Organizational Learning

Article Title: “Different Truths in Different Worlds”, 2008 By: Kent D. Miller and Shu-Jou Lin

The basis of this article rests upon dispelling the common notion that organizations are simply a product of their environment.  Through a constructivist ontology that assumes malleability of the organization’s environment, Miller and Lin argue that organizations, based on the epistemology of the individuals associated with the organization, are able to in varying ways shape their environments and consequently their performance. 

The three main schools of epistemology that Miller and Lin focus on are pragmatism, coherentism and conformitism.  Pragmatism refers to the individual who gains knowledge through learning from “successful actions in specific situations” (p.2).  Next, coherentism explains learning through individuals who adopt their beliefs and practices because they seem to align well and logically fit together.  This learning process is achieved through social interactions that seek internal consistency.  Finally, conformitism explains learning through adapting to certain beliefs based on “whom they share the most beliefs in common” (p.5).  Additionally, this article explores how a dominant coalition attempts to spread their learning epistemology throughout the entire organization, which consequently affects the type of knowledge acquired, the speed at which learning is achieved, and how the organization’s external environment is affected.

Miller and Lin draw their conclusions based on an extensive simulation analysis that attempts to mimic the way in which each of these three epistemological camps separately, as well as combined with the impact of a dominant coalition, have the ability to learn and impact their environment based on the extent to which the organization’s environment is able to be manipulated.  The simulation is set up to resemble an organization made up of 100 “agents” (or people) who have the ability to learn based on the type of epistemology they are assigned to employ.  The level of learning, which produces their knowledge levels, is measured through “the percentages of beliefs that match the environment” (p.4).  Additionally, the agents are able to exert control over their environments once beliefs become accepted by a greater amount of the population.  The most important results of this study are the following:

  • Organizations comprised of pragmitists learn most effectively in an environment that is static and controllable.
  • Organizations comprised of coherentists or conformists are only able to advance their level of knowledge if their environment is easily controllable.
  • When pragmatists are introduced into coherentist or conformist organizations, total knowledge is explained through an S-curve where initial knowledge increases slowly, then more rapidly, and then begins to level off again.
  • When a dominant coalition is added into a simulation (a group of 10 agents possessing the same epistemology), pragmatism operating in an uncontrollable environment is the only epistemology that explains March’s conclusion of the trade-off an organization faces between learning speed and eventual knowledge.

With regard to Enron, I believe that the dominant epistemologies were coherentism and pragmatism.  Pragmatism seems to represent the way that the executives operated within Enron, while coherentism explains the way the other parts of the company (i.e. traders) gained knowledge.  I also see connections between the impact that the pragmatic dominant coalition has when added to coherentist environments, as applied to Enron.

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