My Theory of Organizational Learning LO30809

From: Richard Karash (
Date: 11/25/03

Replying to LO30799 --

Mark McElroy wrote:

>Here's my first question in response to what you wrote: In what sense
>is your theory a theory of "organizational" learning as opposed to one
>of "individual" learning? Much of what you wrote seems to me to be
>cast in terms of the individual. Thus, it's not clear to me how it
>all plays out at the level of collectives, except for the part in
>which groups or communities form.
>In other words, how do we get from individual learning to
>organizational learning; from individual knowledge to shared

Mark, this is a very fair question. As you noticed, I wrote mostly
about things that happen largely in an individual. And, I want to note
that one of the points most directly about shared knowledge (#13.
Communities of thought... competition among ideas...) arose from my
prior conversations with you. I like your notions about how
contradictory knowledge gets resolved.

Remember that my process is to create explicit theory by looking
closely at what we actually do, that is, by investigating what Argyris
would call "Theory in Use." This is in contrast to just jumping right
into a question, "What do I think about X?"

By "we" I mean myself and a small set of colleagues with whom I've
been working and learning over the past 13 years.

When I look at what we do, yes we do spend a lot of time on
individuals in our work! What theory would explain that? I think it
comes from a theory that the most important barriers to org learning,
the barriers to address first, are individual capacities, greater
clarity on what we care about, and depth. In my model, when we address
these, organizational learning is more likely to grow.

In addition, if you look closely at my points, there is a collective
element in most of them. This arises in two ways. First, many of the
skills/capacities we try to develop are those that involve multiple
persons and their relationships. For example, we work to develop
capacity for generative conversation, for sharing what we really care
about, for relationships in which the other arises as a legitimate
other in relation to oneself. These are directly related to collective
capacities, collective learning.

Secondly, there is another collective element. Many items in my list
that appear at first to be individual actually can only arise in a
plurality. There are many subtle points here. For example, while we
might think that our vocabulary has words to fit the objects in the
world, in my model (from Flores, Searle, at al) it is more likely that
the words in our vocabulary represent the distinctions collectively
made in our experience of living. As another example, although simple
wants might be purely selfish, I believe that things we really care
about are bigger than ourselves.

Thirdly, there is a notion I did not address at all, an omission on my
part. In my model, there is great synergy between individual and
collective results. That is, in my model, when the people are doing
well, highly energized, making great strides on thing they really care
about, this leads to the organization doing well. And vice-versa. This
notion is always present in my work; I always work on the individual
and on the collective.

Thanks for stimulating me to think about this. Perhaps I will add
some of this to my outline.

One other point...

Mark, you and I have discovered that we have somewhat different
definitions of "learning."

In my work, learning is an increase in the capacity for effective
action, and organizational learning is about collective capacity. So
I'm more interested in how well a group works together than I am in
how differences get resolved. But, this deserves more dialogue.

As always, our conversation is a pleasure!

My best regards,

    -=- Rick


Richard Karash ("Rick") | Speaker, Facilitator, Trainer | "Towards learning organizations" | Host for Learning-Org Discussion (617)227-0106, fax (617)812-5365 |

Video chat/conference? Apple iSight + iChat AV = video phone! Try me!

Upcoming Courses: Systems Thinking course, Feb 11-12 '04, Washington DC Core Competencies of a Learning Organization, Apr 27-30 '04, Oct 25-28 '04, Easton MD

With reluctance, mail to is filtered for SPAM/Virus.

Learning-org -- Hosted by Rick Karash <> Public Dialog on Learning Organizations -- <>

"Learning-org" and the format of our message identifiers (LO1234, etc.) are trademarks of Richard Karash.