EGRG PhD Prize 2008

Learning in doing: the social anthropology of innovation in a large UK organisation

Simon Turner (Durham University)

In the face of increasingly dynamic market environments, firms are being urged to develop learning and innovation capabilities if they wish to secure competitive advantage and long-term growth. A bank of work written from numerous theoretical perspectives has converged on the view that knowledge underpins the formation of such capabilities.

While much of this literature emphasises the importance of cognitive knowledge, a new approach grounded in techniques from social anthropology suggests that learning is a non-cognitive practice, drawing on embodied exploration, everyday sociality, and a communitarian infrastructure of human and non-human actants. This thesis aims to consolidate the current literature on ‘possessed’ knowledge by clarifying the relationship between cognition and learning, and to advance understanding of innovation practices within firms by examining the role of non-cognitive mechanisms in the development of organisational capabilities. Drawing on a nine-month period of ethnographic research, this thesis describes the on-the-ground processes of learning and innovation within the marketing department of a large UK organisation. This evidence is used to investigate critically the theoretical claims regarding the role of both cognitive and non-cognitive forms of knowledge. Based on the empirical findings, three interrelated arguments are proposed: the design and governance of strategic learning devices involve non-cognitive practices; informal mechanisms of learning underpin the formation of new capabilities; and communitarian theories of learning overemphasise the social construction of knowledge, while neglecting the agency of the materiality of context.