The Questionable Relation between Individual and Organizational Learning

by Mirjam Neelen

Let’s start with a silly question: why should organizations invest time and money (resources) in their individual employees’ learning?

Well, the assumption is that this learning helps facilitate change and innovation so that the organization sustains a competitive advantage (see for example, Ropes & Thölke, 2010). Simply stated, the idea(l) is that individual learning leads to: a) improved organizational learning and b) higher individual performance which together positively impact organizational performance (1).

I’ve been asking myself what the exact relationship is between individual and organizational learning. In other words, to what extent do we actually have evidence on a causal relation between individual learning and organizational learning? I believe this is important to unravel because there’s a lot of debate on what learning and development’s role is in an organization (and what it isn’t), so we need to find focus and insight in when, where, and how we can add value to organizations through employee learning.

Spoiler alert: When exploring the research on organizational learning, it quickly becomes clear that there’s not much evidence that the assumed relationships between individual and organizational learning actually exist. Let’s explain that in a bit more depth and explore what this means for us, as learning professionals.

The research on organizational learning

When digging through the many definitions for organizational learning, what they have in common is that it’s somehow part of the social system within an organization and that it’s a process of improving actions through better knowledge and understanding (Fiol & Lyles, 1985, Kim, 1998). Interestingly (to me anyway), it’s not necessarily the case that organizational learning is expected to improve an organization’s performance; the focus is more on the process to improve whatever needs to be improved and to validate and integrate new knowledge into the organization. One question I’d like to ask is why organizations would invest in these processes when it’s not clear if and how they impact the organization’s performance?

Overall, (for example, Crossan, Lane, & White (1999), Kim (1998), March (1991), and Ropes & Thölke (2010)), all research assumes that there are three concepts that play a role in organizational learning, namely: a) individual and group learning, b) individual and team performance, and c) organizational performance.

There’s also the assumed relationships between these concepts. For example, March (1991) assumes a reciprocal relationship between organizational performance and organizational  learning. His idea is that an organization’s performance affects its ability to learn and, vice versa, organizational learning affects the organization’s ability to perform better. Ropes and Thölke (2010) have explored if and how communities of practice (CoPs) influence individual and group learning and in turn influence organizational learning as illustrated in the figure below.

Example of organizational learning model (Ropes & Thölke 2010)

Now, there are various other, similar, models for organizational learning, however the biggest problem with the assumed relationships in all the studies investigated is that they’re only backed up by qualitative research (e.g., case studies; see this for a discussion of types of evidence or go to our earlier blog). Therefore, there’s only some weak evidence (through the case studies) that there’s a relationship between CoPs, individual learning, group learning, organizational learning, and organizational performance at all!

Antonacopoulu (2006) states that:

The organizational learning debate seems to have stalled, partly because we are missing ways of capturing the holistic and complex nature of learning in organizations in ways that we can engage in at the same time, both the relationships across levels of analysis and the multiple dimensions of learning (p 456).

And that’s not the only challenge…

The influence of the organization on individual learning

Antonacopoulu (2006) argues that, apart from the fact that all studies deliver only weak evidence, they also address different levels and dimensions of learning. Her study therefore attempts to acknowledge the complexity of learning in an organization and explores the interconnectivity between the different levels of learning. The study includes 78 retail managers in three banks and was carried out over three years. She asked the managers a series of questions about the learning process and in particular their views of what learning is, how people learn, and the factors that facilitate or inhibit learning. Managers were also asked to describe a critical incident of a learning experience they considered ‘ideal’ and to explain what was special about it. Although her study was also qualitative and relatively small, there are some intriguing conclusions that are worth discussing and that give some clear pointers for the

First, her analysis shows that learning practices in organizations are very complex. Learning seems to transcend national, industry, organization, group and individual levels, however it’s highly questionable whether the individual directly influences any of these levels of learning.

The figure below reflects the nature of the learning across levels as evident in Antonacopoulu’s study.

The limited interrelationships across multiple levels of learning in the three retain baniks int ehUK (Antonacoupulu 2006)

The limited interrelationships across multiple levels of learning in the three retail banks in the UK (Antonacopoulu, 2006)

In addition, interestingly, Antonacopoulu’s results suggest that individuals’ learning in
organizations is very limited because of the restricted view of learning at the organizational level. She states that

currently we have limited evidence about the reciprocal relationship between individual and organizational learning [emphasis added]. The organization may affect individuals’ learning, but the reverse is less evident to be the case. At best, individual learning reflects/mirrors the lack of organizational learning” (p 467).

Her research painfully shows that “the organization culture even when it promotes learning, it essentially discourages learning, because the boundaries it sets limit human agency in the process of learning” (p 467). In other words, employees only seek to learn in ways that maintain rather than challenge the status quo! So much for change and innovation! Of course Antonacopoulu’s study only focuses on the bank sector, which is possibly ‘extra rigid’ with regards to learning (tons of compliance training), however, I still think it’s important to keep this finding in mind. Sadly, I even believe this conclusion is no surprise to any learning leader in the corporate world (see for example this article on the top obstacles that learning leaders face)!

One of the issues is that it’s not even necessarily clear in the various studies on organizational learning how learning is defined (authors refer to learning as gaining new insights or knowledge, new structures, new systems, change, adaptation, and the list goes on and on) and how to measure it. Antonacopoulu (2006) questions whether what is being referred to as learning in organizations is in fact learning or another form of control?

I don’t know about you but this somewhat grim question doesn’t surprise me. In my experience there’s a lot of talk about learning in organizations but unfortunately, seldom it’s actually about learning. Sometimes it’s about performance, sometimes about communication or attitude change, and sometimes just some other kind of control. Just to throw in some ‘anecdotal evidence’, I once had a job interview for a learning design role at a large multinational and at some point during the interview I pointed out to my interviewer that he wasn’t talking about learning, he was talking about marketing. I didn’t get the job.

So, it seems that we can stop wondering whether individual and organizational learning are related. Instead, it might be more fruitful to shift focus.

Let’s shift focus

Based on Antonacopoulu’s research and my own experience, I believe, as a starting point, we should:

  • Agree on an operational/functional definition of individual and organizational learning.
  • Distinguish clearly between individual and organizational learning. Individual learning should be focused on increasing knowledge and skills to do a better job while organizational learning should be about ‘solving problems on the organization’s behalf’ (which doesn’t necessarily lead to learning, so perhaps we should call it ‘organizational problem-solving’ instead).
  • Take power and political agendas into account as key dimensions, driving learning in organizations. For example, investigate how employees’ learning efforts are shaped by their preferred professional identity and how they address internal dilemmas they experience when they have to balance personal and organizational priorities in relation to learning.
  • Be ‘true learning’ advocates; play an active role in discussing in your organization why something is or isn’t learning. You can do this by, for example explaining the difference between providing information and learning, marketing and learning, and performance improvement and learning. For example, performance support tools help the employee to perform better but don’t necessarily encourage to learn and a learning solution encourages learning but doesn’t necessarily lead to better performance right away.

And last but not least,..

Keep going, don’t give up!

1. Note that organizational performance can be measured in various ways, such as labor productivity, financial performance, product/service quality, absence rate, turnover rate, and reduction in labor costs (Ramsay, Scholarios, & Harley, 2000).

Antonacopoulu, E. P. (2006). The relationship between individual and organizational learning: New evidence from managerial learning practices. Management learning, 37(4), 455-473.

Crossan, M. M., Lane, H. W., & White R. E. (1999). An organizational learning framework: from intuition to institution. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 522-537. 

Fiol, C. M., & Lyles, M. A. (1985). Organizational learning. Academy of management review, 10(4), 803-813.

Kim, D. H. (1998). The link between individual and organizational learning. The strategic management of intellectual capital, 41-62.

March, J. G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 71-87.

Ramsay, H., Scholarios, D., & Harley, B. (2000). Employees and high-performance work systems: Testing inside the black box. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 38, 501-533.

Ropes, D., & Thölke, J. (2010, March). Communities of practice: Finally a link between individual and organizational learning in management development programs. In Proceedings of the European Conference on Intellectual Capital. 504-512.