Multilevel interaction in the organizational learning process

Different opinions about what organizational learning is in the literature lead to different interpretations of the organizational learning process. This study proposes and validates the organizational learning process from two aspects: comprehensive learning levels and information or knowledge flow. This is mainly determined by the complexity of the organizational learning process per se. Therefore, the following issues should be noted when understanding and defining the organizational learning process.

First, what are the relationships among individual, collective, organizational and inter-organizational levels in organizational learning? Multilevel theory and evolutionary theory are the two important directions for future organizational learning research (Crossan et al„ 2011). Some theories such as Kim's (1993) analyzed the relationship between individual learning and collective learning. This study also regards the knowledge or information flow process as a linkage among all levels. With the systems view, Chen (2007) regards individual learning, collective learning and organizational-level learning as a system with information input and output. One type of individual learning is connected with another through information output and so on; it forms collective learning. Likewise, different collective learning forms organizational learning; in a certain organizational learning system, individual learning is connected with another through information output, and in the same vein, the knowledge input and output are connected with the learning of other organizations to form inter-organizational learning. This systems view has important implications for understanding the relationship between different levels of learning, which also needs to be verified and amplified by empirical research.

Second, what is the relationship between the two kinds of learning in organizational learning, namely explorative learning and exploitative learning, from the perspective of information or knowledge flow? What is the complex relationship between their balance and organizational innovation and performance? This has become a hot topic and a core issue in organizational learning research (Crossan et al., 2011; Zhang et al„ 2015; Zhang & Yu, 2015; Lee et ah, 2016). What is the balance between the two types of organizational learning proposed by Argyris and Schon (1978), Senge (1990) and March (1991)? Although there are debates over whether they are two types or two endpoints in the literature, from the current stage of Chinese companies, explorative learning and exploitative learning compete for scarce resources. How to balance the two in organizational learning is an issue that must be heeded while defining organizational learning. If we look at these two types of learning dynamically, then how to understand the role of top-down and bottom-up processes in the organizational learning process is also a key issue. This study discovers the relationship between their balance and organizational performance through empirical research (Yu et al., 2008b), but it is only a preliminary study. In the future, further study digs deeper into how to balance the two with the evolution of organizational development stages and what the mechanism of the balance is on organizational innovation and organizational performance. We can draw from the dynamic balance framework of Yin and Yang in Chinese traditional culnire (explorative learning is Yang, exploitative learning is Yin) to have more in-depth studies of the balance and dynamic effect of explorative learning and exploitative learning.

Third, how does the spiraling cycle of organizational learning evolve? Does it have a relative beginning and ending stage? Evolutionary theory establishes the direction for future organizational learning research (Crossan et al., 2011). In the West, many organizational learning models attempt to understand the process from a singular and linear perspective, which is clearly inaccurate. But it is totally different in the Chinese culnire as Chinese scholars understand organizational learning from a cycling perspective. In fact, it is more in sync with the reality of organizational learning in China to regard organizational learning as a spiraling process, because organizational learning is indeed an everlasting process for an organization. It’s natural that when an event takes place or when a leader is in office, organizational learning can be regarded as something within a certain period of time, and we can know the relative beginning and end stage of organizational learning. But on the whole, it is more appropriate to regard organizational learning as a process of survival and development of an organization. Then, it is followed by another problem: organizational learning is so all-encompassing that we don’t know how to define it accurately. We can consider drawing from the framework of the dynamic balance of Yin and Yang to undertake an in-depth study of the spiraling cycling of evolutionary organizational learning process so that we can gradually explore the theoretical framework of Chinese-style organizational learning.

Fourth, is organizational learning a unity of knowledge, behaviors or interpersonal interactions, or is it purely a knowledge issue? This question is related to the definition of learning and influenced by people’s understanding of learning. When reviewing the literanire on the definition of organizational learning, this study divides the definition of organizational learning into three categories: knowledge, behavior and interpersonal interactions. However, according to the literature, most studies understand the organizational learning process from the perspective of knowledge, but there is no denying the fact that organizational learning, which contains four levels, does not exist without interpersonal interactions. Therefore, in understanding organizational learning, a key issue in the organizational learning process is more properly integrating knowledge as the object, behavior as the subject and interpersonal interaction.

In a word, how an organization learns is a focus as well as the biggest controversy in the study of organizational learning, and it needs to be further clarified under the guidance of empirical studies. It is an urgent matter that requires further study in both academic and practical fields.

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