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Different Truths in Different Worlds

2008

Kent D Miller Shu-Jou Lin

Models of organizational learning typically assume that organizations rely upon performance feedback and that an exogenous (uncontrollable) environment presents the problems that organizations seek to solve. By contrast, we consider how different epistemologies within organizations, or combinations of epistemologies, and the degree to which the environment is amenable to organizational control jointly affect learning over time. This study presents three different epistemologies expressed in interpersonal learning: pragmatism (learning beliefs from better performers), coherentism (learning beliefs that fit together), and conformism (adopting beliefs that are popular). We also examine the learning implications of a dominant coalition that can promulgate its preferred beliefs throughout an organization. Outcomes from our agent-based model point toward key epistemological and environmental contingencies affecting the dynamics of organizational learning. Organizations filled with pragmatists learn effectively if the environment is fixed or controllable. Coherentists and conformists advance in knowledge only to the extent that they can control the environment. Adding pragmatists to organizations with coherentists or conformists produces a nonlinear (S-shaped) effect on knowledge achieved as different proportions of pragmatists alter social networks. Models involving learning from a dominant coalition affirm March’s trade-off between learning speed and eventual knowledge achieved only for organizations filled with pragmatists and operating in an uncontrollable environment.

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