Topic, Objective, and Justification
Within recent decades, extensive academic attention has been paid to the concept of organizational learning, i.e. the ways in which organizations learn and people in them learn. It has been confirmed by scholarly studies (Egan, Yang & Bartlett 2004; Yu et al. 2013) that more effective learning in organizations has a number of positive effects on those organizations in terms of performance and development. It is important to recognize that learning in organizations should be systematic, i.e. favorable conditions should be established to shape an organizational learning culture and an environment in which learning is not occasional but continuous, and processes are established to promote it and ensure positive outcomes of it. A particular aspect of an organizations’ operation that can be affected by the organizational learning culture is innovation. It is suggested to explore the role of the organizational learning culture in fostering innovation in UAE semi-government organizations.
The objective is to review relevant academic literature in order to present evidence of the positive effects organizational learning culture has on innovation. Also, an analysis of the mechanisms through which systematic learning and learning environments can foster innovation will be conducted based on the findings of previous studies. It is important to pursue these objectives in order to confirm that the organizational learning culture can promote innovation because research in this area will allow developing specific guidelines for organizations on how to establish, maintain, and develop such cultures effectively. Generally, the research questions can be formulated as follows: Does the organizational learning culture foster innovation? How? How can this process be ensured? For UAE semi-government organizations, the topic is particularly relevant because the need for innovation is widely recognized in this sector, and this research can provide the theoretical framework and particular recommendations for achieving innovation through the organizational learning culture.
In implementing organizational learning culture, challenges and barriers to facilitating innovativeness may occur. For example, if the operation of a company is based on established procedures and is not flexible, learning may fail to be systematic, and the acquired knowledge may not affect the actual processes in which an organization engages. Cavalluzzo and Ittner (2004) analyzed a particular type of innovation—performance measurement innovation—in the United States government and identified several barriers and challenges, including insufficient or irrelevant (non-specific) training, slow operation, poor data processing procedures, difficulties with the processes of selection and adoption of innovative practices, lack of organizational determination and goal orientation, and poor decision making. In the context of semi-government organizations, it can be argued that a particular challenge is the lack of motivation that comes from the lack of understanding of the positive benefits of developing organizational learning cultures.
Based on relevant literature that has been explored (see Literature Review), it can be said that the sector of semi-government organizations has not been extensively addressed by scholars from the perspective of organizational learning culture and innovation. It can be argued that the sector and organizations in it have specific characteristics in terms of internal operation and external interactions: these organizations may demonstrate a combination of the features of government agencies and the features of private companies. Presumably, organizational learning cultures in those two types of organizations have differences, and studying semi-government organizations can contribute to a better understanding of how learning cultures can be established differently in different types of organizations.
Currently, many organizational studies are available that are dedicated to learning in the context of innovation. First of all, Egan, Yang, and Bartlett (2004) link organizational learning to the process of transferring knowledge in the workplace and argue that, if the process is well-established, and the employees are willing to engage in it because they recognize the benefits, it shows that the organizational learning culture is developing properly. The authors explored several other aspects of organizational performance and operation that can be affected by learning; particularly, it is claimed that ‘job satisfaction is associated with organizational learning culture’ (Egan, Yang & Bartlett 2004, p. 295). Another aspect of the operation in which an organization can do better by developing its learning culture is competition. In the context of entrepreneurship, Barney, Wright, and Ketchen (2001, p. 628) write that an ‘expanding knowledge base and absorptive capacity through experience and learning is key to achieving a [sustainable competitive advantage].’ Both the expansion of the knowledge base and what the authors refer to as the absorptive capacity are elements of the organizational learning culture.
Concerning competition, other authors suggested that innovations in the way organizations manage their operation and create opportunities for themselves can be much more effective in terms of gaining competitive advantages than what can be referred to as ‘strategizing’ (Teece, Pisano & Shuen 1997, p. 509), which includes being engaged in the active and possibly aggressive competition. Learning plays a significant role in this process, which is why an indirect connection can be established between better learning practices and gaining remarkable competitive advantages. Also, one of the areas of research in terms of learning and innovation was the area of emerging economies. Yu et al. (2013, p. 2513) argue that, in such economies, certain strategies should be adopted by companies in order to achieve innovativeness and succeed ‘in a dynamic and turbulent environment.’ These strategies should be oriented toward entrepreneurship and technology; however, an important part of such strategies is the process of knowledge integration, and the authors list two major mechanisms of knowledge integration: organizational learning and a knowledge management system.
Further, many researchers analyzed the ways in which organizational learning cultures can foster innovation, i.e. particular mechanisms and processes. First of all, Huber (1991) explains that the crucial factor in improving organizational adaptation and innovation is gaining insight into how organizations learn and how they can learn better. In this context, organizations are seen as integral entities, and it is not employee training that the author refers to but the ability of an entire organization to improve through learning new things. A crucial process in this regard is ‘exposure to facts and findings from other research groups’ (Huber 1991, p. 108); therefore, the more organizations are willing to constantly process research information and learn from it, the more likely they are to succeed. In terms of research, Chiva, Alegre, and Lapiedra (2007, p. 226) suggest using research findings in the processes of innovation and learning, which they do not regard as separate but as intertwined components of ‘experimentation.’ Once methods of trying something new are designed, organizations are enabled to develop innovations and learn at the same time.
Among other mechanisms, Bates and Khasawneh (2005) suggest that the organizational learning culture can foster innovation through human resources practices; particularly, these include the creation of a proper psychological climate for transfer. What the authors mean by the concept of psychological climate is related to a set of specific characteristics of an organization in terms of how it treats its employees and customers and communicates with internal and external audiences. These characteristics may or may not be favorable for the employees’ willingness to interact meaningfully and transfer knowledge. It is suggested that the psychological climate for transfer should be positive and supportive, and an especially important role in it is played by the learners’ perception of the purpose of learning: they should recognize the potential benefits. Similarly, Song and Chermack (2008) argue that organizations’ interest in knowledge management, which is closely associated with the learning culture, has been growing due to the acknowledgment that innovation and better performance can be achieved through the use of it.
It is noteworthy that, in reviewing relevant literature, not only studies dedicated to the connection between organizational learning culture and innovation were examined, but also studies on innovation and studies on organizational learning separately in which the connection was revealed, too. For example, Dobni (2008) explains how innovation orientation can be managed and suggests 86 scale items; one of them is organizational learning that encompasses such considerations as ensuring that everyone in an organization is involved in training, the training is specific and related to strategic goals, and evaluation confirms that training helps deliver customer value. Similarly, Dombrowski et al. (2007) identified several categories of innovative cultures, and under one of the—collaboration—the organizational tactics should be to create cross-functional teams, develop the learning environment, and emphasize information and communication technologies.
Finally, the organizational learning perspective suggests that having creative employees who are eager to learn may not be enough for an organization to succeed in innovation. What is needed is a systematic approach that allows translating knowledge into practices on the basis of human, social, and organizational capital (Wright, Dunford & Snell 2001). Daft (1978) argues that innovations are initiated and promoted by experts in particular domains, and the intention in such cases is to make those experts’ work more effective or efficient. Therefore, learning should be not only specific but also advanced. Also, Knight and Cavusgil (2004, p. 128) refer to the idea that learning ‘occurs best under conditions in which there are little or no existing organizational routines to unlearn.’ Therefore, the organizational learning culture should incorporate the flexibility of operation that will ensure that new knowledge can be applied, and the application of new knowledge should be encouraged.
A variety of types of organizations have been addressed in studies on organizational learning culture and innovation; however, semi-government organizations—specifically, in the UAE—have not been explored from this perspective. As it was mentioned above (see Theoretical Implications), it can be expected that, when examined closely, these organizations will demonstrate a combination of features of such organizational types as government agencies and private companies. Therefore, understanding the role played by organizational learning cultures in these organizations’ innovativeness can help analyze the correlation in a previously unexplored context. Particular attention should be paid to the mechanisms; while it is expected that the positive effects of well-developed organizational learning cultures will be confirmed, it is also important to describe the ways in which the positive impact is made.
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