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From organizational learning to practicebased knowing Silvia Gherardi

Introduction The literature – and the community of scholars – concerned with organizational learning has grown enormously in the last 30 years. This does not mean, however, that the topic has been explored satisfactorily; nor does it mean that we know today much more about organizational processes of knowledge handling than we did 30 years ago (Easterby-Smith, 1997; Easterby-Smith et al., 1998). The quantity of literature is inversely proportional to its quality because of the biases from which it has suffered since its beginnings. These biases can be summarized as follows. • •

Learning is interpreted mainly in terms of a realist ontology: consequently, scholars ask themselves who, how, where and when organizations learn. Learning is assumed to be synonymous with change: if a significant change is produced, learning has taken place. But this is to ignore the fact that many organizational changes occur without any learning taking place, and – vice versa – that learning processes may not give rise to change. In any case, there is no benefit to be had from treating the literature on organizational change as literature about learning. Learning has been taken to be an independent variable which influences certain of the principal features of organizational performance (for example, competitiveness). Thus, the existence of the learning organization has been institutionalized, which also presupposes its opposite: the non-learning organization. A quasi-object has been socially constructed, and now its properties are measured while its metaphorical origins are forgotten.

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The main aim of a practice-based theorizing on learning and knowing (Gherardi, 2000) is therefore to dispel the most entrenched of these biases and to propose a different interpretative framework. Given this goal, a number of methodological choices must be made which can be summarized as follows: •

Learning is an interpretative device. It enables construction of a representational system that can be used to analyse the organizational processing of knowledge: how it is produced, how it circulates, how it is institutionalized, what emancipatory (or otherwise) contribution it can make to society. A constructivist ontology therefore is appropriate. If learning is not to be synonymous with other concepts, it requires an object that marks it out and which is empirically circumscribable. Learning is enacted within the boundaries of a domain of knowing and doing: a practice. Learning cannot be compartmentalized into levels and divided up among different scientific disciplines to produce areas of individual, group, organizational and inter-organizational learning. These may be heuristically useful distinctions as long as we bear in mind that knowledge circulates among and unites these various levels, and that any distinction into levels is purely arbitrary.

Accordingly, the concept of organizational learning – which entails a collective subject which learns – may be replaced with that of learning-in-organizing (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2000), a term which denotes the activity that mobilizes the knowledge used and usable in organizing. Therefore, it is the organizing that enacts subjects (individual, collective, organizational and institutional), objects and the relations among them around a practice. The metaphor of knowing as enactment conveys the idea of a network socially woven around a domain of knowledge. This metaphor is grounded in an actor-network sensibility and in concepts like ‘knowing-as-displacing’ (Law, 2000) or learning in the face of mystery (Gherardi, 1999). At the heart lies the image of enactment as ‘an occasion in a location, a set of actions with a series of effects’ (Law, 2000: 349). The knowledge, the subjects and the objects of knowledge may be understood as being produced together within a situated practice. The heuristic value of the concept of practice resides in the possibility of articulating spatiality and facticity.

Practice articulates spatiality Two largely interchangeable linguistic artefacts circulate in the same discourse: ‘situated knowledge’ and ‘social learning’.

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The adjective ‘social’ points to the localization of learning and knowing, not in the mind of the individual but in collective subject, a subject that simultaneously thinks, learns, works and innovates (Brown & Duguid, 1991), which means that knowing is not a separate activity – neither in the life-course, nor in restricted domains, nor by type of activity. This figure of discourse enjoys the support of an array of old and distinguished allies: symbolic interactionism, the ‘workplace studies’ of the Chicago School, ethnomethodology, and the critical ethnography of work. This more strictly sociological tradition contributes to a definition of ‘social’ where learning and knowing are mediated by social relations. In an article comparing the findings of activity theory, symbolic interactionism and computer-supported cooperative work, Susan Leigh Star (1995), in order to illustrate the anti-reductionist approach to knowledge distinctive of workplace learning, cites Becker’s celebrated study of 1953–4, which set the standard for qualitative sociology. Becker studied the use of marijuana by jazz musicians as a group process. Mere drug taking was not enough; instead, the group culture was the primary medium of the coaching process, which proceeded through a series of stages: (1) learning to smoke the drug properly; (2) learning to connect bodily sensations with the use of the drug, and (3) learning how to enjoy those sensations. If one step were not activated, the person would not become a marijuana user. Lave and Wenger’s (1991) study refers to other social worlds – midwives, tailors, alcoholics anonymous – but highlights the same phenomenon. Knowledge resides in social relations, and knowing is part of becoming an insider in a community of practice. Another study carried out within the actor-network framework examines the social worlds of marginals and arts: Emilie Gomart and Antoine Hennion (1999) compare the worlds of music amateurs and drug users to develop a sociology of attachment. Their aim is to describe the devices with which amateurs are able to put their passion into practice. A love of music and a love of drugs (although the former is positively valued while the latter is not) display similar conditions for the onset of addiction. Both involve entry into a world of powerful sensations, of being ‘under the influence’ of something else, of accepting loss of self-control. In each case, attachment takes the form of self-abandonment, which is reminiscent of Polanyi’s (1958) notion of knowing as surrender to an artwork. Gomart and Hennion imply that there are techniques, settings, devices and collective carriers that make this active dispossession possible. Instead of focusing on the subject, in the same way as Becker refused to focus on the object ‘drug’, they consider the mechanisms by which this kind of ‘active passion’ is enacted. In a practice, knowledge is mediated by social relations and knowing is part of a surrendering to a social habit.

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Once the concept of social is detached from the mental and individual, and attached to that of knowing in practice, numerous routes open up. The subject is shifted further towards the subject-network described by Gomart and Hennion (1999). Learning as object of study moves to consideration of knowing as something that simply ‘happens’, and to the question of ‘how’ it happens. Knowledge may thus become once again coloured by pathos and not only by logos (Gagliardi, 1990). Activity and passivity enable each other (Gomart & Hennion, 1999), knowing in a passive way (Gherardi, 1999) may be legitimized, and the world of the sensible and corporeal becomes an instrument of knowledge as in the aesthetic understanding (Strati, 1999) of organizational life. Consequently, when the locus of knowledge and learning is situated in practice, the focus moves to a social theory of action that addresses activity and passivity, the cognitive and the emotional, mental and sensory perception as bits and pieces of the social construction of knowledge and of the social worlds in which practices assume meanings and facticity. In articulating the ‘where’ of knowledge, the figure of practice employs a second adjective: ‘situated’. The main characteristic of so-called ‘situated learning theory’ (SLT) has been its discussion (Lave, 1988; Brown et al., 1989) of the concept of ‘context’, in polemic with traditional cognitive theory (TCT) which regards context as the container of decontextualized knowledge (impersonal, detached, asocial, apolitical, ahistorical, immaterial). Interesting in this regard is Fox’s (1997) comparison between TCL and SLT, and the demarcation line between modernism and postmodernism. Consistent with a modernist project is the view of context as pre-given, although the effects of objective social structures are not determined but take shape within socioeconomic relations. On the other hand, the concept of context as ‘emergent’ is more in keeping with a postmodernist project. ‘In the postmodern view, “context” is no longer “out there” in the messy, complex surface of an objective world; rather, that very surface complexity and confusion are a projection of language itself, the inconsistencies of its classifications, taxonomies, dichotomies, and more’ (Fox, 1997: 741). Discussion of situated knowledge therefore extends to the use of conversational analysis in computer-mediated contexts of activity and to interactions in which participants within a setting build frameworks of mutual accountability as they become environments for each other (Goodwin & Goodwin, 1996). The interplay of context, interaction and mutual intelligibility can also be found in the production of single utterances (Goodwin & Goodwin, 1996: 70); indeed, these authors draw on the tradition of symbolic interactionism and Heritage’s (1984: 242) conception of conversation as

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‘doubly contextual in being both context-shaped and context renewing’. On this view, also, physical space – a shared workplace (Suchman, 1996: 36) – is not so much ‘a locale as a complex but habitual field of equipment and action, involving intimate relations of technology and practice, body and person, place and activity’. In Goffman’s (1971) terms, it is a situational territory. Actor-network theory and the sociology of science and technology entirely dissolve the concept of context, although they retain the idea of situatedness. The former operation takes place when the action–system or subject–action dichotomies are dissolved: ‘actors are network effects’; they acquire the attributes of the entities which they include (Law, 1999). The latter operation comes about through the idea of ‘performativity’: if entities (human or non-human) achieve their form as a consequence of the relations in which they are located, and if relations do not hold fast by themselves, then they have to be performed in, by and through those relations. It would be an unpardonable oversight not to recognize the authority of the feminist voice in discussion of ‘situated knowledges’ and in revealing the androcentrism of both the structures and the practices of knowledge through which social experience has been understood. The alleged ‘objectivity’ of learning and science has strategically concealed their gendered nature, as well as the power relations that determine what counts as knowledge. The feminist critique of science, and that conducted internally to the sociology of science and technology (Harding, 1986; Fujimura et al., 1987; Haraway, 1991; Star, 1991; Mol, 1999), has helped to show that even ‘universal’ knowledge is situated, and that feminist objectivity simply means bodily situated knowledge. Some are not allowed not to have a body, and therefore a limited point of view. The advantage of a ‘partial perspective’ – the term is Donna Harraway’s taken forward by Marilyn Strathern (1991) – is that knowledge always has to do with circumscribed domains, not with transcendence and the subject–object dichotomy. Strathern’s (1991) term ‘partial connections’ links with the European tradition of the notions of relatedness, connectedness-in-action (Cooper and Fox, 1990), or ‘partially connected’ knowledges. Cyberfeminism posits local but not particularistic, partial but not chaotic, knowledges, and resides at the centre of the paradox of postmodern subjectivity and of a nomadic subjectivity (Braidotti, 1994). In a cultural context (the so-called ‘scientific community’), where masculinity is made invisible and normative by the values of ‘good research’, the deconstruction of the practices of knowledge production generates a concept of knowledges situated within a politics of subjectivity (Calás and Smircich, 1996).

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Practice articulates facticity Practice connects ‘knowing’ with ‘doing’. It conveys the image of materiality, of fabrication, of handiwork, of the craftsman’s skill in the medieval bottega d’arte. From the Latin verb facere, Knorr-Cetina (1981) uses the term ‘facticity’, and Bruno Latour (1987) that of the ‘fabrication’ of scientific facts and technical artefacts. Knowledge consequently does not arise from scientific ‘discoveries’; rather, it is fabricated by situated practices of knowledge production and reproduction, using the technologies of representation and mobilization employed by scientists. The sociology of science thus deposes scientific knowledge from the pedestal upon which positivism placed it. It asserts that scientific knowledge should be treated as a culture like any other form of knowledge, and therefore that it too is subject to social control and social interests. The connection between power and knowledge is thematized together with ethical questions and issues concerning social change. The metaphor of ‘ecologies of knowledge’ (Star, 1995) allows us to locate knowledge production in an ecosystem that rejects the dichotomies of functionalist thought, like those between nature and society, and between the social and technical. The study of knowing in practice can follow the same methodological principle stated by Latour (1987) for the analysis of science as practice: ‘follow the actors’ in order to identify the ways in which they associate the various elements that make up their social and natural world. Latour draws this principle from ethnomethodology and from Hughes’s (1971) slogan ‘follow the actors’: an injunction taken up by Callon (1980) and then by Latour (1987), who, to explain science in action, followed scientists and their work practices, as well as the specific practices of representation with which they described the world. Practice conveys the contingent conditions and materiality of the world into knowledge, but if we look at how this materiality is described we find different understandings of it. The material bases of every culture may be seen in two ways: on the one hand, objects are the materialization of ideas, tastes, fashions, trends and lifestyles; on the other, artefacts, too, have an interpretative flexibility. Scholars of organizational culture use the term ‘artefacts’ for all the visible expressions ‘which – while having an existence independent of their creators – call on the powers of comprehension of the destinees, rather than on their capacity to experience formal qualities concretely through the senses’ (Gagliardi, 1990: 3). This conception of artefacts partly connects with the semiotics of materiality (Law, 1999) or of relational materiality (Law, 1994), or again of functional materialism (Blackler et al., 2000). Albeit with differing degrees

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of emphasis, it is argued that practice is a bricolage of material, mental, social and cultural resources. Not only are people active bricoleurs, but also the world is not docile or passive. Actor-network theory insists on treating human and non-human entities alike: they are all ‘actants’. Semioticians use the notion of ‘actants’ to indicate that a hierarchy has not been established among all acting things. Therefore, the problem is how to keep all these elements in alignment, given that order is not given but is always an emergent process.

Conclusions Different streams of research, traversing the boundaries of scientific discipline, are converging on an understanding (and a methodology) based on a pragmatic theory of knowing that reframes traditional research into organizational learning. Practice is the figure of discourse that allows the processes of ‘knowing’ at work and in organizing to be articulated as historical processes, material and indeterminate. The point is not to go in search of a framework which comprises all these reflections in a single space, but rather to show how a practice-based theorizing arises from multiple perspectives and negotiations, and how in so doing it delegitimizes a univocal narrative of scientific authority. In discussing how symbolic interactionism, activity theory, actornetwork theory, sociology of science and technology may work together within a practice-based theorizing, I wish to outline a programme of empirical research to study how knowing within the context of a workplace culture has a jointly constructed and learnt meaning; in the sense that people, symbols, machines and things produce understandings which are simultaneously structured and novel. To focus on analysis of knowing within a situated practice allows study of where knowledge is socially constructed and how it is socially constructed both as activity and passivity.

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Silvia Gherardi is currently a full professor at the Dipartimento di Sociologia e Ricerca Sociale of the University of Trento where she teaches Sociology of Organization. At present, her research interest is centred on organizational learning, the social foundation of learning and the communities of practice. [E-mail: silvia.gherardi@soc.unitn.it]

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From Organizational Learning to Practice-Based Knowing

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