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6 Knowledge management: cognitivist and constructivist psychology
118 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
organisational knowledge. Many argue that this is to be done by codifying the
knowledge held by key knowledge workers and by taking steps to retain their services. The new knowledge economy also has major implications for the nature of an
organisation’s assets. In the industrial age, accounting measures of asset values were
close to the capital market valuation of the organisation because market pricing of
the main assets, namely physical resources such as plant and equipment, enabled
them to be measured. Managing the value of a corporation meant managing
measurable physical assets and the ‘human resources’ who used them. In the new
knowledge economy, however, knowledge is said to be the major asset and, since
it is not directly traded in markets, it is not measured and recorded in corporate
balance sheets. As a result, enormous gaps have opened up between the asset values
recorded by a corporation and the value that capital markets place on the corporation itself. This creates problems for managing assets to produce shareholder value.
The response to this has been a call to measure the intellectual capital of a corporation and manage its knowledge assets.
Nonaka’s writings (Nonaka, 1991; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) have exerted
a major impact on the development of theories of knowledge creation in organisations (for example, Brown, 1991; Burton-Jones, 1999; Davenport and Prusak,
1998; Easterby-Smith and Lyles, 2011; Garven, 1993; Kleiner and Roth, 1997;
Leonard and Strauss, 1997; Quinn et al., 1996; Sveiby, 1997). Like Senge, Nonaka
draws on the systems dynamics strand of systems thinking, including some concepts
from chaos and complexity theories, which he treats as extensions of that thinking
(see Chapter 10), and Argyris and Schön whose learning theories he traces back to
Bateson (1972). In addition, he relies heavily on Polanyi’s (1958, 1960) distinction
between tacit and explicit knowledge.
Creating new knowledge
According to Nonaka (1991), new knowledge is created when tacit knowledge is
made explicit and crystallised into an innovation, that is, a re-creation of some
aspect of the world according to some new insight or ideal. New knowledge,
according to Nonaka, comes from tapping the tacit, subjective insights, intuitions
and hunches of individuals and making them available for testing and use by the
organisation as a whole. For him, tacit knowledge is personal and hard to formalise.
It is rooted in action and shows itself as skill, or know-how. In addition to being in
technical skills, tacit knowledge lies in the mental models, beliefs and perspectives
ingrained in the way people understand their world and act in it. Tacit knowledge
is below the level of awareness and is therefore very difficult to communicate. The
nature of explicit knowledge, however, is easy to understand: it is the formal and
systematic knowledge that is easily communicated, for example in the form of product specifications or computer programs.
Nonaka gives an example of how tacit knowledge is to be tapped. In 1985 product developers at Matsushita could not perfect the kneading action of the home
bread-baking machine they were developing. After much unhelpful analysis, including comparisons of X-rays of dough kneaded by the machine and dough kneaded
by professionals, one member of the team proposed a creative approach. She proposed using a top professional baker as a model, so she trained with a top baker
to acquire his kneading technique, and after a year of trial and error she was able
Chapter 5 Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation 119
to help her colleagues reproduce a mechanical kneading action that mimicked that
of the p
rofessional. This example describes a movement between different kinds of
knowledge, the tacit and the explicit:
• tacit to tacit as the product developer acquires the skill of the professional baker
• tacit to explicit as the product developer articulates the foundations of her newly
acquired tacit knowledge to her colleagues;
• explicit to tacit as the colleagues internalise the knowledge and use it to alter their
own tacit knowledge;
• explicit to explicit as the newly formulated product specifications are communicated to the production department and embodied in working models and final
Innovation then flows from a form of learning: that is, new knowledge creation,
that in turn flows from moving knowledge between one type and another.
New knowledge starts with an individual, according to Nonaka. Tacit knowledge
has to travel from one person to another, in a way that cannot be centrally intended
because no one knows what is to travel, or to whom, until it has travelled. New knowledge can therefore be created only when individuals operate in empowered teams.
A key difficulty in the creation of new knowledge is that of bringing tacit knowledge to the surface of individual awareness, conveying tacit knowledge from one person to another, and finally making it explicit. This is so difficult because it requires
expressing the inexpressible and this needs figurative rather than literal language. As
new knowledge is dispersed through a group and an organisation, it must be tested,
which means that there must be discussion, dialogue and disagreement.
The distinction Nonaka makes between tacit and explicit knowledge is derived from
Polanyi (Polanyi and Prosch, 1975). Nonaka and Takeuchi maintain that ‘knowledge
is created and expanded through social interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge’ (1995, p. 61) in the four modes of knowledge conversion described above.
However, as Tsoukas points out, Polanyi was actually arguing that tacit and explicit
knowledge are not two separate forms of knowledge, but rather that ‘tacit knowledge is the necessary component of all knowledge’ (Tsoukas, 1997, p. 10).
Another point to note is how Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) talk about knowledge
as embodied, rooted in experience and arising in interaction between individuals.
They emphasise the importance of dialogue and discussion in this conversion process (p. 13), pointing to the importance of intuition, hunches, metaphors and symbols (p. 12). They see knowledge as essentially related to action and arising from
a process in which interacting individuals are committed to justifying their beliefs.
They talk about knowledge as justified belief closely related to people’s values. They
talk about the context of ambiguity and redundancy in which knowledge is created
(p. 12). However, they then take their argument in a direction that leaves the importance of relationships and the social undeveloped and unexplored. Having emphasised the social, they locate the initiation of new knowledge in the individual when
they argue that ‘knowledge is created only by individuals’ (p. 59).
In this way of seeing things, tacit knowledge is possessed by individuals and
the knowledge creation at an organisational level is the extraction of this already
existing tacit knowledge from individuals and its spread across the organisation
120 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
by socialising processes. This leads to a rather linear sequential view of individuals
passing tacit knowledge to others, primarily through imitation, then formalising and
codifying it so that it can be used. The emphasis of Nonaka and Takeuchi on the
individual as the origin of knowledge leads them to emphasise the organisation-wide
intentional character of knowledge creation. Having emphasised the ambiguity of
the situation in which knowledge arises, Nonaka and Takeuchi leave this behind and
move to the strategic choice view of knowledge creation. Nonaka and Takeuchi do
not pay much attention to the ever-present possibility of groups of people becoming
stuck in some stable dynamic, or some fragmenting one that kills off the knowledge-
creating process. What Nonaka and Takeuchi end up with, then, is a process for
knowledge creation that can be managed and controlled.
Knowledge management writers focus attention on this process of translation but
do not explain how completely new tacit knowledge comes to arise in individual
5.7 Key debates
As with strategic choice theory, the notion of organisational learning has generated
much debate. Two key debates are briefly reviewed in this section: representation
versus enactment; and the learning organisation versus organisational learning.
Representation versus enactment
This is the debate between cognitivist and constructivist psychology, which has been
mentioned above. Cognitivism takes the representational perspective in holding that
the human mind constructs accurate representations of an already given reality.
These representations are then built into mental models that form the basis upon
which people act into the real world. Cognitivists accept that mental models can
become inappropriate in a changing world and therefore become inappropriate for
action requiring the double-loop process of learning in which mental models are
changed. They accept that people are interpreting their world and in a sense constructing it through their interpretation. What they are constructing, their interpretation, can be appropriate in that it is an accurate interpretation of the real world or
it may be inappropriate in the sense of an inaccurate representation. This is a view
in which thought comes before action. Constructivism goes further than this and
takes an enactment perspective in arguing that the human body actively selects what
it is able to pay attention to and so constructs the reality into which it acts. This
is a view in which thought comes after action in that the world is first constructed
in action and then understood. These differences will be returned to in Chapter 9.
Learning organisation or organisational learning:
the individual versus the group
Do organisations learn or is it individuals and groups in organisations who learn?
If one thinks that it is individuals and groups inside an organisation that learn,
then one focuses attention on individual and collective learning processes. If it is
Chapter 5 Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation 121
thought that it is organisations that learn, then attention is focused on what it
is about an organisation that makes learning possible. A distinction along these
lines is used by Easterby-Smith and Araujo (1999) to identify two strands in the
literature to do with organisations and learning. They distinguish between the literature on organisational learning and that on the learning organisation. They say
that the former ‘has concentrated on the detached observation and analysis of the
processes involved in individual and collective learning inside organisations’ (p. 2).
The literature on the learning organisation, on the other hand, is concerned with
‘methodological tools which can help to identify, promote and evaluate the quality
of learning processes inside organisations’ (p. 2) and in so doing this literature identifies ‘templates, or ideal forms, which real organisations could attempt to emulate’
(p. 2). Easterby-Smith and Araujo argue that there is a growing divide between the
two strands. Those writing in the organisational learning tradition are interested in
‘understanding the nature and processes of learning’ (p. 8). Those writing in the tradition of the learning organisation are more interested in ‘the development of normative models and methodologies for creating change in the direction of improved
learning processes’ (p. 8).
Easterby-Smith and Araujo distinguish between a technical and a social strand
in the organisational learning literature. The technical strand takes the view that
organisational learning is a matter of processing, interpreting and responding to
quantitative and qualitative information, which is generally explicit and in the public domain. Key writers in this tradition are Argyris and Schön (1978) with their
notions of single- and double-loop learning. The social strand focuses attention on
how people make sense of their work practices (Weick, 1995). This strand utilises
Polanyi’s distinction between tacit and explicit knowledge (Polanyi and Prosch,
1975). It focuses attention on the socially constructed nature of knowledge (Brown
and Duguid, 1991), the political processes involved (Coopey, 1995) and the importance of cultural and socialisation processes (Lave and Wenger, 1991). The literature
on the learning organisation also displays technical and social interests. The former
tends to focus on interventions based on measurement and information systems,
while the latter focuses on individual and group learning processes in a normative
manner (Isaacs, 1999; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995; Senge, 1990).
However, the claim that organisations learn amounts to both reification and
anthropomorphism. We slip into thinking that an organisation is a thing, even an
organism or living thing, that can learn. To sustain the claim that an organisation
is in any sense a living organism, we would need to point to where this living body
is. Since an organisation is neither inanimate thing nor living body, in anything
other than metaphorical terms, it follows that an organisation can neither think
nor learn. But the alternative is not all that satisfactory either. To claim that it is
only individuals who learn is to continue with the major Western preoccupation
with the autonomous individual and to ignore the importance of social processes.
One might try to deal with this objection by saying that it is both individuals and
groups who learn. But that runs into the same objection as saying that organisations
learn. The claim that groups learn is also both reification and anthropomorphism.
Furthermore, to talk about individuals who learn in organisations or in groups is
also problematic because, once again, this implies that the group and the organisation exist somewhere as a different ‘place’ or ‘level’ from people. If this were not so,
how could people be in a group or organisation? Part 3 will suggest an alternative to
122 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
thinking in these ways: namely, that learning is an activity of interdependent people,
exploring in a different way the emphasis that writers such as Wenger place on the
socially constructed nature of knowledge.
5.8 How learning organisation theory deals with the four key questions
At the end of Chapter 2, we posed four questions that we would ask of each of the
theories of organisational change that this book is concerned with. They were:
1.What theory of human psychology – that is ways of knowing and behaving – does
systems dynamics/learning organisation theory assume (including the relationship
between individual and group and the extent to which they are concerned with
questions of emotion and power)?
2.How does the theory understand the nature of human action and interaction?
3.What methodology does systems dynamics/learning organisation theory assume
(the spectrum of realist through to social constructionist)?
4.How does systems dynamics/learning organisation theory deal with contradictions?
Then in Chapter 4, we examined the answers to these questions suggested by strategic choice theory. Consider now how they are answered from the organisational
Q1 The nature of human knowing and behaving
Learning organisation theory draws on cognitivist, constructivist and humanistic
psychology to understand the nature of human beings. The cognitivist assumptions
are particularly clear in that individuals are understood to act upon the basis of
mental models built from previous experience and stored in the individual mind.
They are representations of the individual’s world. Part of each individual’s model is
shared with others and this forms the basis of their joint action together. The focus
on the individual nature of these models, their representation function, the claim
that they are stored and shared, the belief that they can be surfaced and subjected
to rational scrutiny, are all hallmarks of a cognitivist psychology. However, the
way in which mental models select some aspects of reality for attention and exclude
others is a feature of a constructivist approach to psychology. The emphasis placed
on individual vision and fulfilment, as part of the learning process, is evidence of
the humanistic leaning in the theory of the learning organisation.
In all of these psychological theories the individual is held to be prior and primary
to the group. Mental models are individual constructs that are shared with others.
Effective teams are composed of a balance of different types of individual. Note,
however, how differences between individuals do not feature in a fundamental way
in the learning organisation theory. A small number of different categories may be
identified but the difference is located between categories, while within those categories everyone is implicitly assumed to be the same. This is consistent with a systems
dynamics approach in which micro-entities are all assumed to be average and their
interactions are assumed to be homogeneous. To emphasise: cohesion and sharing
Chapter 5 Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation 123
are seen as the foundations of effective learning. There is no notion that deviant and
eccentric behaviour might be essential to any creative and innovative thinking and
behaving. We are bringing this to the reader’s attention because in Part 3 we will be
arguing that organisations change in novel ways through deviant behaviour.
The group is treated in a particular way. It consists of individuals and develops in phases, only some of which are conducive to members learning together as
So, learning organisation theory uses the same psychological theories as strategic
choice theory but it does place more emphasis on emotion and relationships between
people. It also identifies more clearly what may block people from changing and
learning. The importance of power receives more attention but power is still located
in the individual, and employees are invited to consent to give up their power in
order to achieve consensus. However, there is no fundamental change in the view of
human action as one moves from the one theory to the other.
Q2 The nature of action and interaction: theories of causality
Learning organisation theories see interaction in systemic terms just as cybernetics
does. They are concerned with how components, entities or individuals interact to
produce a system. They understand the system in the terms of systems dynamics,
and this, like cybernetics, is a theory that focuses on the macro level. They identify
the feedback structure of the system. It does not attempt to model the micro detail
of the entities constituting a dynamic system. Two assumptions are implicitly made
about these entities, events or individuals in systems dynamics (Allen, 1998a):
• First, it is assumed that micro-events occur at their average rate and that it is
sufficient to take account of averages only. Interactions between entities are then
• Second, it is implicitly assumed that individual entities of a given type are identical, or, at least, that they have a normal distribution around the average type.
The entities, or events, are thus implicitly assumed to be homogeneous. Within a
category, distinctive identities and differences are not taken into account.
These assumptions make it possible to ignore the dynamics governing the micro-
entities, events or individuals and model the system at the macro level. This is done
by specifying the structure of negative and positive feedback loops that drive the
system. For example, the beer distribution system, described earlier in this chapter,
is specified in terms of damping and amplifying loops between orders, inventories
and shipments between the different components of the system, namely customers,
retailers, wholesalers and producers. Nothing is said about how customers, retailers,
wholesalers and producers are organised or how they make decisions. This kind of
model yields insight into the dynamics of the system as a whole and the possibility
of unexpected outcomes. The way systems dynamics is used in learning organisation
theory amounts to adding positive feedback loops to a cybernetic system.
However, there are also major differences compared with cybernetics. Because
of the presence of positive feedback loops, the dynamic is no longer an automatic
movement towards an equilibrium state. Instead, the system is a non-equilibrium
one with the dynamics of fluctuating patterns that create considerable difficulties
for prediction over longer time periods. However, it is claimed that, if the feedback
124 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
structure of the system is understood, then leverage points can be located. Action at
these leverage points makes it possible to control the system. In the end, however, the
theory of causality underlying systems dynamics is formative cause just as it is with
cybernetics. In systems dynamics the system unfolds archetypes already enfolded
in it. People are still thought to be parts of a system and so not free. Because of its
theory of causality, systems dynamics cannot explain novelty or creativity.
Q3 Implied methodology for making sense of phenomena
The methodological stance in learning organisation theory is similar to that in strategic choice theory in some respects. A realist position is sometimes implied in which
managers are assumed to be able to stand outside the system of which they are a
part and think systemically about it. They are also supposed to be able to stand outside their own mental models, rigorously scrutinise them and then rationally change
them. However, at other times an idealist position is suggested in that managers
are assumed to respond not to the real world but to their idea of the real world as
represented in their mental models.
Q4 Dealing with contradiction
Tensions, contradictions and dilemmas are certainly recognised in learning organisational theory but they are thought to be obstacles to learning and hopefully in the
end resolvable. The notion of paradox does not play a fundamental part. As with
strategic choice theory, learning organisation theory takes a position at one of the
poles of what seem to us to be fundamental paradoxes of organisational life. This
is very clear in the case of the individual and the group. We argue above that this
is not seen as a paradox at all. The individual is given primacy and understood to
be in fundamental conflict with the group. This conflict must be resolved through
building relationships of trust in teams if learning is to take place. Sameness and
difference are not held in mind at the same time. For example, individuals within
a personality category are treated as if they were all the same and all different
from individuals in another category. Although unpredictability is pointed to, it is
predictability and the possibility of control that are emphasised. As with strategic
choice theory, order, stability, consistency and harmony are all seen as prerequisites
for success and the role that the opposites of these might play in creativity is largely
Making sense of experience
The focus on learning, and what blocks it, provides a rich addition to strategic
choice theory when it comes to making sense of my experience. An astute reader
will certainly recognise their own involvement in defence routines and political
struggles. He or she may also recognise the difficulty of learning in a fundamental
way. However, the theory holds out a rather idealised picture of what it is possible
for people in an organisation to do.
For example, Argyris (1990) reports that he has worked with large numbers of
managers in many countries, coaching them to engage in double-loop learning.
He reports that they find it difficult and rarely engage in it when they return to
Chapter 5 Thinking in terms of organisational learning and knowledge creation 125
their workplace. Instead, they carry on with their win/lose dynamics and their
defence routines. This immediately raises a question mark over his theory of
learning as a change in mental models. Many organisations clearly do change,
often in quite creative ways. How does this happen if double-loop learning is such
a rarity? Furthermore, we wonder whether it really is possible for people to surface their mental models and change them. Where are they located? It is far from
clear that brains store anything that could be correlated with a map or a model.
If it is possible for people to identify assumptions of which they are unaware and
change them, then why is mental illness so prevalent and difficult to deal with? It
is a tall order to simply identify whatever it is that makes us think the way we do,
and then simply change it.
In the hurly-burly of organisational life, with its political intrigues and the possibility of losing one’s job, is it at all wise to expose the defence routines that one is
taking part in? If it is so important to do so, why is it so rare to find people doing it?
When we ask ourselves questions such as these, we may begin to have serious
doubts about the practicality of the prescriptions this theory presents for successful organisational learning. For example, the kind of conversation that the theory
of organisational learning presents is a special kind called dialogue which has the
rather mystical tones of people participating in a common pool of meaning as if
it were an already existing whole outside their experience. There seems to be no
constructive place here for ordinary conversation. Also, participation has a special
meaning – participation in some whole system outside our direct experience of interacting with each other (Griffin, 2002).
This chapter introduced systems dynamics theory and clarified how it differs from
cybernetics. The most significant difference relates to the introduction of nonlinearity and positive feedback. The way in which positive feedback processes have been
used to understand life in organisations was reviewed. From this it can be seen that
a systems dynamics perspective presents a richer, more complex insight into the
dynamics of life in organisations.
This chapter has also reviewed learning organisation theory. According to this
theory, organisations are systems driven by both positive and negative feedback
loops. The interactions between such loops tend to produce unexpected and often
counterintuitive outcomes. Perfect control is not possible, but it is possible to identify
leverage points where control may be exerted. Perhaps the most important loops
relate to learning. Organisations learn when people in cohesive teams trust each
other enough to expose the assumptions they are making to the scrutiny of others
and then together change shared assumptions which block change. The theory identifies some important behaviours that block this learning process. Although learning
organisation theory uses a different systems theory from strategic choice theory, its
conceptualisation of that systems theory in terms of feedback loops keeps it close to
cybernetics. Learning organisation theory is built on the same psychological theories as strategic choice theory. Control and the primacy of the individual are central
126 Part 1 Systemic ways of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics
Richardson (1991) provides an account of the use of feedback thinking in human systems and
Senge’s (1990) book gives a summary of systems thinking. Rush et al. (1989) explain how
personality types affect decision making, as do Belbin (1981) and Kiersey and Bates (1978).
Argyris (1990) is important reading. Critiques of learning organisation theory from a system
perspective are to be found in Flood (1999) and from a process perspective in Griffin (2002).
Wenger’s (1998) book on communities of practice is an important source for understanding
the notion of communities of practice.
Questions to aid further reflection
1. What theory of causality is reflected in systems dynamics?
2. How is the conceptualisation of control different in systems dynamics from that in
3. What are the basic features of constructivist psychology?
4. What implications do theories of organisational learning and knowledge creation have
5. Can organisations learn?
6. Do you think it is possible for people to change their mental models?
7. If double-loop learning is as difficult for people as some writers claim then how do
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Thinking in terms
Open systems and
This chapter invites you to draw on your own experience to reflect on and consider the
• The nature of unconscious group processes in organisational life and the part
that they play in the activities of managing
• How people in organisations deal with
the experience of anxiety, particularly the
social defences against anxiety that they
employ, and the effects these have on
how an organisation evolves.
• The role of leaders and how this is
co-created in groups, particularly in its
• The nature of groups and teams and the
irrational processes that affect team formation and functioning.
This chapter is important because it draws attention to the unconscious, irrational
and neurotic and the part that all of these play in the evolution of an organisation. It
provides a fuller understanding of the leadership role and how it arises, particularly
the negative aspects and the way leaders play a role in the fantasies of others, so
providing a very different perspective from the charismatic hero view of leadership in
learning organisation theory. This is a useful antidote to the generally idealistic view
of teams taken in theories of the learning organisation.