Developing a holistic perspective on learning and knowledge in a public sector organisation : an exploration of workplace experience

  • Monica Kennedy

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Organisational learning and knowledge management theories are illustrated in this study as converging around discussion of three major themes: the role of the individual in the knowledge of the organisation; the increasing problematisation of the nature of knowledge; and debate over the role of mental models and organisational schema in the learning of the individual and organisation. In this study it is argued that these themes are aligned with central themes in complexity theories, and complexity is posited as an appropriate lens through which organisational experience might be viewed. The confluent themes and complexity underpin a methodological approach that is inspired by grounded theory, but which recognises the value that complexity provides as a sensitising device to the research. Narrative methods are used to collect data and participants' sense-making informs the researcher's analysis of the results. The emergence of a complex adaptive systems heuristic from the analysis of the collective narratives provides a ground for exploration of organisational members' experience using the grammar of complexity. This exploration leads to discussion of the ways in which complexity accommodates the consideration of learning and knowledge within a single frame. While the experience of organisational members in many ways reflects the properties and mechanisms of complex adaptive systems, in this study the theory does not adequately describe the nature of their learning and knowledge development in the organisation. In this exploration, tension between the formal organisation and the emergent organisation leads to a disconnect between the local learning of members in interaction and the knowledge of the organisation. The nesting feature of complex adaptive systems, where levels of aggregation build hierarchy, is not apparent in this study and this finding is discussed as having important implications for learning and knowledge sharing in the organisation. In addition, the participants of this study do not describe their learning as simply mechanical, involving the building and rebuilding of mental models, as complex adaptive systems would suggest. Learning is described as far more elaborate than the theory immediately implies. The findings of the study provide insight into the relationship between learning and knowledge in organisations through the lens of complexity as well as providing some input into developing theories of complexity. These insights are discussed with reference to the literatures across organisational learning, knowledge management and workplace learning fields and a number of implications for practice are suggested as a result. The study supports the integration of organisational learning and knowledge within a single theoretical frame and points to more integrated organisational practice. That learning and knowledge management in organisations should remain discrete in practice is at odds with the theory and with the findings of this study.
    Date of Award2006
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorPatricia Anne Milne (Supervisor) & John COLLARD (Supervisor)

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