Learning and change in interorganizational networks: the case for network learning and network change

Louise Knight, Annie Pye

Research output: Unpublished contribution to conferenceUnpublished Conference Paperpeer-review


The ALBA 2002 Call for Papers asks the question ‘How do organizational learning and knowledge management contribute to organizational innovation and change?’. Intuitively, we would argue, the answer should be relatively straightforward as links between learning and change, and knowledge management and innovation, have long been commonly assumed to exist. On the basis of this assumption, theories of learning tend to focus ‘within organizations’, and assume a transfer of learning from individual to organization which in turn leads to change.
However, empirically, we find these links are more difficult to articulate. Organizations exist in complex embedded economic, political, social and institutional systems, hence organizational change (or innovation) may be influenced by learning in this wider context. Based on our research in this wider interorganizational setting, we first make the case for the notion of network learning that we then explore to develop our appreciation of change in interorganizational networks, and how it may be facilitated.
The paper begins with a brief review of lite rature on learning in the organizational and interorganizational context which locates our stance on organizational learning versus the learning organization, and social, distributed versus technical, centred views of organizational learning and knowledge. Developing from the view that organizational learning is “a normal, if problematic, process in every organization” (Easterby-Smith, 1997: 1109), we introduce the notion of network learning: learning by a group of organizations as a group. We argue this is also a normal, if problematic, process in organizational relationships (as distinct from interorganizational learning), which has particular implications for network change.
Part two of the paper develops our analysis, drawing on empirical data from two studies of learning. The first study addresses the issue of learning to collaborate between industrial customers and suppliers, leading to the case for network learning. The second, larger scale study goes on to develop this theme, examining learning around several major change issues in a healthcare service provider network. The learning processes and outcomes around the introduction of a particularly controversial and expensive technology are described, providing a rich and contrasting case with the first study.
In part three, we then discuss the implications of this work for change, and for facilitating change. Conclusions from the first study identify potential interventions designed to facilitate individual and organizational learning within the customer organization to develop individual and organizational ‘capacity to collaborate’. Translated to the network example, we observe that network change entails learning at all levels – network, organization, group and individual. However, presenting findings in terms of interventions is less meaningful in an interorganizational network setting given: the differences in authority structures; the less formalised nature of the network setting; and the importance of evaluating performance at the network rather than organizational level.
Academics challenge both the idea of managing change and of managing networks. Nevertheless practitioners are faced with the issue of understanding and in fluencing change in the network setting. Thus we conclude that a network learning perspective is an important development in our understanding of organizational learning, capability and change, locating this in the wider context in which organizations are embedded. This in turn helps to develop our appreciation of facilitating change in interorganizational networks, both in terms of change issues (such as introducing a new technology), and change orientation and capability.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages28
Publication statusPublished - 2002
Event3rd European conference on organizational knowledge, learning and capabilities - Athens, Greece
Duration: 5 Apr 20026 Apr 2002


Conference3rd European conference on organizational knowledge, learning and capabilities


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