Sunday, January 2, 2022

Where does learning take place?

This blogpost started with an argument on Twitter. Harish Jose quoted the organization theorist Ralph Stacey:

Organizations do not learn. Organizations are not humans. @harish_josev

This was reinforced by someone who tweets as SystemsNinja, suggesting that organizations don't even exist. 

Organisations don’t really exist. X-Company doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about its place in X-Market. @SystemsNinja

So we seem to have two different questions here. Let's start with the second question, which is an ontological one - what kinds of entities exist. The idea that something only exists if it lies awake worrying about things seems unduly restrictive. 

How can we talk about organizations or other systems if they don't exist in the first place? SystemsNinja quotes several leading systems thinkers (Churchman, Beer, Meadows) who talk about the negotiability of system boundaries, while Harish cites Ryle's concept of category mistake. But just because we might disagree about what system we are talking about or how to classify them doesn't mean they are entirely imaginary. Geopolitical boundaries are sociopolitical constructions, sometimes leading to violent conflict, but geopolitical entities still exist even if we can't agree how to name them or draw them on the map.

Exactly what kind of existence is this? One way of interpreting the assertion that systems don't exist is to imagine that there is a dualistic distinction between a real/natural world and an artificial/constructed one, and to claim that systems only exist in the second of these two worlds. Thus Harish regards it as a category mistake to treat a system as a standalone objective entity. However, I don't think such a dualism survives the critical challenges of such writers as Karen Barad, Vinciane Despret, Bruno Latour and Gilbert Simondon. See also Stanford Encyclopedia: Artifact.

Even the idea that humans (aka individuals) belong exclusively to and can be separated from the real/natural world is problematic. See for example writings by Lisa Blackman, Robert Esposito and Donna Haraway.

And even if we accept this dualism, what difference does it make? The implication seems to be that certain kinds of activity or attribute can only belong to entities in the real/natural world and not to entities in the artificial/constructed world. Including such cognitive processes such as perception, memory and learning.

So what exactly is learning, and what kinds of entity can perform this? We usually suppose that animals are capable of learning, and there have been some suggestions that plants can also learn. Viruses mutate and adapt - so can this also be understood as a form of learning? And what about so-called machine learning?

Some writers see human learning as primary and these other modes of learning as derivative in some way. Either because machine learning or organization learning can be reduced to a set of individual humans learning stuff (thus denying the possibility or meaningfulness of emergent learning at the system level). Or because non-human learning is only metaphorical, not to be taken literally.

I don't follow this line. My own concepts of learning and intelligence are entirely general. I think it makes sense for many kinds of system (organizations, families, machines, plants) to perceive, remember and learn. But if you choose to understand this in metaphorical terms, I'm not sure it really matters.

Meanwhile learning doesn't necessarily have a definitive location. @systemsninja said I was confusing biological and viral systems with social ones. But where is the dividing line between the biological and the social? If the food industry teaches our bodies (plus gut microbiome) to be addicted to sugar and junk food, where is this learning located? If our collective response to a virus allows it to mutate, where is this learning located?

In an earlier blogpost, Harish Jose quotes Ralph Stacey's argument linking existence with location.

Organizations are not things because no one can point to where an organization is.

But this seems to be exactly the kind of category mistake that Ryle was talking about. Ryle's example was that you can't point to Oxford University as a whole, only to its various components, but that doesn't mean the university doesn't exist. So I think Ryle is probably on my side of the debate.

The category mistake behind the Cartesian theory of mind, on Ryle’s view, is based in representing mental concepts such as believing, knowing, aspiring, or detesting as acts or processes (and concluding they must be covert, unobservable acts or processes), when the concepts of believing, knowing, and the like are actually dispositional. Stanford Encylopedia

Lisa Blackman, The Body (Second edition, Routledge 2021)

Roberto Esposito, Persons and Things (Polity Press 2015)

Harish Jose, The Conundrum of Autonomy in Systems (28 June 2020), The Ghost in the System (22 August 2021)

Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social (2005)

Gilbert Simondon, On the mode of existence of technical objects (1958, trans 2016)

Richard Veryard, Modelling Intelligence in Complex Organizations (SlideShare 2011), Building Organizational Intelligence (LeanPub 2012)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Artifact, Categories, Feminist Perspectives on the Body

Related posts: Does Organizational Cognition Make Sense (April 2012), The Aim of Human Society (September 2021), On Organizations and Machines (January 2022)

And see Benjamin Taylor's response to this post here:


  1. Since there is no adequate linking-and-threading venue to do this more constructively that I know of (especially asynchronously), here's my comment on this fascinating discussion:

  2. In 2012, I volunteered as a GamesMaker in the 2012 Olympics, partly because I thought it would be interesting from an OD perspective to experience a very complex organisation from the inside without having any kind of management role, and partly because it would be a completely unique and fun experience. The Olympics is not one organisation but a very complex ecosystem including The IOC, the local Delivery Authority that provides the infrastructure, and the local organising committee. I saw quite a lot of evidence of systematic learning. For example a random sample of gamesmakers, including me, were asked to keep diaries, recording our experiences and things that could be done better. They also seem to have a very robust handover process from one olympics to the next, and I got the impression this is done more by face-to-face communication, and some continuity of personnel between Olympics, than by detailed procedural manuals or IT systems (which seemed to be very basic) Everything ran smoothly, and I was impressed at how a supervisor suddenly materialised on the couple of occasions where problems appeared. From this and other experiences, I would say that it is both possible and desirable for organisations to create effective learning systems. I should say that they have huge amounts of funding, and resourcing was very generous.