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ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING IN A COMMUNITY COLLEGE
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
2007 Karl Dawson
For my father, who would have been proud to see me earn this degree
I would like to thank my committee chair, Dr. Linda Behar-Horenstein for her patience and
guidance through the challenging but rewarding process of writing this dissertation. I would also
like to thank other members of my committee, Drs. Dale Campbell, Linda Hagedorn and Mirka
Koro-Ljungberg for their guidance and support. Drs. Phil Clark, Larry Tyree and Tom Oakland
assisted in the early stages of this study and I wish to thank them. I will long remember the
support of faculty, staff and my fellow students in the Department of Educational Administration
and Policy. I would also like to thank those who helped me to gain access to the research site and
the participants of this study who shared with me so openly.
I am very grateful to family and friends who so enthusiastically supported me during my
study. My mother Yvonne, sister Lorna, brother Kenneth and aunt Ena were particularly
supportive. My daughters, Karla and Kylah sang to me to encourage me during dark hours of
dissertation writing for which I am thankful. My wife Lucia, was my coach, cheerleader,
personal assistant and friend and I do not think that I could have done this without her. Foremost,
I would like to thank God for "never leaving me nor forsaking me" in this most challenging
undertaking of my life.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A CK N O W LED G M EN T S ................................................................. ........... ............. .....
L IST O F T E R M S ............. .. ............... ....................................................... 8
ABSTRAC T ...........................................................................................
1 INTRODUCTION ............... ................. ........... .............................. 10
State ent of the Problem ............................................ ............. ...... .......... 15
P purpose Statem ent ............................................................................ 16
Significance of the Study ....................................................... .......... ......... ..... 17
Lim stations of the Study .................................... ... .. .......... ....... ..... 18
2 R E V IEW O F L ITER A TU R E .................................................................... ...... .................19
Organizational Learning ................................................................. ............ 19
Types of Organizational Learning .............................................................................. 22
Stages of O organizational L earning .............................................................. .....................23
Facilitators of O organizational L earning...................................................................... ...... 25
Stim uli for Learning ......................... ....... ....... .. ........ ......... 25
Psychological Safety .................................. .. .. .. ...... .. ............26
S tru ctu re ................................................................2 7
S k ill........................................................................2 7
L leadership ...................... ..............................................29
Factors Inhibiting Organizational Learning ..................................... ..................30
Lack of Psychological Safety ...................................... .................. .. ........ 31
Improper Structure and Communication Issues ........................................... .....32
D efen siv e R ou tin es.............................................................................................. 3 3
The N nature of Knowledge ...............................................................................34
The Com m unity College Setting ................................................ ............... 34
Summary ................................... ....... ... .. 39
3 METHODOLOGY .............................................................. 41
Q ualitative R research ............................................................................................4 1
T theoretical P erspective......... ......................................................................................42
R e search D esig n ................................................................................................. .. .. 4 3
Population and Setting .................. .................. .................. .......... .. ............ 45
P articip ants ..............................................................................4 6
A access and E ntry ....................................................... 47
D ata C o lle ctio n ................................................................................................................. 4 8
D ata A analysis ................................................... 51
V alidity and R liability ........... ...................................................................... ........ .. ... 53
S u bjectiv ity ................... ...................5...................5..........
4 R E SU L T S .............. ... ................................................................58
S tim u li fo r L earn in g ............................................................................................................... 5 8
M issio n .............................................................5 9
M eetin g Stu d ent N eed s .............................................................................................. 6 1
R reputation ................... .......................................................................... 62
Senior Administration's Encouragement ............................. ...............63
E external Stim uli ......................................................................................................64
K now ledge Sources ................................................................64
E x tern al S o u rc e s ...............................................................................................6 5
In te rn a l S o u rc e s .....................................................................................................6 6
Learning Processes ................................................. ......... 70
Dissemination of Knowledge/Learning throughout the Organization ............... ................72
Other Influences on Organizational Learning ...........................................73
Tolerance for Failed Initiatives and Experimentation ...................................73
Support from Senior A dm inistrators ....................................................... 75
Availability of Numerous Discussion Forums .............................. .................76
R e latio n sh ip s .............................................................................7 8
High-quality Faculty .......... .............. ......... ....... ...............79
L ead ersh ip ..................................................................8 0
Big Picture/System s Thinking ............................. .......... ... ............... .. ...... ..... ..82
Positioning Analysis .......... ... ............................................84
Sarah ......... .................. .............................. ............... 84
Jane ......... .................. ................................ ............... 85
Frank ......... .................. .............................. ............... 86
L om a....... .............................................................. 86
Y v o n n e .........................................................................8 7
M ik e ................... ...................8...................7..........
The R researcher .......................................... ........ ....................... .... 87
S u m m ary ................... ...................8...................8..........
5 CON CLU SION .... .................................................91
Stages and Types of Organizational Learning ............................................. ........... 91
Influences on Organizational Learning .................................................93
M orally A appealing M ission............................................. ............... ............... 93
T ru st....... .............................................................. 94
C om m u n ication ...................................................................................... ................ .. 9 6
L leadership ...............................................................96
B ig Picture/System s Thinking.................................................................... ............... 97
T theoretical Im plications ................. ................................................................ 99
Recomm endations for Further Study ........................................................ ............. 102
A INSTITUTIONAL REVIEW BOARD APPROVAL ............................... 104
B INTERVIEW CHECKLIST AND LAY SUMMARY................................ 106
C SAM PLE INFORMED CONSENT ....................................................... .............. 107
D IN T E R V IE W G U ID E ................................................................................ ..................... 109
E SAMPLE USE OF STANZAS AS ANALYTICAL STEP .................................................110
F SAMPLE USE OF LABOV AND WALETZKEY'S NARRATIVE FRAMEWORK.......112
G PILOT STUDY OF ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING IN A COMMUNITY
C O L L E G E ......... .... ................................................. ...........................114
L IST O F R E F E R E N C E S ......... .. ............... ................. ..........................................................127
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ......... ................. ............................................. .......................... 133
LIST OF TERMS
Espoused theories refer to underlying assumptions and values that individuals claim guide their
actions but in reality this is not often the case (Argyris, 1978).
Learning organization refers to a setting where high learning capacity is evident and exploited.
Organizational culture refers to the shared basic, tacit assumptions held by people in a setting
about how things are or ought to be. These assumptions determine their perceptions, thoughts,
feelings and to an extent, their overt behavior (Schein, 1997).
Organizational learning refers to the study of if and how organizations learn and to a process
where errors are detected and corrected, insights and knowledge are generated, reflection of past
events and practice inform future practice, and behavior is changed through the process of
information gathering and meaning making. Insights and knowledge may begin with the
individual but must move via groups to the organization at large to fit this construct (Argyris &
Schon, 1978; Kezar, 2005; Scribner, Cockrell, Cockrell & Valentine, 1999).
Organizational learning capacity refers to the level of effectiveness and efficiency
demonstrated when making the changes needed to adjust to the actual or potential changes in the
internal or external environment (Dibella & Nevis, 1998).
Organizational memory refers to how an institution retains what it has learned and discards
what is deemed to be of no value (Huber, 1991).
Theories-in-use or mental models refer to underlying assumptions or master programs that
guide the actions of individuals. (Argyris, 1978; Senge, 1990).
Transformational leadership refers to a form of behavior where persons of influence focus on
individuals' potential to satisfy needs of self-fulfillment in the process of organizational
performance (Burns, 1978).
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
ORGANIZATIONAL LEARNING IN A COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Chair: Linda Behar-Horenstein
Major: Higher Education Administration
My study examined organizational learning in a community college, how learning took
place and what influenced it. There were indicators of high capacity for learning at the school.
There was evidence of effectiveness in knowledge generation, dissemination and utilization.
Organizational learning at the college was influenced largely by its mission, the level of trust,
ample and effective communication channels, leadership, and a capacity for big picture/systems
thinking. My qualitative study included six members of faculty and staff who joined me to
produce the data through multiple interviews. Narrative analysis was used to examine the data.
One administrative and one non-administrative employee were chosen from each of the
Associate of Arts, Associates of Science and Student Services Divisions for my study.
Additional studies are recommended to further understand the quality of other learning processes
at the college.
Higher education institutions in America are facing numerous challenges that, in some
cases, threaten their very survival (Guskin & Marcy, 2003; Kezar, 2005a). Guskin and Marcy
(2003) argue that the primary problems are financial in nature, and are long-term rather than
short-term. Guskin and Marcy (2003) suggest that the financial problems can be traced to an
eroding tax base and a rapid rise in health costs. They contend that major structural changes in
the sector will be needed for continued success. Traditional higher education institutions need to
undergo transformation that is aimed at increasing affordability, efficiency, and responsiveness
to students or they may lose clients to other providers (Eckel, Hill, & Green, 1998; Kezar, 2001).
Higher education institutions must also respond to threats to their survival, such as, public
pressure for educational and financial accountability; the need to contain costs to ensure
continued access; the impact of technology; and the proliferation of competing delivery modes
such as, distance education, corporate universities, and transnational delivery (Eckel, Green &
Community colleges are facing many of the same challenges that impact the entire higher
education sector. The mission of community colleges is expanding (Ayers, 2005) and the
demand for services are at an all time high (Boggs, 2004). Increased need for service is fuelled
by Baby Boomers whose children have reached college age, an increased demand for community
college education among immigrants, and the increase in the number of high school graduates
who now attend college (Boggs, 2004). There are around 1200 regionally accredited community
colleges, which represent the largest sector in higher education (Boggs, 2004). Boggs (2004)
reports that forty-five percent or 6.5 million of all undergraduates are enrolled in community
colleges. He added that when non-credit courses are included, the number served per year
increases to 11.5 million students. The president and CEO of the American Association of
Community Colleges, George Boggs, summarized the challenges when he said,
In the past three years, student enrollment has escalated, and college leaders have struggled
to meet demand in the face of steep state budget cuts, limited facilities, faculty turnover,
rising technology costs, and increasing numbers of students who need remedial work
before they can take college-level classes (p. 8).
Some researchers argue that community colleges are currently operating in a post-modern
setting that features fragmentation within, and a constantly changing external environment
(Ayers, 2005; Bergquist, 1998). In recent decades, organizations in other sectors have had to deal
with change. Different strategies and approaches have been utilized with varying success. These
include reengineering, knowledge management, learning organizations, and total quality
management (Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, Roth, & Smith, 1999). Higher education has also
tried strategies to enhance organizational performance such as strategic planning, benchmarking,
Total Quality Management, and business process reengineering (Birnbaum, 2000). Birnbaum
refers to these efforts as management fads. The lens and practice of organizational learning has
been proffered as a tool for analyzing and improving institutional performance and as a
mechanism for studying if and how organizations learn. Kezar (2005) holds that organizational
learning is not a fad but is rooted in years of continuous research.
While there is not a widely accepted definition of organizational learning, a synthesis of
the works by leading writers on the subject reveals certain themes. Organizational learning
involves reflecting on past action and considering anticipated challenges. Ultimately it results in
change to practices or routines (Argyris, 1993; Ellstr6m, 2003). Argyris (1993) stresses that only
when new action has taken place has learning occurred. Organizational learning may begin with
an individual or the collective output of a group but it must spread beyond that initial unit or
individual to be considered truly organizational in nature (Dibella & Nevis, 1998; Vera &
Crossan, 2004). Organizational learning includes taking initiatives and trying experimentation
that will lead to new knowledge that will then be disseminated throughout the organization
(Silins & Mulford, 2002). The more significant and sustainable forms of organizational learning
require that members of the organization examine the basic underlying assumptions or mental
models related to the organization and its functions, and utilize what is discovered to guide
action (Argyris & Schon, 1978; Senge, 1990).
Learning is not restricted to special organizations but is widely found across the spectrum
of organizational types (Dibella & Nevis, 1998). Senge et al. (1999) agree with this sentiment
and state, "All organizations learn in the sense of adapting as the world around them changes.
But some organizations are faster and more effective learners. The key is to see learning as
inseparable from work" (p. 24). They contrast this integration with work, and the continuous
nature of learning with training, which, they suggest, is typically episodic and takes place outside
of the normal work context.
The capacity for organizational learning varies among institutional settings and is
dependent on the presence or absence of factors that facilitate or inhibit the process (Dibella &
Nevis, 1998). Some of the factors that promote organizational learning in educational institutions
are decentralization (as opposed to hierarchy); trust between employees and managers; new
information systems; incentives and rewards; a culture of people who are interested in learning;
open communications; information sharing; staff development and training; and the existence of
inquiry units (Kezar (2005). Learning in an organization takes place when individuals and groups
are committed to experimenting with finding better ways of doing things. There are also factors
that restrain organizational learning. When errors due to innovation and experimentation are
severely punished in organizations, a psychological environment that discourages innovations
and restrains organizational learning occurs (Schein, 1993a). Organizations that are not
structured to facilitate communication and reward group productivity will find it difficult to learn
at a high rate (Senge, 1999).
The concept of organizational learning originated in the business sector but is increasingly
applied in other sectors, such as K-12 education. The success of organizational learning that is
directed at institutional improvements has been observed in companies including Ford Motor
Company's Electrical and Fuel Handling Division, Royal Dutch/Shell group of companies,
Harley-Davidson, British Petroleum, and Xerox (Senge, et al., 1999). At Ford, the division made
$150 million dollars in 1996 after losing $50 million just five years earlier. They attributed their
success to the development of learning capacity (Senge, et al., 1999). Similar stories of the
impact of organizational learning are also beginning in education. In a large-scale study in the K-
12 education sector in Australia, Mulford and Silins (2003) found that organizational learning
had a positive impact on schools' central function, teaching and learning, and it facilitated
desired student achievement. Results such as these hold promise for the effective use of
organizational learning in other organizational settings, such as higher education.
Organizational learning has the potential for sustaining organizational effectiveness
because it results in the development of a learning culture (Silins & Mulford, 2002). Schein
(2004) identifies ten features of a learning culture, namely, (a) a proactivity assumption, (b)
commitment to learning to learn, (c) positive assumptions about human nature, (d) the
assumption that the environment can be dominated, (e) commitment to truth through pragmatism
and inquiry, (f) an orientation toward the future, (g) a commitment to full and open task-relevant
communication, (h) a commitment to diversity, (i) a commitment to systemic thinking, and (j) a
commitment to cultural analysis for understanding and improving the world.
Efforts directed towards improving organizational performance are most effective when
the approach has been tested in the particular setting and adjustments have been made for the
context (Birnbaum, 1988; Evers, 2000; Kezar, 2005). Organizations in manufacturing and retail,
professions and non-profits, are sufficiently different such that they merit the development of
unique models to deal with change (Kezar, 2001). Non-profit organizations, for instance,
typically do not go through the stages of maturity often associated with most profit-driven
organizations (Kezar, 2001). To understand the nature and effectiveness of organizational
learning in for-profit businesses Dibella & Nevis (1998) developed an assessment tool; however,
they found it necessary to make modifications to the instrument when assessing organizational
learning in health care and in education.
As a sector, higher education possesses features that distinguish it from other sectors.
These distinctions must be taken into account when examining issues of organizational behavior
and performance among such institutions (Kezar, 2001). From a synthesis of the literature,
Kezar (2001) identifies these features as interdependence, status as an institution, loosely
coupled systems, organized anarchical decision making, and shared governance. These
distinguishing features result in a culture that determines how those operations conduct their
affairs (Bergquist, 1992; Birnbaum, 1988; Kezar, 2001). Bergquist classified cultures within the
academy as collegial, managerial, developmental, and negotiating culture, while Birnbaum when
examining decision making in higher education institutions categorized them as collegial,
political, bureaucratic, and anarchical.
As a sub-sector, community colleges possess certain characteristics that further distinguish
them. In comparison to other types of higher education institutions, community colleges tend to
be more bureaucratic in their decision-making (Kezar, 2001). She argues that community
colleges are becoming more market-driven and entrepreneurial while maintaining some aspects
of traditional higher education. Levin (1997) agrees and suggests that the four cultures found on
community college campuses are traditional culture (academic), service culture, hierarchical
culture, and the business culture. Levin (2005) later contends that community college missions
are now geared primarily at satisfying the needs of the economic community.
Much of the research to date on organizational learning comes from the field of business,
where the concept originated. Contributions to the field from Senge (1990), Senge, et al. (1999),
Argyris (1993) and Dibella and Nevis (1998) typify the focus on large for-profit corporations.
The K-12 sector has also embraced the concept to some extent, as evidenced by the increase in
studies of organizational learning in that environment. Large-scale studies utilizing qualitative
(Leithwood, Leonard & Sharratt, 1998) and quantitative methods (Silins & Mulford, 2002)
conducted in the K-12 sector yielded a greater understanding of the concept and its effects in
those settings. Higher education has been slow to embrace the potential utility of organizational
learning for improving organizational effectiveness (Kezar, 2005). Community colleges do not
differ much from the rest of higher education in this regard. A search through multiple databases
for studies involving organizational learning in community colleges yields very little research.
However, the selection of organizational learning as the theme for the Fall 2005 issue of New
Directionsfor Higher Education signals its emergence as a significant topic in the sector.
Statement of the Problem
Community colleges are faced with the challenge of adapting to an environment that
demands a response to, change in student demand and preparedness, sources and availability of
funds and evolving missions and culture (Boggs, 2004). How these challenges are met could
determine the survival of these institutions (Guskin, 2003).
In the search for greater efficiency and effectiveness, higher education has employed
numerous strategies, drawn primarily from the business sector. Many of these strategies have
been short-lived and yielded little success (Birnbaum, 2000). Organizational learning is an
approach to the conduct of organizational activities centered around action that is based largely
on reflection of past events (Argyris, 1978). Organizational learning has been employed in fields
such as business and education with some degree of success. Higher education, and community
colleges in particular have made limited use of the approach (Kezar, 2005). Approaches to
improving organizations are best studied in their specific settings (Evers, 2000). Community
colleges exhibit distinct cultures that merit the examination of the phenomena in that specified
Researchers have examined organizational learning in various settings and have surmised
that the phenomenon is best studied in the setting in which it will be applied (Dibella & Nevis,
1978). There has been little theoretical explanation proposed about how organizations learn in
the distinctive setting of higher education institutions in general and in the community colleges
in particular. An understanding of how a particular community college learns as an organization
as well as the factors that promote or inhibit this learning will prove beneficial to those who seek
to improve the performance of such organizations. The findings from the study are likely to
provide a greater understanding of organizational learning within a community college setting.
The proposed sample will be drawn from varying levels in the organization rather than the senior
leader-centered studies as has been observed in the business sector.
The purpose of this study was to explore the nature of organizational learning and how it is
facilitated or inhibited at the identified community college. Narrative analysis was used to
analyze information gained in interviews from a sample of participants drawn from among the
faculty and staff. The questions investigated were:
How do members of a college community construct organizational learning?
1. How do members of a college community describe facilitators of organizational
2. How do members of a college community describe inhibitors of organizational
Significance of the Study
My study will contribute to the development of organizational learning theory in general,
and particularly as it occurs in the community college environment. Issues such as the stimulus,
agent, nature and influences on organizational learning are still contested in the literature.
Additionally, the findings will provide insight into how organizational learning is manifested in
the community college.
Research specifically about organizational learning in community colleges is scant. Studies
that have been conducted in business and the K-12 education sector give insight into
organizational learning. However, researchers have suggested that organizational behavior is best
studied in relation to the particular context in which it will apply. Dibella and Nevis (1998)
identified factors associated with organizational learning yet they caution that those variables
may differ across industries.
In light of the challenges faced by community colleges which are brought on by increased
demands for accountability, efficiency and demand for services, the use of organizational
learning as a tool for analysis and improvement may become vital for administrators, faculty, and
staff of these institutions. My study will enable community college faculty and staff to
understand how their own organizations learn and the role that a learning culture plays in
sustaining continuous improvement efforts.
Limitations of the Study
1. While the insights that may emerge from this study are likely to provide a greater
understanding of the subject matter, because each site is unique and each individual
constructs reality differently, generalizations are eschewed (Morrow, 2005).
2. Given that individuals, organizations, and organizational behavior are dynamic and
temporal, these findings may be different in another time frame.
3. Caution must be exercised when comparing the results of this study to other studies on
organizational learning because the definition of the term organizational learning is
disputed in literature.
4. The results of the data relied heavily on the interviewees' knowledge of the situation and
their willingness to share their views, as well as the interviewer's skill in the interview
process. The findings in this study were shaped by the nature of the interviewer -
interviewee interaction. Differing levels of rapport between researcher and participants
could result in varying production of interview data.
5. The discussions in the interview were limited to the concept of organizational learning
and its influences, not other constructs in organizational behavior.
6. The study utilized participants who were at middle levels in the organization. Individuals
at other levels in the organization may view the same phenomena differently.
7. The results of this study represent the socially constructed view of the researcher, not the
participants, although the participants were also co-authors of his construction of reality.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
In this study, the researcher proposes to investigate the nature of organizational learning in
community colleges and the factors that facilitate or impede it. This chapter provides a review of
the literature on organizational learning and the relevant aspects of the community college
environment. The following sub-sections comprise the review of research on organizational
learning, types and stages of organizational learning, factors promoting and inhibiting
organizational learning, and an overview of the research on the community college
Organizational learning is the detection and correction of error (Argyris, 1993). Learning is
thought to have occurred when the outcome of intended action matches that intention.
Organizational learning, as Argyris asserted, is based upon the successful application of
strategies, not simply upon the discovery of a problem or invention of a new solution. Errors
must be attributed to strategies and assumptions, and new strategies must be chosen and tested
for success. When individuals note the success of particular strategies, they use them in
situations again in the future and thus learning can be said to have taken place (Argyris, 1993;
Schein, 1993a). Argyris' description of the process implies action and review. Rowe and Boyle
(2005) provide a more comprehensive interpretation. They described organizational learning as
an iterative process of action and reflection that results in the modification of an organization's
Vera and Crossan (2004) suggest that organizational learning is "the process of change in
thought and action both individual and shared embedded in and affected by the institutions of
the organization" p. 224. Ellstrom (2003) describes organizational learning as "changes in
organizational practices (including routines and procedures, structures, technologies, systems,
etc.) that are mediated through the kind of human thought, action, and interaction that is
commonly called learning, but is also referred to as knowledge creation, inquiry or problem
Franz's (2003) definition illuminates the organization's need to become capable of
surviving under changing or unstable environmental conditions through purposeful and
intentional learning which transforms the ability of the organization to face the future
successfully. Ellstr6m (2003) describes organizational learning as intentional but points out that
it is possible that only after reflection, or as a reconstruction used to justify action to oneself or
others, that those intentions are discovered. Dibella and Nevis (1998) define organizational
learning as "the capacity or processes within an organization to maintain or improve
performances based on experience" (p.28). They maintain the view that all organizations learn,
but it is the efficiency and effectiveness of that learning that often distinguishes it from one
organization from another.
From the preceding discussion, there seems to be some agreement that a change in the
chosen activities of an organization, brought about by internal or external stimuli, are hallmarks
of organizational learning. Two further themes indicate that organizational learning is intentional
in nature and leads to improvement. Huber's (1991) definition supports some of these assertions
while calling others into question. Huber states, "An entity learns if, through its processing of
information, the range of potential behaviors is changed" (p. 89). To support his definition he
suggests that learning does not need to be conscious or intentional; it may not necessarily lead to
increased effectiveness, as bad habits may be learned; and while it may impact thought and
viewpoints, it does not necessarily change behavior.
There is an additional question of agency. Who learns? Is it the individual or the
organization? Ellstrom (2003) suggests that individual learning is necessary though not sufficient
for organizational learning to occur. The individual mediates between the stimuli from the
organization's environment that creates the need for change, and the actual changes in
organizational practices. Argyris (1978) contends that actions needed to produce learning are not
taken by organizations but by individuals acting as agents of the organization. The learning
becomes organizational when it is embedded into organizational memory and becomes a part of
the shared theory-in-use that will determine how workers act in the future. Vera and Crossan
(2004) indicate that the change in thought and action that characterizes organizational learning is
both individual and shared. They posit that organizational learning takes place at three levels,
individual, group and organizational. Senge (1990) identified five disciplines necessary for
organizational learning and he makes a distinction between learning at different levels. One of
the disciplines, personal mastery, operates at the level of the individual, while others such as
team learning and shared vision, operate at the level of the group.
Other researchers focus on the collective aspect of organizational learning, in some cases at
the exclusion of the individual. Researchers posit that while collective learning involves
individual learning it is more than the sum of individual learning (Leithwood et al. 1998, Lam &
Punch, 2001). Dibella and Nevis (1998) argue that organizational learning is not about learning
as individuals, but learning as groups. They claim that the learning that occurs in an individual is
different from the patterned learning that occurs in groups; patterns that may continue even after
individual members of the group have left (Lam & Punch, 2001). Group property, they believe,
includes both what is learned and how it is learned. Others speak of the collective mind, which
is external to individuals and discernable by patterns of group behavior (Lam and Punch, 2001;
Leithwood et al., 1998). Group members behavior are interdependent. In a process of mutual
adaptation, group members may deal with change by altering their normal contribution to the
group or recruiting others with skills that can contribute to dealing with the new situation. A
synergistic effect is often produced (Lam & Punch, 2001). The focus on the collective processes
is supported by writers who suggest that organizational learning is socially constructed (Kruse,
2003; Imants, 2003).
Types of Organizational Learning
Even when researchers agree that organizational learning does indeed take place, there are
those who consider it significant to distinguish between the type and quality of that learning.
Argyris (1978) contends that learning is the detection and correction of error and it is the process
of determining the new strategy for action that distinguishes the quality of learning. He describes
single-loop learning as responses by members of the organization to internal and external stimuli
that maintain the central features of the organization's theory-in-use. When a response to a given
stimulus involves inquiry into organizational norms and strategies and the assumptions that
support them, double-loop learning is said to have taken place. Argyris also identifies a third
mode of learning, deutero-learning (second-order learning), which reflectively examines how
learning takes place in the organization.
Ellstr6m (2003) uses the terms adaptive learning and developmental learning to distinguish
between types of learning. The terms relate to Argyris' single and double-loop learning
respectively. He makes this distinction when analyzing the character of the work/learning
situation. He identifies the type of learning according to the level of control that the
worker/learner has in determining the nature of the task, the methods or procedures to be used
and the results to be achieved. Ellstr6m states that at the adaptive learning sub-level of
reproductive learning, the worker/learner has the desired tasks, methods and results determined
for him/her. Another adaptive sub-level of learning, productive learning: type I increases slightly
in complexity in that the desired results are not given. At the level of developmental learning,
there are also sub-levels. At the sub-level termed productive learning: type II, tasks are given but
methods and results are not and at the highest stage of autonomy, creative learning, the tasks,
methods and results are determined by the worker/learner. The range of organizational learning
spans from routine (automatic) or reproductive learning that deals adequately with routine
problems to creative learning wherein the worker/learner(s) must transform existing ideologies,
routines, structures, and practices through reflection. Interestingly, while both Ellstrom and
Argyris differentiate between levels of quality in the categories of learning, they both indicate
that all types of learning are required in organizations because of the variety in organizational
Stages of Organizational Learning
Several writers have found it useful to analyze organizational learning through the
identification of stages in the process. Huber (1991) identified four organizational learning
processes as knowledge acquisition, information distribution, information interpretation, and
organizational memory. Dibella and Nevis (1998) describe the process of organizational learning
as a cycle that includes the acquisition, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge. They argue
that this organizational cycle is in all organizations but there is variance in the manner and
degree to which they are carried out from organization to organization.
Crossan, Lane and White (1999) developed the 41 Framework of Organizational Learning.
The model demonstrates their position that organizational learning is a process that takes place at
the individual, group and organizational levels. Intuiting occurs in an individual's mind at a
subconscious level and is the start of the process. At the next level, interpreting involves sharing
the conscious elements of the individual learning at the group level. Integrating navigates to the
level of the whole organization after collective understanding at the group level is changed. The
learning is then incorporated across the organization by embedding it in its systems, structures,
routines, and practices. This stage is institutionalizing. The model also addresses learning flow.
Feed-forward learning flow refers to the degree to which individual learning converts into
learning at the group level, then organizational level and feed-back learning flow refers to the
degree that organizationally embedded learning affects individual and group learning.
As mentioned earlier, Dibella and Nevis (1998) suggest that the product of the
organizational learning process may stay with the organization even after the departure of those
initially involved in the learning. Others maintain that organizational learning has only truly
taken place when the strategies, routines, and practices have been affected on a long-term basis
(Argyris, 1978; Vera & Crossan, 2004). What is retained is the focus of some researchers who
investigate organizational memory. Kruse (2003) suggests that knowledge acquisition, retention,
and retrieval are key features in the discussion of organizational memory. She also mentions that
how memory is put in the service of achieving organizational goals is central to the discussion.
Organizational knowledge may be retained as written manuals, policies, files, and records or
through individuals in the form of organizational cultural patterns, values, and beliefs.
Knowledge is retained selectively. When and how knowledge is retrieved, is based in part on
how it is stored and the recognition by organizational members of its utility in a given situation.
If lasting structures in which to house the information learned are not created, lessons learned
from the past may not be available should such situations arise again. Lam (2002) declares that
the product of the organizational learning process should be transformed into official records
such as administrative policy manuals to ensure relative permanency.
The literature on type and quality of organizational learning makes a distinction between
learning that results from the examination of underlying assumptions and that which does not.
The former is generally viewed as superior and leading to more sustainable actions. Research on
stages of organizational learning has explored how information is created, disseminated and
retained in organizations. Efficiency and effectiveness in these processes distinguish the learning
capability of organizations.
Facilitators of Organizational Learning
Organizational learning takes place in all organizations, though there may be variance in
type and degree (Dibella and Nevis, Leithwood, et al., 1998). This variance is due to influences,
which occur both inside and outside organizations. Some influences advance organizational
learning and others inhibit it. In this section, factors that facilitate organizational learning such as
motivations or stimuli for learning, psychological safety, structure, skill, and leadership are
described. The following overview is drawn primarily from national and international studies in
the K-12 sector including administration external to the school, and the business sector.
Stimuli for Learning
Stimuli for learning can be internal or external to the organization. When the stimulus
comes from within the organization, it may originate within individuals or from collective
processes of the organization. Senge et al., (1999) identifies aspiration as facilitating
organizational learning. This aspiration is related to two learning disciplines, personal mastery
and building shared vision (Senge, 1990). Personal mastery involves individuals determining
what they truly aspire to while making an honest assessment of their current reality. Management
of this creative tension can help build learning capacity. Dibella and Nevis (1998) describe this
as the performance gap and indicate that in the examination of organizational learning, the
perception of this gap must be a shared one. The process of building a shared vision also often
leads to a motivation for organizational learning (Senge, 1990).
External stimuli for organizational learning may be sought by the organization or imposed
from outside. In the world of business in particular, the extent to which organizations scan their
environment for best practices and opportunities is a facilitator of organizational learning
(Dibella & Nevis, 1998). The practice of benchmarking and networking also serve as external
stimuli for learning (Fischer, 2003). In education, organizations also voluntarily look to their
environment for ideas but the mandate to learn is often made at the supervising level outside of
the school (Leithwood, et al., 1998).
Even when individuals or groups in organizations are motivated to learn, a psychologically
safe environment must be created for such learning to be pursued (Schein, 1993a). This safety is
largely determined by the organizational culture. Culture is identified as a factor that could
facilitate organizational learning (Lam, 2002; Leithwood, 1998). Dibella and Nevis (1998)
suggest that how learning takes place in an organization is largely determined by the
organization's culture. They found that a climate of openness is among the factors that facilitate
organizational learning. Organizational learning requires tolerance within the organization to
take risks, to experiment, and to experience possible mistakes (Goh & Richards, 1997; Mulford
& Silins, 2003; McGill & Slocum 1993). Dibella and Nevis (1998) identify a similar factor but
termed it organizational curiosity. They also found that organizational learning is facilitated
when multiple advocates for ideas are encouraged at all levels of the organization and there is
operational variety openness to varied ways in doing things. Key requirements for a
psychologically safe environment for organizational learning include (a) opportunities for
training and practice, (b) support and encouragement to overcome fears associated with making
errors, (c) coaching and rewards for efforts in the right direction, (d) norms that legitimize the
making of errors, and (e) norms that reward innovative thinking and experimentation (Schein,
Organizations can optimize learning when work is structured to allow the generation and
sharing of knowledge and experience (Fischer, 2003) and when human resource practices that
encourage this sharing are pursued (McGill & Slocum, 1993). Opportunities for teamwork and
group problem solving facilitate organizational learning and there should also be a means of
transferring the knowledge (Goh & Richards, 1997; McGill & Slocum, 1993). Studies in the
field of education indicate that if work is structured to allow time for interaction, then the
likelihood of organizational learning increases (Collinson & Cook, 2004; Leithwood et al.. 1998;
Lam & Punch 2001).
As working and learning in groups is advocated, reward systems must be adjusted to
recognize the resulting collective productivity (Goh & Richards, 1997; McGill & Slocum 1993;
Senge et al., 1999). The propensity for organizational learning is enhanced with increased
complexity of tasks and the degree of autonomy that workers have in determining the tasks,
methods and appropriate results (Fischer, 2003; Ellstrom, 2003). The practice of giving
immediate feedback is also associated with facilitating organizational learning (Fischer, 2003;
Ellstrom, 2003). Organizational learning is also widely linked with provision of adequate
learning resources and ongoing professional development (Mulford & Silins, 2003; Dibella &
Nevis, 1998; Ellstrom, 2003; Leithwood, et. al, 1998).
One cause for variability in organizational learning capacity is the skills available to the
organization. A critical factor that facilitates organizational learning is the ability of individuals
to understand the interdependence of actions inside and outside the organization (Dibella &
Nevis, 1998; Senge, 1990; Tannenbaum, 1997). Senge (1990) utilized the term systems thinking
to describe this. Researchers have suggested that a central aspect of organizational learning is the
ability to examine, and change if necessary, the underlying taken-for-granted beliefs,
perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and assumptions that guide people's actions in organizations.
Senge (1990) called these mental models and suggest that they are often unknown to the people
who hold them, hence making them even more difficult to change. He suggests that balancing of
inquiry into the positions of others and advocating your own, are skills that promote the
identification of mental models, which in turn may lead to organizational learning. He also
identifies the ability to dialogue as facilitating shared learning. Isaacs (1999) identifies the four
basic components of dialogue as listening, respecting, suspending, and voicing. Schein (1993b)
concludes that dialogue is a first step in organizational learning because the evolution of new
shared mental models that cut across the subcultures of the organization require a change in the
cultural rules about communication and interaction; this change is made possible through
Argyris & Schon (1978) identified two master programs or theories-in-use that people
employ to guide their actions both within and outside organizations, namely, Model I and Model
II. Model I inhibits organizational learning and will be examined in that section of the review but
Model II promotes it and will be examined now. Model II theory-in-use is guided by the values
of valid information, informed choice, and the monitoring of the execution of that choice in order
to detect and correct error. While both models feature advocating, evaluating, and attribution as
their most prominent behaviors, Model II is distinguished by the search for valid information
through the use of action strategies that show how the actors who are involved reach their
evaluations or attributions. Within this model, actors inquire into the evaluations and attributions
of others and encourage others to reciprocate. Embarrassment and threat, avoided at all costs
drives under Model I thinking, are engaged as opposed to being by-passed and concealed. The
ability to balance inquiry and advocacy, unearth mental models, and to view organizational
events in a systemic way are skills that occur in organizations when purposely developed.
Schein (1993b) reported that, "organizational learning is not possible unless some learning
first takes place in the executive subculture. I do not see how learning at that or any other level of
the organization can take place unless the executive subculture first recognizes itself as a
subculture in need of analysis" (p. 50). Senge (1990) recognizes the importance of leaders in
facilitating organizational learning. He points out that they are expected to play non-traditional
roles such as designers (of learning practices), stewards, and teachers in order to help the
organization develop their capacity to understand complexity, clarify vision, and improve shared
mental models key tenets of organizational learning.
Leaders are critical to the creation of a climate conducive to collaboration and
experimentation (Goh & Richards, 1997). They largely determine the level of psychological
safety. Dibella and Nevis (1998) claim that leadership is just one of the factors that facilitates
organizational learning. Frydman, Wilson and Wyer (2000) identified characteristics of leaders
of organizational learning. Such leaders are pragmatic visionaries, values-centered, master
strategists and tacticians, skilled at the devolution of power, stewards of learning, learners
themselves and are willing to take different paths to their goal of developing a learning culture.
Transformational leadership has been found to be associated with organizational learning
in schools. Leithwood et al., (1998) found evidence that transformational leadership positively
impacted organizational learning in a study that drew its sample from elementary and secondary
schools. Burns (1978) stated that "the transforming leader looks for potential motives in
followers, seeks to satisfy higher needs, and engages the full person of the follower" (p.4). This,
he says, results in "a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into
leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents." (p.4) Transformational leadership practices
call leaders to work with others and to enable others to perform. This can be contrasted with
leadership practices that focus on power and control (Silins & Mulford, 2002).
Leithwood et al. (1998) identified eight dimensions of transformation leadership that foster
organizational learning. The dimensions include (a) identifies and articulates a vision, (b) fosters
the acceptance of group goals, (c) conveys high performance expectations, (d) provides
appropriate models, (e) provides individual support, (f) provides intellectual stimulation, (g)
builds a productive school culture and (h) helps structure the school to enhance participation in
decision making. They also found that school culture and the district (supervising body) were
found to have the greatest influences on organizational learning processes. Transformational
leadership practices were also found to be an indicator of organizational learning capacity in an
Australian K-12 study (Silins & Mulford, 2002). Transactional leadership is often viewed as the
opposite to transformational leadership and unfavorable to organizational learning. Transactional
leaders tend to approach followers with a strategy of exchanging one thing for another (Burns,
1978). Vera & Crossan (2004), however, found transactional leadership to be facilitative to
feedback learning when environments are stable and firms are performing well. Transactional
learning will positively benefit feedback and feed-forward learning when firms are in stages of
growth and maturity (Vera & Crossan, 2004)
Factors Inhibiting Organizational Learning
Successful organizational learning depends on removing restraints to organizational
learning as well as promoting factors that encourage it. In a study of reasons why teachers do not
share information, Collinson and Cook (2004), argued that removing restraints is likely to yield
more immediate success than trying to enable motivating factors, because motivating factors
involve teachers' norms, values, and beliefs and require lengthier strategies to make meaningful
impact. Factors identified that promote organizational learning are on a continuum, and as such,
the lack of those factors often constitute restraints to learning. For example, a lack of
psychological safety, stimuli, or skill will impede learning. Specific aspects of these factors as
well as others will be examined in this review of inhibitors to organizational learning.
Lack of Psychological Safety
Many people in organizations do not take the risk associated with learning because of past
organizational responses to mistakes and failure (Rowe & Boyle, 2005; Schein, 1993a). Schein
suggests that this is related to learned anxiety and emotional conditioning. Schein argues that
while emotional conditioning which determines behavior is associated with rewards and
punishment, the avoidance behavior learned through punishment is more stable than behavior
learned through reward. Avoidance behavior also discourages trial and error learning. Schein
also posits that an understanding of what he terms Anxiety 1 and Anxiety 2 helps in examining
such behavior. He defines Anxiety 1 as the feelings that arise when individuals are unwilling or
unable to learn something new because it appears difficult or disruptive. Anxiety 2 is defined as
the feelings of fear, shame or guilt associated with not learning anything new. He suggests that
Anxiety 2 must be greater than Anxiety I in order to minimize Anxiety 1 as an inhibitor to
learning. Risk taking and experimentation are essential to organizational learning and hence the
inability to reduce Anxiety I greatly affects psychological safety. As noted earlier, leaders play a
very important role in determining the climate for organizational learning.
Fear concerning the impact of social comparison can also impede organizational learning
practices. In a study conducted among seven school districts, Rusch (2005) found that the fear of
competition between schools served as a restraint to district administrators' facilitation of
organizational learning. Fear was related to the avoidance of possible embarrassment for some
school administrators. The significance of embarrassment avoidance will be discussed in the
section on defensive routines.
Improper Structure and Communication Issues
The flow of information is critical to learning organizations (Senge, 1990). Knowledge
must be moved across organizational borders in order to build a collective organizational
intelligence (Senge et al., 1999). Collinson and Cook (2004) found that the factors restraining the
dissemination of information in the studied schools related primarily to how the school day was
structured and to the amount of time available for teachers to interact. Rowe and Boyle (2005)
found that communication patterns based on a hierarchical structure that did not require
accountability of staff members for their individual or group communication practices also
inhibited learning. This was further exacerbated by the failure of those involved to recognize
those patterns. Schein (1997) identifies three cultures existing in many large business
organizations: operator, executive, and engineering. These cultures are associated with
production, finance and strategy, and research and design, respectively. He suggests that these
cultures are rooted in distinct backgrounds, particularly education and training, which those
members of the respective cultures share. This results in a unique social language, although they
may all be speaking in the same native tongue. This makes communication difficult and inhibits
The failure to reward group productivity is another constraint to organizational learning.
Senge et al. (1999) found that even when organizations espoused the importance of collective
learning, rewards and accountability systems were still individually based.
Organizational defensive routines are described by Argyris (1994) as "all the policies,
practices, and actions that prevent human beings from having to experience embarrassment or
threat and, at the same time, prevent them from examining the nature of that embarrassment or
threat" (p. 81). Argyris posits that this defensive reasoning results from the master program,
Model I theory-in-use. People operating with the Model I theory-in-use will seek to (a) achieve
their intended purpose, (b) maximize winning and minimize losing, (c) suppress negative
feelings and behave according to what they consider to be rational. These values will lead
individuals to "craft their positions, evaluations and attributions in ways that inhibit inquiry into
them and tests of them with others' logic" (52). These strategies typically result in defensiveness,
misunderstanding, and self-fulfilling and self-sealing processes. Argyris suggests that individuals
utilizing the Model I theory-in-use cannot help but bring it with them to organizations and that
most people in organizations operate from a Model I framework. The prevalence of Model I in
organizations results in what he termed organizational limited-learning systems. Interestingly,
Argyris found Model I theory-in-use to be existent in cultures as varied as in North America,
Europe, South America, Africa, and the Far East. This theory-in-use was also evident across age
groups (as young as twelve), socio-economic status, educational levels, gender or ethnic identity.
These routines are evident across a range of organizational types such as business,
government, and education. Argyris (1993) identifies some of these routines as outright lying
and deception, conducting meetings in a manner that discourages reexamination and rethinking,
referring undesired proposed innovations to other groups with the hope of them losing
momentum along the way and manipulating meeting agendas and minutes. Face-saving is a
routine that requires collusion on the part of the parties involved. The person allowing the other
to save face typically makes a statement that is untrue while the person who will avoid the
embarrassment colludes by acting as if the statement is true.
The Nature of Knowledge
Another constraint to organizational learning is the nature of knowledge. Nonaka (1991)
categorizes knowledge as tacit or explicit. Knowledge that is formal and systematic and hence
easily communicated is said to be explicit. While referring to the work of Polanyi (1969), he
states that knowledge, and skills based in knowledge that individuals possess but is not easily
expressed, is termed tacit knowledge. He gives an example of a baker who may be highly skilled
at his craft but unable to transfer all the knowledge needed about how to produce a certain
product, to a given standard, even though he may convey much of the needed information in a
detailed recipe. Tacit knowledge is also rooted in mental models, beliefs and perspectives that
are themselves taken-for-granted and hence difficult to surface. Tacit knowledge is integral in
organizational functions and is difficult to transfer, thus hindering organizational learning.
The Community College Setting
The community college is an American institution whose historical roots trace back to
principles of access and skills development, advocated by former American president and
educator Thomas Jefferson (Boone, 1997). Subsequent initiatives by President Andrew Jackson,
that later affected funding, and the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 helped focus attention on
technical skills, and are landmarks in the institution's historical landscape (Boone, 1997). Junior
colleges emerged around the turn of the 20th century, often as an extension of the high school
system, with the aim of preparing students for college and providing up to the first two years of
the college curriculum (Cohen & Brawer, 2003). The term community college did not actually
become popular until its use in the President's Commission on Higher Education in 1947
The typical community college mission goals are usually grouped as, the preparation of
students for academic transfer, vocational-technical education, continuing education, and
developmental education, and community service (Cohen & Brawer, 2003; Bragg, 2001).
Missions of community colleges are expanding and becoming increasingly comprehensive
(Bragg, 2001). Levin (2005) argues that the community college has strayed from its earlier
mission of meeting the needs of the entire community to a more narrow focus that addresses the
needs of the economic sector. The ability to respond rapidly to workforce training needs is
considered to be a strength of community colleges (Boone, 1997; Boggs, 2004). Levin, however,
contends that the shift to an economic focus has resulted in an increased emphasis on training
and development, away from liberal arts and transfer curricula.
The community college environment and culture is influenced by the traditions of the
entire higher education sector and increasingly by the business sector. Schein (2004) defines
a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems
of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be
considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to
perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (p. 17)
An institution's culture determines how its members deal with external forces and internal
pressures (Smart, Kuh & Tierney, 1997). A large organization may have an overarching culture
but subcultures will likely form around work units or occupational communities and may exert
very powerful influences on how people behave in organizations (Schein, 2004). Higher
education institutions typically feature more than one institutional culture, though there is usually
a dominant one (Bergquist, 1992, Levin, 1997). Subcultures within a community college view
aspects of organizational life differently (Ayers, 2005). Kezar (2001) found among higher
educational institutions, there were broadly held values, as well as values associated with sub-
In examining higher education, Bergquist (1992) identified four cultures of the academy as
collegial, managerial, developmental, and negotiating. The collegial culture is characterized by
values surrounding faculty disciplines, faculty research and scholarship, rationality and quasi-
political faculty governance processes, and the placement of highest priority on the generation,
interpretation and dissemination of knowledge in the institution's mission. The managerial
culture is characterized by clear organizational structure, clearly defined goals and accountability
for achieving those goals. The developmental culture is characterized by high value on the
personal and professional growth and development of all members of the institutional
community, including students. The negotiating culture is characterized by the distribution of
organizational resources according to equitable and egalitarian policies. Within this culture,
confrontation and fair bargaining between stakeholders such as administration, faculty, and staff
is expected and welcomed. Bergquist's classifications correlate closely with Birnbaum's (1988)
who described higher education institutions as collegial, bureaucratic, anarchical, and political in
nature. The main exception is the anarchical institution which focuses on the value of gaining
consensus in a context that is not very rational, organized or clearly structured.
While much of the foregoing discussion focused on all of higher education, including
community colleges, Levin (1997) specifically examines the culture of community colleges. He
views community college culture from two perspectives. First, it fulfils a functional purpose,
affecting official structure and modes of operation for dealing with the organization's challenge.
Second, organizations are themselves cultures, "constructed through the symbols and behaviors
of organizational members, and not necessarily rational, purposeful, or even functional" (p. 16).
He also suggests that there are multiple cultures within community colleges that are a by-product
of the college community members' differing understanding and interpretation of organizational
life. He identified four cultures of the community college as traditional, service, hierarchical, and
The traditional culture is characterized by a focus on the intellectual and cognitive
development of students and access to educational opportunities for university transfer or
employment purposes. This culture, he contends, is modeled after that found in many universities
and features such aspects as peer judgment and scholarship and focuses on the interests and
values of faculty. Decisions in this culture regarding issues such as governance, instructional
organization and programming are centered around academic students, academic faculty and
academic life. Furthermore, academic faculty are viewed as having a greater position of
influence and significance than their occupational and vocational colleagues. Academic faculty
dominate this culture and focus attention on curriculum and instruction from the academic
perspective, largely at the exclusion of other aspects of organizational life (Levin, 1997).
The service culture in community colleges is characterized by a focus on the improvement
of the clientele, the students. This culture may view improvement as evident in university
transfer rates, institutional student retention rates, social equity or quality of learning. Members
of the college community, who view meeting students' developmental needs as of foremost
importance, typically support and sustain this culture. They view the college's mission in social
service terms with the aim of improving the lives of individuals and consequently, society as a
whole. Administrators in this culture include the immediate community as part of their service
area and expand the mission of the institution to meet identified needs. Student services
personnel and some faculty drive this culture in community colleges.
The hierarchical culture in community colleges focuses around leadership and particularly
the role of president or chief executive officer. The culture evolved from early conceptions of the
community college serving as a vehicle for social transformation and the achievement of
democratic values such as equality and individuality mobility through education. This view
portrayed the community college as having a moral purpose whereby the leader was seen as
responsible for ensuring that this purpose is achieved. This culture also adheres to rational
systems of organization. Thus, the culture, coupled moral and bureaucratic components. The
resulting culture positions the president as embodying the moral purpose of the institution and
hence responsible for articulating mission, vision, and values, and as having firm control of a
rational organization. This culture may result in administratively dominated institutions and even
autocratic presidents (Levin, 1997).
The impetus for developing the business culture in community colleges came partly from
external demands for competitiveness, workforce training and the adoption of entrepreneurial
approach to conducting their affairs. The training function, in particular, brought the community
college in close contact with for-profit business operations which led to colleges embracing
operational styles associated with the business world. Efficiency, innovativeness, customer
service and paying attention to employee relations are features of the business culture in
community colleges. There is extreme sensitivity to the market in decision making and college
growth is focused on more programs, buildings, and increasing the number of students.
Characteristics of this culture are its flexibility and speed in getting the educational product to
the market. Traditional higher education decision making models such as faculty committees or
senates are not valued.
There are other indications that higher education is increasingly influenced by the business
sector culture. Birnbaum (2000) has described the introduction and subsequent abandonment of
academic management fads that originate in government or business and adopted by higher
education institutions. Higher education has utilized popular innovations such as Planning
Programming Budgeting Systems (PPBS), Management by Objectives (MBO), Strategic
Planning (SP), Total Quality Management (TQM), Business Process Reengineering (BPE), and
Benchmarking. The pressure brought on higher education institutions to become more effective
and efficient has led to the diffusing of these strategies into the sector, though most times, with
limited success. Another argument for the pervasiveness of the business culture in higher
education comes from Levin (2005). He contends that the primary focus of community colleges
is to meet the needs of the business community. Much effort is focused on providing graduates
who are appropriately trained for industry or by providing relevant training for individuals who
are already employed. In addition to the mission shift, community colleges are also adopting
business-oriented institutional values. Levin contends that community colleges are shifting from
a culture of "soft managerialism" based on collegiality and professional consensus to one of
"hard managerialism" based on contractual relations and autocratic control. Community colleges
are also moving toward a market-driven and entrepreneurial orientation in response to contextual
factors such as technological advances, distance education, and cost constraints (Kezar, 2001).
This chapter began with a review of organizational learning as well as factors that facilitate
or inhibit its advancement in organizations. Aspects of the community college environment as
they relate to this study were also examined. Literature on organizational learning is rich in terms
of the theoretical positions, however it is weaker in the area of empirical studies. Writers from
the field of education have based their work on empirical studies, while writers from
management and organizational studies have mixed their anecdotal experiences with well-
designed studies. Organizational behavior researchers have taken a lead in developing theories in
the field, though not always based on planned investigative studies.
While multiple cultures may exist in community colleges, an organization is often defined
by a dominant culture. Culture dictates how things are done on the campus and it is determined
by what members of the community deem to be of value. Traditional academic values, associated
with higher education, and entrepreneurial, market-driven values, associated with the business
sector, are two of the primary influences on community college culture. The value of seeking to
develop individuals for their own good is also influential. This combination results in a unique
organizational culture that may cause differences in the nature of organizational learning, and the
factors that facilitate or inhibit it, in community colleges as opposed to other sectors. This study
will provide an evidence-based understanding of how one group of community college faculty
and staff view the factors that promote and inhibit organizational learning in their institution.
The purpose of this study was to provide a greater understanding of how organizational
learning is manifested in a community college setting. The research questions were
How do members of a college community construct organizational learning?
1. How do members of a college community describe facilitators of organizational
2. How do members of a college community describe inhibitors of organizational
The purpose of this chapter is to describe how this study was conducted. The chapter
begins with a discussion on qualitative research, the theoretical perspective for the study and the
methodology, followed by a discussion of the participants and setting. The chapter concludes
with a description of the data collection, data analysis and an examination of issues surrounding
validity, and researcher subjectivity.
Qualitative research design is typically utilized when little is known about a problem or
when a detailed understanding of a central phenomenon is required (Creswell, 2005). Denzin and
Lincoln (2005) offer the following definition,
Qualitative research is a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists
of a set of interpretive, material practices that makes the world visible. These practices
transform the world. They turn the world into a series of representations, including field
notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to self. ...
qualitative research involves an interpretative, naturalistic approach to the world. This
means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make
sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them (p. 3)
Qualitative research is broadly characterized by (a) an investigation in natural settings
rather than those that are contrived; (b) a focus on participant's perspectives; (c) the researcher as
the data gathering instrument; (d) extended firsthand engagement; (e) an emphasis on the
centrality of meaning; (f) sensitivity to wholeness and complexity; (g) subjectivity; (h) emergent
design; (i) inductive data analysis; and (j) reflexivity (Hatch, 2002). As the research instrument,
the researcher engages with other participants to render the results of the study (Glesne, 1999).
This approach is appropriate because it may illustrate the contribution of organizational learning
to the community college setting.
The questions in this study were addressed from the social constructionist perspective, that
is epistemologically rooted in constructionism. This perspective holds that the world is socially
constructed, complex, and ever-changing (Glesne, 1999). Berger and Luckman (1966) point out
that conversation plays a central role in the determining, maintaining and changing of reality.
Language is the primary mechanism through which reality is constructed socially during human
activities (Berger and Luckman, 1966). Researchers in this paradigm join with participants in
constructing a view of the world around them. This assumption of joint pursuit of understanding
brings with it certain implications. Gergen (2002) states, "The terms and forms by which we
achieve understanding of the world and ourselves are socially derived products of historically
and culturally situated interchanges among people" (p. 7).
Each participant in the research activity brings with them experiences and understandings
that will "clash" at the point of contact to produce new meaning. The meaning does not simply
reside within the interviewee, it is constructed at the time of the interaction (Holstein &
Gubrium, 2003). Gergen's statement also draws attention to the socializing nature of human
interaction within a given context. The context provides a boundary for shared, socially
constructed meanings. The individual's identity in the context is constructed and re-constructed
in relation to others (Gergen, 2002).
The complexity of meaning-making in the social construction interview situation is
magnified when considering that participants in an interview may speak from different
subjectivities and voices during the course of one conversation, and that their view of the
interviewer during the encounter may also change and impact what is produced (Holstein &
Gubrium, 2003). For example, during an interview, an individual may shift from speaking as a
loyal employee to a prospective pensioner concerned about the future. These positions taken at
varying points in the conversation may impact the perspective of the interviewee and the
To engage in producing meaning, the researcher spends extended time in the environment
or in contact with the study participants (Glesne, 1999). The researcher collaborates with
research participants in constructing the subjective reality being examined; that relationship is
central to the research process (Hatch, 2002; Ponterotto, 2005). From this perspective,
researchers may engage a limited number of participants for an extended period of time in the
search of multiple meanings. The extended exposure to research participants results in the values
and lived experiences of the researcher having a great impact on the co-construction of meaning.
These values should be acknowledged and described, as constructivists view attempts to
eliminate researcher values entirely as futile (Ponterotto, 2005). There is no search for a single
generalizable "truth" but the rigor of the study is measured more by adherence to methodology
and thick description (Ponterotto, 2005).
Narrative compilation through interviews and their subsequent analysis formed the core of
this research study. Narrative research designs feature the collection of stories about the lives of
individuals, the production of narratives that chronicle their experiences and an exploration of
the meaning of those experiences (Creswell, 2005). Freeman (2004) contends that narratives
pervade life, and human life is itself, narratively structured (Freeman, 2004). He states:
Human action consists of events that are, essentially, "episodes in the making" -that is,
events that will become episodes, retroactively, by virtue of their interrelationship with
other events, both antecedent and subsequent, as well as with those "endings" that will
ultimately serve to transfigure them into the stuff of narrative. In a distinct sense, one often
does not know "what is happening" until the moment is past, until it can be located within
some broader constellation of events, read for its significance in some larger whole (p. 64).
Labov and Waletzkey (1967) posit that narratives are essentially stories with a
chronological aspect that possess a particular basic structure. The structure, according to them,
includes an orientation clause, complicating action, evaluation, resolution, and coda and each has
its specific function in the narrative. Chandler, Lalonde, & Teucher (2004) on the other hand,
report many conceptions of narratives that do not include such structures. Analytic insight from
narratives can be gained not only from what is said but more so, how it is structured by the teller.
The temporal order of events determines the plot, and in turn the power of the narrative, even
more than its truth or falsity (Czamiawska, 1997). Riessman (1993) surmised that "most scholars
treat narratives as discrete units, with clear beginnings and endings, as detachable from the
surrounding discourse rather than as situated events" (p. 17). A pilot study was conducted which
aided research design choices and the development of interview questions (Appendix G).
The analysis of the narratives also included studying how participants position themselves
when relating about their activities in the organization. Bamberg (2004) describes an analysis of
positioning where individuals are seen as not merely choosing positions based on available
discourses or master narratives but as being involved in the construction of positions during
conversation. He suggests three levels of Positioning Analysis. At Positioning Analysis Level I
the design of characters in the story are examined to determine the "identity claims" or
positioning of the teller. Level II is concerned with the interactional means for building the story.
At Level III a view is sought of how speakers and audiences establish particular notions of
selves. Participants in talk take positions in relation to the discourses in which they are
positioned. The community college environment exhibits multiple cultures (Levin, 1997) and
how individuals position themselves may lead to their action or inaction.
Narrative design was chosen for this study, because, through the interview process,
accounts were elicited about how learning takes place in the organization. I anticipated that in
obtaining information about communication flow, experimentation norms and quality of
interactions in the organization, and stories about the generation of solutions to problems and
challenges, the narratives necessary for analysis would be produced. According to Czarniawska
(1998) some of the ways that narratives enter organizational studies is through organizational
research that is written as "stories from the field", collections of organizational stories, and
research that views organizational life as story making.
Population and Setting
The setting for this study was a community college in the southeastern United States. The
assertion that all organizations learn (Dibella & Nevis, 1998) suggests that any community
college could be selected for this study. Learning capacity, however, differs among organizations
(Senge, et al., 1999) and hence it was beneficial to study a community college that has moved
along that path, or at least expressed interest in developing that capacity. From this perspective, I
pursued an extreme case sample as opposed to a typical sample, from among sampling strategies
outlined by Creswell (2005). Information from the school's website, such as mission and values
statements and strategic plans, statements by the President and the reputation of the institution
were used to gauge their level of commitment to organizational learning.
In selecting the site, I utilized resources such as recommendations from experts in the field
as well as publications that highlight efforts of community colleges at improvement. Advice was
sought from Dr. Dale Campbell, UF Professor and convener of the annual Community College
Futures Assembly and Dr. Larry Tyree, former Director of the National Alliance for Community
and Technical Colleges. I also contacted Dr. Gerardo de los Santos, President and CEO of the
League for Innovation in Community Colleges for his recommendations of institutions. I perused
the Learning Abstracts, a publication of the League for Innovation in Community Colleges, that
describes notable initiatives undertaken by community colleges and other similar publications.
Given the aim of exploring organizational learning in a community college setting, I
employed purposeful sampling to identify six participants for this study. Multiple interviews
were conducted with each individual to produce the meaning possible with prolonged contact. A
pool of candidates was sought with the aid of officers of the institution. In some cases I asked for
referral from individuals who were initially referred to me. In so doing, there was no one at the
institution who knew who all of the study participants were. This improved the probability of
In quantitative studies, generalization is often a goal, which leads to a need for random
samples. Qualitative researchers typically and purposely select participants with the potential for
giving rich data that would lead to a deep understanding of the phenomena under study
(Creswell, 2005). In selecting participants for this study, I was guided by strategies for selecting
research sites and participants that have been outlined by Creswell (2005), based in part on
recommendations of other methodologists. I employed, to some extent, maximum variation
sampling. This type of sampling cuts across some range of variation (Creswell, 2005). In this
study, this took the form of selecting faculty and administrators from the college preparation
division, workforce training division and student services. Two participants were selected from
each area. In each area one participant had supervisory responsibility and the other did not.
I also sought variation in the sample according to gender and length of service as both of
these variables may influence viewpoints. As recent hires may not have experienced enough to
contribute to the study, only employees with at least two years of service were considered.
Experience with decision-making and problem solving at the institution was also considered
when selecting participants.
There were four women and two men in the study. Both men were among the members of
administration in the study. One member of the study was at the College for more than twenty
years while another was there for just three. The other four participants ranged between seven
and ten years. There were four Anglo-Americans in the study and two from other ethnic groups.
Access and Entry
Access in qualitative research studies is a process that goes beyond initial consent to
conduct the study, to insuring that the desired individuals are willing to participate throughout
the study and that the required documentation or observation points are made available (Glesne,
1999). Gatekeepers, the individuals from whom a researcher obtains consent, must be identified
and convinced of the importance and relevance of the study (Glesne, 1999). In an effort to
establish personal contact at the chosen institution, I enlisted the support of my committee
members who were familiar with community college leaders in the area under consideration. I
was able to establish contact with a senior official who referred me to others in the organization.
I believe that the support of that individual was critical in the level of cooperation shown. In
some cases, a chain was formed that led to further referrals. After initial contact, all
communications were directly with the participants. Having the support of a key senior
administrative leader and access to someone who could act as liaison officer was critical to the
selection of the research site. Hatch (2002) concludes that ultimately the participants are the
gatekeepers because their degree of involvement will determine what is produced in the
Establishing rapport is another critical factor that contributes to sustaining access. The term
rapport speaks to the effectiveness of field relations (Glesne, 1999). She describes rapport as a
"distance-reducing, anxiety-quieting, trust-building mechanism that primarily serves the interest
of the researcher" (p. 96). In seeking to establish rapport in the selected research setting I paid
close attention to norms and other indicators of culture, and adjusted enough to make the
participants comfortable, while trying to ensure that I do not seem less than authentic. Following
suggestions from Glesne (1999), I was mindful of the difference between building rapport and
establishing friendships. Pseudonyms were utilized to ensure the anonymity of the participants
and the research site with the hope that it would increased participants' willingness to participate
The primary source of data for this study was the participants' accounts of their
experiences and their views concerning the relevant topics as elicited through interviews.
Relevant organizational documents were collected but given the preeminence of the story as told
by participants, they were used primarily for contextual purposes and to aid in the development
of rapport, building conversation and obtaining responses to interview questions.
Prior to engaging in fieldwork, permission was sought and granted from the University's
Internal Review Board to conduct the study (Appendix A). Participants were read a lay summary
prior to beginning the interviews (Appendix B). A checklist was also utilized to ensure that all
necessary steps were taken before, during and after the interview (Appendix B). Participants
were given the opportunity to read and sign the approved informed consent form (Appendix C).
Interviews were the main source of data for this study. I adopted the approach of Holstein
and Gubrium (2003) where "the interview is being reconceptualized as an occasion for
purposefully animated participants to construct (their emphasis) versions of reality
interactionally rather than merely purveying data" (p. 14). Semi-structured interviews were
conducted using open-ended questions (Appendix D). Less structure tends to give participants
more control during the interview (Riessman, 1993), thus encouraging free and open expression
within the scope of the research. Where narratives are sought, giving the participants latitude to
tell things based on their experience is critical.
While working within the confines of Institutional Review Board requirements for the
submission of primary questions, I sought to engage participants in interviews that approximated
conversations. Stage and Mattson (2003) suggest that, "conversations are based on common
understanding and are marked by a lack of explicit purpose, avoidance of repetition, balanced
turn taking, use of abbreviation, occurrences of pauses, expressed interest, and curious ignorance
by both parties" (p. 99). The general approach advocated by the aforementioned authors was
followed and I think it enhanced the co-construction of the data. Other strategies that Stage and
Mattson suggest are (a) pause to reflect and prepare, (b) pay attention to context and (c) balance
turn taking through reciprocal participation, and they were integrated in the interviews of this
study. These were followed to a degree (see Limitations).
In this study, multiple rounds of interviews were conducted with each participant. I moved
along a path from grand-tour or contextual questions to more detail-oriented mini-tour questions
(Spradley, 1979). Multiple interviews with preliminary analysis in between allowed me to offer
participants the opportunity to reflect on themes emerging from earlier interviews during later
interviews. The invitation to interviewees to reflect on what is produced is consistent with the
shift in the perception among some researchers of interviewees as subjects to interviewees as co-
participants or collaborators (Holstein & Gubrium, 2003). The existence of varying backgrounds
and experiences of all research participants is important to be aware of, given that, "interview
participants interpret their experiences through socially constructed roles that have been created
based on assumed identities within specific groups and disciplines" (Gubrium & Koro-
Ljungberg, 2005, p. 691). These experiences help determine the "borders" which must at times
be negotiated in the social constructionist interview (Gubrium & Koro-Ljungberg, 2005).
Multiple interviews may give the researcher enough opportunity to help participants challenge
the concept of the passive interviewee that is currently more typical of interview experiences.
The number of interviews was guided by the degree to which additional insight was produced at
each round of interviews. Most participants were interviewed three times with the exception of
one who was interviewed four times. The final interview was typically shorter than earlier ones
and involved member checking.
Six participants were selected for this study. After the first round of interviews, data was
roughly transcribed and preliminarily analyzed. This analysis served to inform the second round
of interviews. A similar process followed subsequent interviews. Each interview took
approximately one hour.
I utilized practical advice from Creswell (2005) while conducting the interviews, namely,
(a) take brief notes during the interview; (b) obtain permission and audio tape the interview; (c)
locate a quiet and suitable place for the interview; (d) have a general plan for the interview while
leaving room to be flexible; (e) use probes or follow-up questions to obtain additional
information; and (f) be courteous and professional throughout and particularly at the end of the
interview. All interviews were conducted in the offices of the participants and that proved to be a
good venue with very little interruption and the assurance of privacy.
Conducting multiple rounds of interviews aided in the building of rapport, and I believe,
the production of more insightful data by participants. All interviews were one-on-one. Creswell
(2005) notes that one-on-one interviews are best suited for participants who are articulate and
comfortable sharing the desired information. All participants fitted that description, though the
level of rapport established varied among individuals and this likely impacted how much each
participant was were willing to share with me.
I used narrative analysis, as outlined by Riessman (1993), and positioning analysis as
outlined by Bamberg (2004), to analyze the data. Riessman (1993) describes the three major
steps in the narrative research process as telling, transcribing and analyzing. Telling involves the
careful attention to data collection through interviews as outlined above. Transcribing involves
converting the interviewee's words to text but in narrative work, decisions are made at this stage
that are largely analytical in nature (Riessman, 1993). These decisions include determining when
a narrative begins and ends and whether the re-transcription of the data should be done according
to a particular framework.
Two possible strategies for data reduction and interpretation are reduction to core
narratives and analysis of poetic structures (Riessman, 1993). The core narrative is derived from
a longer portion of the text and may be constructed around a framework such as Labov and
Waletzkey's (1967), briefly outlined earlier. Care should be taken to analyze the narrative for
structure and not simply for content (Riessman, 1993). The steps for analysis in this study were
1. Produced a rough transcription of the interview data. This transcription focused on
capturing all the spoken words and other easily notable features of the conversation such
as laughter and very long pauses.
2. Conducted inductive data analysis on this data with the primary purpose being to inform
the generation of questions for the ensuing round of interviews and to begin the search
for themes. The data was analyzed to produce open codes. This step was an important
opportunity for the researcher to become familiar with the data as seen on the written
page. The search for themes was also critical because components of the answer to the
research questions began to emerge from the themes.
3. Conducted further rounds of interviews as outlined above, with preliminary analysis
taking place after each around and more importantly, prior to the succeeding round of
4. Produced in-depth re-transcription of the portions of the interview data deemed central to
the study. In these transcriptions, closer attention was paid to pauses, voice inflections,
non-verbal sounds and any other interaction between the interviewer and the participants
in order to gain the greatest representation of meaning. At this stage the data was
organized into stanzas using phrases and pauses to determine the length of the line (Gee,
1999). Stanzas were labeled according to their topic or theme (Appendix E). This proved
to be a very useful analytical step.
5. Reviewed the interview talk with particular attention to narratives.
6. Checked data for suitability of Labov's or other framework and applied where possible
(Appendix F). Labov and Waletzkey (1967) suggest that all narratives comprise an
abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation and resolution and that there is
much meaning to be found in the way the narrative is structured. In this study, particular
attention was paid to evaluative statements. In some cases, statements that seemed
evaluative in nature were identified even when other components of the narrative were
not easily determined.
7. Searched for interpretive insights in the structure of the narratives. At this stage,
positional analysis was utilized to determine how individuals place themselves within
existing discourses in the institution, and how existing discourses shaped the talk of the
individuals (Bamberg, 2004). The result of the positional analysis was examined to see
how it relates to how people act or fail to act in situations that could produce
8. Searched for themes within and across narratives. This step brought focus to how
individuals view themselves and their own situation and how those views relate to
organizational learning in the institution. It also identified the recurrence of themes
among the views of individuals sharing different perspectives across the campus.
9. Produced the narrative report. The report was structures along thematic lines and
included counter-narratives to the most frequently articulated views. In representing the
findings care was taken to ensure that the context in which the meaning was produced
was conveyed in order to allow the reader great insight as to why the particular talk was
Validity and Reliability
Rigor is required to ensure the worth and utility of research (Morse, Barrett, Mayan, Olson
& Spiers, 2002). The judgment of the validity of a research project lies ultimately with the
audience; hence, researchers must follow the guidelines of the traditions of the particular
perspective and paradigm and document the process in order to gain the confidence of the
audience. In seeking a distinction between more objectively obtained data, some qualitative
researchers tend to speak of the trustworthiness of the data when the issue of validity is raised
(Glesne, 1999). With reference to Lincoln and Guba's work, Creswell (2005) suggests that
prolonged engagement at the research site, alertness to researcher biases, member checking,
external audit, and identifying and reporting limitations enhance the trustworthiness of the data
and the validity of the research product. Morse et al. (2002) warn that many strategies for
insuring validity, such as member checking and external audit, end up as post-hoc evaluation
whether by design or by practice. This post-hoc evaluation, they argue, usually is too late to
affect the study. They advocate strategies that focus on research design and adjustments during
the research process. They suggest that the investigator needs to be responsive to the effects of
choices in the research process and their interaction with the actual research situation. They state:
Lack of responsiveness of the investigator may be due to lack of knowledge, overly
adhering to instructions rather that listening to data, the inability to abstract, synthesize or
move beyond the technicalities of data coding, working deductively (implicitly or
explicitly) from previously held assumptions or a theoretical framework, or following
instructions in a rote fashion rather than using them strategically in decision making. (p.
Morse et al. (2002) advocates methodological coherence suitability of components of the
method to the research questions, appropriate sampling, and collecting and analyzing data
concurrently among strategies to improve validity. In reviewing, the contributions of other
authors on validity, Morrow (2005) pointed to fairness or solicitation of multiple constructions as
well as various levels of authenticity as needed for validity of researched based in
constructivism. Continuing advice to constructivists, she suggests that validity should also be
assessed by the extent to which participant meanings are understood and the level of mutual
construction of meaning between researcher and participants.
Particular attention was paid to member checking given its significance as a means to
validity in social constructionist studies. Participants were given the opportunity to check
interview data for accuracy and to comment on the emerging themes that I identified from the
interviews. Participants were also offered the opportunity to be involved in further data analysis
steps such as coding and theme identification but while some were enthusiastic at the prospect,
their schedules did not allow. Feedback at member checking indicated a high degree of
satisfaction with accuracy and identification of themes.
In this study, I brought an awareness of the issues outlined above and employed the
following strategies to ensure validity.
1. Ensured prolonged engagement with participants through multiple interviews with
2. Conducted a peer and supervisor review of methods, procedures, and findings
throughout the study.
3. Conducted member checking to determine the accuracy of initial transcripts and
participants' views on how they have been represented in later summaries
4. Triangulated data through the use of multiple interviews with each participant and
through multiple perspectives that contributed to the collective story.
5. Provided rich, thick description.
6. Maintained methodological coherence.
7. Ensured appropriate sampling.
8. Collected and analyzed data concurrently.
9. Provided a clear statement regarding researcher bias.
10. Adhered to methodological standards.
In qualitative research, the researcher is often the research instrument (Burck, 2005). The
researcher conducts interviews, makes observations, and reviews documentation in pursuit of
answers to the research questions. Disclosure of information about the researcher, assists the
audience in understanding decisions taken while conducting the research and aids them in
determining the confidence they will have in the findings.
My competence to conduct this study was based largely on in-depth study of the
methodology and experience as a researcher in graduate research methods courses and extensive
reading of relevant literature. I had experience in interviewing, which is the primary data
collection method for the study. I conducted a pilot study for the dissertation, which yielded
lessons that guided this study (Appendix G).
A constant awareness of the role of subjectivity in this research approach was vital.
Subjectivity, once viewed only as an element to be eliminated or reduced in research, is now
seen as holding some benefits (Glesne, 1999). It makes you aware of who you are as a
researcher your needs, interests, beliefs, attitudes, and values. This awareness also allows the
researcher to monitor ways that their own subjectivity may distort the research. Glesne (1999)
indicates that being attuned to your emotions helps in knowing when your subjectivities are
engaged. This realization presents an opportunity to look into your assumptions as opposed to
trying to suppress your feelings.
My approach to research is constructivist. I believe that meaning is situated and that the
varied experiences of individuals result in them deriving different meaning from the same
phenomena. I think that is particularly true in the study of organizational behavior. There are
some activities in organizations that are widely accepted as described in particular ways, and as
having particular features, but even in those cases, the ability of the individual to derive meaning
is critical. In investigating organizational behavior I am not motivated by a search for "truth".
However, I am interested in understanding the underlying assumptions that drive individual
behaviors which may be, and often is, different from the values that individuals espouse. In the
research process, I took care to analyze the meaning that is produced in the data collecting
situation and not what I think that participants "really mean". Given the issue of hard-to-surface
assumptions and values, I believe that investigation into organizational behavior must always be
prolonged, whether through interviews, observations or some combination of both, in order to
help the participants describe the deepest meanings possible.
My training in leadership and management roles both helped and hindered my capacity to
investigate educational organizations such as community colleges. Through my training and
experience, I have become aware of some of the issues facing organizations, which has guided
me to this investigation. On the other hand, my experience may have caused me to hold certain
assumptions, of which I might not have been aware. Preparation for leadership is largely about
finding what works and preparing to practice it. For me, "what works" includes tendencies
towards servant leadership, participatory leadership style, a focus on continuous improvement
and the practice of reflection on the individual, group and organizational levels. I hope that my
awareness of these views helped me to "bracket" them.
I selected this topic for investigation because of my long-held interest in organizational
performance, with particular focus on community colleges. I have worked for 12 years in a
community college in my native Caribbean country and have held mid and upper level faculty
and administrative positions. I am keenly interested in leadership and organizational culture. I
have held leadership positions as a student, in the community and in the workplace. Additionally,
I have read extensively in this area. My tendency towards being active in organizations probably
results from being raised in a Christian household and being taught to make a difference in any
situation to which my life may lead. These experiences have left me with certain views about
what is good for organizations, what effective leadership is, the need for continuous
improvement, and the importance of treating everyone with respect and dignity. I took care to
ensure that my views did attract me toward a particular type of participant or cause me to listen
for a particular viewpoint in the interview process. Informants who can assist in answering the
research questions were sought regardless of my initial impression of their points of view. In
short, I tried to listen to what was shared rather than super-impose my own values. I utilized
memos to help "bracket" my views. The use of memos-to-self assists the researcher in reflecting
and examining his/her own feelings (Glesne, 1999; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
The purpose of this study was to describe organizational learning processes at a
community college and what factors influenced it as perceived by selected members of the
college community. Participants were interviewed and the data analyzed using narrative analysis,
resulting in the identification of themes. Lakeside Community College was chosen for this study
partially because of its reputation for innovativeness, an indicator of a high capacity for learning.
Many of the findings supported the reputation. The findings showed that the stimulus for
organizational learning was strong and that it was influenced by internal and external factors.
The generation of knowledge that led to their organizational learning was an active process at
Lakeside that also drew on external and internal sources. There were ample mechanisms
promoting the spread of information and desired practices in the organization. Other factors such
as leadership and the availability of high-quality faculty positively influenced organizational
The findings of the study presented in this chapter are a form of a narrative report, a
collective narrative of the participants that highlights the themes. Where counter narratives were
produced, they are also presented in the relative segments of the findings. At the end of the
chapter, a summary of the findings in light of the specific research question and sub-questions is
Stimuli for Learning
Results of the study indicated that there were numerous stimuli for learning at Lakeside
Community College. Identifying the particular stimuli was necessary to understand why
Lakeside Community College was driven to learning and organizational improvement. The
mission of the college was mentioned most often as a stimulus and it seemed to have an
overarching impact. Meeting students' needs is closely associated with mission but is discussed
under a separate heading because of its prominence within participants' comments. Other stimuli
included maintaining reputation, encouragement from senior administration and external stimuli.
A discussion of these stimuli follows.
The study participants indicated that Lakeside Community College was driven towards
learning, improvement and innovation. One of the primary stimuli is the mission. Lakeside's
mission is "Adding value to the lives of our students and enriching our community".
Participants' comments suggested a strong belief that the mission is the right one for the
institution. Of the mission, Sarah said, "I'd say that this is our core, that's our centerpiece and
everything stems, comes from that."
The institution's mission seemed to be at the forefront of individuals' minds as they
conducted their everyday affairs, rather than some document that was tucked away in the
recesses of the minds of the members of the organization. According to participants, they
frequently referred to the mission when seeking guidance in decision making. Sarah stressed the
centrality of the mission in this way:
I think at the moment people look at it in the context of the college mission and they say,
"Ok, let's start with that. Let's put aside everything personal and look at it. Is it meeting
student needs?" Bottom line, that's the question. Then it's easier for people to look at
things objectively. Rather than, "Do we want it? Is it good for us?" "Is it good for the
students?" And I think that question tends to give a lot of clarity to a lot of things that are
The data showed that there seemed to be a high degree of congruence between institutional
goals and values, and personal goals and values of the participants. Some of the goals and values
identified were not necessarily associated with this institution alone but with what was seen as
the more broad and generic mission of community colleges. Values such as taking students from
where they are and commitment to access are typically associated with community colleges and
participants indicated their presence at Lakeside. The nexus between institutional goals and the
personal goals and values of Lakeside team members seems to lead to a zealous pursuit of the
college's mission and a drive to learn in order to help achieve that end. Frank commented:
so I had this opportunity to start working in the community college system and that's when
I began to learn about it. Became pretty much immediately enamored with the concept of
the second chance idea, the open door policy, all those things were very attractive to me.
Seemed to fit well with my way of thinking.
The match between institutional and personal values seemed to influence Frank's overall
assessment of the workplace. He continued,
Lakeside is a pretty nice place to work. You feel as though you're part of something good.
You're not just working for somebody. As I said, I feel like I'm working for the good of
the institution, I'm part of this.
Most participants commented that the community college students themselves, as opposed
to students in other parts of the college system, proved to be a powerful driver of the faculty's
and staff's desire to innovate and learn. They described the community college students as more
mature, purpose-driven, responsible and bringing more to the classroom settings by virtue of
their lives' experiences. While recalling the beginning of their work at a community college,
several participants expressed that they were surprised at the breadth of the institution's mission,
the rich mix of students and the degree to which they felt they were making a difference in the
lives of individuals. Jane liked the students and said that the "the students were there because
they'd chosen to be there" and that "they were interested in what they were doing." Yvonne
expressed a similar affinity for community college students especially when considered relative
to other students with whom she had experience. She said:
and comparing the two I actually liked teaching at the community college better. So I kind
of focused on it. I liked the mix of students, the different ages, the different goals. I really
enjoyed them better than the strict 18-year old college freshman when they're in a major
Sarah's drive towards working to achieve the institution's mission came out of a sense of
obligation. Lakeside College community members viewed their mission to improve lives as
extending to the entire community not simply those who came to the campus for courses. Sarah
took the view that individuals such as herself who have benefited from education are obligated to
help others. She said:
Because we are the more fortunate. We are in a position to, to be (excellent?). We're in a
position to and it's our responsibility as individuals and as professionals in the community,
in the college community to address that population, their needs too.
Meeting Student Needs
Participants also reported that meeting student needs was a driving force in the
organization. They viewed learning as an efforts to meet students' needs. Many of the campus
activities were focused on identifying student needs and determining the changes in
organizational practices needed to meet those needs. Participants discussed a recent Title III
grant and ongoing measurement initiatives as stimuli for organizational learning. Sarah said
"surveys and research work that we have here within the College ... suggest that some changes
need to be brought about." Mike described several initiatives in Student Services over recent
years, such as the introduction of legal services and evening services that were a result of efforts
to meet identified student needs. Mike described the College's effort to meet student needs.
because in this setting we really do take students and people where they are and help them
get to where they want to be. We accommodate their needs, whether its scheduling,
whether its, whether they go full-time or part- time, ... we're more responsive to their
learning styles than perhaps the SUS system and four year schools are.
This sentiment is clearly supported by Lora's expression of the sentiment that, "Well, I think
most things that we do here are guided by a real desire to serve people."
Another stimulus for learning that participants articulated was the desire to maintain the
institution's reputation for innovativeness. There appears to be a common discourse on campus
focused on Lakeside's reputation as an innovative institution. At the center of the discourse is the
Lakeside's involvement as a founding member of the League for Innovations in Community
Colleges. They have been recognized numerous times for innovative practices. Participants
reported a strong desire of the institution to maintain that reputation. Mike said, "We're one of
19 community colleges that are part of the League for Innovation. We're very proud of that and
the fact that we're proud of how that affects the culture here." Illuminating the consistency of
views on this topic at Lakeside, Yvonne reported, "We have a reputation and we are one of the
great innovators in the League ... we kind of have a reputation to maintain, so that drives some
When asked about the stimuli for learning and innovation at Lakeside, Lorna identified
reputation as one stimulus, though she thought there were others that were nobler. She said:
I also think that there's prestige associated with being part of the League of Innovation.
And I think there's sort of bragging rights, "Look at our faculty who are doing this, this,
this and this." So I think that those things drive it and those are less than... Those aren't
the best reasons of course.
In addition to the national reputation, most participants described Lakeside as keen on
maintaining its reputation as one of the leading state community colleges. The prospect of
reporting evidence of this leadership at state conferences and publications drove community
college members to create initiatives that were worth telling about. Yvonne spoke to the
prevailing organizational attitude when she said, "...and we're real proud of being like one of the
first in the state to do something. So I think that does probably drive some of our innovation."
Jane and Sarah demonstrated this attitude in separate comments. Sarah bragged about the range
and quality of services offered to students when she said, "...because the kinds of things we do at
the community college level, you won't find them (everywhere) one, max two (community
colleges) in the entire state. In her particular area of instruction, Jane pointed out:
We really are way ahead of a lot of the other community colleges in the state as far as
making sure that we are turning out students that are ready to meet the global marketplace
as opposed to just their own areas of residence.
Senior Administration's Encouragement
Participants also indicated that senior administrators were integral in stimulating and
facilitating organizational learning. Through interaction with participants it became evident that
there was a discourse at Lakeside surrounding innovation. This discourse was driven in large part
by senior administrators. In addition to supporting conference attendance, providing forums for
the discussion of new ideas, and adapting the organizational structure to facilitate learning, the
leadership of the college articulated the value of learning and innovation at Lakeside. Yvonne
viewed the administration's attitude to improve and innovate as "really positive". She said,
"They are always looking for ways to improve and innovate." Jane explained that some of their
drive for innovation came out of necessity because of resources. She commented, "As our
numbers (students) have grown and our facilities aren't growing, we've been asked to come up
with new and innovative ways of handling more students with the same amount of time."
The overall attitude toward innovation at Lakeside seemed to be rooted in the institution's
history and culture but this was also a priority of the current leadership. Mike stated that "the
culture of the institution even when the doors opened in the 1960's was one of innovation and
creativity." Much of the current enthusiasm for innovation was attributed to the President who
made it a priority and his willingness to use resources to support it. Speaking of this input Mike
said, "The current president, of course is also very focused on change and improvement so and
that top down works its way through the institution." The President's establishment of a senior
office charged with leading innovation at the institution soon after his arrival, signaled to
members of the college community the important role that innovation would play during his
Jane described the energy towards improvement and innovation in this way, I thinks it's
a blend, that we've got a President who is interested in that and we've got faculty and staff that
share that interest and so that comes together to be a driving force."
The results pointed to the presence of some external stimuli driving the institution's
focus. In some instances, the college purposely looked outside and for others it was required to
do so. Participants shared that Lakeside was constantly scanning the environment for new ideas
that could further the institution's mission, or for information that could guide an idea in the
early stages of development. Information about what other schools were doing also served as a
catalyst for learning at the institution and as a source for new initiatives. Some participants
voiced the administration in general, and the President and Vice-President for Academic Affairs
in particular, as encouraging them to become aware of new trends and practices in other colleges.
Lakeside was also constrained to make changes to the practices, procedures and routines of
the organization because of the requirements of outside agencies. In some cases, state and federal
agencies as well as institution and program accrediting bodies determined changes that should be
made within the organization. Lorna stated:
My previous experience showed me that many things that go on here, I know, are driven
by outside agency requirements and for us to be able to get accreditation or funding and I
think that that's part of the drive for innovation.
The initiatives which result in practice-based organizational changes, that is, organizational
learning, begin with some source. Given the high drive for learning in the organization,
participants identified several sources for new ideas and initiatives. These sources were external
and internal. The search for knowledge sources and solutions stems from the desire to improve.
Frank captured the sentiment in this way:
There's this atmosphere, as I said, has existed from the college's inception that its good to
look around. You got to be open to the possibilities just because, and I'm, I guess I should
back up a little and say that its not that everyone is, we're not just looking to change all the
time. And there is sometimes the attitude that if ain't broke don't fix it. Things are going
well, reasonably well. But, as I said, there has been this atmosphere that even when things
are going well, they can go better because we haven't arrived yet.
Several external knowledge sources were cited. Conferences were most frequent. The
participants identified information from formal conference presentations as well as networking
opportunities at such meetings as useful knowledge sources. Faculty presentations during the
faculty-search processes were also cited as a supply of new ideas. Individuals who engaged in
something of interest to the college were regularly brought in to share their experience and
insight. These presentations were a source of new practices. The presentations were made in
varying forums such as, faculty colloquiums and Coordinating Council meeting. Additionally,
proceedings from events hosted by the League for Innovation were also useful for initiating new
practices. Sarah talked about the practice of looking outside at Lakeside and said:
We have a lot of people who are visionaries, who go outside and look at what they see and
if they find a model that seems to be working there they'll bring it in, and say, "There is
something that worked. Why don't we try it out?"
Jane spoke of the continuous encouragement to look around by one of the senior
when our vice president has a project that she wants us to be working on like the weekend
college program that we're getting ready to bring up. She has all of us on the phone
calling, looking at websites and finding people, other groups that look like us and then
getting them on the phone and asking questions about what worked, what didn't work.
What kinds of results they're having, if they could do it all over again, what would they do
Lakeside Community College members also exposed themselves to the relevant literature
concerning their field. The academic vice-president sent a weekly e-mail message to faculty and
this frequently included links to articles that had implications for practice at Lakeside. Lorna
summed up the general attitude to sourcing new information at Lakeside Community College in
It seems as though it's just a network of wherever anybody gets any information or finds
out how other people are doing things or comes up with an idea that's a little bit different
and then pursues it, that seems to me how mainly that happens here.
Of equal importance to organizational learning at Lakeside Community College was the
knowledge generated internally. Forums for discussion at Lakeside generated ideas as the
campus community grappled with issues of concern. Brain-storming sessions were common in
these forums, as solution to problems were sought or as the institution sought to take advantage
of opportunities. The ideas generated in such settings were enhanced by the cross-functional
nature of some forums. Additionally, the practice of promoting and transferring individual to
different functional areas resulted in the availability of many individuals in the organization who
had wide experience in many aspects of the operation. The wide experience of such individuals
in the organization enriched discussions. They could easily see how functions inter-related and
better predict what solutions were viable.
Lakeside's culture allowed for, and encouraged the generation of ideas from a variety of
internal sources. Mike attributed a number of initiatives in his area to contributions from
throughout the organization. He said, "a lot of the stuff we've added here has percolated straight
up either from the student body or staff members or other staff members at the institution....
They've grown out of the environment here."
Lakeside also gathered information in a systematic fashion that led to changes in practices
at the institution. Participants referred to surveying students extensively as part of a Title III
project that in some cases yielded results that were not expected. Administrators used that data to
make changes to relevant policies. Faculty surveys were also a significant source of feedback on
services provided by the institution. Faculty and staff in various departments rated the
performance of other departments and this information was used to guide improvement efforts.
There are surveys that go out, evaluations that go out that people are asked to complete that
assess how different units, different areas are serving the campus and so they look for each
individual to assess the institution as a whole.
Participants mentioned several means of gathering feedback about various aspects of the
operation. Lorna mentioned unit assessment surveys, student assessment of the institution, and
faculty assessment of College services as sources of information that led to the development of
new practices at Lakeside. She also described the significance of information provided by the
academic information technology unit as well as information generated through trial-and-error in
Participants also emphasized the importance of evidence related to performance. Mike
reported that in addition to measures related to student and teacher performance, there were
reports that evaluated events and projects, and student organizations and their advisors. Even the
athletics teams were measured by their wins and losses in addition to the academic performance
of the student athletes.
Frank captured the institutionalized nature of the information gathering in the following
statement and gave an example of how it impacted one aspect of his work.
I think we've always had the attitude but I think now we're doing something about it.
What's that called? I think the term they use is "culture of evidence." We do have a system
in place. Institutionally we have an area of institutional research. That has probably existed
within the college but getting access to it has not always been very easy. .... We have
Crystal Reports now, which is a, I guess I call it software, a mechanism to capture, to take
all this data and create reports and make it available to the people who need to see it so that
we can determine those sorts of things, what is being effective, what you know, what has
been effective or how effective have the things we've been doing been as well as, since we
already have this culture of trying to do things better, because we know, we don't have all
of our students being successful... Sometimes you don't even realize, I mean a little thing
that occurred or that I became aware of the other day was the retention rate in one of the
classes or courses that we teach, which typically I would not have thought would have had
that high of a dropout rate, then suddenly realizing that it is and then looking for reasons
and then hopefully now trying to resolve that issue. But again, the system Crystal Reports
enables us to be able to do that sort of thing.
The President and senior administration encouraged the giving of feedback throughout the
institution. Participants reported that campus forums typically allowed for two-way
communication. They also spoke about the President's invitation for questions and comments at
faculty convocations at the beginning of the year when hundreds of faculty members were
present, as an example of the President's commitment to the open forum. Jane commented:
There are not many things we do, in fact I can't think of anything that I've been to that is a
one-way information being given. Even our President when he pulls everybody together
like at the beginning of the year when he finds out what the budget is going to look like,
even then he does open forum. To where he presents the information but open forum
allows anybody to ask him any question right then and there. And sometimes you'd be
very surprised at the questions faculty will ask a president in an open forum. Sometimes
they put him really on the spot and hold his feet to the fire. But no, two way
communication is definitely something that takes place.
Other administrators followed the President's lead and sought feedback at every
opportunity. One participant, however, questioned the genuineness of the requests for feedback.
She felt that although feedback was requested, the administration really wanted to hear a certain
type of feedback that reinforced what they were doing. Of the entire process she said, "I don't
have a sense that there's any kind of institutional follow-up, of gathering of assessments. Even
though I know, we do post-assessments. We do assessments post-projects. I don't have a sense
that much happens with that."
The President also encouraged the giving of feedback and raising issues in less formal
settings. He personally solicited feedback from students in the form of periodic coffee chats.
These events were designed to allow students direct contact with the President in a very casual
While all participants reported that there were ample opportunities to give input on
campus, the two faculty members in the study questioned the usefulness of the exercise at times.
They had concerns about what happens with their input and that of others similar to them after it
is made. Interestingly, they voiced their concern at two different levels. Lorna felt confident
about the impact of comments or feedback made at the departmental level while she was
skeptical about input made at the college level. Conversely, Yvonne had little confidence that
input made at the departmental level would be acted upon but felt that college-wide mechanism
offered much more hope in that regard. Describing her frustrations about making input at the
departmental level Yvonne said:
And I'll still give my opinion but I also have no, no delusions that anything is going to
come from it. Because things that I've said have always been ignored in the past and I
think everybody notices the same thing.
Continuing to speak of the department she said, "In our little area, I think nobody is very
comfortable criticizing. Do a lot of talking among ourselves but I really don't think that anybody
is... We'll ask some questions but never push it." She contrasted her department with the Senate
where she said the people are "incredibly comfortable" making input to conversations related to
the work and operation of the institution. She added, "They critique, they question, they put the
President on the spot, they put anybody on the spot."
Lora expressed doubt about the genuine desire for input in decision-making and policy-
shaping or whether it was primarily a cosmetic exercise. She commented, "(when) the initiative
is going forward, they view the feedback not as something that is going to shape the project but
just as a release valve to, "Yes, well listen to you" but then nothing's going to change.
Numerous processes on campus that promoted learning were reported. Many of the
standard discussion forums on campus were reported as sessions where learning took place.
Some participants found off-campus retreats to be very useful learning sites as opportunities for
reflection were provided at these sessions. They also cited the greater tendency for open
conversations in those settings and how they contributed towards learning. Sarah conveyed her
experience at a departmental retreat as very gratifying and spoke of the challenging yet fruitful
conversations that took place. She commented:
or even in the context of certain professional discussions that can come out and if they're at
point where, unless you address it nothing's going to move. If it's bringing about certain
emotions that have to be addressed it is better to address it and I'm glad that we all did. I
know even though there were times when it got, it was hot, but just trying to stay through it
and follow up with some of the things that we learned from it, I think brought about a
different energy and makes us more productive, it makes us stronger as a team.
Jane also felt that the types of in-depth discussion needed for learning were taking place
within the organization. When asked she said, "I say today that they dig deep into problem areas.
We get into some real discussions, especially when we get away and we do the retreat types of
Sarah provided an example of the learning conversational skills evident among some
members of the organization. In this example she demonstrated the skill of balancing advocacy
and inquiry and in particular the willingness to invite others to inquire about her feelings. She
and expressed it more in terms of, "I felt this way. These are the responses that came up
and I wondered why it was coming up and I wanted to express it to you but I also want to
understand and these are some ways that I feel that that could be dealt with." And so we
were able to have an honest discussion about it.
Most participants felt that individuals on campus were able to have the conversations
needed to enhance organizational learning. They reported an appropriate level of skill in raising
difficult issues and engaging in discussions on them. Mike described one such strategy as well as
So I think if it is couched as an idea or as a suggestion it's going to go.... You know
somebody who is agitated in their complaint about something is going to make somebody
defensive and then people end up justifying themselves rather than listening to suggestions.
Mike also spoke about the individual skill level needed in communication even in a
supportive culture. He commented, "Even though I think the campus environment and climate
can favorably influence that to some degree.... Just because you're in the culture doesn't mean
you have the skill set to communicate effectively and non-confrontationally."
An integral part of the organizational learning process at Lakeside Community College
was the use of pilots to try out new practices. A pilot typically involves a scaled-down version of
an initiative where fewer resources are committed. The pilot itself has minimal organizational
impact, which is particularly important if it fails. Pilots involved the utilization of some resources
and it offered a more accurate prediction of the success of an initiative than projections based on
"gut feeling" or the experiences of others. During and after the pilot phase of an initiative
attention was paid to feedback and results and that determined whether the initiative would
continue at a greater scale. Jane made this comment about pilots at Lakeside.
We just have this process to where we do what we call pilots (Chuckles). And when we are
piloting something we recognize the fact that it may not always work and you would find a
lot of pilots. We've piloted different ways to load faculty, they haven't worked. Some of
them were extremely expensive. We come back we regroup. So you would find the word
pilot used a lot at Lakeside. And that's kind of how we denote that something is strictly an
experiment and that there's nothing magic about experiments.
Collaborative efforts on campus also aided in the organizational learning process. Lakeside
utilized cross-functional teams regularly in creating solutions to problems and in guiding the
execution of resulting practices. Varying perspectives, experiences and skill-sets among the
individuals who participated in such sessions increased the richness of discussions. Their
perspectives helped to foster multiple ideas in which the possible systemic effect of initiatives
could be projected.
Dissemination of Knowledge/Learning throughout the Organization
Lakeside Community College actively promoted the sharing of information and practices
throughout the organization. Various forums were utilized to present to faculty members
practices that were successful in a particular unit or classroom. Faculty made presentations at
"best practice" sessions about strategies that they had tried and found to be useful. Informal
sessions such as "brown bag lunches" were also arranged to allow faculty to share information
and experiences. The College's Professional Day activity was also identified as a forum where
"there's an opportunity to present something like that (innovative practice)." Forums such as
those just described were also used to disseminate knowledge gained from various sources
including conference attendance, classroom experience and reading of relevant literature. Jane
offered this comment to describe how information is spread at Lakeside Community College.
We several times a year have sessions to where we share best practices. So peers from
throughout the college are selected because we know they're doing something that's
different, new and innovative and they're asked to share that. We have faculty
colloquiums, once a quarter at least, where we share new practices or bring in speakers that
are doing something that's innovative so there is a lot of opportunities for faculty to get
excited about something and then there is always the support there for when they do get
As with the generation of knowledge, collaborations across campus also proved critical in
spreading knowledge and practices across campus. Collaborative efforts, both interdepartmental
and intradepartmental, brought individuals together for specific purposes but often,
serendipitously, proved to be an ideal site for the exchange of ideas and sharing of practices
beyond the initial focus of the session. The formal and the informal interaction, such as "catching
up" in those settings provided an opportunity for members of the college community to find out
about new practices in various departments.
Many examples of departments or units learning from each other were presented. Through
the course of everyday interaction individuals in departments learned what others were doing and
adapted them to their department when they thought it would be beneficial. Mike provided an
account of such learning and its reciprocal nature.
One, and its not that this is particularly novel, but we purchased, shortly, five years ago, we
purchased software, computers and a large printer that can print poster size paper in
color.... But anyhow, we made that expenditure because we understood that
communication on this type of campus is challenging. An 8 1/2 X 11 black and white
flyers, even on brightly colored paper is just completely lost in the blizzard on the bulletin
boards. So we bought ten A-frames that hold 24 X 36 inch posters. We bought the software
and equipment to make our own posters and we employed a graphic design student intern
from our graphic design program, so now we have (holds flyer) this is an 8 1/2 11
example of what we printed last week in 24 X 36. But we can add logos, we do, I mean
this is effective but we're a lot more complex than even that little example there. But we
began doing that and pretty quickly other folks including our campus' own marketing
group said, "Wow! Good idea. Where did you get this stuff?" We told them, you know.
"What have you liked? What's been the problems?" And then they went and they
purchased a piece of equipment that is probably next generation, even better than ours. So
they're able to do that. They in turn started putting some feather banners on campus, which
are these posts that stick in the ground .... You know and the text usually goes vertically,
and you know it might say "event today", or whatever. They began using some of those
and we said, "Oh, great idea." So we got some in our colors and in our, you know, and that
Other Influences on Organizational Learning
Thus far, stimuli for organizational learning, sources of knowledge and means of
knowledge and practice transmittal have been examined. The discussion now turns to factors that
do not fit in the above mentioned categories but through their presence or absence influence the
learning capacity of an organization. These factors may be categorized as environmental.
Tolerance for Failed Initiatives and Experimentation
The findings of the study indicate strong support for experimentation and a high tolerance
for failure at Lakeside Community College. Administrators encouraged faculty to try new
approaches in the classroom. Staff and faculty were supported in the development of any
initiative that might benefit students and further the mission of the institution. Furthermore,
when new initiatives were launched, whether by official pilot projects or otherwise, there was
clear communication that failure was a part of the learning process and was to be tolerated in the
process of improving the institution. Yvonne felt that the atmosphere at Lakeside allowed faculty
to present new initiatives aimed at improvement even if prior attempts failed. When asked about
it she said,
No, I think we have a great attitude to that. I really do because, we've had so many failed
ideas and people keep coming up with more (laughs) KD (laughs) LR: No, I'm
serious, I really mean it, now that I think about it. Its like, well we'll try this and if it
doesn't work we'll try something else and if it doesn't work we'll try something else and
there is really not much finger pointing like "So and so said this would be the answer to
our problems, what an idiot he was." We don't really do that, we just like, we tried and
maybe we needed to fix some part of it or maybe just toss it all out or whatever.
Sometimes maybe we don't identify quickly enough that an idea is failing but there's
really no, no reason to ever penalize.
Mike expressed a similar sentiment when he said: "...I don't see people having heavy duty
regrets about their failed experiments, you don't see people publicly criticized or rolling their
eyes over something that was a failed effort."
Lora's view on the attitude towards experimentation was different than the views of
others. She agreed that experimentation and innovation were encouraged at Lakeside but differed
in her view of "the end" of a failed experiment. She felt that failed experiments "died quiet
deaths" never to be mentioned again. She suggested that in such instances the opportunity is lost
for learning from error. She related, "My sense is the attitude towards the failed experiment,
here, it's kind of, "Let's just ignore it. Let's pretend it didn't happen.""
Lora then related an episode that helped lead her to the view she currently holds. She told
of a well-intentioned program that was put in place for faculty. The program was not suitable for
many faculty members and was eventually discontinued. She concluded her narrative with her
evaluation of how such situations are dealt with at Lakeside.
and then it just, no ever said anything more about it. It just went away. And I realized, and
then I saw it happen again and again and again. Things are going in a wrong direction,
people finally say something about it, get fed up enough about it. Administration never
really apologizes (chuckles), never explains it. It just stops.
Support from Senior Administrators
The research findings showed that the senior administration of Lakeside Community
College supported activities leading to organizational learning. Administrators regularly
advocated being innovative, seeking new knowledge, giving feedback and the sharing of
information among members of the college community. Several participants spoke to these
As a member of faculty, Lorna felt confident that the support would be there for her and
other faculty who were innovative in their work. She said:
And that's part of why many projects for innovations get advanced here is that the
institution is... relatively eager to support faculty in their outside endeavors recognizing the
way that it can benefit the institution...those sorts of interests outside the classroom or
people wanting to do things a little differently.
They take chances on people here I think and sort of say, "Well that sounds interesting,
where will you go with it?" It seems they will often open up avenues, offer people support
where they can and then people turn around and end up with an initiative that really
benefits the college.
Lora also commented in a very personal way when she said, "But I do have a sense that
people want to support me in what I do and want to help me to do what I do even better." Jane
expressed a similar sentiment when she said, "So there is a lot of opportunities for faculty to get
excited about something and then there is always the support there for when they get excited."
Availability of Numerous Discussion Forums
The administration was also responsible for setting up various forums that facilitated
sharing information in the college community and adapting the organizational structure to ensure
that discussion forums included the holders of posts that were needed to ensure optimal
effectiveness. They ensured that the "right people" were at the discussion table. As noted earlier,
there were numerous opportunities for the sharing of ideas around campus. These include Senate
meetings, Senate sub-committee meetings, departmental and unit meetings, best-practice
sessions, brown-bag lunches, e-mail exchanges, faculty and staff retreats, and administrative
meetings such as Coordinating Council and Academic Heads meetings.
Participants viewed the College Senate as one of the most significant discussion forums on
campus as it gave faculty and staff an opportunity to be involved in the "shared governance" of
the campus. Participants described the Senate as being effective, respected by senior
administration and structured in a way to receive input from those faculty and staff members
who wish to give it. Through the Senate, relevant members of the college were able to affect the
changes in routines and practices on campus. Yvonne spoke to its representative structure when
she said, "We have I think two or three members from each area on campus. It's a commitment
that people take real seriously." She added, "And you have committees (of the Senate) that
actually do what they're suppose to do."
While participants spoke of the Senate's effectiveness, some also thought that it slowed the
rate of change on some occasions. Jane said, "I would say, yes, they are extremely open. Maybe
sometimes so open that we're slowed in getting business done because there is so much listening
Yvonne, who has been personally involved with the Senate supported Jane's statement.
On the negative side, sometimes things, innovations or change or new ideas are put off for
a while because we (the Senate) say, "Well, we don't know, we have to think about that."
The Senate says, "Give us another month, let us form a committee, let us look into it" and
it just sort of slows the whole process down.
According to participants, there have been purposeful steps taken relating to the structure
of the organization that have had a positive effect on how learning takes place in the
organization. The high quality of discussion on campus has benefited from decisions taken by
administration to ensure interaction between particular groups or officers. Human resources
policies that featured cross-training and cross-function promotions also contributed to individuals
having a greater sense of the whole institution.
Both heads of academic departments who were involved in the study emphasized the
impact of the reorganization of the academic department from two divisions with two different
leaders to one unit under the Vice-president of Academic Affairs. Previously, the liberal arts
division and the technical division had distinct heads where the department chairs or directors
reported. Under the new structure, collaboration, sharing of resources and mutual understanding
all increased, which has facilitated organizational learning. When asked about this impact Frank
Yes, emphatically, because this has definitely fostered (3.0) interchange and
communication, much more so and I think for the better certainly, between the two
different areas. So its definitely... I mean knowing what they need... Because we serve
one another, really. As I said, its been very positive.
Jane had this to say about the new structure.
Back a few years ago when the President made a transition where he brought all the
departments, academic departments under one vice-president...we used to... we were
actually divided out to two divisions. And he eliminated the two division concept a couple
years ago to where we all sit now at the same table and I think that has truly promoted a lot
more collaboration... as a result we have fewer layers and we all get together and talk a lot
more as a result of that.
A noteworthy initiative of the administration to promote interaction, which has been in
place for many years, is the physical location of faculty members in interdisciplinary work
spaces. Faculty work areas are located in various buildings across campus. Each unit may house
between six and ten faculty offices and the individuals assigned to those offices may come from
a range of disciplines as opposed to the more typical arrangement where academic departments'
faculty are grouped together. Each unit also includes a common lounge area which further
facilitates faculty engaging each other in discussions. Most participants praised the concept and
design of the interdisciplinary units, even when they did not actually work in that type
environment, as was the case with one department chair and one faculty member. Frank, who
worked in such a unit reported:
The structure of our buildings was intended, and the way that we're housed in
interdisciplinary units, to have a continual exchange of ideas and a mixing of people so
that you know, hopefully its to move forward.... Having had the opportunity to interact
and have exchange with faculty from so many varying disciplines, as I said it's just a very
wholesome thing.... And I think that enhances the ability to be able to change.
Lora's reflection on her experience in an interdisciplinary unit was not as positive. She
stated, "It's a lovely idea (hint of sarcasm detected) and I will also say that I think it works in
some units." She later added, "It's a wonderful idea about the interdisciplinary units but it has
not worked beautifully for me." She reported much better working relationships with her
disciplinary peers who were spread across the campus.
An important feature that favors communication, and as a result organizational learning at
Lakeside is the positive relationships between various individuals on campus. While identifying
this feature, participants attributed the development of these relationships to several reasons.
Low turnover among the staff meant that there were many longtime employees at Lakeside who
had opportunities through the years to build relationships. Frank pointed out that "people that
come to Lakeside (to work) generally tend to stay." Due to the relatively small size of the
population in the area in which the campus is situated many individuals are known to each other
as spouses, siblings, neighbors and friends away from campus and the college benefits from
those relationships in the workplace.
Mike spoke of the relative casual nature of interaction at Lakeside when compared to a
four-year institution at which he had worked. He said:
but here I'm a lot more in a position to say, "Hey Jim", rather than Dr. Johnson. And again
it's not that we're so small here that you can attribute it all to that. I think some of it is the
The administration's practice of promoting and transferring employees across functional
areas meant that numerous employees not only understood several functions on campus but also
knew employees in several functional areas. The tendency to approach issues using inter-
departmental groups also brought individuals together and facilitated the building of
How members of the college community related to each other was also affected by the
strong commitment to the institution's mission and priorities across campus. College faculty and
staff were willing to set aside any personal differences and work together with whomever to help
achieve organizational objectives. The building of relationships resulted in a high degree of trust
and comfort among many individuals as they worked together on campus.
Participants felt that the faculty at Lakeside Community College was a very talented group.
They attributed this in large part to the presence of a major and reputed university in the same
area. Trailing spouses of professors at the university and graduates who desired to remain in the
area contributed greatly to a strong applicant pool whenever faculty jobs were advertised. The
high quality of faculty and the zeal they brought to the campus facilitated the creative and
innovative spirit at Lakeside. Lorna compared them to the faculty at another community college
where she had recently worked and found Lakeside's faculty to be far superior. She said, "I think
that the faculty here are just, they're smart creative people." She commented further about some
faculty members. "These are people who are scholars which I think is rare to find at the
Mike emphasized the availability of quality faculty and said, "I think we've had the good
fortune of having an amazing candidate pool for this institution and part of that is our proximity
(to)... a very well educated and open-minded town." He also believed that the pool allowed
greater latitude in choosing faculty based on a range of attributes. He said:
Some of them are spouses of people at the University, so we have this incredible pool of
candidates. So that allows us to choose people who are not only proficient in their
discipline but also have the attitude we like.
The findings from the interviews pointed out that leadership at various levels within the
institution was a contributing factor to organizational learning. The President of Lakeside
Community College was the source of several new initiatives. One respondent involved in
senior-level discussions pointed out that the "presidential" initiatives came about as a result of
input from various college forums. The president was also described as facilitating new ideas to
the campus. Coordinating Council Meeting, which is convened monthly by the President, often
took the form of brainstorming sessions on various issues or a presentation by an invited guest on
a topic related to a new initiative being considered or under way. In this way, the President
contributed to the generation of new knowledge, its refinement and adaptation, and its
dissemination throughout the organization.
Jane credited the President with starting many initiatives and creating the structure and
atmosphere to sustain learning. She commented that he "tried to reinforce an environment of
shared governance" and that in the interest of better communication he "brought all the academic
departments under one vice-president. When asked about the stimulus for innovation on campus,
she commented that:
I think our President had a lot to do with it. I really do. He started that department when he
got here. He developed several initiatives that he was extremely interested in, one of them
was the internationalization of our college, our faculty and students. Another one was our
partnerships within the community to make sure that everybody has the same, um, same
opportunities to go to school and to learn and to advance through careers.
Mike commented about the impact of senior leadership on activities in the organization.
He mentioned the focus of the previous president on improvement and innovation. He also said,
"The current president of course is also very focused on change and improvement so that to
down works its way through the institution." Similarly Sarah said, "... and the moment the
leadership takes an interest something then it trickles down to all the departments because every
department is charged to do something about it, address it."
Yvonne like all other participants mentioned the initiatives or priorities articulated by the
president regularly. She said, "I don't want to sound like a Pollyanna and say he's wonderful, but
he's impressed me a lot. He is willing to take risks." She added, "I think he is very driven for
Frank pointed to the role that the President plays in setting the tone for the openness that
pervades the campus. He said, "And then of course there are, the President leaves his door open.
There's an atmosphere, as I said, here, of an openness and its not... Anybody can feel free to go
and talk to anybody and interact."
The interviews also revealed that the Vice-President of Academic Affairs played a
significant role in facilitating organizational learning. The Vice-President joined with the
president in encouraging innovation and curiosity about new practices throughout the institution.
The Vice President supported the introduction of new knowledge in the organization by
disseminating articles in her weekly email update that was distributed to all faculty. She invited
feedback and if needed, further investigation was conducted on the ideas presented in those
Jane spoke extensively of the impact of the Academic Vice-President. She felt that a lot of
her effectiveness was related to her personal attributes and style as a leader. She commented:
And all of that has to do with the Vice-President we now have. She comes from an
amazing background and she has a business degree as well and she also knows how to
facilitate in her role as opposed to directing and managing and it just opened a lot of
conversation that takes place.
She has made all the difference in the world in our jobs in the last two years... She doesn't
micro-manage and she's just brilliant! She really has in the last couple of years been a
primary reason that a lot of these collaborative types of efforts are going on.
Other respondents in the study had varying experiences with leaders of their units in the
institution. Mike pointed out that even in a institution where there is generally good leadership
practices, they are not necessarily distributed throughout the organization. He said, "Just because
you're in that culture doesn't mean you have the skill set to communicate effectively and non-
Yvonne, as discussed earlier, was very impressed with the leadership of the President but
had a nearly opposite view concerning the leader of her unit. She suggested that her unit lacked a
leader who could "see the forest from the trees" and who could "put pieces together and see what
change is needed.
Big Picture/Systems Thinking
An analysis of the interviews revealed that there was a strong appreciation of how various
activities at Lakeside fit into the "big picture". Participants' comments suggested that there was
unity of purpose at Lakeside. The strong, universal commitment to the institution's mission
seemed to be a key contributing factor in this regard. The mission was not simply the
institution's mission, it was "our" mission. The feeling of responsibility for servicing students'
needs seemed to go beyond the activities of the immediate unit to whether needs were being met
in the College as a whole. Individuals were asked to comment on services outside of their
functional area and given opportunity to serve on committees related to activities outside of their
primary assignment. Mike compared his experience at Lakeside with that at a four-year
university where he had worked and said, "I have an opportunity to have broader interests in the
educational process and to have perhaps a better comprehension of the big picture because of my
involvement that's a little broader."
The sense of commitment to one main goal also seemed to manifest itself in the lack of
competition between units. Participants described units as striving for effectiveness as opposed
to simply being better than their internal unit peer. Frank's comment seemed to represent the
views of other participants.
but as I've said I've found that some of institutions I've worked in the past it wasn't
subjugated enough. You felt like you had to be in competition for students, for attention,
for money, for everything. And I think we do a very good job of that here, not being in
competition. You know, they're not my students they're our students. You know
students...We work in conjunction, I mean we have, the math department is providing
prerequisites for the chemistry and biology and business. And we all need to work in this
together. We all have a part to play in the whole scheme of things.
Mike also spoke of this lack of competition on campus when he spoke of sharing ideas and
best practices around campus. He said,
people don't try and keep it for themselves because they want to make sure they got credit
for it, you see what I'm saying. People are more excited about sharing a good idea or a
good best practice than they are about being at all competitive about it.
There was ample evidence of units helping other units as opposed to hoarding resources
with a view to improving one's own unit at the expense of others. In discussing this practice at
Lakeside Jane used a well-developed narrative that was telling of a relevant experience. The final
portions are given below including the evaluative final sentence.
So there we were between departments "divi-ing" up what we had available and
departments that were actually willing to say, "I don't need that as badly as somebody else
does, I'll give up my turn, my round." And I just think that's a real different type of culture
when you're willing to look at things as a whole instead of as individuals.
As participants produced their views during the interviews, it was often possible to glean
the position they took as individuals and how they positioned others in conversation about
organizational life at Lakeside Community College. The interviews did not involve dialogue
between two members of the college community where offering, acceptance or rejection of
positions would be evident; hence that aspect of the analysis was not available. However, the
way in which participants positioned themselves and others spoke directly to whether they saw
themselves or others as facilitating or inhibiting organizational learning. Some positional claims
were explicit and involved their self-analysis, however some were more subtle and required
analysis of the participants' statements at various points. Their positions, presented here, reflect
those most often taken by the participants. Unlike roles which are more static, individuals may
claim various positions during the course of an interview.
Sarah positioned herself as having a high sense of moral obligation to help those she
considered less fortunate than herself. She positioned many community college students as being
in need of the help that she and the college were able to provide. She felt that because she
benefited from educational opportunities, that she needed to give to others. This sense of
obligation provided the stimulus for her to assist in organizational learning in an effort to better
meet the needs of students.
But what interested me in working in a community college was the ability to work at the
grass roots level. To work with people, and I always liked working with the student
population. That was a dream of mine to work with students anyway and to me community
colleges represented grassroots.
Sarah also positioned herself as having the necessary skill to have learning conversations,
and as the one with the courage to initiate troubling conversations. She viewed herself as being
able to inquire into the feelings and assumptions of others and open herself to similar inquiry.
This is an important concept in organizational learning. She gave an account of a difficult
conversation, a portion of which is reproduced here:
and I put the question to him in the context of some of the conversation he was having and
he was glad that I asked and I was glad that I asked because I could express, you know,
underlying feelings that I was having and he was able to explain and I said I wish more
people talked like this and we communicated.
Jane positioned herself and others in her area as skilled in certain processes that could
benefit organizational learning. She commented that working in business and industry required
more work to be done in teams and hence individuals from such backgrounds were poised for
collaboration. She positioned others from departments who had a background that was more
grounded in academic pursuits as lacking certain skills due to what she perceived as the norms of
isolation associated with teaching. She stated:
I think that the biggest thing I see is that for the most part [is] those of us who have come
in from a business background, no matter whether its just general business or its
construction or it's a medical field, all have more experience with administrative types of
skill sets. We're more used to working in teams because typically as a faculty member, you
don't typically work in a team.
Jane also positioned herself as a facilitative leader, one who would enable others to be
creative in performing their duties. In claiming this position she viewed herself as supporting
risk-taking and experimentation which are both critical to organizational learning. In addition to
the positions claimed for her, Jane positioned her supervisor, the VP of Academic Affairs as
having the skills needed to facilitate organizational learning. She commented:
And all of that has to do with the vice-president we now have. She comes from an amazing
background. She comes from an academic background and she has a business degree as
well and she also knows how to facilitate in her role as opposed to directing and managing
and it just has opened a lot of conversation that takes place.
Frank positioned himself as a loyal "company man" who strongly believed in the mission
of the institution and the need for it to be central to all activities of the organization. He felt that
there was a close match between the organization's mission and his personal values. He also
claimed the position of a servant-leader within the organization, seeking to serve students and
co-workers alike. He said, "My philosophy of leadership is really, I'm a servant. I have a servant
attitude and I think the best leaders are those who have that attitude." These position claims
impacted his role in organizational learning as he had the motivation to improve based on his
commitment to the mission and he was also willing to engage in collaborative work.
Lorna positioned herself as having the ability to understand what was happening in the
organization and described some of her colleagues as lacking that ability. She saw herself as
knowing why certain things had to be done even when others at her level might not have
understood. In organizational learning terms, she positioned herself as a systems thinker who
saw the impact of actions beyond the immediately obvious effect. She said:
However, they didn't think about what this would mean within the institution and how this
could affect our department in the way that other departments were looking at us, the way
administration was looking at us and part of that is that most faculty, I don't think really
think like that. .... They just seemed not to look at the ramifications of a decision they
were making beyond just our own sort of narrow sphere. So that was a frustration for me.
These claims became obvious upon analysis, however, she made more explicit claims of
faculty in her discipline as dedicated professionals who were focused on improvement and on
faculty in general as smart and creative.
Yvonne positioned herself as being able to understand how things worked within her
department and as an "instrument of change" within the unit. Most of her positioning, however,
seemed to be based upon the claims that she made for others. She positioned the President of
Lakeside as a hard-working, risk-taker who was largely responsible for the learning and
innovations taking place throughout the college. Conversely she positioned her department head
as insecure, lacking the ability to "put the pieces together" and as not wanting feedback. Her
portrayal suggested his limited capacity for involvement in effective organizational learning.
This positioning is consistent with her view that most of the changes in the department were
driven by the changes in the industry or by mandates from senior administrators not by the
efforts of the department head.
Mike positioned himself as having a firm grasp of the "big picture". This claim is related to
his perception of his "broad involvement" at the college and the impact of his diverse
educational background on his ability to see the "big picture". He also positioned himself as a
creative, problem solver who embraced change. All these claims are aligned with high learning
As the researcher in this framework it is appropriate that I examine my own position as I
joined with participants in the construction of their data. At various points I varied between emic
and etic stances (Pike, 1967). Having had more than ten years experience at a community college
I was able to engage them in an emic way as an insider. There are certain experiences common
to most community colleges and as I shared my experiences this allowed participants to see me
as understanding their point of view and I believe, to share even more. Contrastingly, at other
points in the interviews I positioned myself as an outsider, adopting a more etic stance. From this
position, while I had community college experience I did not have experience at that community
college and hence I had to learn from the experiences of those who were inside the setting. I also
stood outside as the researcher, having control of the "big picture" of the research project and
bringing knowledge of the theory and terms associated with the area of study. The following
quote represents an occasion that I connected with a participant as an insider to the community
Yeah, you did and you answered mine because that has been my experience as well. Very
similar to yours. In a faculty position and then just taking on more and more administrative
stuff and then even being seen as part of the administration Lorna: Yeah, right. KD:
without officially being there. Lorna: right, right KD: Till eventually I became a dean
so then I was officially part of it but it happened long before, just making yourself
available. And I was concerned over the same thing as you because yes, I was involved and
really felt I made significant impact but there were a lot of people who I thought were just
as talented, had as much to say, had as much thought power or whatever and energy but
just didn't somehow feel that (.5) obligation or that (1.0) feeling invited, I don't know. No
one was stopping them but somehow they didn't feel invited and um...
The results of this study were presented as whole in order to present the interrelated and
story-like nature of the analysis. In this section the results will be summarized as they relate to
the research questions and sub-questions.
How do members of a college community construct organizational learning?
This question speaks to how organizational learning takes place and sought to assess the
quality of learning processes. There was ample evidence of learning processes at Lakeside
Community College. There were opportunities for corporate discussion of issues and searching
for solutions. Groups were able to use information that was received from outside and from
internal information sources such as from surveys that suggested a need to make changes to the
routines and practices of the organization. There was evidence of creative learning as some
discussion forums resulted in defining problems, opportunities and the proposal of appropriate
responses. Evidence that would distinguish single-loop and double-loop learning was not as
clear. While error was detected and corrected, the degree to which underlying assumptions were
examined in that process was not absolutely evident from this study. Recommendations to rectify
this in future research will be offered in chapter five. The level of reflection on past events for
the purpose of informing future practice seemed lacking. The participant who most explicitly
addressed lessons learned from past events felt that this was a weak area in the institution as
particularly projects that failed "just died" without examining what went wrong.
Lakeside displayed solid processes to spread knowledge and new practices within the
organization. Numerous opportunities for interaction through various discussion forums greatly
facilitated this aspect of organizational learning. There was also evidence of new practices being
utilized and becoming a part of the organization's routines.
In sum, the study indicated that the stages of organizational learning knowledge
generation, dissemination and utilization were all well attended to at Lakeside though the
quality of some learning processes could not be properly assessed in this study.
1. How do members of a college community describe facilitators of organizational
The study was particularly useful in addressing this question in the study. Lakeside's high
capacity for learning meant that participants were able to speak more about what made learning
possible than the things that inhibited learning. They reported numerous stimuli for learning such
as commitment to the mission, desire to meet students' needs, encouragement from senior
administration, a desire to maintain the institution's reputation for innovativeness and external
stimuli. The means for generating or acquiring knowledge that would precede learning was also
evident at Lakeside. There were adequate forums for discussing issues at the college and there
was support for attendance at conferences where many new ideas were obtained. Forums also
proved to be an excellent means for spreading ideas and innovations throughout the institution.
The spread of new ideas occurred through both formal and informal means.
Participants also described numerous organizational environmental features that facilitated
organizational learning at Lakeside Community College. These features included a high
tolerance for failed initiatives, supportive senior administrators, availability of discussion
forums, facilitative organizational structures, positive relationships, high quality faculty and
sound leadership. Finally, the ability of members of the organization to see the "big picture" and
appreciate how things inter-relate also facilitated organizational learning.
2. How do members of a college community describe inhibitors of organizational
Given the high learning capacity at Lakeside, there was not as much talk about what
factors inhibited organizational learning at the college. Some participants did provide some
insights that surfaced as counter-narratives to the prevailing views of the others. Two participants
cited a possible obstacle to frank sharing in the problem identification process. They indicated
that identifying a problem usually meant having responsibility for seeing it through to solution.
Another participant felt that learning opportunities were lost when failed projects were not
examined to determine what went wrong.
A comparison of the theoretical stages of organizational learning with the results of this
study, showed that there was clearly a high capacity for organizational learning at Lakeside
Community College.. The collective narrative of participants in this study showed that there was
evidence of an individual awareness of the "big picture", tolerance for mistakes during learning,
a trusting and collaborative climate, a shared and monitored mission, and ongoing professional
development at Lakeside (Silins & Mulford, 2002; Tannenbaum, 1997). In a summary of
literature, and practices essential to organizational learning, Goh and Richards (1997) identified
five characteristics including clarity of purpose and mission, leadership commitment and
empowerment, experimentation and rewards, transfer of knowledge and teamwork and group
problem solving. These characteristics were also present in the environment and practices at
In this chapter, I will provide a summary of the findings about the nature of Lakeside's
organizational learning and discuss the linkages between these findings and the research
literature. Included will be implications of the findings for other community colleges. The
overarching themes including the morally appealing mission, trust, communication, leadership,
and big picture/systems thinking will comprise this section. I will discuss the theoretical
implications of this study and conclude this chapter with recommendations for further study.
Stages and Types of Organizational Learning
A review of the nature of organizational learning reveals that there are key stages in the
process including how knowledge is acquired or generated, disseminated throughout the
organization, and utilized and retained (Huber, 1991; Crossan, Lane & White, 1999; Dibella and
Nevis, 1998 and Kruse, 2003).
At Lakeside, internal and external sources were used to ensure that, adequate knowledge
was generated. The leadership of the institution encouraged the acquisition of external
information by funding participants to attend conferences, purchasing subscriptions to literature
and hosting speakers on campus who could speak informatively about initiatives under
consideration. Discussion forums were held where knowledge acquired externally was shared.
Internal knowledge was generated through verbal interchange. Participants reported that they felt
that there were adequate opportunities to share experiences and to engage in discussions leading
to knowledge creation.
Access to information needed for organizational learning is not unique to Lakeside. Even
schools with low budgets for travel can access online resources to catalyze conversation about
trends and innovations. Providing forums for discussion on campus simply needs planning.
Underlying such initiatives requires that the institution place a value on such activities and that
the senior leadership signify its importance. Lakeside's senior leadership clearly placed a value
on accessing information.
Some theoretical frameworks applied in varying degrees to the type of organizational
learning at Lakeside Community College. For example, the detection and correction of error is
fundamental to organizational learning (Argyris, 1978). There was ample evidence to show that
Lakeside engaged in the collection of feedback data that could aid the detection of error,
although one participant questioned the use of the data in the decision-making process. That
participant felt that learning opportunities were lost because failed programs were allowed to
fade from the consciousness of the organization's members rather than be analyzed to see what
went wrong. Other participants did not express the same sentiment but neither did they
emphasize processes in the organization that focused on reflection on past activities.
Influences on Organizational Learning
Morally Appealing Mission
One significant impetus for organizational learning at Lakeside Community College and
potentially for all community colleges was its morally appealing mission. Lakeside's mission
was stated as "Adding value to the lives of our students and enriching our community." There
was wide consensus that the mission was the right one for individual participants and for the
campus as a whole. This particular mission/vision statement was well known to participants and
seemed significant in their eyes but the real force seemed to be in the meaning derived from it.
Drawing examples from physical science, Wheatley (1999) found that seemingly chaotic
systems are in fact organized around "strange attractors". She posits that in organizations,
meaning is the most powerful force of attraction. Meaning then, provides the answer to the
question, "Why we do what we do?" At Lakeside, the central theme seems to surround meeting
students' needs and student development. These themes appeared to be the "attractors" which
powered the drive among faculty and staff to continuously learn and improve the organization in
service of the students.
By adhering to its mission, the institution aimed to make a difference in students' lives.
Many participants specifically described the differences that they perceived between community
college students and the typical 18-22 year old at a four-year university. In comparison, they
claimed that community college students attended school by choice, had more by way of life
experiences, and felt a greater need to succeed at this point in their lives. Participants seemed to
feel that helping such individuals was more gratifying and self-fulfilling than teaching young
university students who were attending school as part of a long-designed path. Participants found
deep meaning in what they did and that same purpose that brought personal gratification was
also embodied in the mission and values of the institution.
Throughout this study it became apparent that there is a strong shared vision at Lakeside
Community College. Senge (1990) describes the phenomenon in this way. "A shared vision is a
vision that many people are truly committed to, because it reflects their own personal vision." (p.
206) Most participants articulated the values and goals that are important to them a personal
vision and found congruence between their own mission and that of the institution. Personal
vision leads to shared vision which is necessary for a learning organization (Senge, 1990). He
also found that shared vision uplifts people's aspiration and cultivates risk taking and
experimentation in an organization; both of which were evident at Lakeside Community College.
Community colleges are often seen as the "second chance" institution for non-traditional
students, though indicators suggest that more traditional college students are opting for the
community college as an entry point to higher education, due to escalating costs (Boggs, 2004).
The opportunity to do work that makes a difference in the lives of individuals was an important
stimulus for organizational learning at Lakeside and given the right conditions could be the same
Another positive influence on organizational learning at Lakeside Community College was
the atmosphere of trust that seemed to pervade the campus. Many factors contributed to this
influence. For example, the President's promotion and practice of open communication was a
key component. Most of the participants felt that communication structures were open and that
one's own voice could be heard through forums and individual contact with leaders. This access,
combined with the belief that members of the campus community, including the leadership, were
aligned with the institution's mission fostered an atmosphere of trust.
Positive relationships between individuals and functional areas on campus also contributed
to the atmosphere of trust. The relationships were developed both serendipitously and through
purposeful action by the college's administration over the years. Given the relative small size of
the city in which the college is located and the high average length of service, there had been
opportunities for employees to get to know one another both during on and off campus
interactions. Those interactions mostly resulted in a positive impact on work relationships.
College practices such as the regular use of interdisciplinary and inter-functional committees,
and promotion across functional areas also helped bring persons into contact with each other.
Distributing faculty across campus in interdisciplinary workspaces also meant that relationships
were developed between department peers and location peers. A learning culture requires high
trust or at a minimum high functional familiarity (Schein, 2004). The leadership of an
organization is instrumental in both. Leaders must operate under the assumption that employees
can be trusted and they must create sufficient opportunities for interaction between
interdependent people and units to foster familiarity (Schein, 2004).
Another aspect contributing to trust was a sense of a psychologically safety in the
environment. Some elements of such an environment are support and encouragement to
overcome the fear and shame associated with making errors, norms that legitimize the making of
errors, and norms that reward innovative thinking and experimentation (Schein, 1993a). There
was congruence between these elements and the atmosphere at Lakeside Community College. At
Lakeside, innovation and experimentation were encouraged verbally and through the provision
of needed resources. Participants were united in describing Lakeside as an organization where
some failure was expected as a part of the learning process. Community members seemed
comfortable in making several attempts at initiatives thought to be of benefit to the institution.
No participant reported negative repercussions for failed experiments or initiatives on campus.
Comfort in experimenting and risk taking are essential elements in developing a facilitative
atmosphere for organizational learning (Mulford & Silins, 2003; Senge, 1990).
Participants agreed that there was good communication flow and opportunity for input and
exchange on issues related to the work of the institution. All stages of organizational learning
were positively affected by effective communication. Organizational learning was stimulated by
effective communication of the mission and vision for the institution by senior leaders of the
institution. Their willingness to support innovation and learning also seemed to be clearly
understood by the participants. Discussion forums were ample and adequate for the generation of
knowledge internally. The atmosphere at most forums seemed to be open and rich.
There were also systems for disseminating new ideas gained externally from conferences
and similar experiences or from internal deliberation and experimentation. The successful
diffusion of innovative practices across an organization depends in part on the permeability of
organizational boundaries and the information infrastructure (Senge, et al., 1999). Lakeside was
structured to bring together the people needed for discussion, regardless of their functional area.
The discussion forums themselves were integral to getting information across the institution.
This was achieved through the stated objectives of meetings as well as the informal interaction of
meeting participants. The fact that meetings often involved individuals from differing functional
areas also helped in the formal and informal spread of information.
All the stages of organizational learning can be influenced by the leadership of the
organization. Effective organizational learning requires involved, learning leaders (Dibella &
Nevis, 1998; Schein, 2004). A high capacity for learning at Lakeside Community College can be
traced to the particular choices and actions of the administration. They stimulated the desire to
learn and adapt by bringing an awareness to the organization about what similar schools were
doing and by asserting that Lakeside needed to be among the best.
Lakeside's leaders encouraged and supported the generation of knowledge at the
institution. Organizational learning is facilitated when individuals seek information about
practices outside their own unit or institution and when curiosity about current practices and
possible innovations is encouraged (Dibella & Nevis, 1998). Lakeside's leaders urged faculty
and staff to look outside of the institution to find the best practices in the field that were suited
for adoption at the institution. In addition, they facilitated the creation of discussion forums in
which knowledge was generated internally. Many forums were interdepartmental or
interdisciplinary in nature, thus enriching the discussion. They also created opportunities for
faculty members to share innovative practices thus communicating a high value on
innovativeness in the institution.
Lakeside's senior administration emphasized the importance of feedback. In addition to
personally seeking feedback and exemplifying open communication, they systematized the use
of survey instruments to collect opinions from the entire college community on various aspects
of the operation. Assessment was built into projects and other activities as a means of
determining effectiveness and providing information for improvement. While feedback implies
reflection, there was no clear evidence from the data that the administration led team members in
reflective activities that examined assumptions underlying actions in the organization.
Big Picture/Systems Thinking
When Senge (1990) postulated the five disciplines of the learning organization he
suggested that the fifth one, systems thinking, was the most important as it brought all the others
together. While not fully developed, there was evidence of capacity for systems thinking at
Lakeside Community College. Systems thinking requires an appreciation of "wholeness" of an
organization, a sense of how things interrelate, and mechanisms for feedback within the system.
Human resource policies at Lakeside featured cross-functional promotion and cooperation that
resulted in a cadre of individuals across the institution familiar with how other areas worked and
hence were able to understand systemic interrelations. These individuals could use that
understanding within their units as well as in any cross-functional discussion forums of which
they were a part. Effective discussion forums at the highest levels, such as Coordinating Council
and Academic Heads Meeting, brought various units together and increased the understanding of
how things interrelated at Lakeside.
Based on the views of participants, employees of Lakeside seemed to have a strong sense
of the organization as a whole. Individuals seemed to be committed to the mission and goals of
the organization above unit or individual goals. In the academic units, people spoke of "our
students" and seemed to recognize a joint responsibility for all the students at Lakeside. This can
also be attributed to the sense of the mission being right for the institution and general
commitment followed as a result. This sense of joint responsibility for achieving the institution's
mission probably accounted for the high levels of collaboration and the lack of the type of
competition between units that yielded negative effects.
Lakeside practices systems thinking to some extent and certainly seems poised to improve
their capacity in this arena if there is investment in developing the skills of systems thinking.
While there was a level of skill in this discipline, comparison with the work of leading
researchers suggest that it is not optimized at Lakeside. For example, concepts such as
understanding the varying distances between cause and effect, identifying processes of change as
opposed to snapshots, and leverage for example, must be purposely developed.
Argyris (1978) focuses on the detection and correction of error in organizations. He
suggests that the quality of learning depends on the extent to which the assumptions underlying
action are examined. He called the learning that includes such examination double-loop learning.
Without it, only single-loop learning could occur. Based on the experiences of participants
within different units at Lakeside as well as experiences at other institutions, it is clear that
learning capacity varies from unit to unit and among institutions. Argyris' classification is useful
in characterizing the quality of learning although whether all action in an organization will
require an examination of underlying assumptions may be questioned.
Argyris' approach seems to be based around problem-solving; organizations looking back
at past action with a view towards informing future practice. Community colleges and other
organizations are necessarily proactive in order to be competitive in today's marketplace; hence
a theory that projects forward is needed. Furthermore, some participants in the study described
conversations pertaining to seizing opportunities in addition to responding to perceived
problems. Argyris' ideas are still useful however, because the assumptions underlying
projections must also be unearthed in order to make high-quality decisions. A theory that
addresses how quality projections are made must include the role of vision and mission in
focusing and guiding those projections.
Ellstrom (2003) also addressed the quality of learning within organizations and classified
them as adaptive and developmental learning. His distinctions of learning in organizations relate
to the degree of control individuals have in determining the tasks, methods and results related to
their work. This approach allows for both problem-solving and learning associated with seizing
opportunities. The experience of participants at Lakeside required and evidenced such a flexible
Dibella and Nevis (1998) developed a framework for understanding how organizations
learn and for determining their learning capacity. While they designed it for applications across
organizational types, their application of the framework has led them to believe that there are
types of organizations that possess enough unique features to merit minor modifications to the
framework. They gave an example of modifications to healthcare organizations based on their
particular characteristics. Similar to healthcare systems, community colleges possess features
that may require adjustments in the framework in order to best assess their learning capacity. As
with healthcare, they are service providers, not manufacturers or retailers and as a result the
measurement must focus on the process of delivering the service. The provision of a service does
not easily allow for research and development apart from the actual delivery of the service.
Innovations are often piloted with the clientele.
Several adjustments made for healthcare systems seem applicable to community colleges.
They are both service providers with long-standing institutional purposes that are morally
appealing. Given the importance of mission demonstrated in this study, mission and vision
should be addressed explicitly among the learning facilitators. Another learning facilitator
identified within healthcare systems that is applicable to community colleges is learning
confidence. This facilitator refers to learning from past experiences, experience in trying new
things and the conviction that learning is possible. Results of the study do not suggest that this is
a significant attribute of learning at Lakeside Community College but it is possible that the
investigation's structure may have inhibited revelations in this area. Results from healthcare
systems caused the researchers to re-label their learning facilitator climate of openness, to
trusting relationships. This present study presents a strong case for similar labeling in community
colleges. Trusting relationships refer to both the ties individual have with each other in the work