Exploring the Dynamics of Organizational Learning: How an Instructional Reform Effort Influenced Teaching-related Organizational Memory Processes

WCER Working Paper No. 2013-02

Matthew T. Hora and Anne-Barrie Hunter

April 2013, 24 pp.

ABSTRACT: Widely used in the organizational sciences, “organizational learning” is a theoretical framework that refers to the processes whereby organizations change and evolve over time in light of new information. A particularly important feature of this process is how organizations encode, store, and retrieve information about past successes and failures, known as organizational memory. Yet, in postsecondary education, the use of the framework is limited to prescriptive accounts of how colleges and universities should become learning organizations, with few empirical insights into how institutions actually use organizational memory in practice. In this paper we report findings from a qualitative case study of how 20 STEM faculty at a large, public research university engaged with their organization’s memory while planning courses. Given the substantial national investment in reforming undergraduate STEM teaching, we also explore how a reform initiative, the Undergraduate Science Education (USE) project, influenced these memory functions. We analyzed semi-structured interviews using a structured approach to grounded theory and verbal analysis techniques. Results indicate that faculty accessed seven “hard” and “soft” repositories of curricular information: individual memory, cultural norms, organizational procedures, role obligations, human resources, artifacts, and external archives. The faculty members retrieved information from these resources to develop new plans, fine-tune or “tweak” existing plans, and guide classroom instruction. An in-depth analysis of how these retrieval processes unfolded in practice revealed the critical role that fine-tuning existing lecture notes played for this group of faculty. Our analyses of the USE activities demonstrated effects on some memory repositories, including individual memory and artifacts (i.e., lecture notes and course syllabi), which is indicative of what Argyris and Schon (1976) called double-loop learning. We argue that the organizational learning framework is a valuable way to capture practice-based information that can be used to help inform the design and implementation of more locally attuned interventions.

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keywords: Organizational learning, postsecondary teaching, STEM education, education reform, organizational change