Towards an Improved Understanding of Organisational Learning
: Why the Process is Fundamentally Different from that of Individual Learning; Why it is Inherently Challenging to Establish; and How it may be Enhanced

  • James C Beale

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisEngineering Doctorate (EngD)


Organisational learning occurs where an organisation changes its collective behaviour as the result of a change of experience. The “Learning Organisation” is a related but distinct concept and field of research, differentiated along both theoretical and pragmatic axes. The two schools of theory (organisational learning and the Learning Organisation) have generated huge bodies of research and literature but have yet to succeed in changing global working practice despite a widespread belief in the power and importance of learning in or as organisations.
Whilst there is no unifying theory of collective learning, there are discernible common themes apparent in the range of models that have been proposed to describe the organisational learning process. A key example is the recurrent use, implicitly or explicitly, of David Kolb’s (individual) experiential learning cycle as a foundation for modelling organisational level learning. The research described herein explores and challenges the Kolb-esque cycle in operation and finds significant anomalies between the organisation and the individual in their characteristics as subjects of learning. The argument is advanced that the two types of learning are in fact fundamentally dissimilar on the grounds that individual learning has a strong involuntary level (as well as voluntary) which is weak to absent at the organisational level. This, coupled with evidence showing a “motivation gap” to support the common interest by learning collectively, does much to explain why a learning revolution has yet to occur.
This thesis contributes to the collective knowledge by offering a novel model for organisational learning that both addresses the conflicts noted in existing literature and incorporates key observations from the empirical research studies conducted. In congruence with the model, the influence of contextual factors on learning culture is also demonstrated, and the importance of group learning in delivering organisational learning is explained.
Date of Award6 Nov 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorPatrick S Godfrey (Supervisor), Ruth E Deakin Crick (Supervisor) & Sally E Heslop (Supervisor)

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