Monday, 9 February 2009

Management of Organizational Learning and Knowledge – Essay by Mia Dragostin


How can managers learn to learn

About Mia Dragostin

Topic: Mumford and Gold (2004) ask the following questions, “How can managers learn to learn and why should they?” and “What are the most important principles of effective learning for managers?” Critically discuss these questions, comparing and contrasting the range of different approaches that human resource developers have adopted (and may adopt in the future) to promote and facilitate the development of managers.


Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn” (Herbert Gerjuoy, quoted in Toffler, 1970, p.375)


The topic of learning received much attention from academics and practitioners alike. This great interest generated many definitions and theories of learning. The purpose of the present paper is to demarcate the meaning and theories of learning in organizational settings, as they are promoted and supported by Human Resource Department’s (HRD) approach. Therefore, the paper focuses on how managers learn to learn. It is explored the relation between the HRD’s approaches and the characteristics of learning promoted inside the company to help managers to learn.

In the first part will be presented the evolution of concepts of learning in organizations and the main assumption is that learning style developed closely related to the needs of economy.

Furthermore, will be analyzed the implications for managers and HRD when engaging in learning.

In the third part will be presented a merger case study that exemplifies how HRD practitioners can apply principles of effective learning to support the success of a merger.

1. Evolution of concepts of learning

1.1. HRD approaches towards learning

In Wexley & Latham’s (1991) view, learning is defined as the permanent change in behavior (knowledge and skills) that is the effect of practice. In Mayo’s (1998) view learning is a change in individual’s or organization’s capability. Capability concept refers to behavior (“personal skills and personality attributes”), know-how (“business, technical and professional knowledge and skills”), experience, networks, values and attitudes (Mayo, 1998, p. 14).

The present paper analyses the way managers learn to learn from the perspectives put forth by HRD approaches: traditional and learning organization.

Based on Mayo’s (1998) book, I identified the characteristics (table 1) of HRD approach that situates in the first view as being of traditional approach, while the second view situates HRD into learning organization (LO) approach.


Learning Organization

Learning definition

permanent change in behavior (knowledge and skills)

change in individual’s or organization’s capability

What interests are followed when designing the HRD strategy



What are the time horizon of learning activities

Short-term benefits, with quick , predictable outcomes

Long-term, strategic

How is HRD involving?

Reactive: learning respond to demands

Proactive: learning prepares for future

How are employees perceived



Who initiates the process learning by identifying the needs

HRD /company decides what training needs are

Individual takes ownership for their own development needs

How long subsists the learning intervention



How does company sources the qualified people

Finds skilled people trained elsewhere

Invest in providing accreditation for own people

How is planned the learning

Head control concept:

Planning strategic development

Who is the focus of learning activities

Teacher/ trainer centered

Learner centered

What is the learning environment

Classroom type


What is the outcome of training

To acquiring of skills

Self-managed culture

Table 1. Characteristics of HRD’s approaches

1.2. Why managers need to learn to learn

In his 1970’s book Toffler warns about the effects of rate of change – being this change of social, technological, of life-style nature – on humans. This effect consists in a shift from permanence to transience, from an orientation towards past, to an orientation towards future. Today, 37 years later, we witness the results of the change phenomenon: economy shifts from manufacturing to services, from standardized to customized products, from large monolithic corporations to small entrepreneurial businesses, as observes Mumford (2003).

This new realities ask for a fine balance between flexibility and diversity on one hand (needed to deal with complexity), and efficiency and control, on the other hand (needed to generate profit).

In modern organization managers need to enhance all the dimensions that define Mayo’s capability concept as a way to be active problem-solvers and for flexible adaptation to changes in economical environment. The complexity of learning dimensions and the time pressure under which learning is expected to occur determine a great interest on managers’ learning from HRD practitioners.

1.3. Historic evolution of learning concepts in organizational domain

The term of human resource development (HRD) finds its origin in 1960s works of Nadler (Dilworth, 2003). HRD content consisted in training (related to current job), education (in relation to a future job) and development (which are not connected to job).

The HRD’s content is coherent with the economy demand after WWII when, according to Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell (1991), there was a great need for skilled workers. In UK the solution for compensating the lack of skilled workers was systematic training. This implied a well established sequence of identifying job specifications, followed by analyzing, planning and measuring of training needs.

In the times of systematic training, the structure of the company was stable, changes occurred in slow pace, with a high degree of predictability.

The main concepts of the epoch regarding learning were reinforcement theories. Pavlov’s theory that associates a stimulus with a response is seen as the core for human learning. (Swart, Mann, Brown, Price, 2005). Based on Pavlov’s classical conditioning, Skinner presents in 1965 his theory that supports the behavior modification through rewards: by rewarding the desired behavior, the repetition of that behavior is enhanced. In reinforcements theories the learner is passive, and the emphasis of learning is on designing training that is expected to produce invariably of learner and sometimes of context, the desired behavior.

The systematic training approach to learning in the workplace resulted into low transfer of learning. The type of “one fits all” training showed its limits: while some people had a good transfer of training, being able to apply the new knowledge into job, others were giving poor results on training evaluation. This situation, according to Pedler et al. (1991), corresponds to 1970s-1980s.

Researchers in education and HRD were seeking solutions able to solve the dead end of systematic training. This search is done under two approaches: the first one exploits the behaviorist legacy, while the second one explores the humanist view.

Behaviorist researchers’ findings are fundamental for training design.

Social learning theory of Bandura in 1969 advances the idea that learning could takes place by imitating a model, this model being a book, a film, or another person who is held in high esteem by the learner. The result of this process could be a change of attitude. Principles of effective learning under social learning suggest that individuals should be exposed to a large number of influence (attitudes, philosophies, people), from which to choose a model (Dubin & Okun, 1973). The learner is again perceived as a recipient for learning, view consistent with the behaviorist approach.

Gagne, who is the first to bring into attention that adult learning differs of children learning, in the way they differently acquire skills, organize knowledge and how their thinking is stimulated. Among principles for effective learning, Gagne lists the need of establishing instructional objectives and the need for formal and informal assessment which induce valuable feedback for instructor and learner (Dubin & Okun, 1973).

The limits of cognitivism generated contradictory approaches to learning. If in 1966 Bruner advocates a discovery approach (student is expected to organize himself the subject matter) and advocates the inductivity, in 1968 Asubel considers that teacher should organize material for students and advocates deductivity. Asubel values prior knowledge, considered essential to effective learning, therefore the new material needs connection to existing knowledge (Dubin & Okun, 1973).

The limits of cognitivism allowed a closer attention towards humanist approach to learning.

In 1969 Rogers advances the self-directed learning theory, which places in the center of the learning process the student, while the instructor is just facilitator of learning. The principles of effective learning include the need of interaction with students, the respect for differences in learning between individuals, encourage self-evaluating student behavior. When adults are criticized, this should be made in a constructive manner (Dubin & Okun, 1973).

Another development is introduced in 1972 by Knowles with the adult learning theory, which states the principles that should be considered when training adults. Among them:

  • learners need to find an explanation for the request for learning before they start the process;
  • learners are responsible for their self-learning; when engaging in learning, learners become self-directing, fulfilling a need.
  • learner’s prior experience is a resource for learning;
  • adult learners are ready to learn things that help them cope with their real life situations.
  • the learner might approach more effectively the learning process if the topic relates to a task related to an important problem which concerns a real life issue.

But, this “self-directed learning” principles of Knowles are considered by Moran (2005) to be concerned only with the cognitive aspects of the learning. Grace (2006), as well, notes the critiques to Knowles’ model, which is seen as lacking any reference to the context, the external factors, which influence constantly learner’s behavior.

“Knowles has reduced the adult learner to a technically proficient droid, operating in a world where formulaic social planning and self-directed learning mantras are the order of the day. The droid ultimately longs to be human, to be empowered, to be free” (Grace, 2006, p.391).).

An explanation for the fierce criticism towards Knowles’s andragogy comes from the fact that “is an atheoretical model and as such, is based on observation and experience, rather than logical postulates and/or empirical research” (Houde, 2006, p.90).

Cross (1981) emphasize an important shortage, from HRD point of view, of Knowles’ model: if we assume that adult grow under pedagogical type of learning, there is offered no solution for the transition to adult type learning. If experience could be part of the connection between stages, the model does not give any transition stage between pedagogical, teacher-centered stage, and andragogical, learner-centered stage. This lack of transition between stages is very important for managers’ learning, when we take into consideration individual’s personal history. How does a young adult amend the style of learning from being taught, to teaching him/herself? Answer to this question would improve HRD’s approach to managers’ learning.

A step forward is Kolb’s 1974 experiential learning theory that offers a pattern of actions required for learning to take place effectively: the concrete experience stage is followed by observation and reflection, which generates theorizing and conceptualizing, and the last step in this pattern is testing and experimentation (Swart et al., 2005). This cycle of learning is made consciously and unconsciously, and experiential theory’s efforts are directed towards reducing the unconsciously learning. Kolb’s theory relates the results of learning to individual’s own understanding of how he/she learns. Swart et al. (2005) list the limits of Kolb’s theory. Thus, when the experience is not perceived as having meaning for learning, or when the experiences seem artificial, or when people do not have predisposition for reflection, or people are not able to see the implications of learning for future, the learning does not occur.

Even if I anticipate, I must note here that later, in 1992, looking to overcome the limits of Kolb’s learning cycle; Honey and Mumford reveal that learning will be improved if the individual is aware of its own learning style. The learning styles typology (activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist) reveal that the design of training should no longer be standardized, but must take into account individuals’ learning preferences.

Getting back to the crisis of systematic training, the progress in learning theories lead to a new view of HRD content.

Thus, in 1980 HRD content is enhanced by McLagen, into training and development, organizational development and career development (Dilworth, 2003). McLagen’s HRD content is contested by Nadler who does not consider organizational development as belonging to HRD, Still, when we relate McLagen’s HRD content to Pedler et al.’s (1991) learning evolution in UK, it can be found a connection between the stage of content and the need of economy, thus HRD incorporates new concepts that offer better solutions to existing learning crisis.

One of them is action learning originated by Revans in 1982. The theory’s assumption is that learning is the result of programmed knowledge and questioning insight. The learning cycle that describes the action learning consists of “survey, hypothesis, experiment, audit and review” (Mumford & Gold, 2004, p.95). The core contribution of this theory is the close relation of manager’s to his workplace and workgroup when learning.

Pedler et al. (1991) observes the need for altering the hierarchical structure of traditional companies, altering required not by learning developments, but by economy evolution, as well. Thus, early in 1970s, Toffler warned about the future shocks that the high rate of change will bring: technology driven, the change affects all domains of life. In business, in order to survive and thrive, a company needs flexibility, good understanding of environment, capability to adjust own goals in close relation to external pressures. Rapid change induces the restructure of companies’ hierarchies into flatter structures, which are capable to react more promptly to external and internal pressures. Decision is no longer coming from high above, but is taken at operational level. The democratization of decision required not only to empower the workers and line managers, but to endow them with skills to cope with this new role.

So, a new structure of the organization was required: the Learning Organization (LO) (Pedler et al., 1991) concept emerges. LO, seen as learning organism, refers to flatter structure and organizational climate that encourages learning, learning being the mean to adapt to change. LO facilitates learning, by adopting Kolb’s cycle of learning stages. The importance of action is equaled, in learning, by the importance of reflection and of the feedback.

The literature on LO is vast, and for the purpose of the present paper I concentrate on self-regulated learning (SRL), a model used by LO HRD approach.

The principles of SRL are:

“a) instructing learners about the thinking, feeling and behavior patterns that enhance learning;

b) instructing learners about the process for self- regulating their thinking, feeling and behavior to enhance their learning

c) assigning activities that involve learners in self-regulating their learning and how to do them” (Moran, 2005, p.16).

Also, Pintrich (2000) identifies three phases and four areas for SRL. The phases of SRL: task identification and planning, monitoring and control of learning, reaction and reflection phase comply with Kolb’s cycle of learning. Areas where SRL proves its efficiency are: cognition, motivation, behavior and context.

Moran advocates use of SRL which is considered tool for achieving both academic achievement and personal development. Furthermore, Ertmer and Newby’s (1996) expert learner is strategic, self-regulated and reflective, characteristics similar to those acquired by Moran’s SRL learner. Even more, “self regulation actions are so important that they rival the influence of intelligence on learning” (Schraw. 2001 cited in Moran, 2005, p.16).

The consequence is that managers who engage into SRL change their behavior, from being reactive at the training needs of the company to becoming proactive, engaging into innovation. The limits of SRL concern how the goals of HRD are communicated to self-regulated learners, and how new learning is evaluated.

In order to overcome these SRL limits, self managed learning (SML) was developed in the 1970s by Cunningham. SRL is defined as a “holistic, learner-centered approach to development and learning, defined as: a process in which individuals work at what they want to learn, and how they want to learn, with others, in the context and framework of their situation” (Gilligan, 1994, p.4).The process of SML consists of following steps: learning contract, individual learning budget, learning set, continuous assessment process. The learning set – the group of learners- is seen as being the “focal learning group”. It is easily understood that the action learning and experiential learning principles of effective learning are integrated in SML when the functions of the individuals in the learning set are observed: they help each other when producing learning contracts; evaluate each other’s contracts; they share their learning; support and confront set members who seem to be opting out on contract issues; assess each other’s progress and achievements when program ends.

Authors express concerns regarding training on self-development (which pays attention to learner needs and personal learning style) as it generated companies’ resistance to self development training methods [“why should any company want to encourage self-development as opposed to narrow job training” (Pedler et al., 1991, p. 13)], but they need the advantage that the business gains from quality continuous self-directed learning.

This concern determined cost evaluations of different training strategies, and Wexley & Latham (1991) mention the fact that the cost of self managed strategies (as Mintzberg’s self-study questions, or Fiedler’s self-teaching guide) proved to be much lower of other strategies (as Bandura’s videotape modeling, or Argyris-model II).

2. Implications of the new mindset that learning to learn gives to managers in LO environment

“…developing a competitive workforce has become the key differentiator of success in the global marketplace in the new millennium. It becomes even more critical than being in possession of the most advanced technologies, because employees drive technology, not the other way around”

(Dilworth, 2003, p. 242).

The manager that knows to learn is aware there are many options for learning, therefore after evaluating the match between his goal and the designed outcome of the learning option, and chooses a certain learning method (or even a mix of methods). Mayo (1998) spots new managers’ mindset towards learning by citing the Training magazine survey. This survey reveals that line managers and individuals engage in training, companies create and promote learning environment, and learning is encouraged “beyond the classroom”.

This makes me conclude that the ability to handle the strategies of learning is one any manager needs to master. HRD, primarily interested in improving individual’s performance by effective learning, has as “role to provide the process and many of the supporting skills and resources- as well as to make the desired philosophy a cultural and everyday reality” (Mayo, 1998, p. 81).

If managers can use as tools for their learning the SRL and SML strategies, Mayo (1998) acknowledges benefits of HRD when endorsing self-managed learning, and believes that implementing SML is of valuable benefit for company’s business advantage.

For Chalofsky (2007) learning is an essential concept for HRD, together with the concept of People and Organization. We can conclude that any factor that influences any of these concepts, requests HRD’s close attention.

As the purpose of HRD is “to enhance learning, human potential and high performance in work related systems” (Bates, Hatcher, Holton and Chalofsky cited in Chalofsky, 2007, p.433), it can be inferred that supporting LO culture, HRD achieves its purpose, as declared by Bates et al. (2007).

Wexler & Latham (1991) consider, as well, that SRL ensures training effectiveness only if HRD communicates without equivocal the organization’s goals.

To summarize, by encouraging LO culture, HRD encourages collaboration, innovative thinking and personal growth, all taking place in an environment of corporate responsibility and ethical behavior.

However, HRD’s support for SRL or SML is perceived in different manners by practitioners. Mayo considers HRD’s implication in these learning strategies more a desire than a reality, as “in practice, most HRD functions still have a heavy emphasis on the design and delivery of events” (Mayo, 1998, p.90). Even if the practice for supporting SRL and SML is not generalized, the case study in the final part of this paper proves that, when engaged, the strategies get the desired results.

3. Case study

In order to see how SML functions in practice is presented the merger of J.R. Phillips and URM Agencies, cited by Swart et al. (2005).

These two companies merged under the name of Hiram Walker Agencies. The senior managers decided to change company’s culture, from patriarchal to entrepreneurial style. To make this happen, managers were asked to assume responsibility for their own development; in return senior management declares willingness to support them in this process.

The case study describes the process undertaken for applying SML, which replicate closely the steps of SML model, as described by Gilligan (1994).

Individual decides what goals wants to achieve, and declares them to the group. The learning manager is a senior manager, who checks the integration of these goals with organizational goals. After this the learning contract is signed. This triggers a high level of self-motivation.

Every group at Hiram Walker consisted of managers from different departments (we should not forget that the initial structure is the departmental type). This lead to increased communication among individuals and reduced the barriers that were perceived due to departmental structure.

After one year, at the end of the program, was reported a better understanding of broad strategic organizational context, as opposed to previous narrow specialization, fact that enhanced transfer of learning (Swart et al., 2005). Gilligan (1994), referring to Hiram Walker’s SML results, observes the most important results (from the perspective of organizational culture changing): greater ability for individuals to take managerial responsibility, desire to adapt and learn new skills, and a positive attitude towards change. Hiram Walker’s director of human resources concluded that, “pound for pound, it has proved among the most cost-effective forms of development the company has ever undertaken” (cited in Gilligan, 1994, p.8).

Now, when analyzing this case, is important to explain why the HR director is so satisfied with SML intervention result.

Two companies merge with the purpose of improving their market performance: greater share of market, economies of scales and low cost for capital access (Hitt et al., 1998).

But, the literature is generally negative when presenting the financial outcomes of mergers (Napier, 1989). Numerous cases of unsuccessful mergers provide us with some of the mergers’ problems.

Recklies (2001) lists some of them: fears among board directors that the other partner will become dominant, conflicts among managers when there is a lack of understanding regarding the need of merger, conflicts among employees because of the changes that take place at all levels. In order to achieve the purposes of the merger must be taken advantage of the value of people in both companies. If at the beginning of merger epoch, the HR intervention was post- merger, the pre-merger and planning intervention of HR, and implicitly of HRD, became an instrument of preventing the shock of mergers, and consequently, the risk of failure.

The initiative that senior management and HRD took in our case used SML approach in order to create a culture for the new company. According to Recklies (2001), communication of vision is key factor for success, together with a pre-merger analyze of existing corporate cultures and value systems; analyze of staff qualification and leadership styles. This is exactly what Hiram Walker Agencies did by involving managers in SML. Even more, managers not only understand the new vision, but establish new communication channels and make acquaintance. By creating valuable relationships among employees of both companies, HRD ensures that the conflicts and fears are openly expressed and resolved. The resistance to change is, thus, overcome.

This case demonstrates how important is HRD’s planning and involvement for a successful business. I envision that a business’s success will largely depend on the extent in which HRD’s expertise is exploited in planning phase.


The complexity of business environment demands high flexibility and adaptability from managers, as individuals and as members of organizations. This flexibility is the result of continuous learning. The task of learning has two dimensions: a personal one, which interests individual’s development, and an organizational one, which intertwines the personal career development with company’s evolution. HRD, as the part of organization whose “working fabric” is learning, undertakes the responsibility of fostering a climate supportive for learning by integrating individuals’ learning with the strategic goals of the business. As the present paper found a connection between the evolution in learning definitions, theories and practical strategies, and the changes in economic environment, expectations for HRD’s major contributions to learning organization development are justified.


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Management of Organizational Learning and Knowledge de Mia Dragostin este licenţiat printr-o Licenţă Creative Commons Atribuire-Necomercial-Fără Opere Derivate 3.0 România.

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