Enabling organisational knowledge through action learning : an epistemological study

Van Niekerk, Herman J. (2004-12)

Thesis (PhD)--Universiteit van Stellenbosch, 2004.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: Key words: Organisational knowledge, pluralistic epistemology, action learning, systems theory, structuration theory, organisational learning, knowledge management. In today's competitive environment the value and importance of knowledge as an organisational resource is considered to be a key element and source of power. Knowledge is regarded as the single most important source of core competence to ensure competitiveness and long term sustainability. The value of most products and services now depends on knowledge-based intangibles and many organisational theorists argue that strategy formulations should be built on a resource-based theory. The challenge for many organisations is therefore how to enable organisational knowledge and how to increase their organisational learning capacity and performance. Following a multi-disciplinary approach, this study critically evaluates and interprets existing theories on action and systems thinking. The traditional positivist paradigm no longer answers to the needs of a post-modem paradigm and corporate epistemologists and practitioners alike are in search of a new paradigm on how to construct organisational knowledge. Drawing on Habermasian theory of communicative action, as well as Parsons' general theory of action and Giddens' structuration theory, I argue that the construction of knowledge happens in a pluralistic manner, in contrast with traditional approaches which support a paradigm informed by a singular epistemology. A pluralistic approach to the development of knowledge, in relation to a Habermasian theory of communicative action which emphasises the importance of communication and which integrates action and systems theory, is therefore proposed. Constitutive features of organisational knowledge, such as deliberation, knowledge leadership, organisational culture and technology, are identified and analysed. Action learning has been adopted by a number of leading international comparues as a learning methodology. However, action learning has seemingly not been grounded in a defensible epistemological framework. In redescribing action learning, this study explores epistemological foundations of action learning in an attempt to provide corporate epistemologists with a defensible epistemological framework which promotes pluralism and constitutive features of organisational knowledge. A framework for organisational learning and knowledge construction, the Pluralistic Action Learning Systems theory (pALS), is suggested as an improved model of organisational learning suitable for implementation in a post-modem era. This framework incorporates the primary "technical" elements of the learning process, namely problem identification, collection of information, analysis and interpretation, application/use and reflection, as well as organisational enablers inherent in collaborative learning. Organisational knowledge is therefore seen as the outcome of a learning process which occurs at the individual, social and organisational system levels. Organisational knowledge is also constituted by features such as communication, knowledge leadership and trust which are essential in a collaborative learning environment. Knowledge is therefore not constructed through a single paradigm, but socially constructed through a pluralistic epistemology. Organisational knowledge is the outcome of organisational learning and such an organisational learning process is enabled by an action learning approach. An empirical study is conducted which is based on a forty-point questionnaire. The sample size is 120 part-time MBA students who are enrolled for an action learning management development programme and who have all been theoretically and practically exposed to an action learning programme. The findings of the empirical study conclude that the construction of knowledge happens in a pluralistic manner and that an organisational epistemology should be shaped by a pluralistic framework if it were to be successful in a post-modem business environment. It proposes that action learning, which is shaped by a pluralistic epistemology grounded in the Habermasian theory of communicative action, provides a defensible framework to enhance organisational knowledge through a collaborative learning approach fostering values such as deliberation, trust and openness.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Sleutel woorde: Organisasiekennis, pluralistiese epistemologie, aksieleer, stelseldenke, strukturasie teorie, organisasieleer, kennisbestuur. Die waarde en belangrikheid van kennis in vandag se vinnige veranderende wêreld word beskou as van kritiese waarde en as die enkele mees belangrike element van kompetisie om lang termyn volhoubaarheid te bewerkstellig. In die hedendaagse korporatiewe omgewing word die waarde van die meeste produkte en dienste gebaseer op ontasbare elemente soos onder andere kennis. Korporatiewe strategeë argumenteer derhalwe dat korporatiewe strategie gevolglik op 'n vermoëns-strategie gebaseer moet word. Vir baie maatskappye is die uitdaging dus hoe kennis konstrueer moet word en hoe maatskappye hulle vermoëns moet verbeter om kennisorganisasies te word. Hierdie studie volg 'n multi-disiplinêre benadering wat bestaande aksie- en stelseldenke teorieë krities evalueer en interpreteer. Die tradisionele positivistiese raamwerk beantwoord nie aan die vereistes van 'n post-moderne paradigma nie en beide korporatiewe epistemoloeë en praktisyns is op soek na nuwe wyses hoe om organisasiekennis te konstrueer. Deur gebruik te maak van Parsons se algemene aksie teorie, en in besonder Habermas se teorie van kommunikatiewe aksie en Giddens se strukturasieteorie, argumenteer ek dat die konstruksie van kennis op 'n veeldoelige wyse plaasvind, in teenstelling met die tradisionele benadering wat 'n raamwerk aanbeveel wat op 'n enkelvoudige teorie van kennis gebaseer is. 'n Pluralistiese benadering met betrekking tot die ontwikkeling van kennis, in ooreenstemming met Habermas se teorie van kommunikatiewe aksie en gesteun deur aksie- en stelsels teorie, word derhalwe aanbeveel. Kenmerkende eienskappe van organisasie kennis soos, uitgebreide dialoog, kennisleierskap, organisasiekultuur en tegnologie word ook geidentifiseer en ontleed. Aksieleer is deur verskeie toonaangewende internasionale maatskappye aanvaar as 'n leer metodologie. Dit wil egter voorkom asof aksieleer nie in 'n epistemologiese raamwerk gegrond is nie. Deur aksieleer te herbeskryf ondersoek hierdie studie epistemologiese gronde van aksieleer in 'n poging om korporatiewe epistemoloeë met 'n verdigbare teoretiese kennisraamwerk toe te rus. 'n Raamwerk vir organisasie leer en die konstruksie van kennis, die Pluralistiese Aksieleer Stelsels (pALS) raamwerk, word derhalwe aanbeveel as 'n verdedigbare model wat aan die eise van 'n postmoderne samelewing beantwoord. Hierdie raamwerk sluit die primêre tegniese elemente van die leerproses in, te wete: probleem identifisering, die inwin van informasie, analisering en interpretasie van informasie, aanwending en gebruik van informasie en refleksie. Hierdie proses word verder ondersteun deur aspekte wat organisasieleer vergemaklik binne spanverband. Organisasieleer word dus beskou as die uitkoms van 'n leerproses wat bogenoemde elemente bevat en wat gebaseer is op 'n leeromgewing wat samewerking bevorder. Organisasiekennis word derhalwe gesien as die uitkoms van 'n leerproses wat op die individuele, sosiale en organisasie vlakke geskied. So 'n leerproses word bevorder en vergemaklik deur 'n aksieleer proses. Organisiekennis word ook gekenmerk deur eienskappe soos kommunikasie en kennisleierskap wat binne 'n saamwerk leeromgewing as noodsaaklik geag word. Kennis word dus nie deur 'n enkelvoudige raamwerk konstrueer nie, maar word ondersteun deur 'n veelvoudige epistemologie. Die empiriese studie is gebaseer op 'n veertigpunt vraelys. Die ondersoekgroep is 120 :MBA studente wat vir 'n aksieleer bestuursontwikkelingsprogam ingeskryf is en wat beide teoreties en prakties aan aksieleer blootgestel is. Die bevindings van die studie dui daarop dat kennis nie op 'n enkelvoudige wyse geskep word nie, maar wel deur van verskeie teorieë van kennis gebruik te maak. Die bevindings van die studie beveel aan dat aksieleer, as 'n pluralistiese teorie van kennis gegrond in die denke van Habermas, 'n verdedigbare raamwerk verskaf wat organisasieleer en die konstruksie van kennis bevorder deur 'n leeromgewing waarin waardes soos vertroue, openlikheid en kommunikasie bevorder word.

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