Professorship of Innovation Research and Sustainable Resource Management, Chemnitz University of Technology (GERMANY)
About this paper:
Appears in: INTED2011 Proceedings
Publication year: 2011
Pages: 1864-1875
ISBN: 978-84-614-7423-3
ISSN: 2340-1079
Conference name: 5th International Technology, Education and Development Conference
Dates: 7-9 March, 2011
Location: Valencia, Spain
Competences in dealing with uncertainty are attached by a paramount importance for processes of learning. Because learning, not least in organisations, always means confrontation with something new. In many cases, the irritation of action patterns and meaning structures that are taken for granted is the consequence. That causes discontent and reflexively leads to a quest for certainty, avoidance of ambivalences and adapting ambiguity in integrating meaning structures. Against this background, John Dewey’s analysis of the everyday need for certainty seems unwaveringly relevant nowadays in particular: “The quest for a universal certainty, applying to everything, is a compensatory perversion. One question is disposed of; another one arrises and thought is kept alive” (Dewey 2001, 228).

How are uncertainty and indefiniteness in organisational learning and change processes perceived? How do organisational action patterns and meaning structures change if knowledge that is taken for granted enters a state of crisis? And what strategies do actors develop in order to secure cognitive capability? We do research on questions like that in an empirical project about the capability to change (Moldaschl 2005, 2006, 2007). To answer these questions, our concept of uncertainty won’t dismiss assumptions relating to uncertainty and the contingency of action, but make them the starting point of the research. This approach is located in the fields of action theory and epistemology. It works with reflexivity as a fundamental category of social science. What is constitutive of a reflexive mode of thinking and acting is (a.) that the actor is capable of developing an observational perspective of his actions. What is also characteristic is that (b.) not just aim-means relationships are reflected, but also their collective genesis. “Access to reality” is therefore interpretative, i.e. the meaning structures of significant others and also the intrinsic logic of quite divergent partial rationalities are acknowledged. This is accompanied by (c.) an awareness of the fact that one’s own actions can bring about unintended, occasionally counter-intentional and sometimes paradox side effects. This presupposes (d.) a certain distance from the latest truths and beliefs, which implies a minimum degree of scepticism towards unquestioned “one best ways” and the acceptance of alternative interpretations of reality (cf. Moldaschl 1997).

Empirically, we studied the dealing with uncertainty in the field of product development in an exemplary high-tech company of the automobile industry by means of observation and semi-structured interviews. Here, learning and innovation are thought of in recourse to irritation: as a break with the familiar, a departure from routines, and a testing, correction and revision of various "problem settings" in the sense of a "reflection in action" (Schön 1983, 62). It will be shown whether and under what conditions the crisis of well-established modes of thinking and acting makes it possible to develop a critical distance from the routines of day-to-day practices, to force open structural “lock-ins” and to make oneself the subject of one’s own observations. Finally, learning and change processes in a public sector establishment are focused in order to develop an empirically validated typology of dealing with uncertainty by systematically contrasting combinations of characteristics.
Uncertainty, Organisational Learning, Innovation Capability.