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Making sense of competing organizational goals : perspectives of practice that affect coordinated efforts and organizational learning


Coordinated activity is a fundamental principle of effective workplace practice. However, coordination of activities is difficult to achieve given the complex and dynamic conditions that characterize many workplace environments. And maintaining coordinated activity within organizations appears to be equally challenging. In fact, various factors and conditions present in organizations seem to work against both establishing and maintaining coordinated activity. This study used an ethnographic case study approach to investigate how the understandings of overarching organizational goals vary among different groups within an organization and how these understandings affect coordinated efforts and organizational learning. The research focus for this study was the sense different groups within an organization make of the overarching organizational goals; that is, how do the understandings of the overarching organizational goals vary among different groups, how do these understandings affect coordinated efforts, and how do these understandings affect organizational learning? The two theoretical frameworks that informed this study are Activity Theory and Theory of Action. The research site was a public water reclamation agency in California with over 300 employees. Nine participants--three engineers, three managers, and three operators--were interviewed and then shadowed in workplace practice. In addition, each group of three met separately to discuss a hypothetical workplace scenario. Findings of the study indicate an alignment in awareness of overarching organizational goals among the people in the three groups studied: operators, engineers and managers. Differences occurred, however, in how the understandings of these goals were enacted in everyday practice. Such differences could potentially result in miscommunication, thus negatively impact coordinated activity. As well, misunderstandings could arise from miscommunication between individuals and even groups, impacting relationships and the desire to collaborate. A workplace environment that supports open inquiry enhances organizational learning. As well, when individuals within an organization share a similar awareness of goals yet engage in different practices associated with those goals, collaborative inquiry could result in innovative solutions or more comprehensive and enduring solutions to complex problems

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