Organisational learning and the organisational link: The problem of conflict, political equilibrium and truce

Pierre Andr� Mangolte
2000 European Journal of Economic and Social Systems  
The subject of organisational learning immediately brings to mind a certain number of empirical facts. Adam Smith's pin factory and his statement "to the increase of dexterity in every particular workman" (Smith, 1776, p. 112) which resulted from specialisation and continuous application of the same tasks. The learning curves based on Taylor's theories, drawn by engineers for workshop tasks, at the beginning of the century; or yet again "experience curves", established in the 1930's in the
more » ... 1930's in the aeronautical industry, curves recording the reduction of direct work costs as a function of cumulated production growth. In order to explain this type of regularity in a plausible and convincing way, the phenomenon of "learning" linked to direct experience gained in production is invoked. The worker in the pin factory, the employee timed in his tasks by the method officer or the group of workers, technicians and foremen at the aircraft factory accumulating know-how as they work. In each case, the practices used are improved. The complete set of these learning by doing processes results in an increase in productivity. However, the examples above fall into two categories. In one case, the individuals are considered in isolation even if they are part of an organisational framework; on the other the organisation is considered per se (the aircraft factory for example), where the performance of the entire unit is considered. In the latter case, the learning process refers to the entire organisation. By applying the term learning to such very different situations, both the individual and the group effect seem to be considered indifferently. However, in any organisation (such as the aircraft factory), not only are there obviously a number of individuals who pool their own experience, but also systems, arrangements or coordination procedures to enhance contacts between the workers involved and which define the organisation as such and as a specific, united and ordered reality. Even if the result, namely an increase in productivity, seems the same (measured either individually and on a group basis), is it possible to group together under the same "learning" heading, two processes which would a priori imply differences? This question will be considered in this paper from an organisational learning point of view. The current theoretical literature on the subject of learning is based on concepts of learning which are generally far more complex and extensive than the simple process of 3 learning via direct experience within one's personal activity. Nevertheless, one sees the same tendency to conflate the processes affecting individuals (humans) and the processes which affect organisations -to a certain extent one sees this in the use made of the concept of learning as soon as the term is applied to an entire organisation. For example, today the principle of "organisational learning" (Levitt and March, 1988) includes certain behavioural or evolutionary approaches (Nelson and Winter, 1982; Marengo, 1992 Marengo, , 1995 This has raised the theoretical problem of how the systems, procedures, rules and routines which make up the organisation (and which provide fairly consistent links between the different individual members of the organisation), evolve during the learning process. The nature and logic of the evolution of these links are central questions for a theoretical approach to organisational learning. This paper will try to present the way in which certain theories of organisation have treated the problem of the organisational link, in order to highlight the difficulties which inevitably confront organisational learning theories. Particular attention is given to the evolutionary analysis of the firm in terms of routines (Nelson and Winter, 1982) and to other older analyses of organisations considered as systems for information processing (Simon, 1945; March and Simon, 1958) . The aim of the paper, is to show that the problem of the necessary consistency and co-ordination of individual learning in organisational learning reactivates a theoretical problem which had already been tackled to a certain extent by Cyert and March (in 1963) as part of their work on the analysis of organisations in terms of information processing. This is the issue of "conflict" or more generally of the existence of a political and social dimension underlying organisational realities. By returning to so-called, "old" concepts it is possible to cast some light on the current debate on the subject of organisational leaning. In the Section I the term organisational learning will be defined for the purposes of the article, with a brief review of the various problems posed by the concept. As the question of an 'organisational or institutional link' is central to the debate, the second section examines how the theories of organisation in terms of information processing have tackled the question (March and Simon, 1958; Cyert and March, 1963) . Section III considers the way in which the issue has been treated by Nelson and Winter (1982) . Finally the implication of this aspect of the problem for organisational learning will be discussed in Section IV.
doi:10.1051/ejess:2000116 fatcat:zcyhr3fpkbbrzos737mzyh4gl4