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Is Collective Learning Dependent on the Individual?

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.”  — Vince Lombardi

One of my favorite things about this program is the diversity of backgrounds/career experience of the students.  I enjoy content discussions from the perspective of training experts in the corporate world, teachers in prisons, non-profit staff, literacy experts, and a variety of medical professionals.  So when I read Top athletes and singers have coaches. Should you? (Atul Gawande), an article provided by a student in another class, featuring a surgeon reflecting on hitting a ‘slump’ in his expertise and subsequently hiring a coach to work with him on review of technique, I naturally thought about fellow classmates.  This decision wasn’t without a lot of trepidation and a bit of justification about the need for a coach – which he found in athletes, musicians, and teachers. The results — delivery out of the doldrums and increased skill and knowledge.

So who is in charge of learning transfer?  Gawande’s surgeon says, “Expertise is thought to be not a static condition but one that doctors must build and sustain for themselves.”  In The Organizational Learning Cycle Dixon says “Individual learning is dependent upon the collective.  . . .  we shall see that the converse is also true:  collective learning is dependent upon the individual.”  Are both my learning and collective learning dependent on me?

Dixon’s Five Types of Knowledge Transfer refers to the collective, but I can’t help wondering about who initiates the request for knowledge transfer in the name of the team?  If someone is always the seeker of knowledge
for the team, how do they sustain their own knowledge?  I believe that when the individual learns in the collective, both goals are achieved.

We’ve been discovering a great deal about learning in the collective from IBM, which we will share in our team presentation.  The most important thing I see in this organization is that learning and knowledge transfer do not happen by themselves.  When a culture of seeking knowledge is established, it can grow and develop in such a large variety of creative ways and actually begins to permeate daily work – thus blurring the line between transfer of knowledge and process of work.  Crossan, Maurer and White’s framework for organizational learning includes a strong connection between cognition and behavior.  They suggest that “learning captured at the organizational level becomes institutionalized in the form of nonhuman elements such as products, processes, rules, routines, systems, structure, and strategy.”  Is this what is meant by a learning culture?

Is it learning, not knowledge itself, that is critical?

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One Response to “Is Collective Learning Dependent on the Individual?”

  1. Joanne – I think you have hit it on the head. Without the learning culture ( the values, artifacts, etc that define a culture) individual learning will not take place, and collective learning through knowledge transfer will not be a priority. A company cannot just espouse “we are a learning organization”. It has to be modeled all the way at the top, and pushed through the organization. This is why manager and leadership development is so key! Without the understanding and framework of organizational learning, the momentum dies quickly.


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