Sub-theme 21: Institutionally-embedded practice-based learning in multinationals

Ayse Saka-Helmhout
University of Surrey, UK
Arndt Sorge
Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB), Germany

Call for Papers

Knowledge transfer within multinational enterprises (MNEs) has been widely studied by institutional theorists (e.g. Guler et al., 2002; Kostova and Roth, 2002). However, the aim of such studies has been typically to highlight the isomorphic pressures to adopting practices to gain legitimacy where organizational learning is projected as the flow of abstract knowledge. By contrast, studies that pay systematic attention to the influence of social institutions on learning where knowledge is grounded in practical consciousness are rare (exceptions include Hong et al., 2005). If institutions are considered at all, the interest remains on their impact on knowledge transfer, rather than learning, leading to similar (e.g. Kostova and Roth, 2002) or diverse (e.g. Ferner et al., 2005) patterns of work organization across foreign subsidiaries. By the same token, if there is an interest in organizational learning, this is, more often than not, conceptualized as knowledge transfer that is divorced from the role of human agency (e.g. Macharzina et al., 2001; Uhlenbruck et al., 2003). The social perspective on organizational learning has been widely canvassed outside the MNE literature (e.g. Blackler, 1993; Lane, 1993; Brown and Duguid, 1991). However, the view of organizational learning in multinational settings is commonly a structuralist one, where learning refers to a process of transferring discrete best practices commonly divorced from the broader institutional contexts (e.g. Barkema and Vermeulen, 1998; Zahra et al., 2000). This calls for a need to introduce contextual and practice-based understanding of organizational learning to the research on the multinational firm. We welcome papers that highlight the role of agency in MNE learning that is embedded in wider institutional contexts. Our aim is to integrate, at the very least, two strands of literature – institutional theory and organizational learning – to examine the broader institutional arrangements and micro-organizational processes that lead to similar or diverse practices or that highlight how new practices are created from activity innovations (see Lounsbury and Crumley, 2007).

Contributions to this sub-theme should adopt a contextual and practice-based understanding of learning (e.g. Cook and Brown, 1999; Nicolini et al., 2003; Gherardi, 2000), and seek to highlight the ways in which institutional influences interact with orientations of actors to enacting acquired knowledge in multinationals. We encourage contributions that draw on different theoretical streams beyond organizational learning and institutional theory, adopt diverse research methodologies and examine multiple levels of analysis.

Some of the questions that can be addressed are:

  • How does knowledge transfer differ from organizational learning within multinationals? Are the facilitators of learning different from those of knowledge transfer?
  • What are the effects of broader institutions on learning processes within multinationals?
  • To what extent are organizational practices shaped by macro-level institutions and micro-level agency? Under what conditions do these play a role? How do the two forces interact?
  • How can meaning systems be altered and learning be catalyzed where actors are locked into path-dependent methods of operating in particular institutional contexts?
  • How do path dependencies of different sorts (related to home country, host country or enterprise specific practices and institutions) impinge on one another and lead to original creation of practice and knowledge?
  • What opportunities do multinational contexts provide for practice-based learning? Do choice of country and modes of operating affect the degree to which an organization learns?
  • What implications does the conceptualization of organizational learning as practice-based have for MNE models and institutional theory, in particular the spread of new practices?
Ayse Saka-Helmhout 
Arndt Sorge