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by Mark Easterby-Smith and Marjorie A. Lysles (editors)
Blackwell Publishers, 2003
Review by Ion Georgiou on Oct 15th 2003

The Blackwell Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management

Of the social sciences, management is the least recognized as a field of scientific scholarship and the least respected in terms of scientific rigor, basis and theoretical strength. Management's own, merely one hundred year history is a testament to its having surrendered, with each passing decade, to the latest fad or 'big idea' - presented in full gloss but lacking substance. When the veneer invariably wears off, instead of attempting to emulate its cousins in the social sciences, management simply grabs hold, once again, of whatever new idea its so-called 'gurus' have printed. What drives management as a field is well described by Stuart Crainer in his The Management Century. There is a series of usually academic ideas, formulated into techniques and published in the academic media, which are subsequently promoted as means of increasing productivity, reducing costs, or whatever is currently exercising managerial minds -- or is fashionable to be thinking about. At some stage, authors, consultants or charismatic spokesmen (they are invariably men) pick up on such ideas and treat them as universal solutions applicable to wide ranges of organizations. Once practical attempts fail to deliver the impressive results promised, management once again realizes how difficult it is to convert bright ideas into sustainable practice -- there is hardly any consideration as to whether the whole process is strewn with fault lines to begin with. In short, management scholarship is overwhelmed by assertive prescriptions rather than grounded descriptions, ignoring that it is only the latter which enable understanding leading to informed practice.

Consider the management highlights of the decades of the twentieth century. The first decade saw the rise of so-called 'scientific' management as propounded by the first recognized management thinker, Frederick Taylor. Management's claims of being a social science rest primarily on this approach -- Drucker, perhaps the most respected management thinker of all time, goes so far as to suggest that Taylor be accorded the status of philosopher. Only that 'scientific' management presents no scientific proof or even reasoning to support its principles. There is a distinct absence of scientific research and experimentation. Instead, its empirical and concrete approach - focusing on how to do rather than why it is done or even why it is - is paraded as scientific to a captive audience (managers) who knows little about science and, hence, laps up the idea that it can now consider itself as belonging to that wider group of social scientists.

The perfection of division of labor through Henry Ford's assembly lines was an extension of Tayloristic principles into the second decade of the century. There followed, for each passing decade, new areas of concentration, each presented as the resolution of management's problems: 1920s' organizational infrastructure and decentralization, 1930s' human and social dynamics, 1940s' branding and production, 1950s' corporation idea and marketing, 1960s' strategy focus and the emergence of the MBA degree, 1970s' focus on the managerial role, 1980s' quality focus, and 1990s' business process reengineering and the switch of importance from product to organizational structure. There is little in such history, both in terms of content and of process of development which reflects social science: management is the black sheep of social science, the pretender to a kingdom which it could potentially conquer but which first requires it to conquer and discipline itself. One thing cannot be in doubt: given that human beings are born, live and die inside organizational molds, the relevance of management as an idea for a field of thought is not to be underestimated.

Having seemingly tried out all its big ideas, as well as having borrowed ideas from other fields, but with no grand unified theory of management in sight, the crisis within management - as a field of thought - came to a head in the mid-1990s, leaving management exasperated. And much like a patient suffering from psychosis brought on by a kaleidoscopic and unconnected view of life, it was to the organizational cerebrum that attention began to be directed. Specifically, not only the secret of successful management but also the underlying raison d´être of organizations (in other words, the route toward a proper scientific inquiry into management), was understood as lying in the manner in which organizations learn and handle their organizational knowledge. This is the fad with which management has entered the twenty-first century. This time, however, perhaps it is more than just a fad.

The idea in question has come to be labeled Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management. It is an idea constituted by four distinct, although interrelated, parts. Broadly: (1) organizational learning refers to the process through which learning occurs and is mainly characterized by theoretical research; (2) organizational knowledge, as the label implies, is focused instead upon the content of what is being learnt, although it retains a mainly theoretical approach; (3) the learning organization is a much debated ideal type of organization where organizational learning is practiced (as such, this area of thought is more prescriptive); and (4) knowledge management concerns itself with the practical consequences faced by organizations in effectively storing and managing any emergent organizational knowledge (a concern bound up with providing leading information technology solutions for the purpose).

Of the four, organizational learning and the learning organization have generated much more impact, resting as they do upon a greater quantity of research than their more practically focused, content oriented relations. Such research is founded upon a number of disciplinary perspectives which inform the field as a whole, ranging from psychological through economic to technological perspectives. Of these, the psychological is the most pertinent for obvious reasons: psychology is the leading field wherein may be found theories of learning. One need only consider the length of the roll call: Ausubel, Bruner, Gagné, Gowin, Guthrie, Hebb, Hull, Johnson-Laird, Kelly, Lewin, Novak, Piaget, Rogers, Skinner, Thorndike, Tolman, Vygotsky and Watson to name only the more famous. Indeed, the new management research agenda consists in translating the work of such learning theorists for organizational contexts.

This is questionable on two grounds. First, as the field itself acknowledges, it is highly debatable whether theories of individual learning lend themselves to the organizational or group context. The specifically learning theory in organisational learning research rests, in the main, upon individual-oriented psychology, highlighting an implied assumption in much of organizational learning that theories based upon individual learning reflect or can influence learning on an organisational scale. Secondly, the entire focus upon organizational learning by definition demands a primary role for psychologists, with management thinkers acting as auxiliaries, and not the other way around. And yet, presently, management has single-handedly taken the task upon itself. This is somewhat analogical to physicists attempting to apply chemistry to their own field without first inviting the chemists to examine the physicists necessities and reasons for the undertaking.

Notwithstanding the questionable nature of the approach, it perhaps serves as an introductory step toward understanding organizational learning. It seems, however, that with almost a decade of research already underway, the only learning theorists which have been seriously considered thus far are Lewin, Piaget, Skinner, Vygotsky and Watson -- with some concentration being given to Polyani - which indicates that this latest management initiative has a long way to run.

Indeed, one aspect yet to be even considered is the relevance of epistemology to the whole idea of organizational learning. The significance of epistemology to organizational learning stems from the latter's own focus upon processes through which (organizational) consciousness comes to know phenomena. In this light, learning is essentially an epistemological concern. Yet, what is notable is the absence of any distinct epistemology from, for and by organizational learning. Now, organizational learning may argue that its novelty, speed of development, increasing diversity and specialization constrain its present ability to consider an epistemology. This may be the case due to novelty and developmental speed, although any number of developments may well be eventually discarded when set against any future organizational learning epistemology -- a waste of work which might be avoided if epistemological theorising is brought to the fore earlier. Increasing diversity and specialisation, moreover, are no reasons against epistemological theorising

With 30 original contributory chapters, a useful introductory overview and a final in-depth analysis of future research possibilities -- all of which, taken together, span over 650 pages with an additional 22-page index -- there is no doubt that The Blackwell Handbook far outweighs the fad-books in current circulation. This can only be a good signal that, at the very least when it comes to organizational learning, the matter lends itself to serious treatment and consideration. All four parts to Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management are covered in depth, from the psychological inclinations of the former to the technological aspirations of the latter, with excursions into social identity, emotion and semantics in between more substantive chapters on knowledge transfer, case studies and models of organizational learning.

The book will be of interest to group psychologists and those with an eye on management dynamics. Beware, however: there are long tracts herein which appear to be going nowhere but boredom, leaving the reader with the feeling that there is something substantial hiding -- as opposed to revealed - between the pages. A taste of that substantial je ne sais quoi is to be found in a short seminal text published by Arie de Geus in the 1988 March/April edition of the Harvard Business Review. For those psychologists interested in getting involved, a read through that article will give them far more than the hours demanded by this book.


© 2003 Ion Georgiou


Ion Georgiou is Visiting Professor at the Universidade Estadual do Sudoeste da Bahia, and Professor  & Director of Scientific Research at the Faculdade de Tecnologia e Ciências, both situated in Bahia, Brazil. He has also taught and undertaken research at the London School of Economics, Kingston University (UK), and universities in Russia and Spain. His main interests are Ludwig von Bertalanffy's General System Theory, Husserlian and Sartrean phenomenology, philosophy of science and organizational leanring. Fluent in five languages, he has consulted on commercial and academically-linked public projects across Europe and Brazil.