Purpose - It is argued in this paper that opportunities for learning manifest themselves in the form of frictions between the structure-as-experienced by actors and the structure-as-preferred. These frictions are considered as potential triggers of learning processes. The concept of friction promises to contribute to our understanding of factors that trigger learning processes to develop, a matter that is scantly addressed so far in literature on organizational learning. Design/methodology/approach - Frictions are distinguished and analyzed in three case studies of learning processes within departments of knowledge-intensive organizations. Six enabling conditions for organizational learning, proposed by Nonaka and Takeuchi are confronted with the findings in a comparison of the three cases. Findings - The cases show that despite the eagerness to learn found within all three departments, learning processes varied from hardly developed to well developed. By tracing what happens with frictions found, insights are gained in organizational factors that enable or constrain specific (sequences of) learning activities to develop. Research limitations/implications - The findings may be context-bound, because all three cases are embedded within the same nationwide institutional environment thus drawing on the same set of cultural rules. More research is needed, including cross-cultural studies, to be able to generalize confidently on the findings presented in this paper. Practical implications - By means of a clear vision top management can convince not only organizational members, but also middle managers of shared goals, a sense of urgency and of the actions that need to be taken including participation in learning processes across departments. Vision, hierarchy and rules and procedures should signal a consistent message to employees and managers alike. Originality/value - This paper proposes a fresh approach to research on organizational learning processes by introducing the concept of frictions and by relating the analysis of frictions and learning processes to conditions that are proposed to enable or constrain these processes within organizations. This approach may therefore prove beneficial to practitioners as well. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.