Connecting organisational learning with vocational education: An evidence based approach



Intellectual Property of Dr. Bruce D. Watson, DEd Melbourne and attributed authors as noted.

For Private individual use. All rights reserved.


Knowledge is conceived, in our Western societies, as a rigid, tangible and measurable key to fit all locks – and this brings organisations to a terrible confusion between information and knowledge, between determination and comprehension, between description and involvement. (Baumard, 1999, p. 203).

Descriptive accounts of organisational learning are misleading and unhelpful

This article is a summary of my formal Thesis (Rethinking Organisational Learning).

My aim is to prompt inquiring minds into thinking differently, based on evidence, not my subjective opinion.

It is about “thinking” and “rethinking” using evidence that goes beyond the latest quick-fix management formulas, models and techniques. It gets into the difficult business of thinking about organisations and how they are managed in a new way.

The prominent oversight in the organisational learning literature is the general lack of attention given to what learning is, what knowledge is and how it occurs. Most books assume what learning and knowledge is, and how they occur.

During a critical time in managing the, unbelievable, third round of imposed organisational restructuring in the same organisation in four years, during the downsizing mentality of the 1990s, I was told by people unnamed, that the greatest need was that we, as an organisation, became a ‘Learning Organisation’ as described by Peter Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of THE LEARNING ORGANISATION”.

I purposely use capital letters to distinguish Senge’s approach to learning organisations as compared to more general uses. I was quite skeptical at the time, just as I was of any quick-fix management methodology. Time has shown that my skepticism was well founded, however, this is not intended as a personal criticism of Senge, as he altered his position over time as will be mentioned below.

There is a major, conceptual difference between ‘The Learning Organisation” (Senge’s model) and ‘Organisational Learning’, however, the difference is easily overlooked in the hurry to find a ‘magic management solution’ to fix an immediate and sizable organisational problem. As will be noted in the course of systematic argument and evidence, “The Learning Organisation” is a generalised approach to organisations and organisation change. “In summary it is asserted that “The Learning Organisation” is better at adapting to rapidly changing external circumstances and better equipped to become more productive and efficient in accomplishing its goals. Senge (1995) regards organisations as simply adapting if they are not applying The Learning Organisation model.

A large amount of material is published under the theme of “The Learning Organisation”, however, Senge is arguably the most cited. There is virtually a whole industry based around “The Learning Organisation” as it has become an end in itself. Notably, some years after the publication of his book, Senge himself suggests that there is no such thing as a “Learning Organisation”, but that there is a vision for creating an organisation we would like to work in (Senge, 1997, p. 17).

Senge’s concept of “The Learning Organisation” rests within systems thinking (Senge and Fulmer, 1993). In this model of thinking, there is no allowance for the unpredictability of individual or group human action, different organisational structures, the context of work or specific local content. All of the preceding elements of “organisation” are contributing factors to organisational learning, however, they are obscured by filtration through a general systems model.

Consequently, the system dynamics approach to organisational learning is largely descriptive and, while suggestive of participatory organisational structures, it cannot offer one that could be applicable to all organisations. In this regard, Ivanoff and Jakiah (1997) noted “an increasing level of concern, tending towards cynicism” regarding “The Learning Organisation” as “it seems easier to make statements about what a learning organisation would be like than it is to identify the concrete action necessary to turn a desirable objective into reality” (Ivanoff and Jakiah, 1997, p. 28).

Hence, Finger and Brand (1999) argue that “The Learning Organisation” is an ideal whereas “organisational learning is the activity and the process by which organisations eventually reach this ideal of a learning organisation” (Finger and Brand, 1999, p. 136).”

I argue here that a management approach informed by knowledge of how brains work as it applies to individual and collective learning is likely to be considerably more effective than relying on the largely descriptive understandings of organisational learning that are prominent in contemporary management literature, and the generally prescriptive nature of organisational reform literature.

I offer a new conception of organisational learning and its application to management practice.

Organisational Learning lacks clarity

While it is customary to provide an accepted definition at the beginning of a work that is to offer critical comment, Thagard (1998) argues that a different approach may be required in particular circumstances. In his view, it is often difficult to arrive at definitions that exactly encapsulate what is meant, except perhaps in physics and mathematics. Given the fragmented and differentiated contributions in organisational learning it does not seem possible to give a precise definition. Thagard argues that in such circumstances it is appropriate to think in terms of concepts, which he describes as “frames, schemas or scripts” that exist purely in a mind/brain and develop through sensory experience and other concepts. At the conclusion of a line of inquiry into a concept, it may possibly be definable, however, this may not necessarily be desirable or required (Thagard, 1998, pp. 59 – 60).

As has been demonstrated in my detailed and comprehensive survey of organisational learning literature, there is little agreement on what constitutes organisational learning or how it is to be conceptualised. It is not surprising that there is an assortment of definitions of organisational learning when there is not even clear agreement on what learning is. The foregoing suggests that the main issues concerning organisational learning are:

i. Conceptions of organisational learning tend to reflect individual learning theories, which may not be appropriate.

ii. The wide variation in definitions of organisational learning.

iii. The assumptions made as to what constitutes organisational learning.

iv. The varying views on what is learned, either individually or collectively, and whether it is consciously extractable and capable of being articulated in an explicit way, such as through behaviours, policies, rules, routines.

v. Whether individuals are the unit of analysis, or whether organisations (collectivities) as entities in themselves are the unit of analysis.

vi. The various positions adopted on what is learned in organisational learning.

vii. The lack of clarity as to when learning takes place in organisations.

viii. The perceived benefits of learning in organisations.

ix. The lack of understanding as to how learning takes place in organisations.

There are, however, points of agreement or recurring themes in the organisational learning literature such as:

i. Learning is useful.

ii. Organisations (collectivities) learn.

iii. Learning occurs throughout organisations.

iv. Learning involves implicit and explicit factors.

v. Learning involves contextual (environmental, social, situational) factors.

vi. Collaboration of individuals to achieve organisational purpose is complex.

vii. Individual learning is not the same as organisational learning.

viii. Individual knowledge is not the same as organisational knowledge.

It is reasonable to suggest that it is the lack of attention given to learning, in particular, that has contributed significantly to the concept of organisational learning lacking clarity. There is a tendency for most authors to assume how learning occurs and there is often an overarching emphasis on improvement of performance (behaviour change) as the main measure of learning, however, change in behaviour may simply indicate conformity due to other pressures. Except for Hutchins (1996), Heath and Luff (1998), Huzzard (2000) and Hutchins and Klausen (1998), there is a tendency to view organisational learning as radical change.

There is also an emphasis on planned learning as a top-down management tool for “structuration” or “institutionalisation”. Generally, the learning that may take place irrespective of managerial interventions and observable changes is overlooked.

The same contentious issues attributed to theoretical accounts of organisational learning equally apply to the investigations of empirical studies I undertook.

There is no agreement on what learning is. Further, there seems to be no agreed position on specific methods and techniques that may be used to investigate organisational learning.


The diversity in learning theories is testament to the complexity in understanding the process of learning. Mowrer and Klein (2001, pp. 1 – 21) describe the transitive nature of contemporary learning theory that is demonstrated by the move from all-encompassing theories to more specific theories. Most notably, they argue that the process of learning is underpinned by biological factors that tend to negate the idea of general laws of learning (Mower and Klein, 2001, p. 18). It is apparent from the contemporary learning theories compiled by Mower and Klein, as just one set of examples, that there is no universally accepted theory.

As is evident from a theoretical survey of organisational learning literature and the empirical investigations of organisational learning, the field is readily influenced by the various theories of individual learning.

A huge difficulty arises when more than one concept of learning is assumed without a clear explanation as to why a particular learning theory is the most appropriate. I have found, based on the evidence available, that the connectionist view of learning appears to be a more plausible account for understanding learning. Artificial neural nets attempt to model real brain functioning which is characterised by massive interconnectivity and parallel distributed processing. Neural nets can also operate and learn without the constriction of rules.

The fact that connectionist models, taking into account their limitations, learn at all is rather human-like. Connectionist models would appear to provide a richer framework for understanding human cognition, particularly in the realm of implicit or unconscious cognitive processes including learning.

Implicit/tacit knowledge

The findings of Cleermans (1997), in particular, suggest a necessity to consider the role that implicit/tacit knowledge has in the functioning of human beings. St.Julian’s (1997) experimental outcomes are suggestive of a need to change the focus that human cognition rests solely in an individual head to a view that cognition is distributed among individuals and socially constructed.

Confusion about what knowledge is

All of the papers I have read have illustrated that organisational learning cannot simply be conceptualised as tracking shared explicit knowledge. This is because there is a large amount of knowledge crucial to the functioning of organisations that is not easy (impossible?) to articulate and results from complex sociocultural and environmental factors.

Cognitive processes of individuals and organisations incorporate tacit and explicit knowledge. In this regard, Clark et al (2000) refers to “explacit knowledge”, the notion of a spectrum of knowledges together with the merger of explicit and tacit within the same construction (Clark, et al 2000, p. 454).

In terms of the literature concerning organisational knowledge it is reasonable to suggest that there is confusion about what knowledge is. The common mistake, as noted in the previous Chapter, is to confuse knowledge with its representation, as argued by Churchland (1983) above.

Notably, Nonaka and Takeuchi’s (1995) contention that tacit knowledge can be made explicit defies logic because, by definition, there is great difficulty in expressing tacit knowledge. What may pass as the expression of tacit knowledge in Nonaka and Takeuchi’s methodology does not take into account Nisbett and Wilsons’s (1977) evidence that people “tell more than [they] can know” and Polyani’s (1967) argument that people “ know more than [they] can tell”.

Knowledge is more accurately to be considered in terms of cognitive processes – they way people think. Unlike deliberate sentence manipulation as might be applied to explicit learning and explicit knowledge, the concepts of explacit learning and the storage of explacit knowledge attempts to take into account the experiential and practical components of knowledge.

Conceptualising or modelling organisational learning therefore requires processes that extend well beyond the explicit routines of organisations because important data are lost in the coding of representations, such as, reporting quantities as distinct from reporting quality, judgement or wisdom. In spite of the practical suggestions above, in Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), the difficulty in isolating, extracting and disseminating tacit knowledge is apparent. Polyani (1967), Nisbett and Wilson (1977), Koriat (1993) and Churchland (1983) demonstrate that people do not necessarily have conscious access to their own thoughts despite having the feeling that they do.

While Nisbett and Wilson (1977) demonstrate that when individuals are asked to recall what has been the basis of their decision-making “they tell more than they can know” despite having the feeling that they do know, superimposing this situation onto a collectivity lays the framework for appreciating the often overlooked complexity involved in organisational learning.

Beyond individual brains

There is much more to “learning” than simply the programming of symbols and sentences into a brain. The evidence for implicit learning and tacit knowledge could be assumed to be of major interest to managers who are seeking to make the best use possible of knowledge and learning in their organisations.

Language, as previously demonstrated in Brown and Duguid’s (1996) study of photocopy technicians, appears to be such a major component of learning processes that Clark (1997) refers to language as “the ultimate artefact” because it enables people to

…reshape a variety of difficult but important tasks into formats better suited to the basic computational capacities of the human brain. (Clark, 1997, p. 193).

Orr’s (1996) study illustrates the notion of implicit (diagnostic skill based on experience in the event of unusual situations) and explicit learning (diagnosis based on service manuals and narrative accounts) as it applies in a work-related social context. It also supports the constructivist view of learning, that learners construct their own reality based on their perceptions of experience and the physical laws of the world, together with a socially negotiated model of knowledge that is always subject to revision based on new experiences (see Malinen, 2000, pp. 48 – 49).

Clearly, no one person can know all there is to know about photocopiers, to use Orr’s (1996) example, so a culture and form of organisation develop to alleviate this biological constraint, hence extending learning and knowledge beyond individual brains.

Lakomski (1999) identifies organisations as examples of situated action. She argues that individual employees cannot perform all the cognitive processes required in the functioning of an organisation on their own because human beings have finite cognitive abilities, therefore:

…the contracting out of cognitive tasks, or the cognitive division of labour, has been essential in order for people to become the kinds of advanced knowers that they are by some kind of cognitive bootstrapping. It is in this sense that external structures are extensions of the mind. This is rarely considered explicitly, and yet it is deeply imbedded in everyday life…Mind and world are indeed indivisible (Lakomski, 1999, p. 296).

The problem faced is that what is commonly referred to as good practice or competent practice, whether referring to individuals or collectives, belies symbolic representation and can only be demonstrated in action. Organisations are usually capable of demonstrating knowledge and learning in the explicit, cognitivist information-processing sense, and that is important.

An organisation is more than a simple aggregation of individuals and an altogether different unit of analysis. Accordingly, the concepts of implicit learning and situated action suggest that there is a need to consider the role of tacit knowledge and learning in a collective, or organisational, sense. Organisational knowledge, therefore, is far more than any symbolic representation may be capable of conveying.

The situated action account of knowing and learning together with the contemporary view on organisations presented here, provides the basis for what amounts to a reconceptualisation of organisational learning

Rethinking organisational learning

There is a tendency in the organisational learning literature to assume what learning is rather than defend a scientifically supported model of learning. Fiol and Lyles already noted this in 1988, and the situation appears not to have progressed since then (Fiol and Lyles, 1998, p. 803). As noted above, it was found that researchers and authors were readily influenced by current theories of individual learning, broadly perceived as behaviourist, cognitivist, and constructivist. Hedberg (1981), in particular, demonstrates the behaviourist influence through his emphasis on stimulus-response learning. Levitt and March (1988) also manifest a behaviourist sway because of their linking of organisational learning to trial and error and observable improvement.

The behaviourist approach is found to be limited in its application as it does not take account of learning that may take place without an observable change in behaviour, such as learning a new word or language.

Cognitivism developed out of recognition of the limitations of behaviourism. It took into account mental processes that may be aligned with learning, in spite of the arguments about where the mental processes take place, in the mind or in the brain. The cognitivist framework of learning is demonstrated inter alia in the research of Argyris and Schön (1996), Fiol and Lyles (1985), Huber (1991), Popper and Lipshitz (2000). The predominance of the cognitivist view of learning in the literature is not surprising because of the developments that have occurred in computer science, in particular, the programmable serial processing computer. Thus, the tendency in the positions adopted by the cognitivist organisational learning group is to emphasise the explicitness and access to the products of learning, to the point where what is learned can be readily expressed in symbolic form, such as, words and language.

Researchers, such as Weick and Roberts (1996), Brown and Duguid (1996), and Cook and Yanow (1996), recognise the difficulty in representing learned skills and expertise in terms of symbolic representations and adopt a constructivist framework for organisational learning. The problem of adopting a constructivist framework is that the importance of symbolic representation in communication is downplayed.

In spite of the important role the behaviourist account of learning had in the development of theories of learning, the cognitivist and constructivist theories are found to be more useful and plausible through the evidence now available on brain functioning. The traditional cognitivist position, demonstrated by artificial intelligence, has its limitations because all learning is thought of in terms of symbols and serial processing of information.

In addition to the difficulty in representing skills and expertise in terms of symbols, there is the added problem of conceiving the human brain/mind as holding long, symbol-based serial processing programs for everything that is learned. As has been argued, connectionism provides a more plausible account of how people learn, represent and store knowledge in terms of patterns of activation, based on the findings associated with the capabilities of artificial neural networks; there is empirical evidence to support the claims of connectionism.

It would seem that an integration of cognitivist and constructivist viewpoints would be an appropriate consideration in advancing the concept of organisational learning. Accordingly, the philosophical artificial intelligence/connectionism debate would become more a case of seeking the relevant aspects of each of their theoretical frameworks and formulating a new theoretical framework that integrates situated action.

It is appropriate to suggest “based on situated action” because the analysis of situated action in this Treatise demonstrated that both cognitivists and constructionists believe they can explain the situational aspects of learning and knowledge. It is important to recognise that both the cognitivist and constructivist theories have something to offer. A reconceptualised view of learning as an integration of cognitivist and constructivist theories would significantly assist in advancing organisational learning as a field of study and connectionism appears to provide the tools by which this could be achieved.

The emphasis in most of the empirical investigations of the organisational learning literature demonstrated an awareness of the need to consider cognitivist and constructivist aspects of learning. However, a tendency towards explicit outcomes, changes in behaviour and management led learning in quite concrete terms is also evident.

The empirical investigations, like the behaviourist account of learning, tend to overlook the fact that observable changes may not necessarily indicate that desired learning has occurred. For example, a change in behaviour may simply equate to conformity “to keep one’s job”. The emphasis on observable events belies the evidence for implicit learning and tacit knowledge. Both of these are important in learning, however, they can not be reduced to symbols or abstract notions and are not necessarily consciously accessible in any case.

However, integrating cognitivism and constructivist accounts of learning, and taking into account implicit learning and tacit knowledge, to reconceptualise organisational learning is insufficient. Using theories of individual learning to explain organisational learning is not necessarily appropriate. Most researchers agree that individual learning is different from learning by organisations. The learning entity in organisational learning is considered in the next section.

Learning Entity

While the organisational learning literature generally is in agreement that organisational learning is not simply the sum of the learning parts, the learning entity in organisational learning has been variously assumed to be either individuals, the overall organisation, or a combination of both. For example, Argyris and Schön (1996) and Hedberg (1981) quite clearly articulate that the learning entity are the individual members of an organisation. In contrast, Levitt and March (1988), Weick and Roberts (1996), Cook and Yanow (1996) and Popper and Lipshitz (2000) attribute organisational learning to the organisation as an entity in itself. Huber’s (1991) view is found in his belief that organisational learning results from learning in various entities in an organisation, such as, individuals, groups, or sub-units. It is evident that a coherent concept of organisational learning is unlikely to be achieved with such a variation in views.

Situated action draws attention to the influence that environmental factors such as artefacts and shared understanding of socially constructed knowledge, explicit and tacit, may have on learning. Situated action also supports the notion of an important dynamic between the individual and the organisation, which can lead to a collective or organisational knowledge beyond what is held in individual heads, the notion of distributed cognition. While explicit organisational knowledge is evident in the formal policies and procedures of a organisation, it is evident that the implicit learning and the tacit knowledge within an organisation, “the way we do things around here”, is crucial in the functioning of an organisation. Connectionism has provided some evidence for this. It thus seems reasonable to conclude that the learning entity in organisational learning is the organisation itself, without overlooking the important role that individuals take in that process.

Contents and Processes

As would be expected, the content and processes of organisational learning described in the literature is largely influenced by the theoretical framework of learning assumed by the respective authors as described above. Authors who adopt a behaviourist position, such as Hedberg (1981) and Levitt and March (1988), view the content and processes of organisational learning as being explicit (observable) and resulting in observable improvements.

In contrast, the authors who adopt a cognitivist position, for example, Argyris and Schön (1996), Fiol and Lyles (1985), Huber (1991) and Popper and Lipshitz (2000) equate the contents of organisational learning as explicit knowledge that is shared and recorded symbolically within an organisation through reports and language for example. In terms of processes, the emphasis tends to be on hypothetico-deductive constructs of learning that are descriptive accounts rather than empirically supported. For instance, in the interventionist approach posited by Argyris and Schön (1996), while their theory-in-use captures the essence of “knowing more than can be told”, there is a reliance on employees having conscious access to “what they know” and on their ability to formulate it into symbolic accounts to make it accessible to others.

Empirical investigations into implicit learning and tacit knowledge have shown that there is learning and knowledge that can not be readily articulated in symbolic form. An added difficulty is that there is further empirical evidence that demonstrates that despite “feelings-of-knowing” something, people have an inability to report accurately on their cognitive process. The difficulty evident in Argyris and Schön’s techniques for extracting organisational knowledge is that the empirical evidence suggests that when people do articulate “what they know” it is passed through mind-filters such as causal theories or judgements about the plausibility of their response (Nisbett and Wilson, 1977). The inability to articulate what a person knows goes beyond any deliberate defensive action that may be taken to avoid embarrassment.

Authors who adopt the constructivist framework for learning, Weick and Roberts (1996), Brown and Duguid (1996), and Cook and Yanow (1996), view the content of organisational learning as skills and expertise. Accordingly, the process of organisational learning in the constructivist view is less tangible than is found in the cognitivist view. Thus, the constructivist account of organisational learning consists in the transference of skills and expertise through a community of practice/organisation. There is a notion of a collective mind, or understanding, of what the organisation exists for. Most importantly, there is a concept of implicit learning, tacit knowledge and learning by doing. While there is empirical evidence that supports implicit learning, learning from experience and tacit knowledge, what is most needed is a way of conceptualising learning from experience that can be effectively utilised. Connectionism may provide such a tool.

A reconceptualistion of organisational learning recognises that there are explicit and implicit elements to learning, also that there is explicit and tacit knowledge. A reconceptualistion of organisational learning also recognises that organisational learning occurs whether or not there is intervention, top-down management led programs or other pre-planned activities. Formalised attempts at producing organisational learning may have consequences that were not intended, as demonstrated in the empirical investigations of organisational learning (see Huzzard, 2000 and Carmona and Grönland, 1998, summarised in Chapter Three).

It may be concluded that the contents of organisational learning is a complex amalgam of explicit and tacit knowledge (explacit knowledge) constructed by individuals and a collectivity. Further, it may be concluded that the process of organisational learning is a complex combination of explicit and implicit learning (explacit learning), also involving individuals and a collectivity.

An evidenced-based understanding of organisational learning

It is clear that organisational learning is enormously complex. The tendency to explain learning by relatively simple cognitivist theoretical constructs has lead to the exclusion of vital elements of learning such as implicit learning and tacit knowledge. The same could be said for concepts of organisational learning. In the preceding sections it was noted that a new view of organisational learning needs to take into account the following:

i. The integration of cognitivist and constructivist theoretical accounts of learning and the best available evidence that integrates the two accounts.

ii. The dynamic between individual and organisation.

iii. That organisations as entities (collectivities) can learn and organisational knowledge is different and separate to individual knowledge.

iv. Individuals and organisations may learn explicitly and implicitly in a social context and thereby generate explicit and tacit knowledge, whether intentionally or not.

iv. Individual and organisational learning is influenced by environmental factors, such as artefacts and a shared social construction of knowledge.

It is now possible to provide a new concept of organisational learning:

Organisational learning occurs by, and is the result of, a complex dynamic involving individual and collective explicit and implicit learning of all organisational members who participate in a community-of-practice, with all of the preceding being influenced by organisational internal and external environmental factors, with the ultimate formation of collective, explicit and tacit organisational knowledge. (Bruce D. Watson, 2002)

Definitions tend to oversimplify and create artificial boundaries when applied to complex and dynamic ideas. The new conception of organisational learning provided above integrates cognitivist and constructivist viewpoints and takes into account the currently best explanation of learning and knowledge.

It follows that the reconceptualisation of organisational learning proposed here has implications for managers and the concept of management overall. Such a reconceptualistion has the potential to revolutionise the way that managers are trained and educated, together with how structures of organisations may be perceived and modified. This is briefly argued in the next section.

Vocational education implications for Managers

There are many implications of a new view of organisational learning, which can not be discussed here. As the focus of this Treatise is on learning, it seems important to consider two pertinent issues: 1. how managers learn and 2. how managers could manage in organisations to foster desirable organisational learning.

In 1988, Isenberg analysed how managers think, and made a number of suggestions on how managers could improve their thinking:

i. Bolster intuition with rational thinking. Recognise that good intuition requires hard work, study, periods of concentrated thought, and rehearsal.

ii. Offset tendencies to be rational by stressing the importance of values and preferences, of using imagination, and of acting with an incomplete picture of the situation.

iii. Develop skills at mapping an unfamiliar territory by, for example, generalising from facts and testing generalities by collecting more data.

iv. Pay attention to the simple rules of thumb – heuristics – that you have developed over the years. These can help you bypass many levels of painstaking analysis.

v. Do not be afraid to act in the absence of complete understanding, but then cherish the feelings of surprise that you will necessarily experience.

vi. Spend time understanding what the problem or issue is.

vii. Look for the connections among the many diverse problems and issues facing you to see their underlying relationships with each other. By working on one problem you can make progress on others.

viii. Finally, recognise that your abilities to think are critical assets that you need to manage and develop in the same way that you manage other business assets. (Isenberg, 1988, pp. 538 – 539).

In essence, Isenberg alludes to the necessity for experiential learning, expertise and skills that, according to Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986), had largely disappeared from American management in favour of quantitative methods and formula based principles. Dreyfus and Dreyfus attribute the predominance of such principles to artificial learning models of learning (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986, pp.158 – 163). They describe the limitations of mathematical models of learning in favour of “mind-over-machine” approaches to decision-making (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986, pp. 170 – 192). By their analysis:

Experienced intuitive managers do not attempt to understand familiar problems and opportunities in purely analytic terms using calculative rationality, but realise that detached deliberation about the validity of intuitions will improve decision-making. Common as it is, little has been written about that conscious deliberative buttressing of non-conscious intuitive understanding, probably because detached deliberation is often incorrectly seen as an alternative to intuition. (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986, pp. 163 – 164).

Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) subsequently argue the case for management learning that encompasses sequential, situational case studies and a period of apprenticeship similar to the residency period of a doctor (Dreyfus and Dreyfus, 1986, pp. 167 – 170).

Given the intuitive and expert view of management described by Dreyfus and Dreyfus, it is noteworthy that managers apparently cannot articulate clearly what it is that they do. Clark (2000) observes that the investigation of managerial work is problematic because so many different perspectives are present in the literature (Clark, 2000, pp. 306 – 309). For the purposes of argument, Mintzberg (1989) posits that managers describe what they do as “plan, organise, coordinate and control” (Mintzberg, 1989, p. 9). In his view this does not provide any enlightenment on what managers actually do. Accordingly, he conducted research into the activities of managers. His findings were:

Considering the facts about managerial work, we can see that the manager’s job is enormously complicated and difficult. The manager is overburdened with obligations; yet he or she can not easily delegate his or her tasks. As a result, he or she is driven to overwork and is forced to do many tasks superficially. Brevity, fragmentation, and oral communication characterise the work. Yet these are the very characteristics of managerial work that have impeded scientific attempts to improve it. As a result, management scientists have concentrated their efforts on the specialised functions of the organisation, where they could easily analyse the procedures and quantify the relevant information. (Mintzberg, 1989, pp. 14 – 15).

Mintzberg subsequently categorised roles that are attributed to managers, including formal and status roles, interpersonal roles, informational roles and decisional roles (Mintzberg, 1989, p. 16). In his view, a manager’s effectiveness is significantly influenced by their insight into their own work (Mintzberg, 1989, p. 22). Beckett (1999) suggests that Mintzberg’s account allows a conclusion to be drawn that:

…whilst at work, managers can learn powerfully through experiences which are intense, dynamic, uncertain, and decisional….where decisions are taken on the run, case by case, and with the nagging doubt that action might be inadequate – superficial, hasty and inappropriate. (Beckett, 1999, p. 84).

In view of situated action theory, Mintzberg’s and Beckett’s account of managerial practice need to be considered in terms of organisational environmental constructs and artefacts.

Despite the formal training and education available to managers, it is apparent that managers themselves have to learn in the same way as other organisation members, by implicit and explicit means. It is important, then, that managers are aware of contemporary views of what constitutes learning, as has been argued here. They need to be more aware of tacit knowledge and the implicit aspects of learning that apply to themselves and those they manage. Managers also need to recognise that the provision of formal learning activities that generate a change in behaviour do not necessarily correspond to organisational learning for all of the reasons described above. It is a reasonable assumption that managers who understand how they learn themselves, and also how collectivities learn, will be in a position to utilise organisational learning more effectively.

It is noticeable in the literature that topics relating to the points raised by Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) are gaining some prominence. For example, Conger and Xin (2000) have researched the “gradual but radical transformation” of current executive education programs, and concluded that they are “far more innovative, learner centred and relevant to immediate company needs…” (Conger and Xin, 2000, p. 73). However, they give examples of the need for further changes (Conger and Xin, 2000, pp. 89 – 99).

Burgoyne and Reynolds (1997) present a series of papers that seek to integrate management learning theory and practice, Garrick (1998) considers the notion of informal learning that occurs in workplaces, Boud and Garrick, (1999) consider the context, perspectives and issues of practice in understanding learning at work, and Raelin (2000) also considers the notion of work-based learning including, generally, many of the aspects raised in this Treatise concerning learning.

In addition to the arguments for experiential and work-based learning that are gaining support, it is proposed here that the formal elements of the training of managers may include curriculum that explores the way people learn, including themselves, using the best current account of cognitive processes. This notion could be extended to the notion of “manager as learner and manager as teacher”. As this Treatise has argued, a connectionist approach seems most appropriate as it gives the currently most comprehensive account of learning.

Managers with a significant understanding of the generation and storage of knowledge in the human brain well beyond the cognitivist view will most likely adopt a different approach to their management style. For example, consider how managers may go about their business differently if they have an understanding of employees’ inability to articulate accurately all of their knowledge, and that some knowledge may only exist in the collectivity.

Such a view places a perspective on “downsizing” and “rightsizing” of organisations that would recognise the possible loss of knowledge to the overall detriment of the organisation. It also supports the view that “bottom-up” management may facilitate the finding of answers to difficult management/organisational problems hitherto suppressed. It may also transpire that managers develop a view of organisations as a whole in which an understanding emerges of a “net” of dynamic knowledge and learning processes that connects all individuals right across an organisation at all levels.

When it comes to fostering desirable organisational learning, the implications are significant. There is a need to challenge the top-down management structure of organisations. This is because in a new view of organisational learning there is a recognition of the important role that implicit learning and tacit knowledge take in any organisation. The notion of distributed cognition and situated action puts to rest the idea of an “all knowing” manager at the top of the hierarchy.

Accordingly, both the practice of management and the structures in which management takes place are areas for research if organisational learning is to be optimised.

Complete thesis:


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