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Organizational Learning: Creating, Retaining, and Transferring Knowledge by Linda Argote Review by: Theresa K.

Lant Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Sep., 2000), pp. 622-625 Published by: Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University Stable URL: . Accessed: 06/11/2011 01:28
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Christine M. Beckman Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior GraduateSchool of Management of University California, Irvine Irvine,CA92697
REFERENCE Cyert R. M., and J. G. March 1963 A Behavioral Theory of the Firm. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Organizational Learning:Creating, Retaining, and TransferringKnowledge. LindaArgote. Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1999. 212 pp. $89.95. Research on organizational learninghas been plagued by widely varyingtheoreticaland operationaldefinitionsand a lack of empiricalstudy. Argote's book goes a long way toward addressing these complaints.This book is a coherent and comprehensive treatment of the state of knowledge about organizational learning.Argote has purposelylimited this book to a clearlyarticulateddefinitionof organizational learningand a related set of questions. She focuses on contexts in which the outcomes of learningcan be identifiedand evaluated and in which feedback on the efficacy of acquired knowledge is clear,timely, and understandable. Thus, the emphasis is on the learningof knowledge and practices that produce some measurableoutcome, such as production quantityand quality.The book does not delve into issues in such as the role of interpretation organizational learningor the dynamics of learningprocesses across levels of analysis. There is some discussion of the micro underpinnings orgaof the nizational learning,in particular, evidence aroundgroup dynamics and group structurein relationto knowledge creation and evaluation.Argote's stated goal for the book is to describe and integratethe results of research on "factors explainingorganizational learningcurves and the persistence and transferof productivity gains acquiredthroughexperience" (p. xvi). Ifyou are lookingfor a book on the social constructionof knowledge, then this is not the book for you. If you would like to read a cogent assessment of research on organizational learningthat has been based on solid theorizingand empirical study, then look no further.This book is a well-crafted, readableoverview of issues such as learningcurves, organizationalmemory,and knowledge transfer.I outline the key issues that Argote explores and summarizethe key findings that she reports. Manyof these findingsare based on an extensive body of empiricalresearch conducted by Argote and her students and colleagues. The section on learningcurves goes beyond the standard of of application learningcurves to an understanding how learning-curve patternsare influencedby factors such as organizational forgettingand knowledge transfer.The benefit
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Book Reviews

of Argote's approachis twofold. First,she linksthe formal models and sophisticated empiricaltesting associated with the learning-curve literature with the broaderliterature on organizational learning.Second, she describes specific and quantitativeways of testing the degree of learning,forgetting, and transferof knowledge within and across organizations. This is a significantcontribution a body of literature to that has suffered from a lack of precise definition,measurement, and estimation (Minerand Mezias, 1996). The findings reportedsuggest that organizational learning might explainthe significantperformancevariationsthat are evident at the firm level of analysis. Three broadcategories of organizational factors appearto influence the rate at which organizationslearnand their subsequent productivity: proficiency of individuals performingboth productionand managerialactivities,technology, and an organization's routines, To structures,and means of coordination. understandthe role of learningand subsequent outcomes, Argote chooses to decompose the learningconcept into three components of the learningprocess: knowledge acquisition,knowledge retention,and knowledge transfer.Research on these components is summarizedthroughoutthe book. A criticalcontribution Argote's elaborationof the learning of curve concept is the findingthat acquiredknowledge does not stay at a constant level; it depreciates. Likewater in a bathtub,knowledge tends to seep out of organizations.Several mechanisms cause this seepage. Knowledgecan be lost when the physicalsubstrate on which knowledge is encoded decays. Argote gives the example of old recordingsof film or data stored on magnetic tape. Knowledgecan also be lost throughpoor recordkeeping. Both of these causes of knowledge depreciationare significant,but solutions can be readily imagined,if not implemented. A more complex cause of knowledge depreciationis personnel turnover.To the extent that knowledge is held by people ratherthan in technologies, structures, or routines, knowledge leaves when people leave. A significantbody of research supports this conclusion. But turnoveris a doubleedged sword. Knowledge is not necessarily relatedto a constant level of productivity increases. Knowledgecan become obsolete; changingtechnologies is a common cause. Under these circumstances, turnovercan be beneficialfor two reasons. First,individuals with obsolete knowledge may be resistant to new knowledge. Newcomers may be more willing to learnnew skills. Second, newcomers may be more likelyto have knowledge relevantto new technologies when hired. Forinstance, young newly hiredemployees are more likelythan older workers to understandhow to use the Internet. To determine the relationshipbetween turnoverand must have a good knowledge depreciation,an organization of understanding the degree to which knowledge is embedded in technologies, structures,and proceduresversus people. The more knowledge resides in people, the higherthe rate of depreciationdue to turnover. The concept of organizational memory is highlyrelatedto that of knowledge depreciation.Organizational memory can
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be thought of as repositoriesor retentionbins for knowledge acquiredthroughexperience. As noted above, organizational memory that depends on individual memory results in a higher riskof knowledge loss than organizational memory that consists of technologies, structures,and routines.The embedding of knowledge in artifactsand practices can be seen most clearlyin the case of manufacturing machinery. Forinstance, the knowledge of glass blowing possessed by artisans has been embedded in glass-makingmachinery. Machines recreate the actions of the artisans and their tools. Now, individuals who know nothingof the glass blower's art can produce large quantitiesof glassware. In continuousprocess technologies, so much knowledge has been embedded in the technology that few individuals needed, and are the transformation inputs is virtually of invisible. Memoryalso takes the form of structuredtasks that follow procedures created as the result of priorlearning.Technologies and proceduresare memories of how to accomplish a goal (Garud,1997), but organizational memory is much more differentiatedthan this. More ambiguous and social forms of knowledge are also very important,such as the knowledge of who is good at what tasks, the knowledge of how to coordinate and communicate with others, and the knowledge of whom to trust. These forms of knowledge reside in transactive memory systems (Moreland,1999). Technologicalmemory is very stable and reliable;it is also fairlyrigidand resistant to change. Structuresand procedures can be changed more easily than technologies, but they have the most flexibilrequirepeople to use them. Individuals ity-they have subtle, tacit knowledge that they can applyto relatedtasks without being "retooled."The differentiated memory that exists in organizationshas implicationsfor how organizationscan transferknowledge within or between firms. The simplerand more codified knowledge is, the easier it is to transfer.Forinstance, if technology can be copied precisely, the knowledge embedded in this technology can be transferredwith ease. Even for the most routinized tasks, howevthat makes the er, there is usuallysome tacit understanding transfererror-prone. Argote finds that knowledge seems to transferbest in the presence of a superordinaterelationship, such as a franchiseor chain. This findingmay be attributable to motivationand communication.Transfer be hindered can conby between-group competitionand in-group/out-group rather flict, which motivates groups to withholdinformation transmitted than share it. The richness of the information on also enhances the transferprocess. Much of the literature knowledge transferhas emphasized the tacit and sticky natureof knowledge that makes it difficultto transfer(Szulanski,1996). The findings in this book also suggest that the situated, context-specific natureof knowledge makes it difficult to transfer(Wenger,1998). The findingsof this book have many importantimplications and given the organizational economic trends that we face today. Questions of knowledge transferbecome especially of and difficultgiven the globalization business important
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Book Reviews

organizationswith value-chainactivities dispersed aroundthe world. Issues of organizational memory and learningcurves are particularly importantin this age of flexible production, mass customization,and an externalizedand/orvirtualworkforce. This book should be requiredreadingfor scholars doing research relatedto organizational learningand for practitionerstryingto implement knowledge management and transferprogramsin organizations. Theresa K. Lant Stern School of Business New YorkUniversity New York,NY 10012
REFERENCES Garud, R. 1997 "On the distinction between know-how, know-why, and know-what." In P. Shrivastava, A. S. Huff, and J. E. Dutton (eds.), Advances in Strategic Management, 14: 81-101. Greenwich, CT:JAI Press. Miner, A. S., and S. J. Mezias 1996 'Ugly duckling no more: Pasts and futures of organizational learning research." Organization Science, 7: 88-99. Moreland, R. 1999 "Transactive memory: Learning who knows what in work groups and organizations." In L. Thompson, D. M. Messick, and J. M. Levine (eds.), Shared Knowledge in Organizations: 3-31. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. Szulanski, G. 1 996 'Exploring internal stickiness: Impediments to the transfer of best practice within the firm." Strategic Management Journal, 17: 27-43. Wenger, E. 1998 Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Other Reviews Identity in Organizations: Building Theory Through Conversations. DavidA. Whetten and PaulC. Godfrey,eds. ThousandOaks, CA:Sage, 1998. 308 pp. $61.50, cloth; $31.95, paper. The concept of identitycuts to the core of an individual, group, or organization. Searchingfor one's identityoften triggers fundamentaland potentiallyprofoundquestions that can produce both deep insight and troublingambiguity. Researchers have incorporated identityconcepts into organizationalanalyses with increasingenthusiasm over the last decade. Giventhe criticalmass of researchers workingin this domain,Whetten and his colleagues convened a series of small conferences to foster collaboration learning.Identiand Conversations ty in Organizations: BuildingTheoryThrough disseminates in printmuch of the content and a portionof the actual conversationfrom the thirdof these conferences. Thirty-one people contributeto the book as chapterauthors, transcripteditors, or conversationparticipants. The book maps the terrainof identityresearch in organizationalcontexts, piecing together currentareas of convergence and divergence and chartingthe best courses to pursue next. Inthe process, the participants reportsome of their own empiricalcase study research, but this is secondary to developing identity-related concepts to guide future research. As such, the book's objective is to invite researchers to join
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