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How organisations learn

We learn by trying, through experience and practice. Theory, of course, plays a part. It provides the framework and the tools for understanding and interpreting reality. But we truly learn by experimenting, verifying and comparing. Even in business—perhaps especially in business—where we are faced with the challenges of the marketplace, understanding the mechanisms behind learning is something we all need.

Recently published in Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, Experiential strategies for building  individual absorptive capacity provides some help in this regard as it takes a look at the mechanisms of learning and relates them to the ability of any organisation to “absorb” knowledge from the various settings with which it comes into contact, whether it be the market, consumers, trade unions, or studies.

As the authors explain at the start of their study, “One of the key elements of competitiveness is an organization’s absorptive capacity, or a firm’s ability ‘to recognize the value of new, external information, assimilate it, and apply it to commercial ends’ (Cohen & Levinthal 1990, 128)”.

But there is one point that we often underestimate, the fact that organisations are made up of individuals, people with their own personalities and their own personal experiences. Organisations are not machines that learn all on their own, so learning is not a homogenous flow of information that ensures equal, constant results. Learning changes from one person to the next, and an organisation’s culture changes from one day to the next.

Therefore, the authors of the study, Hugh M. Cannon  (Wayne State University), Bryon C. Geddes (Dixie State University), Andrew Hale Feinstein (San Jose State University), gave themselves the goal of establishing a strong “conceptual base” for understanding the process of experiential learning in individuals. The purpose was to describe “how individuals absorb knowledge in an organizational setting” and to identify “key learning objectives for an integrated experiential curriculum”. As individuals, we all learn based on our specific social settings (e.g. an organisation), our feelings or rationality, our technical know-how, the motivation we are given, and our past experience.

The study looks into these issues through a series of exhibits that bring together the characteristics of the individual (i.e. inventiveness and the ability to adapt and acquire knowledge) with those of the organisation and of the external context. There is also an effort to create a conceptual model of the three dimensions of knowledge and learning in an organisation – i.e. cognitive, affective and psychomotor – which is then used to create grids that can be used in real-life situations.

One final passage from the study is of particular interest, when the authors note that the absorptive capacity of an organisation depends on that capacity in its individual members, but these two capacities are not the same thing.

Experiential strategies for building individual absorptive capacity 

Hugh M. Cannon, Bryon C. Geddes, Andrew Hale Feinstein

Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, volume 41, 2014