. And it certainly is not to
suggest that the knowledge (claims) they produce are the same as the
processes themselves. Rather, it might be that both groups are producing
claims, but thanks to the higher quality of the learning process
experienced by the second group, their claims fare better in practice than
those of the first group. Indeed, this would be a useful path of inquiry
to follow. How do their learning processes differ? What accounts for the
differences in knowledge outcomes they experience? What tools are methods
are they using? How do they staff the process? What criteria are being
used to test and evaluate competing claims? How well does each group
detect its epistemic problems and what are their differences? These are
all aspects of knowledge processing, and they speak to the learning
process itself, not its outcomes.

>When I want to speak of the process, I'll refer to "the learning process."
>Or practice... or study... or reflection... or whatever form of learning
>process they are following. As you suggested, it can be very valuable to
>look at the finer details of this process.

>Whatever the process, I don't consider the result "learning" unless it has
>increased our capacity for effective action.

Yes, but as I said above, there is more to effective action than high
quality knowledge outcomes. Here, I might roughly equate my terms with
yours and suggest that a "learning" process outcome for you (this
"capacity" you speak of) is the same as a "knowledge" outcome for me,
since both point to the epistemic conclusions or claims we produce as a
result of learning (the process). But this still leaves us with questions
about what you and others mean by "effective action." My own view is that
what you mean to say is that the claims comprising the knowledge produced
through learning are regarded as "knowledge" by you because of the impact
they have on your ability to successfully close your operational gaps.
In other words, when applied in practice, they (your knowledge claims)
satisfy your tests of closing operational gaps between some current state
you have and a target state you desire.

But that's an operational gap, not an epistemic one. They are gaps in
things you want to do or steps you wish to take (e.g., in business), not
gaps in what you know and what you think you need to know. Before you had
the knowledge required to close the operational gap, you were faced with
an epistemic gap of not knowing how to do so. This triggered a learning
cycle (process), which produced a belief or claim about how to take the
action you sought (effectively). When subsequently applied in practice,
the results you experienced served to validate your belief in the new
claim, hence your decision to use it again repeatedly thereafter, and to
regard the claim in use as "knowledge." Note here, again, that your
knowledge of what to do in order to achieve effective action is not
sufficient to TAKE effective action. You also require the will to do so;
the means to do so; and the power to do so. So knowledge is not the same
as the capacity to take effective action; it is only a contributing
factor, and only one such factor.

>And, back to one of the original points, I think many organizations... and
>many people... during many periods of time... do not demonstrate learning.
>That is, there is no increase in their ability to produce desired results.

But Rick, they may still be learning. It's just that their learning may
not be as effective as it could be, or should be. And even if they are
not experiencing generative learning, they may still be experiencing
adaptive learning, or single-loop learning. From the example you offer,
it's impossible to tell.

Let me also say here that learning for its own sake is of no interest to
me. We learn in response to the detection of epistemic gaps in our lives.
Here I speak mainly of generative learning. In other words, two
organizations facing entirely different sets of problems and related rates
of arrival need not learn at the same rate or quality. Rather, their
rates and qualities of learning need only be up to the challenges they
respectively face. A lower-quality learning organization whose rate and
quality of learning, however, is up to the task of solving the problems it
encounters is more admirable to me than one whose quality of learning is
arguably higher, but whose learning outcomes fail to close the epistemic
gaps it encounters at a different rate. So when we talk about the quality
of learning in an organization, we must ground our thinking in terms of
what the role of learning is in our lives. The purpose of learning is to
allow us to close our epistemic gaps if and when they occur, which in turn
serves the goal of taking effective action. Thus, an organizational
learning regime or capability in a firm is good or bad, effective or not
effective, only in terms of how well it serves its inhabitants' needs to
close their epistemic gaps. How to do create and maintain OL systems that
do this well, of course, is what we're all about -- at least that's what
my epistemology tells me we should all be doing and discussing.

As always, thanks for listening to what I have to say!




"Mark W. McElroy" <>

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