Archives for February 2011

Cultivating Effective Management-Union Relationships in the Unionized Workplace

In almost all organizations today, both public and private sector, managers are looking to deliver better results and greater productivity. And within these same organizations, the union is often seen as a barrier to management effectively achieving these goals. From the union’s point of view, management views the collective agreement as an impediment to achieving results, leading to frequent violations of the collective agreement. This dynamic leads to ongoing conflict between management and union, further draining the organization’s energy and resources, eroding the very productivity and results the company is seeking to achieve. Both management and the union need to revisit how the collective agreement is used, and could be used more effectively, within the organization.

To meet the challenges of the future, the onus lies on both management and the union to help create a working environment where every member of the organization contributes to the organization’s success. Based on the experience of a number of labour relations professionals, below are some of the most common mistakes and challenges that management and unions face regarding the collective agreement. These mistakes and challenges create the very issues that both are trying to avoid.

Common Management Mistakes

Lack of Training in the Collective Agreement: Lack of clarity and knowledge about the collective agreement among front-line managers and supervisors is a common problem in organizations. Recently, I was conducting a focus group with managers as part of the development of a training module on the organization’s collective agreement. I asked a group of 10 experienced managers (some of whom had been managers for 15 to 20 years) how many considered themselves to be very knowledgeable about their own collective agreement. Two raised their hands. Surprised, I asked how many had actually read the collective agreement within the last two years. The same two individuals raised their hands. Even more surprised, I asked those two why they, in particular, had read the collective agreement, and both told me they had recently been members of the union at this company, and had just been promoted to supervisors. In other words, eight of the ten managers were not at all knowledgeable about their own collective agreement (regardless of their length of service), and regularly made decisions without having a clear idea if they were complying with the labour agreement. Even worse, it was very likely that many of their staff did know whether their decisions complied.

The greatest building block for establishing credibility in the workplace for a manager or supervisor is clear knowledge and familiarity with the collective agreement. Without this knowledge, management lack credibility with their staff, impairing their ability to lead and drive change with their workforce.

Lack of Interpersonal Skills When Applying the Collective Agreement: Even when supervisors and managers do know and understand the basics of the collective agreement, they sometimes use it as a form of “power” to force their employees into compliance, rather than as a jointly agreed framework everyone must operate within. Once this workplace framework is clear and understood—both through the collective agreement and overall policies and procedures—it is still critical that managers and supervisors effectively engage their staff in a positive, productive relationship. Management-union relationships don’t run effectively through the use of power; they function productively when a climate of respect and engagement exists. And it’s up to management to take the lead in creating this climate.

Ineffective Communication with Staff: While there may be many meetings held, and a great deal of e-mail flying around the office, management has frequently still not communicated effectively with staff. The essence of good communication is answering the question, “Why?” Why is this initiative taking place? Why are we doing this? Why is this or that important? Much research shows that without everyone clearly knowing and understanding why decisions are made, or actions taken, little engagement, or commitment will arise. Effective communication requires management to have a communication strategy, one that prioritizes information, communicates it clearly, and repeatedly in a range of forums, from the company newsletter to labour management meetings, to shop floor meetings. When the “Why?” question is answered clearly and unambiguously, engagement and commitment are not far behind.

Common Union Challenges

Creating or Allowing a Reactive Environment: Many times, unions feel shut out by management, and react by simply resisting anything that isn’t crystal clear to them. Instead of resisting management decisions, unions should take the lead in asking: “Why?” That is, unions should hold management accountable to having clear, understandable reasons and rationale for decision-making. Further, unions must demonstrate a willingness to listen and take management’s goals for the organization seriously. By taking a proactive stand, rather than a reactive one, the union assumes a leadership role in helping to create a positive work environment for all staff.

Creating or Allowing an Adversarial Environment: In addition to resisting management decisions when feeling shut out, unions may become flat out adversarial on principle, refusing to support even positive changes the organization is implementing. These adversarial feelings often stem from a long history of conflict. Regardless of their root cause, a defensive stance makes it even easier for management to ignore, or marginalize the union, leading to even greater levels of resistance. This adversarial environment is characterized by the thought that, “If management wants it, it must be bad for us!” Once a strongly adversarial mindset takes hold, many opportunities to improve the workplace disappear. Once again, unions should hold management accountable by requiring both a clear understanding of management decisions, along with respect for the collective agreement. In turn, management will likely be encouraged to engage with, rather than marginalize the union.

Seeing Discipline as Purely “Punitive”: Discipline, when properly executed, is corrective in nature; discipline that is properly and fairly applied is necessary in workplaces. Unions that approach all discipline as unnecessary or unfair foster the wrong mindset. Unions have a clear duty to fairly represent their members, and must hold management accountable for fair and corrective use of discipline. This accountability doesn’t mean, however, that all discipline must be resisted and fought. By enforcing an approach that balances fair representation with a reasonable and corrective use of discipline, both parties will be promoting a culture of high performance and fair treatment in the workplace.


Both unions and management have a duty to create productive, respectful, and engaging workplaces. The collective agreement is one of the main tools that both parties must use effectively to create this organizational culture. Unfortunately, in many workplaces the collective agreement is seen by management as “the union’s document,” an attitude that prevents management from being able to manage effectively. And unions, in turn, may see the collective agreement as the primary way to resist most management changes and initiatives—an attitude that fosters conflict, rather than productivity.

Only by promoting knowledge and clarity of the collective agreement across the management team, as well as by supporting productivity and change initiatives that respect the collective agreement, can management teams and unions build strong organizations and better working relationships.


About the Author

Gary Furlong, Queen's IRC Facilitator

Gary T. Furlong is a facilitator with Queen’s IRC Labour Relations programs.

Change and the Common Company

Every organization is DOING change management and many even have a dedicated change team. In the past 20 years, the practitioners and researchers in the field have seen a shift from hiring change management consultants to developing change management teams within an organization. Based on my experience, I provide my insights on the change process and suggest a practical approach to managing change in an organization.

When I first began working in this field, large multi-million dollar companies hired ‘experts’ in change management. We were bright, young and energetic consultants who worked not unlike the days of Frederick Taylor’s factory workers—working on small, manageable chunks of the overall change. Few of us were experienced enough to see the whole change process as a complex system. Many of us were educated in the theory of change, but few had actually experienced any organizational change. Now, many organizations have dedicated teams or individuals, usually working out of the HR shop, to assist in whatever changes the organization is undertaking. Most of these people are actually experts in the organization, who have received some level of formal training or education in change management. Yet, for large scale changes, these same organizations commonly call on outside experts to coordinate change efforts. Hopefully these outside experts work with their internal colleagues to create a collaborative change solution. I have found that quite often, the internal consultants have a decent approach, framework, or methodology, but not the understanding of the nuances of the approach or the rationale behind the approach. I believe it is critical for change experts to share our knowledge and experience with our internal consulting colleagues, leaving them even more knowledgeable than they were—and dare I say it—maybe we can, in turn, learn a thing or two from them. One way facilitate this collaborative learning is to share an approach that one doesn’t necessitate a PhD to understand, and that can be adjusted to fit the organization, and the change. I’ll share one such model later in this article.

Unsuccessful major change initiatives fail because they do not achieve what they set out to do, not realizing the intended benefits of the change. This is true regardless of whether the organization is public or private sector, and regardless of the use of internal or external change experts. One of the key reasons for the failed change is the lack of consistent, coherent, and compelling communication. We have likely all experienced the “grand announcement” type of communication. What is missing in many organizations is communication that is truly two-way, where the receiver asks questions and confirms their understanding. What is missing is communication from the receiver’s frame of reference; what is missing is communication about: Why? Why now? What’s changing? What’s not changing? What will the future look like?

Over the past 20 years, practitioners and researchers in the field have developed a better change vocabulary, recognizing the difference between managing and leading, between change management and change leadership. Most people in the fields of business, change, and organization development recognize the terms “change champion” and “change agent.” Some of this group, however, may not be able to differentiate between transactional, transitional, and transformational change. Let’s clarify these terms; a common understanding of change language is critical. Much of the information that follows is synthesized from Ackerman Anderson and Anderson (2001). I recommend this as one resource for those interested in gaining a detailed understanding of the change process.

  • Transactional change represents the improvement of an existing skill or way of working that does not measure up to expected future needs. Transactional changes are improvements, within the box, of what is already known or practiced.
  • Transitional change is more complex, and occurs in response to the need for more significant shifts in employee behaviour. Richard Beckhard and Rubin Harris (1987) were the first to suggest that Transitional changes needed to be, and could be, managed. Typically, transitional changes can be managed as projects with timelines and budgets, and without the need for deep personal change.
  • Transformational change is the least understood and most complex type of change, requiring a radical shift in organizational culture, individual behaviour, and individual mindset. The specific end-state in transformational change is largely uncertain at the beginning of the change and becomes more defined as the change process unfolds.
  • Change Leadership focuses on the big picture and creating excitement and followership. Change leaders, who are also known as sponsors, champions, etc., have the passion and persistence to rally the troops to see and embrace the change vision.
  • Change Management is the structured approach to shifting or transitioning people from a current state to a desired future state. Change managers/agents share the leaders’ passion for success, and are the ones to critically unpack the facets of the change, helping to plan and execute the detailed change process required to achieve the desired future. Change managers/agents quite often head up components of the change, working with their change colleagues to coordinate the various aspects of the change. Change managers sit on the change steering committee, headed by the change leader.

I would argue that organizations seeking to implement a transformational change require both a robust change leadership coaching approach and a coherent, coordinated, and feasible change strategy.

A good change strategy is both a document and an action. The development of the change strategy begins to raise awareness and interest in the change. The key components of a change strategy include the following:

  • Stakeholder map
  • Impact assessment
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Training plan (by stakeholder group)
  • Communications plan (by stakeholder group), and
  • An evaluation and monitoring plan

Typically, change practitioners/experts create the change strategy in line with the defined phases of the change. One change approach, among many, is based on the work of Richard Beckhard (1987) which I have modified to Why x What x How>R. This is a multiplicative formula, since experience has shown that focusing our efforts on just why we need to change, or just what is changing, or just how we will change, does not create enough momentum to move those involved in the change through the inevitable dips in energy and productivity and overcome resistance (R). Another part of the change formula that the Queen’s IRC has developed is to identify the tasks for change leaders in preparing and planning the WHY, WHAT, and HOW of the change and the tasks for the change managers in implementing the WHY, WHAT, and HOW of making the change a new reality.

The final piece to the change process is change leadership coaching for change leaders and change managers. I have worked with many executives who really feel overwhelmed by the need to lead the change, manage the change, manage the day-to-day operations, manage their people, lead the organization, be the face of the change and the organization, and deal with the sense of loss that all change entails. While receiving coaching, these executives understand their strengths and weaknesses in a safe and confidential environment while continuing to lead their people and their organization.

In summary, successful change demands a coherent, coordinated, and feasible approach, supported change leaders and managers, clear, compelling and coordinated communication of the why, what and how of the change, and a little help from a coach.


Ackerman Anderson, L. S., & Anderson, D. (2001). The change leader’s roadmap: How to navigate your organization’s transformation (2nd Ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Beckhard, R., & Harris, R. (1987). Organizational transitions. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley

Investigative Tips for Labour Relations Practitioners: Reporting the Evidence – DOs and DON’Ts

A key component of fact-finding is the gathering and reporting of evidence. The fact-finding report is intended to be a reliable resource for labour relations practitioners. Thus, the following DOs and DON’Ts should be considered when preparing the evidence section of the fact-finding report:

  • DO be concise. Often the position of one of the parties, or the evidence of a witness, can be summarized briefly, while remaining complete. Avoid presenting the argument or information in a certain order, or at a given level of detail, simply because the witness did so.
  • DO present only evidence that is relevant. Often one piece of information that seems relevant at one point in the investigation is ultimately found irrelevant.
  • DO indicate the full extent of a witness’ knowledge of an event. Did the witness actually see or hear the event? Did she/he hear about it second-hand? Or, is she/he speculating on what might have happened?
  • DO try to see the evidence and the report from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the events; try to anticipate and answer the questions of the reader.
  • DO use direct quotes where the exact words are important. Also, ensure that you present a witness’ evidence with use of attributive phrases such as “the witness stated that…”, so that it is clear that the material represents the witness’ evidence, and not your own opinions or observations.
  • DON’T exclude evidence simply because you don’t think that it is credible. Include the evidence and discuss the witness’ credibility, if necessary, in the analysis section of the report so the reader can make his/her own decision.
  • DON’T include, in the evidence section, analytical material or commentary such as, “This statement by the respondent is inconsistent with his previous statement that…”. The inconsistency should be apparent to your reader if the report is well-written—if you need to point it out explicitly, you can do so in the analysis section.

Compiling an accurate fact-finding report is integral to a good investigative outcome; make sure you present the facts with purpose and objectivity.

Enabling Fruitful Learning in Organizations

Take this challenge. Ask fellow employees if they have ample opportunity to learn and apply what they learn at work. Chances are their answers will be varied, with many answering with a sometimes or it depends. This is a conundrum. One does not have to look far to find support for the notion that learning in organizations is a critical capability. In our disruptive world, an organization’s capacity to facilitate learning—to acquire, apply, and spread new insights—has been touted as the fundamental strategic capability and a leading source of competitive advantage.

Why the knowing–doing gap? While we hire people with advanced degrees and send them to respected learning institutes, we often fail to tap the full potential of what employees can and do learn. Add in the notion that most organizations don’t know what people know—let alone provide opportunities for people to share and leverage learnings—and it’s not a stretch to conclude that learning in organizations is often a haphazard endeavor.

Several years, ago as part of a masters research project, Queen’s MIR student Laura Dow joined me in exploring the learning strategies of a wide range of Canadian organizations. Our results confirmed that most organizations do not have a comprehensive learning framework. While all organizations surveyed supported the job-specific learning of individuals, few thought strategically about how that individual learning would be applied, honed, embedded, or spread. Fewer still thought systematically about facilitating learning amongst chosen groups, or about capturing, sharing, and spreading new learnings with relevant others. On another front, only a handful of firms were able to articulate their strategic learning agendas. In other words, firms were not able to define the core capabilities they needed to hone and develop to compete and excel.

What might a strategic learning framework look like? Before we can answer this question, we need to step back and explore some basic questions that have kept academics busy for years. They are: 1) what is learning, 2) what is the relationship between learning and knowledge, and 3) where does learning take place?

What is learning? Let’s begin with a typical scenario. An organization identifies a gap in the skill-set of a group of employees—let’s says the gap is in innovative thinking amongst a group of middle managers. To remedy this situation, they design a course in innovative thinking skills, hire faculty to teach it, and offer it over a three-day program.

Following the course, can we say that our managers have learned? If we define learning as the acquisition of new insights, as some academics do, we can assume that the managers have acquired new insights—to varying degrees—and therefore that learning has occurred. If however, we take a more rigorous definition of learning, one that suggests that learning requires both the acquisition of new insights and the application of those insights, then our learning cycle is not yet complete. This dual cognitive and behavioural approach to learning is represented by Kolb’s (1984) adult learning cycle. We acquire new insights via a lecture or an experience, followed by reflection and then assimilation through action. Accordingly, learners must have ample opportunity to seek out new insights on the one hand and test, apply, and refine their insights and emerging abilities on the other. At the organizational level, the process of acquiring and applying new insights is represented by March’s (1991) foundational concept of exploration and exploitation.

If learning is indeed active, the process of acquiring new knowledge is not one of a simple receptivity, whereby veridical knowledge is tossed over the fence to those who catch it. Rather, acquiring and leveraging new insights and abilities is dependent on the learners’ motivation to learn, their opportunities to learn, and the mechanisms in place to enable the acquisition and application of knowledge. Support comes from the environment in the form of cues from bosses, strategic goals, standards, rewards, norms, available technologies, and the like. Should, these cues signal that the learning is not valued, supported, or necessary, individual conviction may wane and learning will be stifled. What people learn is, therefore, encouraged by a focused and supportive learning context. Understanding the learning agenda—what we need to learn in order to succeed—is critical to creating motivation and focus. Our middle managers must understand why innovative thinking is a core competence, how innovative thinking will enable them, and how they will be supported.

Why does our definition of learning matter? Quite practically, if we hold ourselves to a more rigorous definition of learning, one that combines learning with doing, then our middle managers cannot simply be sent to a three-day course on innovative thinking. In addition to a program, they must see the real world relevance for innovative thinking, be open to exploring innovative practices and have ample opportunities to practice innovative thinking with pressing challenges, in a supportive context.

What is the product of learning? Learning has an intimate relationship with knowledge; it is the process that brings about a change in know what (insights) and know how (behaviours). Nonaka (1991, 1994) distinguishes between explicit, easily codified knowledge, and tacit knowledge, which is rooted in both know what and know how. While the exchange of explicit knowledge can be shared and integrated amongst members via reports, memos, databases, and lectures, the sharing and development of tacit knowledge, whereby we know more than we can tell, occurs through dialogue and practice as members surface, exchange and absorb know what and know how.

Why does our definition of knowledge matter? If we understand that innovative thinking is tacit in nature—it is both know what and know how—we can no longer assume that innovation skills can be neatly packaged, or stored, or shared as a set of concepts and transferred to managers in a lecture or via a database. Rather, we see that innovative thinking amongst our managers will evolve as they exchange, combine, and build on ideas with others, perhaps after their appetites for innovative thinking have been wetted in a three-day program with their colleagues.

Where does learning take place? To state the obvious, learning in organizations occurs through people, as they acquire new insights and act on them. At the individual level, knowledge is acquired and accumulated as know what in the learners’ minds and know how in the form of expertise and craft. However, learning in organizations must go beyond what individuals learn. Innovation in isolation is clearly not our goal. Rather, our aim is to develop innovative thinking amongst our managers.

Group or community level learning depends on, and builds from, the knowledge and worldviews of individual members and requires an opportunity for learners to join around a common cause, exchange ideas and insights, and combine knowledge. Accordingly, our managers must be involved in processes, forums, networks, partnerships, and communities that enable the requisite exchange, synthesis, and co-creation of innovative ideas and practices amongst peers.

At the organizational level, as knowledge is captured and embedded—in peoples’ heads as norms and values and in organizational features such as strategies, structures, processes, and systems—the organization develops context or a code. In turn, the organizational context influences the future learning of individuals and groups, both the focus of their learning as well as how the learnings are applied, leveraged, and spread. The code continues to evolve, as it consumes the learning of individuals and groups. What might our code for innovation look like? Perhaps the infrastructure for innovation might include: a performance spirit of innovation amongst all leaders, dabble time for creative experimentation, rewards and recognition for sharing ideas, mechanisms for storing innovative ideas, forums for innovative problem solving, and a formal innovation process.

A Framework for Learning: Questions, Not Answers

Given that we have come to define learning as a multi-faceted personal, yet social phenomenon that is context specific, it would appear that a one size fits all definitive framework of learning in organizations is rather fanciful. Perhaps instead, a more useful approach might be to provide a set of powerful questions that, when asked and answered, shed light on the path to fruitful learning. Based on our definitions of learning, knowledge, and supportive context, those questions might be as follows:

  1. What’s our learning agenda? In other words, given our organization’s business, operational model, and strategic goals, in which areas do we need to excel? Ideally, the learning agenda will be scalable to units, across unit endeavors, and to individual roles. Answering this question is essential to developing a strategic and focused learning aim. Once set, the learning aims create a supportive context and build motivation for learning.
  2. Given the learning agenda, who needs to learn? What new insights and behaviours are required amongst individuals, groups or communities? Answering this question will identify the system of players—specific groups and individuals—who need to develop new insights and behaviours.
  3. Given the learning agenda and our understanding of who needs to learn, how will we facilitate the learning? Here we ask: Is the knowledge we are seeking to develop more explicit or tacit in nature? What are the vehicles and forums that will support learning acquisition, application and sharing?
  4. Insights from this set of questions will reveal a multi-pronged approach to learning which may have learners acquiring new abilities in a classroom setting, reflecting and building on them within group forums, applying them in a project team and honing them through a coaching relationship.
  5. Given our learning agenda, what’s the required depth and breadth of the learning? In other words, how will we support knowledge transfer? Insights from this question will reveal the requisite scope for the learning, as well as strategies for sharing the learnings with others and embedding the learnings in processes and systems.
  6. Given our learning agenda, what does a supportive context look like? How can we ensure that the context (or code) expands and adjusts to enable and embed new learning? Explore this question to identify the main organizational elements—from culture, to strategy, to leadership—that enable or prevent the requisite learning.


Learning in organizations is complex and depends of a myriad of personal, social, and environmental factors. Rather than searching for the ultimate recipe for organizational learning, I offer a set of questions as a starting place for this exploration. The questions are meant to tap the tremendous amount of wisdom that has been generated in the literature. How leaders answer those questions, given their specific needs, goals, history, and context, will define their approach to learning. Fostering innovative thinking is going to look and feel differently in every organization. A thoughtful approach to identifying the learning agenda, who needs to learn, how the learning can best be facilitated, the scope of learning transfer, and the key contextual enablers will go a long way in supporting learning. Learning strategies must be home grown. It quite simply will not work any other way.

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