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Handbook of Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, Second Edition by MARJORIE A. LYLES, MARK EASTERBY-SMITH

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Subtle Learning

As Weick (1991) points out, conceptualizing organizational learning at a bona fide collective level opens up the possibility of seeing previously hidden or neglected aspects of the phenomenon that differ from learning at the individual level. One such aspect, and an important part of understanding the adaptive nature of the identity–learning relationship, involves the subliminal nature of organizational learning that is based in meanings, or subtle learning. In choosing the label ‘subtle’ to describe this form of learning, we highlight changes in the meanings’ underlying labels, symbols, and, importantly, practices that occur without explicit recognition or acknowledgement by those involved with those labels, symbols, or practices. Subtle learning, then, involves changes to the intersubjective meanings constituting the core of a collective’s understanding of themselves. Instead of thinking of organizational learning as only involving changes in behavior and/or knowledge, this perspective emphasizes that changes in meaning around actions and symbols also form a viable conceptualization of organizational learning.

The ‘deep processes’1 of subtle learning

By moving the locus of the learning process away from an emphasis on individual cognition and placing its emphasis on the social interactions and intersubjective meanings embedded within a collective, it becomes possible to conceive of organizational learning as taking place without the explicit awareness of learning, ...

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