According to Harvard Business School Professor Amy Emondson (2002), the notion of organizational learning has been explored in the management literature for decades. In this field, the emphasis is on an organization’s ability to adapt to a constantly shifting environment more quickly than its competitors. To remain viable, the logic goes, organizations require flexibility, responsiveness, and the ability to create new capabilities among their employees.
This research is dominated by both organizational-level and individual-level theories to explain the learning, or lack thereof, in complex organizations. The Internal Coherence project, however, draws most heavily from the work of Edmondson, who articulates a group-level perspective. She proposes that an organization “learns” through the actions and interactions among people situated within small groups, conceptualizing the process as an aggregation of action and reflection cycles in teams. It is through these subunits making appropriate changes in how they do their work – driven by both team-specific and organizational objectives – that an organization responds to changes in the environment.
Edmondson defines team learning as a process in which a team takes action, obtains and reflects upon feedback, and makes changes to adapt or improve. Because the cognition and behavior of individuals (through which organizational learning necessarily occurs) is shaped by the attitudes and behaviors of others with whom they work closely, the various subcultures in organizations have a profound impact on a team’s ability to learn. This localness of social influence, she argues, has potentially dramatic effects on learning approach or learning effectiveness across teams within a single organization.
Edmondson’s group-level perspective shines a light on the importance of group process and interpersonal dynamics for organizational learning. Specifically, she posits that team member beliefs about power and psychological safety can disable individuals’ willingness to actively and honestly contribute their ideas, evaluations or suggestions. Interpersonal concerns are particularly salient when members engage in evaluative discussion about their team members’ individual or collective performance. This negative evaluation or criticism, crucial for team learning, is inherently psychologically threatening, making high-quality reflective discussion about team shortcomings difficult without considerable psychological safety.
In productive teams discussion is lively, energetic and open, and enhanced by team members proactively seeking relevant data from which to draw logical conclusions for action. In her research, Edmondson finds that in teams capable of reflection and change, power differences and hierarchy were either absent or actively minimized by the leader. On these teams, leaders took on the role of facilitator who encouraged input and consensus, rather than “boss” making final decisions for the group. Happily, Edmondson’s research found team learning was possible without expert facilitation or profound interpersonal skill, especially if leaders were able to mitigate the potential fear their power over other members might elicit during the process.
Finally, Edmondson warns that even when teams learn effectively, the learning may not translate to the level of the organization. It is possible for teams within an organization to be learning and taking action with energy and excitement, but be unable to communicate with others in the organization or convince others in the organization to adopt new ways of working. Because of this, learning in organizations often remains local, driven by the goals and concerns of individuals and groups rather than serving the goals of the organization as a whole. Further research is needed to investigate how team processes interrelate to produce an integrated, organizational learning cycle.
Text synthesized from: Edmondson, Amy C. “The Local and Variegated Nature of Learning in Organizations: A Group-Level Perspective.”Organization Science 13, no. 2 (March – April 2002): 128-146.
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