Project Management Institute

Achieving organizational learning across projects

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Introduces a holistic definition of organizational learning from a multi-disciplinary theoretical viewpoint to illustrate the relationship of learning from individuals to teams and across projects in the organizational context. Integrates organizational learning themes from psychology, sociology, organizational behavior, adult learning, management science, innovation, strategic management, knowledge management, and project management in a synergistic fashion. Proposes a systemic model using three levels of analysis: individual, group, and organization. Applies theory with samples from project experience and case studies.

Vision of Organizational Learning

Organization learning as a theory of action constitutes a conscious, repeatable, inspiring, entity-wide process of creating, acquiring, understanding, sharing, applying, improving, and managing social, tacit, and explicit knowledge in support of the organization's purpose, strategies, and goals. The learning organization is an entity that is able to practice and leverage learning, in a repeatable process, on a progressing timeframe, by inspiring, guiding and leading individuals, stakeholders, and partners. Organizational learning, as with individual and group learning, should be viewable conceptually (like a model) as a systemic process with a feedback/adjustment mechanism in a repetitive/iterative loop, which is embodied in the “improving” attribute of this definition.

Research Definitions

Learning as defined in etymology provides further validation of the above definition. From the dictionary, it is described as a verb meaning; “(1) to gain knowledge, comprehension, or mastery of through experience or study; (2) to fix in the mind or memory; memorize: learned the speech in a few hours; and (3) to acquire experience of, ability, or a skill.” The noun format can expressed as: “(1) the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skill; (2) knowledge or skill gained through schooling or study; and (3) psychology, behavioral modification especially through experience or conditioning.” (Paraphrased from: Allen,1992; Houghton-Mifflin, 1994). As a noun it could be expressed in gerund form to describe a point in time, ongoing, present or future imperfect state, such as that organizational learning (in singularity or plurality) existed, exists, or will exist. The program and operational views of organizational learning are an entity-wide longitudinal macro level perspective which includes projects and other initiatives, that could be described as being a process (verb), resource (noun), or deliverable (past-tense).

Epistemological research frames learning as a central theme emanating from human psychology, which is the systematic study of human behavior to understand why we act the way we do, how we grow up, how we learn and change, how we differ from one another, and even how we get into trouble or become disturbed or dysfunctional. As implied above, in a sense, human psychology joins a federation of interests: a coalition of scholars, scientists, and practitioners that is held together by a shared commitment to the systematic study of human behavior. From a macro perspective, the contemporary theories of learning derive from physiological, comparative psychology, behavior, and evolution (all which originated in ancient philosophy) with the key contributors being: Ivan Pavlov, John B. Watson, Clark Hull, B. F. Skinner, and Charles Darwin (Gleitman, 1995; Greenberg & Haraway,1997; Wade & Tavris, 1993). The diagram below (Exhibit 1) presents an abstraction to propose the convergence of these management science and social-psychological fields of research towards advancing a holistic theory of organizational learning.

The underlying individual, group, and social theories of organizational learning have their origins in history; much as knowledge, systems thinking, ethics, culture, behavior and perception emerged as slightly different schools of thought from the ancient western and eastern philosophies. From the western perspective, dating back well into the 4th century BC writings of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and others, we find their proposition that beliefs could be asserted through invisible forms/ideas about which it is possible to have exact and certain knowledge (Mayes, 2001). Later, western researchers emphasized learning experience (and perceptions), and systematic rules of logic, which could be viewed as eventually leading to a theory-of-action (process) focus that dominates today's theories of organizational learning. Eastern learning philosophy, from the writings of Confucius, Daoism, Daode, Jing, Laozi, Dao, Zhuangzi, and others (primarily Chinese, Indian, Japanese) typically emerge from either the orthodox/Hinduism/yoga or alternatively from the non-orthodox/Buddhism origins; they emphasize intuition, self-awareness, realism, sensing, ontological, natural, as well as the tacit aspect of knowledge and learning (Ableson, 2003; Nonaka & Teece, 2001; Takeuchi, 1998). The key difference between western and eastern epistemological roots appears to be the focus on the explicit metaphysics for the former, and tacit for the latter, and from a western infatuation for measuring, controlling, and process-improvement, whereas the eastern emphasis is on the cognitive, sensing and social interaction aspects (concept in part from: Takeuchi, 1998). This can account for some perception and team learning diversity (challenges) when the organizational environment or project context includes eastern and western cultures.

Multi-disciplinary Evolution of Organizational Learning Theory

Exhibit 1: Multi-disciplinary Evolution of Organizational Learning Theory

From a micro viewpoint, learning has also involved related disciplines such as: cognitive psychology (perception, memory, psycholinguistics/action, thinking, imagery, and dysfunction/abnormal psychology, social psychology, developmental/evolutionary psychology, as well as research surrounding the nature of emotion, motivation, and personality. Applied theory as it relates to organizational learning includes educational psychology, industrial/management psychology, psychometrics (competence/aptitude assessment), and clinical psychology (assessment and treatment of behavioral dysfunctions). This research has influenced the author's definition of organizational learning. The author's definition builds on the social and management sciences research related to learning, specifically from the fields of: organizational behavior, philosophy, human psychology, social-psychology, anthropology, knowledge management, business strategy, structure, and management sciences, ethics, project management, and systems/complexity theory. Social, behavioral, action-focus inspire this definition but it is tenaciously management science oriented; therefore it is but one perception of organizational learning among many other possibilities, all of which are quite valid and interesting for research. This holistic and integrative view of organizational learning is promoted in this research as a mechanism to articulate and share the author's ideas and empirical studies. Purposefully excluded from this particular research and subsequently from these definitions are the topics of technology, teaching, communities-of-practice (although recognized by the author as being significant to organizational-team learning, and this is shown in the model), learning at the industry or academic level, change-management (and others), because the author considers them beyond the scope of this paper, although it should be noted that other writers present interesting and valid research on these related subjects (Gilley, Dean & Bierema, 2001; Lave & Wenger, 1991; P. Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Roth & Smith 1999; Wenger & Snyder, 2000).

A new way of thinking about learning seems to have surfaced in the economic/business and management domains, a paradigm shift from the renaissance period, industrial age and technological revolution. This new thematic is the integration of the social sciences and complexity theories, which interconnects ideas involving these topics: decision making, vision, strategy, alliancing; process institutionalization, maturity, repeatability, technology integration; growth, innovation, sustainability; human resource development, competencies, retention; intangible knowledge (social networks, capacity to act, structural, tacit, explicit assets); group/team dynamics; culture, ethics, morality, caring, environmental conservation, quality; perception, sensing, motivation, leadership; and finally the cognitive, affective, and behavioral systemic cycles which underlie all our actions though complicated input-process-output-feedback loops (Allee, 1999; Argyris & Schön, 1978; Bedeian, 1983; Checkland, 1999; Cook, 2001; de Geus, 1997; Drucker, 1998a; Lank, 1997; Leonard-Barton, 1995; Murray, 2001; Nahapiet & Ghoshal, 1998; Nonaka, 1997; Nonaka, 1998; Polanyi, 1997; Robey, Boudreau & Rose, 2000; Savage, 1996; P. Senge, et al. 1999; Stewart, 2000; Strang 2003a, 2003b; Sveiby, 2000; Takeuchi, 2001; Teece, 2001; Wiig, 2001, 2002; Onge, 1999). Most of these influences are reflected in the author's definition and are encompassed within a later section introducing a holistic approach and a new model for organizational learning across projects.

From the organizational behavior/design research, organizational learning is considered an organizational process, both intentional and unintentional, enabling the acquisition of, access to, and revision of organizational memory, thereby providing direction to organizational action (Robey, 1982, Chapter 17; Robey, et al. 2000, pp. 6-7). A further insight to this organizational learning proposition is that it provides utility to improve the organization's effectiveness (Gopalakrishnan & Bierly, 2001). Another superb characterization of organizational learning exemplifying this is: “the acquisition of new knowledge by actors [whom] are able and willing to apply that knowledge in making decisions or influencing others in the organization.”(Miller, 1996, p. 486) The first focus of these views is on the competence of organizational learning, since over time an organization learns to carry out its operations with an increasing degree of effectiveness and efficiency. This process is often thought of in the context of a learning curve and of an accumulation of knowledge and skills. As processes are repeated, individuals become more proficient (and new members learn quickly through interpersonal observation). Another conceptualization of this could be capability to act, organizational maturity or organizational intelligence (Bennet & Bennet, 2000). This corroborates the author's repeatable process attribute to the definition. Another insight to organizational learning is that it increases the organization's knowledge about the possible alternatives (good and bad), which is propositioned here to be the decision-making aspect of organizational learning (again supporting the author's definition). Miller makes the important distinction between decision making and organizational learning as being that the former does not generate organizational knowledge while the latter is the acquisition of new knowledge by actors who are able and willing to apply that knowledge in making decisions or influencing others in the organization (Miller, 1996).

Contemporary explanations of organizational learning creatively vary the application of social, management science, and systems theory. This an excellent definition from a workflow-performance perspective: “…a continuous process of growth and improvement that (a) uses information or feedback about both processes and outcomes (i.e. evaluation findings) to make changes; (b) is integrated with work activities, and within the organization's infrastructure (e.g. its culture, systems and structures, leadership, and communication mechanisms); and (c) invokes the alignment of values, attitudes, and perceptions among organizational members.” (Torres & Preskill, 2001, p. 388) The key differences between this and the author's definition is the latter (author) advocates either mechanistic or organic emergent structures with prescriptive goal and knowledge-focused repeatable general processes in lieu of prescribed activities, while the former emphasizes the social dimensions particularly culture, motivation, perception, communication and leadership.

Perception complicates communications and understanding, which in turn impacts organizational learning. Husserl coined the term phenomenology as being able to distinguish the way things appear to be from the way one thinks they really are (Becker, Lawrence, & Charlotte, 1992), thus allowing you to gain a more precise understanding of the conceptual foundations of knowledge. The relationship between perception, motivation, learning styles and modes, and complexity theory presents an interesting yet plausible systemic organizational learning model. Axiomatic reasoning can apply to the organizational level (deutro) learning as a method for choosing or discovering the approach (Carrillo, 2001). Perception is the justified truth of what individuals believe at a point in time, which can change over time and from one context to another. Integral to this, drawn from the fields of philosophy, organizational behavior, and the social sciences in general, are culture, morality, and bounded rationality. A simplified explanation of this is culture is composed of beliefs, values, and norms, that differs across groups and geographic/political boundaries, and also overlaps with morality, which involves value priorities, intentions, and consequences of the possibilities, considering criteria such as good/bad, right/wrong, virtues, equality, and universality, in decision making which affects behavior (the outcome). Bounded rationality is a contextual decision making framework which includes perceptions, motivations, and morality principles, constructed by individuals faced with complicated situations, to simplify the decision making process and rationalize the outcome. This ties into organizational learning and project management because these processes exist within those contexts. The author has distinct observations from case studies and experience which suggest that perception and motivation are themselves very significant factors affecting learning. It has been observed that while there may have been many variables beyond control in case studies, understanding and applying organizational learning theory is but a small part of the process of achieving its espoused benefits – the larger part of the work seems to be helping stakeholders understand it, and motivating (and leading) them to continue to apply it (Strang 2002, 2003b). This conclusion is from an organizational (client) focus. From a practitioner focus, there is no doubt from the author's experience that organizational learning can be effective but it cannot always be applied to the same extent in every project and operational context.

From the action science research Argyris and Schön have proposed that learning takes place only when new knowledge is translated into different behavior that is replicable, which is in support of the author's definition (Argyris & Schön, 1978). The action research also ties back to perception, motivation, and bounded rationality, in that Argyris and his colleagues found there were two types of theories-of-action which affected learning: the first was espoused, that comprised individual beliefs, attitudes, and values; and the second, theories-in-use, referring to what individuals actually employed. A significant unexpected finding was “individuals would customarily design and implement a theory-in-use that was significantly different from their espoused theory…[and these individuals were] unaware of the inconsistency when the theories they espoused and used were different.” (Argyris, 1995, pp. 21-22) Another surprising finding very relevant to organizational learning was studies show that theories-in-use were consistent, for given situations, across geographic boundaries (North America, Europe, South America, Africa, Far East tested) and age groups, irregardless of ethnic background, gender, or financial stability (Argyris, 1995, p. 21). This means that ideals and visions may differ but practical actions for given situations will likely be similar, across projects, with similar situations. This is very significant to decision making theory and bounded rationality, both of which are relevant to organizational learning.

The academic and business community often describes organizational learning synonymously with knowledge management. Knowledge and organizational learning can be also be viewed as an asset (noun), capability (noun), process (verb), and as a behavior (psychological/action). Theoretically, it has been described as (Kakihara & Sorensen, 2002): a capacity to act, created continuously through a process-of-knowing (Sveiby, 1997, p. 37); a resource comprising a key factor of production and competitive advantage (Drucker, 1998a, 1998b; Hamel & Prahalad, 1994); a corporate asset, knowledge-based activity system (Best Practices, 2001; Spender, 1996, p. 59; Virkkunen & Kuutti, 2000); and also a systemic social process, mental models, team learning, encompassing relationships, tacit/explicit information, and perception/sensing attributes (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, p. 59; P. M. Senge, 1994). The author's case studies and experiences of many projects with different organizations support these various views of learning and knowledge, although in actual cases, project team members did not know this theory and their definitions of organizational learning and knowledge management were not this conclusive.

Project Perspective of Organizational Learning

In a project context, learning often takes place within activities such as reviewing histories and experiences-learned from other projects during the initiating and planning cycles, as well as creating/improving these during the execution, controlling, and closing cycles. To achieve organizational learning and innovation, common program-level goals, rather than specific project-level objectives, need to be established. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) explicitly refers to learning using phrases such as “lessons learned are gained from the process of performing the project…[and] may be identified at any point” (PMI 2000, p. 202), which may be analyzed with the author's definition as being a deliverable view to organizational learning. The PMBOK does inherently advocate the process of organizational learning throughout and by its very articulation of the professional practice, by describing the project life cycle as being composed of five process groups (initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing) and nine knowledge areas of scope, time, quality, cost, risk, communications, human relations, procurement, and integration (PMI, 2000), all of which typically involve some aspect of learning, including knowledge transfer from project to project. Exhibit 2 shows a possible interpretation of organizational learning structured by project management theory, where by learning can take place continuously across projects.

Learning Structured by Project Management

Exhibit 2: Learning Structured by Project Management

It is interesting to note that lessons learned appear as either inputs or outputs in almost all of the knowledge areas, and in all of the process groups, mentioned above. It is not just in the closing process as part of the communications tasks that lessons learned are dealt with (PMBOK documents as “10.4.3 Administrative Closure”) – organizational learning occurs throughout the project life cycle and is assembled in transferable format during the administrative closure task. For example, lessons learned (as historical information) becomes a critical input to “4.1.1 Project Plan Development” task of project integration group, input to “ Initiation” task of scope development, and input to “ Scope Definition”.

In the PMBOK guideline, lessons-learned (history) are used in “ Activity Definition” and “ Activity Duration Estimating” of the time management area. They are also used in “ Resource Planning” and “ Cost Estimating” of the cost management area. Lessons learned are captured in “ outputs from Integrated Change Control” to become part of the historical information available to other phases of the current project as well as to future projects. They are an output to: “ Scope Change Control”, “ Schedule Control”, and “ Cost Control” of the cost management area. Finally, lessons learned are used in quality audits “ Tools and Techniques for Quality Assurance” and as part of expert judgment in “ Tools and Techniques for Activity Duration Estimating.” Lessons learned are inputs to “ Risk Identification” as historical information, as well as an output to “ Risk Monitoring and Control.” And also used for “ Quantitative Risk Analysis.” These above concepts can be rationally extrapolated from the project level, to author's definition of organizational learning, if it is accepted that the body of knowledge will be applied, and the results shared, across projects.

Organizational Learning Theory

Pivotal research from the academic community by Senge, building on concepts documented by Hedberg (Hedberg, 1981), Forrester, Schön, and Argrysis, bring together the management science with the action learning/behavioral theories. His definition of organizational learning explains that systems thinking integrates four other disciplines of personal mastery, team learning, mental models, and building shared visions (P. M. Senge 1994). Note that discipline, as Senge applies it, refers to a body of theory and technique that must be studied and mastered to be put into practice, such as a developmental path for acquiring certain skills or competencies (P. M. Senge 1990,p. 10). Senge's definition of organizational learning is more comprehensive and grounded in theory-of-action than the author's, and is worthy of elaboration for consideration of other readers and professionals in the project/program context. Systems thinking is a conceptual framework, a body of knowledge and tools that has been developed over the past fifty years, to make the full patterns of thinking clearer, using models and diagrams, to help us see how to change them effectively. Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening personal vision, of focusing energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively, and as such Senge considers it an essential cornerstone of the learning organization (the learning organization's spiritual foundation). Team learning starts with dialogue (the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine thinking together) and is vital because teams, not individuals, are the fundamental learning unit in modern organizations. Mental models are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Building shared vision involves the skills of unearthing shared ‘pictures of the future’ that foster genuine commitment and enrollment rather than compliance; in mastering this discipline, leaders learn the counter-productiveness of trying to dictate a vision.

Process infrastructure is an interesting capability which could be viewed as an alternative to, or an extension of, Senge's organizational learning framework. This is described in the literature as an element in the Systems-Linked Organization Model, which is composed of organization, people, knowledge, technology…plus learning subsystems, all closely integrated (Marquardt, 1996). In Marquardt's model the focal subsystem is learning and this dimension integrates with the other subsystems. Learning takes place at the individual, group, and organizational levels. The organization subsystem, which can be described as the setting and body in which the learning occurs, embraces the company's culture, vision, strategy, and structure. The people subsystem of the learning organization includes employees, managers/leaders, customers, business partners (suppliers, vendors, and subcontractors), and the community itself. Knowledge management—how experiences learned are acquired, created, stored, transferred, and utilized—forms the knowledge subsystem of the learning organization. Marquardt's sixth organizational learning discipline is a natural extension to Senge's in that the skills of systems thinking, mental model, personal mastery, team learning/dialogue, and shared vision, plus the process infrastructure, are all necessary to achieve continuous organizational learning from project to project. Again this supports the author's definition. The technology subsystem of process infrastructure described above is the supporting technological network and information tools that allow access to and exchange of information and learning. The three major components of this subsystem are information technology, technology-based learning, and electronic performance support systems.

From the systemic viewpoint, theories-in-action take on three forms, the first two which were defined by Argyris and Schön, and the third by these and other researchers. Single-loop learning is known as the simplest form of learning whereby the adaptation of new knowledge to the existing theory of action is based on a single feedback loop between given expectations and the real outcomes of a process. Basically the process may change but the underlying concept, rules, and goals remain the same. This is also known as adaptive learning and Model I - learning and changing, in other words. Double-loop learning incorporates the theory of action with its underlying objectives, values, norms and belief structures into the learning process. This allows changes to the rules, goals, and processes through feedback. This is also described in the literature as generative, transformational and Model II learning (Argyris & Schön, 1996; Mezirow, 2000). Deutro learning could be described as learning to learn, fundamentally adapting the learning cycles to facilitate adapting goals and processes. This is also at the heart of Senge's learning theories (such as the Fifth Discipline), and is also referred to as parallel learning and triple-loop in some literature. Deutro learning could be closely linked to organizational innovation wherein initially valid assumptions need to be abandoned to give way to inductive thinking, recognizing potential ideas and solutions by understanding how change may be underpinning or driving existing processes, then adapting new approaches to the old approaches (concept in part from: Walker & Lloyd-Walker, 1999). The triple-loop learning was also described by a metaphor as the organization having a soul and being on an evolutionary stage – a shift in the approach to learning was driven by the desire to change (Hawkins, 1991). Deutro learning has also been observed and described as overcoming organizational defensive thinking or routines, as well as unfreezing or unlearning at the organizational level (Argyris, 1994; Garvin 1998).

A generally accepted team learning construct is the dynamic knowledge creation model (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). This model inherently illustrates learning in a team environment, showing that knowledge goes through a four-phase SECI cycle (socialization, externalization, combination, and internalization), from tacit to explicit and back to tacit again. Knowledge assets (experiences, concepts, routines/culture, systemic/tangibles) form inputs, act as moderators, and become outputs of the knowledge creation process, all of which takes place in a context or Ba (consisting of individual and shared realities). Nonaka et. al. define the knowledge environment context Ba as being a shared knowledge creation cognitive and knowledge-in-action ontology, having Japanese etymological origins of “not just physical, but a specific time and space.” (Nonaka, Toyama & Konno, 2001, pp. 22-24; Viney, 1997) As Nonaka et. al point out, participants of the Ba shared context don't belong to it (no membership) – instead they relate to it, using it as a place to interrelate for creating knowledge (Nonaka et al., 2001, p. 24). Extensions to this theory suggest that innovation or originating Ba (Nonaka & Konno, 1998) can take place in the knowledge creation cycle through a self-transcending evolution, which has been described as “not yet embodied” (Scharmer, 2001, p. 71), reflection-in-action (Schön, 1983), “personal mastery” {Senge, 1990, p.139-143}, “shared experience…action intuition” (Nishida, 1990; Nonaka, et al. 2001, p. 17; Scharmer, 2001, p. 75), and others. Learning in this context might also be categorized as a human ability to recognize new patterns in knowledge and to inter-relate these to older patterns and in larger contexts (Savage, 1996). This fifth knowledge asset element suggested here is ideas, the knowledge asset genesis or possibly the seed of invention.

The individual aspect of the knowledge creation cycle is explained by the adult learning theory. Kolb, Wolfe, and later Nonaka (and others), distinguish four different generally accepted theoretical modes of learning, as listed below (Kolb, Rubin & McIntyre 1971; Nonaka & Teece, 2001, pp. 91-102):

  1. Divergent learning: during which observations are analyzed;
  2. Assimilative learning: during which models are built;
  3. Convergent learning: during which models are tested in practice;
  4. Accommodative learning: during which experiments are observed.

The core learning processes combine with the four learning modes to form the individual and group behavior we observe as learning. In practice, organizational learning can take place on any of these typological levels. Exhibit 3 illustrates an adaptation of this cycle which offers one view to the link between individual and team learning (the box on the right lists the underlying original theories).

A significant correlation between the knowledge creation cycle and the philosophical origins is that it is in the fourth stage “explicit-to-tacit / exercising” wherein knowledge is “justified by being compared to the reality of the world” (Nonaka et al. 2001, p. 27) that encompasses both logic and idealism. If the knowledge is internalized as being a justified belief in this reality, then it is accepted; otherwise this creates a gap of “creative tension” {Senge, 1990, 226} between the espoused knowledge element and this reality's perception of it, which then triggers a new cycle of knowledge creation (Nonaka et al. 2001, pp. 16-26) and quite possibly upon reflection, the invention (genesis) of new knowledge origination.

The organizational link to projects is further solidified in that Nonaka et. al. write that “the coherence among the ba is achieved by means of organic interactions among ba based on the knowledge vision rather than a mechanistic concentration in which the center dominates; in organizational knowledge creation, neither micro nor macro dominates – rather, they interact with each other to evolve into a higher self.” (Nonaka, et al. 2001, p. 28). Knowledge creation is central to the organizational learning across project theory proposed in this paper. Nonaka's SECI cycle correlates to the project and program contexts within organizations – each endeavor inherits a bounded reality which may be unique; nevertheless, the knowledge (and learning) extends beyond the project or program boundaries, across projects. Referring back to the original definition, this can result in organizational learning if it aligns with corporate strategies, vision, and goals, and if it can be retained in some format separate from individuals (i.e., in documents, policies, common practices), in a manner that it can be repeated, leveraged, improved, or innovated. There are other views in the literature supporting this concept and predating it, and offering alternative models.

Psychological Aspects of Learning in Project Teams

To complete the discussion on the integration of individual and organizational learning, it is useful to include more detail on the cognitive psychological processes as a reflective tool, and as a leadership/motivational technique (Cook, 2001). In 1981 Roger Sperry won the Nobel Prize by showing that the left and right sides of our brain thinks differently; the left side is systematic, objective linear and abstract; the right side is free-flowing, creative, sensory and subjective; and we each seem to favor one side. Sperry's findings build on the Guilford's (1950) research that creativity entails a different kind of thinking divergent thinking, as compared with convergent thinking, from reasoning (Arieti, 1976; Sweetman, 1997). These elements were embedded into the model shown in Exhibit3

Knowledge Creation Cycle (adapted from Nonaka, 2001; Scharmer, 2001)

Exhibit 3: Knowledge Creation Cycle (adapted from Nonaka, 2001; Scharmer, 2001)

Physiological-cognitive learning theory has been discussed in the literature such as Paul Maclean's triune brain model (three brain parts: lower, primitive brain stem for survival functions; middle layer, limbic system, involved in emotions; top layer, neo-cortex that we use for cerebral or intelligent thinking), and Ned Herrmann's proposed the whole brain model theory, which comprises four learning styles: left cerebral people, theorists, learn best via facts and precise definitions; left limbic people, organizers, learn best via detailed step-by-step instructions; right cerebral people, innovators, learn best in an atmosphere that is free-flowing and prefers visual, or graphic presentations over text; right limbic people, humanists, prefer group learning, story telling and personal experiences (Herrmann, 1989). Learning styles were associated with intelligence by Howard Gardner, as eight distinct types: visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic/tactile, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intra-personal, and naturalistic. Printed or visualized diagrams from applying Senge's systems thinking and mental models (described earlier) have proven effective within the adult learning cycle because they can exploit the visual and logical learning intelligence.

Problem solving and creativity processes could be interlinked with the learning cycle since the former include similar stages and activity progression/feedback loops: situation analysis, valuing, priority setting; problem analysis, problem definition, information gathering; solution analysis, idea generation, decision making; implementation analysis, participation, and planning (concepts from: Osland, Kolb, & Rubin, 1997). Creativity research has also shown that learning involves discovery through study and experience involving a timeout for reflection or simply some time away from the learning event to allow knowledge to incubate (Leonard & Straus, 1997). Emotional intelligence was also introduced into the organizational learning theory arena, by Daniel Goleman, building on the work of John Mayer and Peter Salovey (Goleman, 1998). Personality type is another factor relevant to learning in projects because it helps people self-reflect their strengths and mentors to recognize typical learning characteristics allowing for customization of methods, materials, medium, motivation, and the environment. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a well-known learning/personality style typology, based on four dimensions of an individual's orientation: Extraversion vs. Introversion, Sensing vs. iNtuition, Thinking vs, Feeling, and Judging vs. Perceiving.

Organizational Learning Across Projects – A Holistic Model

A possible interpretation of the above group/individual theories is that perception, value, feelings, trust, motivation, communication, single, double, and triple-loop learning cycles converge, which might be expressed as a process that can be understood and leveraged within projects, and across projects, in a program development or strategic sense. To synthesize these concepts, Exhibit 1 introduces a systemic model of this single-double-triple-loop project-to-project learning/growth cycle, with the integrated individual, group, and organization domains (based on concepts from: Argyris & Schön, 1996; Isaacs, 1999; Kolb, et al. 1971; Nonaka & Teece, 2001, pp. 91-102; P. M. Senge, 1994; Yeo, 2002).

The model shows a systemic framework, progressing from individual to group, then to organizational learning, while applying the relevant principles and theories from multiple epistemological disciplines. The underlying theory is that organizational learning is ultimately started and practiced by individuals. Learning itself typically (but not always) originates as an individual event. Team learning brings the cycle into a social network. The organizational aspect places the structure and performance goals around learning. What is significant about the model is the process feedback/correction aspect in terms of the normal flow of knowledge from individual to group to organization, with feedback occurring at any point. The path of feedback and degree of conceptual adjustment (change) equates to the single-loop (adaptation), double-loop (generative), and triple-loop (deutro) systemic learning cycles discussed earlier. Adaptive learning might occur as individuals receive feedback and change behavior or practice within their contextual learning cycle, or as feedback from the team learning, which would enable the individual to react (and remember). Generative feedback usually involves a cognitive aspect of changing the cycle's methodology and/or goals, and is usually tied to a group or organizational constructive feedback cycle. Deutro learning is considered in this model to be the organizational change domain, whereby corporate processes are improved through questioning the approach to the approach, inquiring into the why of the methodology, leveraging individual and team learning, then institutionalizing it into a sanctioned activity.

Systemic Model of Organizational Learning Across Projects

Exhibit 1: Systemic Model of Organizational Learning Across Projects

Notwithstanding the model emphasizes that single, double, and triple-loop learning principally takes place from the individual, team, and organization domains, respectively, these types of learning feedback cycles can also take place within any of the domains. The organizational learning aspect has its locus of control at the institutional focal point where it is viewed as a repeatable process conducted by the individuals and teams in support of the goals, objectives, and mission set by corporate decision makers and stakeholders. The individual, group, and organizational learning cycles can be impacted by, assisted or constrained by the various environmental factors such as perception, motivation, the SECI process, culture, the formal knowledge management functions, and so on (only a few of the key environmental stimuli are illustrated in the model). An ontological instance of such a learning model in practice is denoted by the bounded rationality scope meaning that every person, team, and organization will view this differently, perceive the contextual variables differently, and therefore apply the model differently.

In essence the model simply points out an abstraction of what must be appreciated to be exponentially more complicated at the applied theory level; however, knowledge of this cycle, in particular that it operates as a systemic process, can assist practitioners and researchers to improve both the project team work itself as well as the project management practice, through organizational learning. Another important point underlying this model is the inherent focus on innovating and growth. The model suggests how to apply learning across projects by aligning learning and knowledge management activities to the organizational/program-wide strategic goals, while also respecting the individual and team psychological variables such as motivation, learning styles, etc. Finally, what is propositioned by this model is that the organizational learning process can be improved by applying these holistic virtues-based concepts as much as possible in the project, program, or operational context; this model is a framework for individual to team to organization learning based upon an evolutionary and systemic approach, not a fixed methodology or mechanistic series of steps.

Case Studies and Surveys

The author's case studies are confidential client projects so very little detail is provided but suffice to say that there has been great difficulty applying this organizational learning model in actual practice. Most of these projects have been in the public sector, with one in the road construction industry, and several in the insurance/financial segment. In all cases there was acknowledgement of the need to share knowledge and learn across projects. In two projects a knowledge repository was used and the knowledge management functions were practiced in a formally recognized manner. Despite this, there was difficulty and hesitation in subsequent project teams utilizing the experiences-learned from previous initiatives. At the organizational management level, there was also support for learning in all but the construction project (in that case support was very passive due to timeframe pressures). One case study from 1999 to 2003 inclusive involved a Project Management Institute Component, which achieved considerable understanding and application of the organizational learning principles, despite being a volunteer-led association; this success is attributed by the author to these key factors: small cohesive senior management group, high level of project and/or program management experience in most of the Board, along with an open-sharing culture. Ultimately, for all projects studied, even after years have passed (in some cases), organizational learning has not been institutionalized in a fashion which fully endorses and supports this model.

A straw poll survey conducted with 21 project managers correlates with longitudinal case studies by the author, reflecting a strong community of practice theoretical appreciation, but minimal application of, methods for organizational learning across projects, in public and private sectors (excepting the one case noted above). The author's straw poll was specifically designed to replicate Kotnour's PMI Chapter survey (Kotnour, 2000), which was appropriate to use in this research and could serve as additional validation of the organizational learning theory and model. In the straw poll, the same questions were asked, and the same Likert rating scale was used. The straw poll survey results were similar to the Kotnour survey and were assessed as being at a statistically credible level (t test Pearson Correlation of 98%, ANOVA p-value of 0.0566 to compare variance between both sample mean groups). The limitations of the straw poll survey are mainly associated with statistical significance of the small sample size (thus the t-test was used). Kotnour's survey of 43 project managers indicated valid internal-consistency (Cronbach's Alpha for five factor groups of organizational learning across projects ranged from 72% to 85%) which suggests the results are representative of the project manager group (factor analysis was not applied to the straw poll results). The most obvious deductive conclusions which could be drawn from these two surveys (despite being approximately three years apart and in different countries), as well as from the author's case studies and project experiences, are project managers felt that organizational learning across projects was important for increased performance, learning, and knowledge, and this could be assisted by various learning practices, but on the other hand it was recognized that organizational learning theory-in-action was not being consistently applied to realize these positive outcomes, at least not to the extent where project managers considered its application to be sufficiently professional or distinctly observable to report as a high level of process maturity in surveys and case study interviews. A generative conclusion on this research is that organizational learning is recognized as important by experienced and/or academically educated professionals, some or most of the theories and methods are known, but the techniques are not being continuously applied in work either from the individual standpoint (from project to project), or from the macro perspective (as an organizational repeatable process across projects, programs, and operations).

Techniques for Applying Organizational and Project Learning

To apply this organizational learning definition and systemic model in practice, individuals, teams, and stakeholders must appreciate the concepts and goals, then the leaders must influence and motivate the practitioners to apply the processes, improve them, and willingly transfer the knowledge, experience, and relationships to peers and others in the organization, on a continuous basis. Best-practice ideas to apply this organizational learning theory across projects are summarized in Exhibit 2. The table illustrates methods for the practical application of organizational learning theory, at each of the three domain levels (individual, team, and organization) as conceptualized in the model shown earlier (refer to Exhibit 1). These practices originate from practitioners, the literature (Prencipe & Tell, 2001), as well as the author's case studies and experiences. The crucial point in employing these techniques to achieve learning across projects is reaching an understanding, sharing, and application of the process, across projects, by as many practitioners as possible, along with receiving the necessary executive vision and leadership in the organizational domain to champion its repeatability.

Techniques for Learning Across Projects (adapted from: Prencipe & Tell, 2001)

Exhibit 2: Techniques for Learning Across Projects (adapted from: Prencipe & Tell, 2001)


This paper has attempted to present relevant definitions and research of organizational learning theories (including alternatives), introduce a holistic systemic model integrating the individual, group, and organization domains (augmented experiential case studies), and finally submit practical techniques for its application across projects. The key principle of organizational learning presented is the deutro feedback cycle which advocates that the organization must learn to learn (and unlearn, unfreeze), or question the approach to the approach. Additionally the organization must provide the executive leadership and formalize the knowledge management/learning functions necessary to institutionalize and repeat the process across projects. The literature and author's case studies have shown that applying the organizational learning theory and model in practice is difficult, and the results have shown that the theory is accepted but not usually applied. One major challenge concerning studying this phenomena is the temporal aspect of organizational learning, especially in larger entities whom are likely to formally apply it and consent to case studies, because it usually takes several months, years, and even decades to observe and prove organizational learning changes of a statistically significant level, when these theories are applied (not to mention other environmental variables which impact studies). A valuable continuation of this research would be to explore the practical organizational psychology factors which may explain why organizational learning methods are not being consistently applied across projects despite the belief that these practices would increase project and organizational performance in the long run.

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