Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Dr. Mary Crossan


Conflict provides an opportunity to learn. However, conflict also activates identity and dysfunctional learning processes that protect identity. Neither the learning nor the identity literatures provide an explanation for how some organizations overcome that challenge; and relatively little research has considered the connection between identity, conflict and organizational learning.

This thesis attempts to fill this gap through a qualitative research study that examines the relationships between identity, conflict, and organizational learning, using a comprehensive practice based model of inter-organizational learning.

The specific research questions guiding this study are: What is the role of identity in organizational learning between organizations in conflict? And: How does an organization learn from another organization with which it is in conflict?

I use a case study design to examine a single exceptional case in the context of an extreme inter-organizational conflict. Qualitative data were collected through archival research, semi-structured interviews, and on-site observations.

My findings provide a rich basis for analysis and theorizing, and provide evidence in support of my proposed model of inter-organizational learning. This study suggests that inter-organizational conflict is a situation where individual to individual learning can ultimately influence the learning that occurs in their respective organizations. Conflict stimulates individuals from each organization to interact over an issue. Their interpretations of the issue and their responses to each other are affected by their social and role identities and by their respective organizational identities. It is the actions of individuals and the social processes and practices through which they interact that either facilitates or constrains inter-organizational learning.

This dissertation contributes to academic research by highlighting the importance of the relationships between identity, conflict and learning; by exploring how the practices associated with identity shape individual behaviour and organizational learning; and by demonstrating the implications of different sources of conflict on inter-organizational learning. Finally, my process model of inter-organizational learning as practice provides a more socialized theoretical background for understanding and addressing the challenges of learning between “enemies”.