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The Learning Conference 2003

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Talking of Learning ...: Acquired Knowledge, Required Knowledge and Organizational Change - Local, Global, Glocal?

Dr Rob Evans.

As part of a larger ethnographic case study of learning biographies in a leading German trading company, this paper examines organisational discourse(s) of learning as elicited in talk with employees. Professional knowledge management and organizational/intercultural learning processes are being played out within the increasingly familiar context of ostensibly globalizing tendencies as merger and 'fusion' processes multiply. The learning experiences both of individual employees and of employees company-wide are played out, too, between demands for tacit/informal and/or explicit/formal knowledge, whereby the former is strongly experiential and subjective and the latter is market-oriented and codified and dependent on specific (and changing) work-place profiles (Evans 2001). In this context of organizational change, biographical narratives, elicited in unstructured depth interviews, can open up an important critique of current deficits in organisational communication and intercultural learning as well as of dominant business agendas of 'flexibility' and 'entrepreneurialism' (Avis 2002).

Since the 80s at the latest, the role of 'culture' in business communication has been increasingly explored and analysed in its component parts (Hofstede 1980). The organizational environment in which the effects of transnational/intercultural communication are played out has, in addition, been characterized more recently as a 'learning' environment in which change and individual development is understood to be inextricably bound up with the management of collective knowledge and open learning processes (Senge 1990).

There is heightened awareness, then, of the need in an increasingly 'globalized' economy for sensitive responses to change in the human/symbolic environments resulting from transnational company mergers and fusions and for successful intercultural communication (Roche 2001). And yet, the actual state of business communication in companies going through such change processes frequently leaves much to be desired. Frequently employed conceptual dichotomies such as 'global/local' and 'centre/periphery' are seen to play a more than ambiguous role in the discussion around knowledge strategies and target discourses of learning.

The paper is broadly ethnomethodological in approach. The language data used here was collected in unstructured discursive interviews to construct a language corpus. Adopting the methods of conversational analysis, close attention to the language resources employed by company employees is able to open up for analysis competing institutional identities (Drew & Sorjonen 1997) and to describe the 'fingerprint' of institutional interaction (Heritage 1997) in a process of change as it affects learning discourses.

The learning experiences investigated here, combining a narrative and biographical approach to interview transcription data with detailed analysis of linguistic phenomena, provides evidence of the coherence of learners' discourse practices in relation to their experiences of the organizational learning environment and demonstrates that the deployment of a range of discourses is a significant characteristic of their negotiation of the intricacies of asymmetrical institutional talk. In fact, company employees' interview talk, organised as discontinuous yet consistently robust biographical narratives of experience, creates shared and contested frames of discourse within which in-process theorizing of the learning process is developed in narrativized and 'biographized' chunks of 'learning discourse'.

Individuals' discourses of learning, learning expectations, experience and learning requirements, understood as a means by which organization members create a coherent social reality that frames their sense of who they are in relation to the challenges/threats of an increasingly insecure work environment, prompt the conclusion at this stage that the development of an effective (inter)culture of learning in organizations should be understood as a process dictated more by 'educational' learning concerns than the instrumental demands of merely greater 'training' efficiency (Corson 2000).

This research is seen as relevant for learning strategies, and for an appreciation of adult learners' discourses of knowledge, the structuring of self in on-going rich biographical narratives and the role of alternative learning discourses as resistance to prevailing 'human capital' and 'neo-liberal' discourses of learning in contemporary business environments (Fairclough 2001).

AVIS, James (2002) "Imaginary Friends: managerialism, globalisation and post-compulsory education and training in Britain", in Discourse, Vol. 23, 1, 2002, pp. 75-90.
CORSON (2000) "The Eclipse of Liberal Education in the Twenty-first Century?, Educational Review, 52, 2, 2000, pp. 111-123.
DREW, Paul and Marja-Leena SORJONEN (1997) "Institutional Dialogue" in VAN DIJK, Teun A. (ed) (1997) Discourse as social interaction. Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction Volume 2. London, Sage, pp. 92-118.
EVANS, Karen (2001) "Tacit Skills and Work Inequalities. A UK Perspective on Tacit Forms of Key Competences, and Issues for Future Research, ECER, Lille 2001.
FAIRCLOUGH, Norman (2000) "Language and neo-liberalism", Guest Editorial in Discourse & Society, 11 (2) 2000, pp. 147-8.
HERITAGE, John (1997) "Conversation Analysis and Institutional Talk. Analysing Data", in SILVERMAN, David (ed) (1997) Qualitative Research. Theory, Method and Practice. London, Sage, pp. 161-182.
HOFSTEDE, Geert (1980) Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values, New York, Sage.
ROCHE, Jörg (2001) Interkulturelle Sprachdidaktik. Eine Einführung, Tübingen, Narr.
SENGE, Peter (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, New York, Doubleday.


Dr Rob Evans  (Germany)
Assistant Lecturer EFL
Angewandte Linguistik
Duisburg University

Born 1953 in London, GB. Educated in London and the University of Leeds. BA Hons Russian Studies 1977. Postgraduate studies University Tübingen, Germany 1977-1981, Slavic studies, East European History. 1980- 1986 Napoli, Italy. Lecturer in EFL University of Naples, Faculties of Medicine and Languages and Philosphy. 1986 to present Universities of Duisburg and Düsseldorf, Germany, Lecturer EFL. MA in Education (Open University) 1995, Doctorate in Education (Open) 2002. Married, three daughters.

  • Learning Biographies
  • Learning Discourse
  • 'Tacit' Knowledge
  • Intercultural Learning
  • Discursive Interviews
  • Conversation Analysis

(30 min Conference Paper, English)