«Communities of Practice and Epistemic Communities: A Renewed Approach of Organisational Learning within the Firm Patrick Cohendet, Frederic Creplet, ...»
Communities of Practice and Epistemic Communities: A Renewed
Approach of Organisational Learning within the Firm
Patrick Cohendet, Frederic Creplet, Olivier Dupouët
BETA, UMR CNRS 7522, Université Louis Pasteur, Strasbourg
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The need for the firm to change continuously has long been the central concern of organisational learning approaches. Following the development of Argyris and Schön’s  theory of organisational learning, it is widely agreed that learning consists of two major kinds of activity. The first kind of learning («single-loop learning») is obtaining knowhow in order to solve specific problems based upon existing premises. The second kind of learning («double-loop learning») is establishing new premises (paradigms, schemata, mental models, strategies, representations, perspectives) to override the existing ones. From these two main dimensions of learning, the authors define a third degree of learning, the «deteurolearning» which allows the organisation to learn how to learn. However, as noticed by Nonaka and Takeuchi , despite the relevance of many theoretical traits, there are some critical limitations to be found in these theoretical approaches: «Most of them are trapped in a behavioural model of stimulus-response. Second, most of them still use the metaphor of individual learning [Weick, 1991; Dodgson, 1993]. Third, there is a widespread agreement that organisational learning is an adaptive change process that is influenced by past experience, focused on developing and modifying routines and supported by organisational memory. As a result, the theories fail to conceive the idea of knowledge creation. The fourth limitation is related to the concept of «double-loop learning» or «unlearning» (Hedberg, 1981). Double-loop learning- the questioning and rebuilding of existing perspectives, interpretation frameworks, or decision premises- can be very difficult for organisations to implement by themselves. In order to overcome this difficulty, the learning theorists argue that some kind of artificial intervention, such as the use of an organisational development program, is required. The limitation of this argument is that it assumes that someone inside an «organisation» objectively knows the right time and method for putting double-looplearning into practice» [Nonaka, Takeuchi, 1995, pp 45-46].
The aim of the present paper is precisely to try to overcome some limitations of the traditional
learning approaches by developing two main hypotheses:
- The first one is that learning within the firm is not homogeneous. However, considering the firm as composed by a mere set of heterogeneous learning individuals is not useful and appropriate for the understanding of the complex process of collective learning. We will argue that the firm is composed of a multitude of overlapping «communities» (functional work groups, project teams, networks, communities of practices, epistemic communities), each of which presenting a dominant mode of learning and collective behaviour. The organisational learning results from a complex process of interaction between heterogeneous communities. As Brown and Duguid  quoted, «within an organisation perceived as a collective of communities, not simply of individuals, in which enacting experiments are legitimate, separate community perspectives can be amplified by inter-changes among communities. Out of this friction of competing ideas can come the sort of improvisational sparks necessary for igniting organisational innovation. Thus large organisations, reflectively structured, are perhaps well positioned to be highly innovative and to deal with discontinuities. If their internal communities have a reasonable degree of autonomy and independence from the dominant worldview, large organisations might actually accelerate innovation».
- The second one is that the actual process of production and circulation of knowledge within the firm is the cornerstone of the formation of the organisational learning. The «cognitive architecture» of knowledge within the firm, the way knowledge is produced, stored, exchanged, transmitted, retrieved, between the different communities strongly influence the process of organisational learning. We will argue in this perspective that the tendency towards a knowledge-based economy and the related intense use of new ways to communicate and exchange knowledge will contribute to enhance the role of two specific communities, epistemic communities and communities of practices, in the formation of organisational learning within the firm.
The article will first sum-up the main results of the traditional organisational learning theories (part 2), then present the various forms of «communities» (or «cognitive entities») considered within the firm (part 3). Part 4 is devoted to the analysis of interaction between communities, and more specifically to the consequences in terms of organisational learning of the development of a knowledge-based economy. Conclusions and open questions as an agenda for future research are presented in part 5.
2. Organisational Learning
The main characteristics of organisational learning are: the existence of inter-individual, transversal, hierarchic relationships; the emergence of an organisational knowledge; the constitution of an organisational memory due to interactions. Nonetheless, whereas these notions give a cognitive account of the firm, it remains difficult to explore the different mechanisms that determine them at an organisational level. Indeed, the literature does not explicitly account for the different forms of knowledge playing a role in these different levels of learning, nor does it state who are the agents favouring them within the firm, nor what are the bridges between the individual and collective level.
Indeed, organisational learning, although widely used in the literature, appears nonetheless relatively blurred at first sight [Ingham, 1997]. One of the main first accounts has been made by Simon  who stated that the structures of the organisation partly reflect the mental processes through which environmental forces are taken into account. From there, numerous works have been written about the subject and it is now impossible to synthesise them [Dodgson, 1993; La Ville, 1998]. However, one can define organisational learning as a collective process of acquisition and elaboration of knowledge and practices taking part in the continuous reshaping of the firm’s structures. More precisely, one of the main stream, namely the one stemming from the cognitivist tradition, sees organisational learning as a means for the firm to survive in uncertain environments [Fiol & Lyles, 1985]. A major contribution in this field of research has been made by Argyris and Schön .
2.1 Theory of Action by Argyris and Schön
For these authors, organisational learning must take place whenever a gap appears between expected and actual results. Put in other words, a learning process is sparked when a difference between ‘espoused theories’ and ‘theories in use’ becomes evident. ‘Espoused theories’ are widely acknowledged by the members of the organisation and are the general framework of the expectations of the top management. An enterprise’s project is a good example of such theories. Indeed, this allows the different actors of the firm to commit themselves to certain forms of actions. By contrast, ‘theories in use’ are actual actions. Most often, they are the outputs of exchanges of individual and collective experiences. They guarantee to the organisation the emergence of a basic consensus necessary to its collective functioning.
The gap between these two forms of theories can generate a questioning and even a correction of either of these theories. Hence, learning is a repairing process that set back a coherence disturbed by the surprise provoked when a question is grabbed [Dibiaggio, 1999; Shackle, 1972]. Such situations spawn different level of organisational learning since, according to the situation faced by individuals, the nature of their interactions evolves. Thus, several degrees of
learning can be distinguished, according to the change made [Argyris & Schön, 1978]:
The ‘single loop learning’ (also called ‘learning by adaptation’): this first form carries the idea according to which individuals evolve with the changing contexts of the environment and of the organisation, by making corrections in line with the evaluation of the actions taken previously. This ‘collective’ evaluation supposes the identification of a mismatch between the effective result and the foreseen result. It might even entail new action to be undertaken to reduce this mismatch. By proceeding this way, individuals keep in mind the organisation’s norms and values (the objectives) without questioning them.
The ‘double loop learning’ (also called ‘learning by reconstruction’): this kind of learning takes place in the same perspective as the previous one. Nonetheless, the complexity of situations forces the organisation to set new norms and values. Individuals thus proceed to a redefinition of their referential objectives. According to Argyris and Schön , a complete updating of information is the element that triggers such learning processes. This idea supposes that individuals are able to interpret messages and stimuli from their environment and to act accordingly. By contrast, Hedberg [1981, quoted by Probst & Büschel, 1995] asserts that it is mainly ‘unlearning effects’ that lies at the heart of such learning processes. In each of these cases, certain individuals modify their objectives and transmit them to the whole organisation. Learning is thus organisational and several phases can be distinguished.
The third degree of learning, the ‘deutero-learning’ (also called ‘learning by social reflection’) is the passage from a single loop learning to a double learning: it allows the organisation to learn how to learn. In other words, according to Probst and Büschel , the learning process of learning is the highest level of learning because it not only corresponds to the increase or transformation of knowledge bases, but also precisely allows this increase or transformation. It is thus the highest level of learning stated by Argyris and Schön ; the organisation enhances its learning abilities and become able to think differently by constructing tools that enable it to create new objectives.
This theory gives an insightful explanation of what are the cognitive collective mechanisms implemented by the firm facing changes. Nonetheless, several reserves should be made in the light of recent developments in the economics literature. The next paragraph intends to review the different pitfalls which, in our opinion, exist within this approach.
2.2 Critical Analysis of the Theory of Action According to the literature, the various reasons for which the theory of action does not fully
account for learning processes mechanisms are the following:
First, in the face of the heterogeneity of the individuals in the firm and of their associated cognitive maps [Huff, 1990] it seems difficult to use Argyris and Schön’s model to precisely account for the interactions existing among them. Indeed, this model overlooks the problems associated with social and cultural idiosyncrasies that act as barriers to knowledge exchanges.
Indeed, this approach intends to apprehend the organisation at a global level whereas the firm is made of numerous different knowledge spaces (‘ba’, communities of practice, etc.) too heterogeneous to be dealt with in a uniform way [Nonaka & Konno, 1998; Brown & Duguid, 1991; Blackler & McDonald, 2000]. Thus, one can remain sceptical about the creation of a real organisational knowledge through the process of bridging the gap between theory in use and espoused theory.
In the same line of thought, the various forms of knowledge playing a part in this process of bridging as well as the processes of knowledge exchange are not defined. The importance of tacit knowledge highlighted by Polanyi  is overlooked. One has the impression that in Argyris and Schön’s model all the knowledge to be taken into consideration is of explicit nature. As a consequence, they see the firm as an ‘information processor’ rather than as a ‘knowledge processor’.
As a consequence, the possibility of a shift from individual learning [notably Bateson, 1977] to organisational learning is sometimes difficult to grasp. Such a bridge between these two types of learning needs to be clarified by the definition of the mechanisms related to it. Note however that, according to Weick , organisational learning is rare within organisations.
This presupposes that the bridge we mention cannot occur in a regular or systematic manner.
The mechanisms at work in the linking of organisational and individual levels are mainly made of communication, transparency and integration as well as cross-fertilisations, interactions of several types, sharing of experiences, problem solving, etc.
Lastly, in the view of Argyris and Schön, organisational learning can be seen as a process internal to an organisation spawning the emergence of a dominant coalition of members, developing the ability to identify the right moment to trigger changes [Duncan & Weiss, 1979]. These characteristics are consistent with what is at work in the mode 1 as described by Gibbons et al. . This model does not hold anymore in the Mode 2 described above. In that case, the firm is less hierarchical and the knowledge exchange and creation concern all members of the firm organised in subgroups.
To sum up, the main pitfall of Argyris and Schön’s theory is to fail to link individual learning and organisational learning. The specificity of individual learning is not acknowledged (members of operational groups and of top management do not have the same learning processes and are not concerned the same way by changes). It is thus difficult to apply this model in a uniform manner to any kind of individuals or structures. They lack an intermediary level of analysis.
3. Various Forms of Cognitive Entities («Communities») within the Firm.