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Issue Methodological issues in the study of organisational learning
Outline [NB:] The methodology of the project OrgLearn is based on the paradigm that the fundamental process in organisational learning is culture change. The issue is how to study culture in the chemical companies of the four countries. Culture is manifested in certain practices; in the project 15-20 working and learning practices have been identified. The main research effort is the method of eliciting personal accounts: interviews in which workers relate their experience of being involved in the learning and working practices. The initial interpretation of these data will be done by members of the organisations themselves (in their capacity as learning organisations), through the process of 'cultural exchanges': first by feeding the evidence of the interviews into ordinary practices of organisational learning within the companies, involving all levels of workers and management; and second by reviewing the results in an exchange between the companies in the four countries. Finally, the outcomes will be interpreted by the research team in academic studies, but this will only be one of several levels of interpretation in the project as a whole.
Debate [MM:] This is a very interesting methodology. How far is the project now? [NB:] It started March 2000 and will finish February 2003; we have completed the personal accounts.
[MM:] Have you already noted international differences? - [NB:] There are differences in the extent to which companies have implemented the idea of a learning organisation; there are enormous differences in the part that the unions play: the British companies are virtually de-unionised, whereas unions play a prominent part in other companies. Obviously, there is a difference in the vocational education and training systems: the British system might be described as flexible, whereas the German one is based on clearly defined Berufe. Ultimately we wish to discuss the ways in which these factors will interact with the kind of organisational learning that may be possible in this context.
[MD:] If you say 'organisational learning', is this a 'learning organisation'? If we link it to these changes of vocational identity, flexibility etc. (in France for instance: new concepts of work based on flexibility of contract; user-provider concept; core-employees versus an increasing periphery of people in short-term employment, without access to the unions or to continuing vocational training) we are moving to a very shrinking work force, to 'empty organisations': how can we call these organisations 'learning organisations'? Can you find indicators which allow to specify this move which is really defeating the concept of a learning organisation, unless we speak of abstract organisations without learners in it? [NB:] These are important points. Organisational learning is often a response to a competitive challenge which companies face: they have to increase their productivity, and the primary way they do this is by downsizing and increasing flexibility and learning. (In one company for instance the number of employees has been reduced from 2000 to  850, so the remaining workers have got to start working across traditional boundaries). In contrast, we have studied a company which is the only one in its field, with little or no competition. This company has retained traditional work methods and has not attempted to become a learning organisation. In general, it tends to be the companies under threat that think of becoming learning organisations. From their perspective, organisational learning is a business strategy adopted in response to the downsizing imposed on them by competitive pressure.
[KE:] There is a tendency in organisations to consider teams as a 'good thing', including learning to work together. Have you thought about using the teams as a source of data alongside your individual personal accounts? [NB:] This is done right now: the person collecting data is talking to control operators and groups, and we have had one meeting with a group. It is however harder to convene these.
Reference The methodological approach of the project OrgLearn is described in a paper (Boreham 2001c) submitted for this roundtable.
Event ECER/ VETNET: Lille Sept 01: Roundtable 'HRD in Europe'
Descriptors D-LO  EP00  EP09        V06
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO