Development of creative and innovative organization

“Development of creative and innovative organization – learning in
organizational context as starting point: comparison of Estonian and
Finnish practices”
Stanislav Nemeržitski, MSc, Tallinn University
Krista Loogma, PhD, Tallinn University
Correspondence address:
Department of Applied Creativity
Institute of Fine Arts
Tallinn University
Lai 13
10133 Tallinn
[email protected]
The current study is based on the results of the EU project “CREANOVA:
Creative Learning and Networking for European Innovation” (project no:
143725-LLP-2008-ES-KA1SCR; 2008-3596). The aim of the project was to
identify factors of transaction between individual and organization, which lead
and support learning processes, related to creativity and innovation within
organizational context.
As a basis for theoretical background of the current study, ecological
approach to learning is used. According to this approach, development of
individuals within certain environmental(organizational) settings is viewed as a
co-constructive process, determined by the complex of relations and
connections between the subject and the environment of activity (Kindermann
& Valsiner, 1997; Valsiner, 2001). The development is seen as an activity of
the subject, transforming the environment, while the environment in turn
influences the subject’s development (Bronfenbrenner, 1996; Lyng & Franks,
2002). Based on this approach, theory of expansive learning (Engeström,
2001, 1987) is used to conceptualize learning processes within organizations.
Empirical study undertaken was based on 4 theoretical factors of creativity
and innovation, identified by Creanova project: need, freedom, and interaction,
with environment being as contextual frame, in which processes of learning
were taking place. Interaction (both, intra-personal and inter-personal) was
seen as part of development and learning process, regardless of cultural
differences within organization. These 4 factors were first controlled with
quantitative study (n = 507), defining the relations and directions of effect
these factors have on innovation and creativity within organizations. Further,
set of semi-structured interviews was conducted with representatives of
creative and technical field in Estonia and in Finland, in order to identify the
perceived meaning that individuals gave to creativity, innovation, their
interaction, and the environmental (organizational) factors supporting them.
The conducted study was an attempt to compare, how representatives of
different organizational cultures perceive learning in terms of creativity and
innovation process, how Estonian and Finnish employees carried on
innovative activities, and what type of managerial and leadership styles they
find most supporting for organizational creativity and innovation.
Findings of the current study enable us to better understand how individuals
with different cultural background perceive and apply creativity and innovation
in the organizational context, and what role leadership and management
support play in this. This study provides cross-cultural comparison of
meanings people attribute to the factors that can support learning and
development within organizational context.
Theoretical background
Human development within certain environmental (or, in case of this study’s
focus, organizational) context can be seen as a co-constructive process, in
which complexity of connections between the subject and the environment,
determine the nature and the outcomes of these processes (Kindermann &
Valsiner, 1995). Within the terms of ecological approach to acquiring new
knowledge, learning can be seen as reciprocal, mutual influence process
between individual and the environment (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1996; Lyng &
Franks, 2002). Through all 4 distinctive levels of human activities
(Bronfenbrenner, 1979), individuals affect and transform the environment
around them, whereas on every level environment in turn influences
individuals’ development:
At micro-level, learners and teachers can be seen as actors, whereas
learning process can be characterized as interaction process between
individuals. Input on this stage is coming directly from surrounding
environment (working or learning context), and the outcome of
acquired new knowledge is also directed towards the closest
surrounding environmental layer (e.g. organizational setting);
At meso-level, we look primarily at organizational and regional factors
surrounding the learning process (e.g. possibilities within organizations
to support learning, acquiring of novel knowledge, expression of one’s
original ideas);
At exosystem level, the focus is on connections between different
organizations, where the individual is a participant, e.g. culture,
organizational framework. This echoes with Engeström’s (2001)
principle of multi-voicedness of activity systems, i.e. the fact that any
activity system of an individual is always a community of multiple points
of view, interests and traditions; it is a source of innovation at a
crossing point of individual’s roles within different contexts;
Finally, macro-level serves as a societal or state level framework,
which organizes and influences organizations, in which individuals do
learn and obtain novel knowledge.
Engeström, Engeström and Kärkkäinen (1995) used term “boundary crossing”
to illustrate the complexity and inter-relatedness of different social activity
systems, while producing outcome of individual (or collective) development.
Konkola (2001, 2003) introduced term “boundary zone” to describe the
territory where different activity systems meet, giving thus possibility to
transfer novel ideas, original thoughts and innovative solutions from different
systems, and resulting in cross-domain development. As Konkola, TuomiGröhn, Lambert, and Ludvigsen (2007) showed, it is possible to construct
such “boundary zone” between learning and working environments, promoting
thus creativity within both systems. Transfer of learning and knowledge is
accompanied with born of innovative, original ideas in the contact points of
border zones of different activity systems (Engeström, 1999; Tuomi-Gröhn,
2003). This type of learning can be conceptualized as expansive learning,
where all participants are engaged, and new knowledge is expanded from
workplace to multiple levels, involving both individual and organizational
layers (Engeström, 2001; Kerosuo & Toiviainen, 2011).
As theoretical starting point of this study, ideas of expansive learning are used,
based on the ecological approach described above. As Engeström (2001)
stated, learning and knowledge transfer occur only in interconnected activity
systems, whereas conflict (being a part of communicational processes), or
inner contradiction, plays crucial part. Finlay (2008) also brought up critical
incident as one of cornerstones for expansive learning, bridging educational
setting and workplace.
In the circumstances of activity systems (i.e. organizational setting for an
individual), learning can become expansive transformation (Engeström, 2001).
Qualitative transformations take time, and during the cycle of transformation,
some participants of the organization may deviate from established norms
(ibid). These transformations can take form of reinterpretation or adaptation of
obtained knowledge (Eraut, 1994; Finlay, 2008). Expansive transformation
takes place, when both motive and object of the activity is re-conceptualized
so that it embraces radically wider (broader, more innovative, inclusive) range
of possibilities, compared to the previous/ traditional mode of the activity
(Engeström, 1987, 2001). In terms of working environment, boundary zones
and boundary crossing can occur simultaneously, providing on one hand
possibility to learn novel ways of doing things, and on the other hand, giving
chance for participants to act as advocates and agents of change (Säljö,
2003). Several authors (e.g. Tuomi-Gröhn & Engeström, 2003; Russell, 1998;
Säljö, 2003) stress that in order to effectively produce and stimulate
knowledge transfer, resulting in novel ideas and development, a complex
activity system (organization) must provide learning opportunities for its
members. Therefore learning within workplace context is crucial prerequisite
for both individual and organizational creativity and innovation.
The context of the present study is within theoretical and empirical findings of
CREANOVA project (Creative Learning and Networking for European
Innovation, project no: 143725-LLP-2008-ES-KAS1SCR; 2008-3596). In the
heart of theoretical background for the project’s empirical studies, is the
understanding that so-called creative, or in terms of Engeström’s (1999, 2001)
theory expansive learning, is in the heart of every innovation. According to
Loogma (2004), large part of such learning includes work-based, i.e. it is
workplace-based and includes number of work-related problems to solve. This,
in turn, requires and stimulates interaction of individuals with different
background, making innovative processes possible (Mumford, 2002; Mumford
& Moertl, 2003). Several researches in creativity, both individual and
organizational, (e.g. Cropley & Cropley, 2009; Sternberg, 2003/2007;
Sahlberg, 2009; Piirto, 2004) emphasize importance of collaboration, intraorganizational communication and interaction. Sahlberg (2009) stresses
importance of cooperative learning, which enables creativity in the classroom
settings – however, this can be projected to organizational context as well:
only in terms of collaboration and cooperative learning can boundary crossing
occur, allowing exchange of knowledge between participants of the system.
Based on numerous researches in individual and organizational creativity and
innovation processes (e.g. Cropley, 2001/2009; Cropley & Cropley, 2009;
Sternberg, 2003/2007; Hämäläinen & Heiskala, 2007; Amabile et al., 1996),
the following four factors were indicated for promoting creativity and
innovation on the organizational level (CREANOVA, 2010):
1. Need for innovation is seen as basis for innovation processes, both for
individual and for organization. This can be formulated as genesis of
problems, survival strategy, motivation (intrinsic and extrinsic), any kind
of shortcoming, personal need or collective need to overcome barrier.
2. Freedom for innovation can be manifested through such indicators as
possibility to make mistakes, risk-taking, involvement into decisionmaking processes, elimination of hierarchies, mutual trust, and selfmanagement.
3. Interaction in the innovative process involves both communication
inside the organization and outside of it, both formal and informal,
constant interaction between different actors and system parts, all
forms of feedback, and also communication with outside world (e.g.
networks, cooperation etc.).
4. And finally, environment as the context, in which processes of creativity
and innovation take place. Besides organizational framework,
environment includes what Bronfenbrenner (1979) placed into
exosystem-level – other organizations, society, culture in larger scale.
Initial relations between different theoretical anchors of creativity and
innovation are presented on Figure 1. Three individual and collective
component – need, freedom, and interaction – are actively supported (or
inhibited) by environmental socio-cultural setting, in which organization is
active. Learning is considered as crossing point of above-mentioned three
factors, enabling thus individuals within particular organization to cross
boundaries/ domains and through interaction obtain novel skills and
Figure 1. Theoretical factors of creativity (Source: CREANOVA, 2010)
In order to test and critically overview the proposed model, set of empirical
studies was designed and carried out. Given complexity of Bronfenbrenner’s
(1979) ecological approach and adopted Engeström’s (2001, 1987) theory of
expansive learning, it was crucial to identify possible interconnections
between above-mentioned factors, their mutual effect in terms of novelty
production and innovation-supportive learning processes – which in current
theoretical model were hidden within the generalized four factors.
Thus, the aim of the project was to identify factors of transaction between
individual and organization that can lead towards and support creative
learning processes, and which are related to creativity and innovation within
organizational context. As several European countries were involved, one of
the research questions was, whether there exist cross-cultural similarities in
defining creativity-supportive learning environment in organizational settings.
The aim of the current study is however going further in investigating, how
representatives of different organizational cultures in different countries
(Estonia and Finland) perceive learning in terms of support for their creativity
and innovation in their workplace. Estonia, as post-Soviet country with less
than 25 years of free-market and democracy experience, is compared to
Finland, Scandinavian country with rich traditions of free-market, democracy
and independence – the comparison is to reveal, if there are similarities in
assessing importance of learning within organizational context.
Empirical research
Quantitative study
As the first stage of empirical studies discussed here, online questionnaire
was distributed in 4 countries (UK, Basque Country, Finland, and Estonia),
with total returned responses of 506. The main objective of this questionnaire
was to verify initial four factors originally identified in Discovering Vision
(2010), as well as to understand and define the conditions under which
creativity takes place in organizations – and how this leads to innovative
practices in the organizational setting. The questionnaire was constructed to
mark and measure organizational climate (incl. degrees of autonomy,
communication with colleagues, level of decision-making, perceived level of
freedom, organizational rules, etc.), perceived experience with creativity and
innovation trainings (e.g. different techniques), learning in the workplace (e.g.
formal and informal, learning by doing, learning by mistakes), as well as facts
about the organization (size, profile etc.).
Both quantitative and qualitative sample was divided in two groups –
representatives of technical field (i.e. production, telecom, IT, construction,
energy firms), and creative field. According to Kimpeler & Georgieff (2009),
creative industries are at crossing points of arts, culture, business and
technology, their economic activities rest on individual creativity, and they
predominantly produce intellectual property. Thus, individuals working in such
domains as art, advertising, copyrighting, theatre entrepreneurs etc., were
considered as representatives of creative field.
The sample and demographics were examined first, so that the nature of
respondents can be understood. Factor analysis was then conducted in order
to confirm whether originally identified factors would be reproduced through
the questionnaire data. Following the factor analysis, demographic differences
were examined according to factor in an attempt to gain better understanding
of the specific demographic characteristics of the sample.
The relationships between identified factors were also examined as well as
interactions between them. Finally, two different types of regression analysis
were conducted in order to address two questions:
• What makes an environment creative and innovative?
• What motivates individuals to be creative and innovative in their workplace?
Results on factor analysis are illustrated in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Factor analysis of questionnaire data (Source: CREANOVA, 2011)
There were three significant deviations from the initially proposed theoretical
model. First, factor that was initially identified as Environment, during factor
analysis was divided into separate factors: Environment 1, describing
organizational characteristics (such as size, field etc.), and Environment 2,
describing individuals’ perception of how creative and innovative this
particular organization was. Second change compared to initial model
concerned need as separate factor – during the course of factor analysis, it
did not come up as separate factor, rather as integrated part of several other
factors (freedom, social interaction). This, however, might be result of
constructing questionnaire or perception of this factor by respondents. Finally,
experience in creativity and innovation training came up as additional factors,
although initial model did not contain them. However, correlation between
factor Social Interaction and both Experience factors suggests that at least
part of novel knowledge related to creativity and innovation is linked to
communication, both formal and informal, i.e. formal and informal learning
strategies: the more individuals interact with colleagues within organization
and through networks outside it, the more experience in creativity and
innovation techniques, knowledge and training they get. And therefore the
more they are capable of crossing boundaries of their usual knowledge/
activities scope, making thus innovation possible.
Figure 3 illustrates the final results of regression analysis (initially, both
Environment factors were included, however Environment 1 did not have
significant correlations with Freedom, and also two Environment factors did
correlate among each other very weakly).
Figure 3. Influence of 2 independent factors on Environment 2: Perceived Organizational
Creativity and Innovation (Source: CREANOVA, 2011)
This model shows that social interaction and freedom, in combination with
each other, affect Creativity and Innovation of (Organizational) Environment
positively. The stronger social interaction is in an environment (the more
workers share the same values, the more humor influences the work place,
the more influential issues of equality and diversity are in the workplace), and
the more freedom there is (the more people are autonomous to make choices,
the more influential personal initiative is in the work place etc.), the more
creative and innovative environments are – or at least are perceived by
people who work in them.
Social interaction and perceived freedom stimulate transformation of the
organization – individuals perceive more freedom to obtain knowledge and
implement it into their everyday working practices. Thus crossing boundaries
of their everyday/ usual activities, participants of organization can expand
domains of their knowledge, practice and experience, and turn their
organization into constantly functioning learning environment.
As on quantitative stage the separate samples for Estonia (n=80) and Finland
(n=159) were not sufficient enough to run additional, country-specific factor
and regression analysis, potential differences and similarities between
professional life representatives were investigated during qualitative stage of
empirical research.
Qualitative study
For the qualitative part of the study, in-depth semi-structured interviews were
conducted with representatives of creative and technical fields of work. In
Estonia, 9 persons were interviewed (5 representatives of creative field, 1 of
NGO, and 3 from technical field), in Finland 10 persons were interviewed (5
from creative field, 5 from technical). Interviews were transcribed verbatim,
and content analysis was conducted in order to identify the categories
supporting creative and innovative environment. Categories were reviewed,
and conclusive findings regarding initial four factors are presented in Table 1
(“+” indicates occurrence of the sub-category within the national sample, ““ indicates absence of the sub-category within all national answers pool).
For all participating countries (besides Finland and Estonia also Basque
Country, UK and Italy) there was set of compulsory/ common question that
focused on the following topics:
1. Please describe at least one (important?) innovative practice that took
place in your working environment? (alternatively: please describe one
success and one failure case of innovation)
2. Please describe the process of this innovative practice?
- What made this (these) particular practice(s) innovative, why?
- What were the reasons, why the innovation has been undertaken?
- Was this case successful? Why?
- What were the main obstacles and supportive circumstances/ facilitators
for innovation?
3. Thinking of the innovation process/case you described, according to
your opinion: What kind of environment is necessary for innovation?
4. Thinking of the innovation process/case you described, according to
your opinion: What kind of atmosphere is necessary for innovation?
5. What role did learning play in the process of described innovation? (i.e
if there are any connections between learning in this working
environment and innovation processes, and what these connections
are like?)
6. During the innovation process: What did you learn about the factors
and conditions promoting creativity and innovation?
In addition, every participating country had possibility to focus on their specific
area of interest. In case of Estonia and Finland, role of education, learning
and their connection to processes of creativity and innovation were such
additional topics.
Analysis of initial theoretical factors emerged from interviews indicated several
differences between Estonian and Finnish respondents, although overall
perception of factors supporting creativity and innovation was rather similar. In
general, Estonian respondents (both representatives of creative and technical
field) tended to emphasize organizational, leadership-oriented values – e.g.
necessity of feedback for one’s work, certain leadership style, supportive
hierarchy in the organization. Finnish representatives of professional life, on
the other hand, indicated greater importance of individual characteristics, that
nevertheless might lead to organizational improvement – e.g. personal
development, self-fulfillment, adaptation of novel ideas within workplace, etc.
On one hand Estonian and Finnish professionals were both pro-active, seeing
entrepreneurship-minded and challenging environment as supportive for
creativity and innovation. However, Estonians emphasized courageous
leadership style as crucial part of pro-innovative environment, and at the
same time valued possibility to switch working environments. This may
partially be due to popularity and state support for self-employment, which
makes it easy and natural to work from every kind of environment (home, café,
any other public place).
Comparing responses on factor Freedom, there was the biggest difference
between Estonian and Finnish representative of professional working life.
Whereas Finns tended to encourage self-control and realize connection
between individually perceived freedom and organizational wellbeing,
Estonians seemed to value individual freedom in organizational context
extremely high. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is traditions
and national experience in business and professional life: Estonia only
regained independence from the USSR in 1991, and in order to become part
of Western society, the state had to take extremely radical and fast steps.
Therefore although proclaimed and pursued values are already in-line with
those of e.g. Finland, the actual desire and perceived necessary
characteristics of working environment are just in the phase of transformation.
International cooperation is also one of the indicators that Finnish working life
representatives seemed to emphasize more than Estonians. Short experience
in international relations and cooperation is possible explanation for that, and
also small number of international big corporations, compared to Finland.
Categories, based on
results of analysis
Customer needs and demands
Cost-efficiency, ease, superiority, comfort
Cultural cooperation with other countries
Ambitions, vanity, self-motivation, trying new ideas
Need to respond to failure
Employment insecurity
Solving the problem, overcoming problem
Possibility to try and make mistakes
Responsibility for one’s decisions
Possibility to take risks
Control of time in one’s own hands
Possibility to promote and influence innovation
Supportive atmosphere (flexibility, tolerance, support)
Creative leaders, space, room, managers
Possibility to travel and adopt new ideas
Personal development connected with organizational
Negative aspect of
Too much freedom as hindering creativity and innovation
Supportive atmosphere (trust, openness, clarity, respect)
Supportive hierarchy
Feedback for accomplishments
Transparency in relations and communication
Right proportion of different people (level of education,
creative potential etc.)
Networking (joint projects with outsiders, communication
outside organization)
International cooperation
Courageous leadership style
Within organization (supporting work, motivating etc.)
Possibility to switch/ change environments
Sufficient funding
Negative effect of over-funding (hindering creativity)
State support
Social exchange, environment open for ideas
Challenging, active, entrepreneurship-minded
Emerging from outside
of organization
Emerging from
Emerging from inside of
Individual level of
Collective level of
Physical environment
State/ societal level
Sub-categories, based on results of analysis
Table 1. Interview analysis results: four theoretical factors (Source: CREANOVA, 2011)
Learning and education, along with their possible influence on creativity and
innovation in organizational context, were also extracted from the interviews.
In Table 2 results of analysis on interconnections between creativity and
innovation, and learning are presented.
Categories, based on
results of analysis
Sub-categories, based on results of analysis
Informal learning
Learning by doing
Peer-learning (learning by observing)
Field visits during course of education
Lifelong learning, continuous learning
Everyday interaction as source of creativity
Creativity is actually learning (citation from one
Successful implementation of learnt material as
further motivator for learning and practicing
Teachers’ role in education
Blocks of creativity and innovation in educational
More real life practice to formal education
Crossing boundaries of formal education
Possible negative effect of formal education on
Essence of learning
and relation to
Formal education/
Table 2. Interview analysis results: learning and creativity/ innovation (Source: CREANOVA,
The main difference between Estonian and Finnish representatives of working
life seemed to be in the understanding and perceiving the concept of formal
education. Whereas Estonians tended to take it critically, often seeing even as
obstacle to creativity (e.g. university courses support learning “where to check
the answer”), Finns saw education as possibility for lifelong learning,
implementing new strategies and real life practices. At the same time,
Estonians emphasized importance of peer-learning, learning by doing and
role of interaction as valuable source of information. Finns, on the other hand,
emphasized personal characteristics of teachers as possible motivator and
thus supporting factor for creativity and innovation. Crossing boundaries
between educational settings and workplace also was present in Finnish
responses, whereas Estonian responses did not stress this factor.
Results of the interview analysis, serving as illustrative material and
supportive data set for quantitative research, show that expansive learning
model proposed by Engeström (1987, 2001) can be applied on every level of
ecological model of learning within organizational context. On the micro-level,
according to Bronfenbrenner (1979), one’s thoughts, ideas and contacts with
immediate surrounding environment take shape. Bi-directional influences
shape individual’s learning, acquiring of novel knowledge, and at the same
time process of innovation and creativity, during which these novel ideas are
returned back to the organization. Individual expansion, crossing the
boundaries gives possibility to implement ideas from one field to another, still
within organizational context. On the meso-level, ideas that an individual
participants of the activity system have spread and implemented, shape and
develop the organization as such. Expansive learning promotes transfer from
different aspects of individual’s life to his/her professional experience and
development. Everyday interaction seen as source of novelty and potential
innovation enables participants to test and further implement knowledge they
have obtained elsewhere. At the same time, organization itself becomes a
learning environment, where all participants share their so-called private
experiences, thus shaping and developing organization. Finally, at exo- and
macro-levels, organizational changes, initiated down below by a single
participant, transform into global innovations, at the same time influencing
individual participants through different aspects of organizational life, but
mostly through learning.
The aim of this paper was three-fold: (1) to investigate factors that influence
creativity and innovation supportive factors within organizational context; (2)
to emphasize role of learning within organization to promote creativity and
innovation; and (3) to investigate potential differences between perception of
Finnish and Estonian organizational environments by their participants in
terms of supporting creativity and innovation.
Ecological approach (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) was taken as a basis, which in
turn Engeström’s (1987, 2001) expansive learning concept was coupled with.
Expansive learning occurs when knowledge is generated in the cross-section
of at least two domains, in organizational settings workplace and learning
environments (Engeström, 2001). With current study the attempt was made to
illustrate, how culture and macro-level environment (history, traditions, past)
shape and transform knowledge expansion from one domain to another. It is
no surprise that Finnish representatives of creative and technical field
demonstrated high eagerness and ability for crossing boundaries with learning
in organizations; whereas Estonians showed this tendency at much smaller
scale. Cultural, historical and traditional background plays crucial role in
understanding the implications of such findings – Estonia has regained its
independence only 21 years ago, therefore business experience and
entrepreneurship tradition are only beginning to reshape themselves.
However, on the global scale, Estonia has to compete and be part of world
with centuries-long tradition of free-market and democracy. Hence the
difference in perceiving several aspects of organizational settings, be it role of
leader, links with (formal) education, or perceived importance of individual
freedom within organization.
Clear understanding of differences in professional/ organizational perception,
aspirations and starting points would make it easier to understand also
mentality of participants in different activity systems (i.e. organizations).
Cooperation with international partners, a category that Finnish respondents
emphasized, cannot be possible without knowing and accepting partner’s
background. Studies like the present might just help to pin the differences,
while at the same time working on similarities to make globalizing world even
more tolerant, open, transparent, and thus supportive for novel ideas.
The present study has its limitations, which should be pointed out. First, the
sample of empirical studies conducted was not extensive enough to make farstretching conclusions. Both in quantitative and qualitative study number of
respondents is rather small, therefore all results and generalizations should
be made very carefully. Second, the method might also impose limitations on
the results presented in the paper. The questionnaire used in the quantitative
research phase might have set it’s boundaries on the themes emerged, e.g.
need for innovation, which in literature of creativity and innovation is named
among the most important factors (also came out in the interviews), did not
occur during analysis of quantitative data. Finally, choice of theoretical
background for the study might also have its effect on the interpretive power
of this paper.
Nevertheless, cultural differences in learning within organizational settings
can be approached from different angles. This paper presented one possibility
to bridge, or expand knowledge from one domain (i.e. creativity and
innovation in organizations) to another (differences between nations/ cultures
in assessing organizational settings). Expansive learning should offer lot of
opportunities for that.
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