Free Access
Volume 14, Number 2, 2000
Page(s) 157 - 171
DOI: 10.1051/ejess:2000115

European Journal of Economic and Social Systems 14 N$^\circ$ 2 (2000) pp. 157-171

The role of routines, rules and habits in collective learning: Some epistemological and ontological considerations

Nathalie Lazaric

Département technologie et sciences de l'homme, Université de technologie de Compiègne, BP 649, 60206 Compiègne Cedex, France.


In this article the role of habits, rules and norms for collective learning will be discussed. These concepts, although usually shown as being quite different, have certain similarities and complementarities. Routines and habits in the Veblenian tradition are two inseparable notions. In Simon's work, routines are explained more as a cognitive tool to avoid exhaustive deliberation. Rules and routines in Simon's work are identified using the artificialist approach and defined with analogy to the computer. This perspective, which is quite different to that proposed by Veblen, can be used to explain human problem solving and bounded rationality in organizations. The definition of routines from a cognitive perspective proposed by Nelson and Winter in 1982 is far removed from the Veblenian legacy and Simon's work. Here the notion of tacit knowledge is introduced in order to show that it is difficult to duplicate routines and that the artificialist approach cannot always be used to tackle the many different kinds of knowledge anchored in routines. Despite the important work conducted by Nelson and Winter, routines are nevertheless difficult to decipher in organizations and their different ontological levels (concrete and abstract levels) can give rise to some confusion for observers. For this reason, most authors now admit that it is possible to describe routines using the concrete level on the one hand and with their formal representation on the other (as a general rule). Notions of rules, routines and habits are sometimes assimilated, sometimes distinguished/separated depending on the ontological or epistemological level which is being referred to. Although the debate surrounding this issue is important, it is crucial not to forget the existence of the cognitive and political dimensions of every rule, routine and habit in collective learning. This is probably the main conclusion of this article, beyond the epistemological and ontological discussion.

Keywords: Rules, habits, routines, organisational learning.

Correspondence and reprints: Nathalie Lazaric

Copyright EDP Sciences 2000