The organisation as context for learning and development HR Management

This chapter has already noted how the process of learning knows no boundaries. People bring the fruits of this naturally occurring and continuous process into their place of work and so, as Cooley (1987: 169) shows, ‘ordinary people’ have the potential to contribute the knowledge, skills, attitudes and creative thinking that organizations need for survival, flexibility and development.

Moreover, individuals’ learning and development continue within the organisation, so here we shall examine how human resource managers can provide an environment in which the capacity to learn and adapt can be harnessed to benefit the organisation. Employers benefit from – indeed, depend on – their employees’ naturally occurring learning. Some recognise this and encourage, facilitate and extend those aspects of their employees’ learning that are essential for the organisation, and support them informally or undertake formal employee development activities (see earlier). However, organizations themselves can sometimes make inhospitable environments for the learning and development individuals bring to them (e.g. Honey, 2002).

The section on different types of learners noted that learning involves the whole person, but organisations are systems of roles, and these roles can distort or straitjacket individuals, as Argyris (1960) and McGregor (1960) argue. While they were both writing in a very different organisational era, and much has already moved in the directions they were advocating, nevertheless, the urgent calls for human resource development and for the development of the learning organisation hint that there still remain vestiges of those traditional assumptions and practices.

Some employers ignore the significance for the organisation of this learning, and do little either to overcome the way in which their organisation may thwart the development of their employees, or to foster that learning and development. In these cases, employee development is not a planned or systematic process. It takes place nevertheless: employees learn for themselves how to carry out their jobs, or improve their performance; how to make job changes or achieve promotions; how to become managers and develop others.

It must therefore be recognised that much employee learning might not be intended, planned or systematic; Chapter 9 indicates that this may be the case in the majority of organisations. Nevertheless, individuals may:

  • learn how to carry out their initial and subsequent jobs through doing and observing, through trial and error, through the influence of and feedback from their peers and supervisors, through modelling themselves on others, and through informal mentors;
  • develop themselves through their own more or less systematic analysis of their learning needs;
  • take the initiative to acquire additional knowledge or understanding by attending educational and other courses.

Because of this, employee learning is problematical. Employers will receive many of its benefits without effort on their part, while at the same time, unlike recruitment and selection, they cannot fully control or contain it. Some employers might feel threatened by the potential of their employees’ learning and development, and not welcome significant changes in the people they had been at pains to select as employees.

Through their work, employees might acquire knowledge and skills that make them marketable to other employers, and perhaps less than fully committed to their present employer. Equally, not exposed to best practice, they might learn poor lessons; they might also learn ineffectively and in an unnecessarily uncomfortable, effortful or wasteful manner. Thus they might not necessarily benefit from the learning and development they contribute to their organisation, although they would not be able to withhold some of its benefits from their employers.

To manage people effectively and fairly, and in a way that benefits the organisation, therefore, it is important, first, to be aware of these thorny and, at times, moral issues. (You will have the opportunity to consider them in greater depth in the section on controversialissues.) Then, it is necessary to understand how the processes of learning and development can be facilitated in the organisation and, indeed, how the organization can itself learn. This is the subject of this section.

  • Influences upon learning and development outside the organisation

Many significant influences upon learning and development emanate from outside the organisation. Government-driven education and training initiatives and changes have contributed to the institutionalisation of competence-based education and training. The history, purpose and nature of these developments are discussed by Harrison (1992: 17–77; see also Harrison, 2002). Within a comprehensive and continually updating national framework agreed across all sectors and occupations , elements in an individual’s learning and development, whether achieved through formal education, training or experiential learning across the lifespan, are identified and assessed against nationally agreed standards.

The language, philosophy and procedures of this framework are likely to shape individuals’ perceptions of their learning and learning needs, and to influence how employers articulate the learning needs of their employees. Moreover, the Investors in People initiative also both prompts, shapes and supports human resource development practices.

  • Facilitating learning and development within the organisation

Employees learn and develop through carrying out their jobs: this chapter has already noted the significance of action for learning. For example, the design of those jobs and the organisation structure, the degree to which it is centralised and bureaucratised, all influence employees’ learning opportunities. People need to be able to grow in their jobs, and might outgrow their jobs as they learn, or to move into new jobs that would allow them to continue the process of their development.

An organisation that is growing or changing is more likely to offer these opportunities than one that is static or declining. However, a ‘world-class manufacturing’ organisation, such as Oral-B Ireland, is a challenge to manage:

Here, then, are some of the features of organisation and management that would facilitate learning and development within organisations.

  • The style of management

Reporting on the results of research by the New Learning for New Work Consortium, Fonda and Guile (1999) set out the guiding principles for managing ‘capable’ organizations that seek to develop the learning of their employees. These are ‘respect for the views of the workforce and clarity about the capabilities that the whole workforce will need; the creation of both challenge and support for developing and sustaining these capabilities; and an individualised approach to potential’ .

Thus, as well as specific training, individuals need feedback on their performance, encouragement, support, and resources to give them self-confidence, to stimulate and sustain their learning and development. To develop the higher-order skills needed in organisations, employees need the opportunity to take risks and hence to make mistakes. This presupposes not only a risktaking and confident approach on the part of employees, but also a risk-taking and supportive management.

Effective learning and development in the organisation therefore call for a managerial style that is compatible with this need. The existence and nature of an appraisal scheme could have positive or negative effects upon employees’ learning (Thatcher, 1996). Essentially, organisations that want to develop these characteristics need also themselves to learn to learn, to become learning organisations, to have a learning culture and a learning centre (Coulson-Thomas, 2000).

  • The learning organisation

The structure and operation of an organisation can influence the process of learning within it. It is evident that the human resource development argued for throughout this chapter would be achieved in a learning organisation.

As Chapter discusses, the concept of the learning organisation is open to criticism, not least because it is often expressed in theoretical terms. This is recognised by Senge (Pickard, 2000: 39), one of its early and influential proponents (Senge, 1990), who has now elaborated his thinking in more concrete terms (Senge et al., 1998). Nevertheless, the learning organisation continues to be ‘an aspirational concept’ (Burgoyne, 1995: 24), a ‘transitional myth’ that makes sense both in the world that is passing and in the one that replaces it.

Hence it enables people to bridge the gap – in this case as ‘more emotionally involving, inclusive forms of organisation’ emerge from the informationbased organisation. However, Burgoyne (1999: 44), another early and key proponent, acknowledges that it has not ‘delivered its full potential or lived up to all our expectations’, and sets out what the characteristics of the second generation will have to be.

When everyone participates in creating a quality culture, functional boundaries become fuzzy, and the ‘seamless’ organisation emerges. This culture makes people easier to lead, but difficult to drive. (Ryan, 1995: 41)

  • The holographic organisation

In his metaphor of the organisation as a brain, Morgan (1997) offers us a new way of appreciating how the organisation itself can facilitate, constrain or repress the learning of its members. He suggests that both brain and organisation can be understood as holograms, ‘where qualities of the whole are enfolded in all the parts so that the system has an ability to self-organize and regenerate itself on a continuous basis’.

The holographic nature of the learning organisation provides the stimulus, prompts and cues for individuals to learn and develop the higher-order skills they need to sustain and develop the organisation in a changing world, and ‘to develop a discursive, networking culture in which everyone constantly questioned their own assumptions’ (Pickard, 2000: 39). Reminding us that the brains of employees and the brain-like capacities of computers and the Internet already have holographic features, Morgan considers how to design these features into organisations as well. He identifies five principles: the ‘whole’ built into the ‘parts’, redundant functions, requisite variety, minimum critical specification, and learning to learn.

Building the ‘whole’ into the ‘parts’

One way of building the ‘whole’ into the parts of the organisation is through its culture. When this, Morgan suggests, embodies the organisation’s ‘vision, values, and sense of purpose’, then it will act like a ‘corporate “DNA’’’, which carries the holographic code of the human body in each of its parts. Another way is to network information throughout the organisation, so that it can be widely accessed, enabling organisational members ‘to become full participants in an evolving system of organizational memory and intelligence’.

Further ways are to have the kind of structure that allows the organisation to ‘grow large while remaining small’, and to organise work tasks not into specialised jobs but into holistic teams of individuals having multiple skills.


In the traditional mechanistic design of organisations, each part has a specific function, with additional parts for backup or replacement. This allows a degree of passivity and neglect in the system (‘“that’s not my responsibility”’); with the capacity for redesigning the system delegated to specialised parts, the capacity to self-organise is not generalised throughout the system. Instead, Morgan suggests that the organization needs an ‘excess capacity that can create room for innovation and development to occur’.

It needs redundancy of functions rather than redundancy of parts. Where each part has additional functions currently redundant but potentially available – through multi-skilling and teamworking, for example – the capacities for the functioning of the whole are built into the parts. Thus the system as a whole has flexibility, with the capacity to reflect on and question how it is operating and to change its mode of operating.

Requisite variety

The internal diversity of a self-regulating system must match the variety and complexity of its environment in order to deal with the challenges from that environment. All elements of the organisation should therefore ‘embody critical dimensions’ of the environment with which they have to deal; this variety can be achieved, where appropriate, through ‘multifunctioned teams’ .

Minimum critical specification

Overdefinition and control, as in a bureaucracy, erode flexibility and stifle innovation. Hence the manager should define no more than is essential, but should instead have a role focusing on ‘facilitation, orchestration and boundary management, creating “enabling conditions” that allow a system to find its own form’. The challenge is to avoid the extremes of anarchy and overcentralisation.

Learning to learn

Finally, the organisation needs to engage in double-loop learning (see earlier), allowing its operating norms and rules to change as the wider environment changes. Morgan concludes by noting that these five interconnected principles should not be regarded as ‘a blueprint or recipe’ , but as a way of looking at how organizations could ensure that they remain adaptive.

  • Mentoring

Mentor was the friend to whom Ulysses entrusted the care of his young son before embarking on his epic voyages. Although the notion of mentoring is, therefore, a very old one, its value in organisations started to be recognised 20 or so years ago. Since then many organisations have introduced mentoring programmes. You can read about this in Kram (1985), Collin (1988), Megginson (1988), Bennetts (1995), Fowler (1998), Brockbank and Beech (1999), Clutterbuck and Megginson (1999), Whittaker and Cartwright (1999), and Klasen and Clutterbuck (2001).

The nature and purpose of mentoring

In organisations, mentors are more experienced employees (and often managers) who guide, encourage and support younger or less experienced employees, or ‘protégés’. Their relationship is a developmental one that serves career-enhancing and psychosocial functions for the protégé while also benefiting the mentor. Moreover, mentoring facilitates the learning-to-learn of the employees and contributes to the process of meaning-making in the organisation and hence to its responsiveness to its environment, while meeting the developmental needs of employees.

Although being or having a mentor can occur naturally both outside and within organisations, this does not necessarily occur universally or systematically. To reap the benefits of mentoring, organisations set up formal programmes. Their purpose might be to support a graduate intake or other trainees and develop ‘high fliers’ or senior managers; encourage career advancement of women or those from minority groups (see Crofts, 1995); nurture employees with skills in short supply; stimulate and foster innovation in the organisation; and support managers in training, or other learners in the organisation.

Examples are to be found in a wide range of private and public sector organisations in Britain, Europe and North America. Protégés are not the only beneficiaries of mentoring: mentors also gain greatly from being challenged to understand their own jobs and the organisation, and to find ways of helping their protégés share this understanding and work effectively. Mentors might also find that they, too, need mentoring. Mentors draw upon their own networks to give experience and support to their protégés, and encourage them to develop networks of their own. In this way, the practice and benefits cascade through the organisation.

The requirements for effective mentoring

This literature generally agrees on the following requirements for effective mentoring.

  • The status and characteristics of the mentor. Mentors will generally be senior to protégés in status, experience and probably age. They should not have a line relationship with their protégé because the element of control inherent in it would conflict with the developmental nature of the mentoring relationship. It is highly desirable that senior managers act as mentors, and that top management be involved with the programme. Mentors should have the skills and qualities that protégés respect, good empathic and people-developing skills, good organisational knowledge and personal networks, and patience and humility to be able to learn from the protégé. Not all managers, therefore, would make appropriate mentors.
  • The protégé. Protégés should have potential, and be hungry to learn and develop in order to realise it. There will be many more potential protégés in the organisation than can be effectively mentored; it is therefore commonly noted that mentoring is elitist.
  • The relationship. The relationship should be one of mutual trust, and will develop over time. Unless limits are set by the programme, it might continue until the protégé no longer needs it support. Sometimes it develops into a full friendship.
  • The activities. Mentors encourage their protégés to analyse their task performance and to identify weaknesses and strengths.

They give feedback and guidance on how weaknesses can be eliminated or neutralised. They help them recognise the tacit dimensions of the task skills, an important element in the development of competence and ‘know-how’. Mentors act as a sounding board for their protégés’ ideas, and support them as they try out new behaviours and take risks. They give honest, realistic but supportive feedback, an important element in learning generally and learning-tolearn in particular. They encourage their protégés to observe and analyse the organisation at work through their own and others’ actions.

Through this process the protégé begins to identify and then practise tacit knowledge and political skills. Mentors help protégés to identify and develop potentials, question and reflect on experiences and prospects within the organisation, apply formal learning to practice, learn more widely about the organisation and develop networks. Overall, the mentor stimulates, encourages, guides, supports and cautions, acts as a role model, nurtures learning-to-learn, and encourages the adoption of a future orientation.

  • Designing learning in the organisation
  • Formal programmes

The messages about how to design effective learning are very consistent. For example, the advice that Sternberg (1985: 338–341), a theorist of intelligence, gives on how intelligent performance can be trained includes the following: make links with ‘real-world’ behaviour; deal explicitly with strategies and tactics for coping with novel tasks and situations; be sensitive to individual differences and help individuals capitalise on their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses; be concerned with motivation. The implications of the androgogical model of learning introduced in an earlier section (Knowles and Associates, 1984: 14–18) are that the facilitator of adult learning needs to:

  • set a climate conducive to learning, both physical and psychological (one of mutual respect, collaborativeness, mutual trust, supportiveness, openness and authenticity, pleasure, ‘humanness’);
  • involve learners in mutual planning of their learning;
  • involve them in diagnosing their own learning needs;
  • involve them in formulating their learning objectives;
  • involve them in designing learning plans;
  • help them carry out their learning plans – use learning contracts;
  • involve them in evaluating their learning.

Belbin and Belbin (1972) draw upon their experience of studying training in industry for this advice on training 40- to 55-year-old adults:

  1. Reduce anxiety and tension in the adult learner:
    • provide social support and allow social groups to form;
    • use acceptable instructors;
    • offer a secure future.
  2. Create an adult atmosphere.
  3. Arrange the schedule:
    • appropriate length of sessions;
    • preference for whole rather than part method;
    • start slowly.
  4. Correct errors:
    • at the appropriate time.
  5. Address individual differences:
    • different instructional approaches;
    • effects of previous education and work;
    • spare-time interests.
  6. Follow up after training.

The value of these approaches is illustrated in the lessons drawn from the adoption in Britain of the Deming-inspired quality and continuous improvement programmes (Hodgson, 1987):

However, if those principles of design are ignored, barriers to effective learning, such as anxiety and lack of confidence, will be set up (see earlier). Barry (1988: 47), for example, notes that the considerable apprehension felt by the fitters and electricians who were returning to college after 20 years was an obstacle in the introduction of a multi-skilling programme. Their anxieties were dissipated once they learned that some of the tutors belonged to the same union and had the same craft background as themselves.

  • E-learning

Information technology has provided the opportunity for e-learning, through which learning can be customised, and individuals can learn at their desks, rather than taking time out to study in a classroom (Sloman, 2001). For e-learning to be effective, it is not only the technology that has to be considered. The purpose of this form of learning has to be clear: it is more appropriate where knowledge is to be acquired than where interpersonal interactions are required.

Train with extreme sensitivity – pick trainers who have operators’ confidence, are alert to remedial training needs and people’s fears about going back to class; minimise the gap between awareness, training and use; gear course contents to people’s learning needs – don’t impose blanket programmes.

Despite initial apparent enthusiasm for it, e-learning has not taken off as had been expected (Sloman, 2002). However, major lessons have been learned. An overall systematic approach, that includes e-learning, classroom and on-the-job learning, has to be developed, and it has to be recognised that e-learning is learner-centred, requiring new relationships between learners, trainers and line managers. Very importantly, it demands effective support provided for the learner (Sloman, 2002).

  • Informal and tacit learning

Other people are major actors in the context of the individual’s learning, and significant for an individual’s learning and development, providing instruction and feedback (see earlier), support and encouragement, confidence-building, perhaps even inspiration. They might be, perhaps unknown to themselves, mentors, models or points of comparison for learners who learn not just from their formal instructors or supervisors, but also from peers and subordinates.

This informal method of learning, including ‘sitting next to Nellie’, might have its weaknesses, but it also has strengths. It offers whole rather than part learning, and the opportunity to apprehend tacit knowledge (see earlier). Some organisations attempt to capture and use formally some of these otherwise informal ways of learning through people. Knowledge management (see earlier) and mentoring (see earlier) are examples of this. Shadowing is a method that gives the opportunity for a learner to observe the actions of a senior manager systematically and over a period of time.

From this observation the learner can infer certain general principles, grounded in everyday organisational realities. However, as the novel Nice Work (Lodge, 1988) suggests, without feedback from the manager, the ‘shadow’ can misinterpret some of the situations witnessed.

  • Action learning

The role of action in learning, and the role of tacit knowledge in action, noted earlier, is now examined more closely here. The competence movement’s focus upon outcomes rather than inputs into learning, and the integration of knowledge and skill assessed via performance, appears to offer a route towards the development of learning through action, but the reservations about competences expressed earlier should be noted.

However, there is an established approach that has been shown (Pedler, 1983) to achieve the kind of learning that organisations, and particularly managers, are seeking. This is action learning, and is discussed more fully in Chapter. Action learning offers a philosophy and a practice that human resource managers can adopt to help bring about the higher-order skills needed in an organisation.

It is a greatly demanding process, one that will change the organisation and its members, but nevertheless one that could be carried out at all levels of the organisation, perhaps as a continuation of ‘the restless searching for continuous improvement’ and total quality management (see earlier). However, it demands commitment and support from the top, and would need to be cascaded down from higher learning sets.

  • Reflective practice

Reflection, as well as action, we have already noted, plays a part in learning. Schön (1983) suggested that effective professionals engage in reflective practice: they build reflection into their actions.

When faced with a unique and uncertain situation, they enter into a ‘reflective conversation’ with it, hypothesise on the basis of their existing knowledge and theories about how it could be changed, reframe it, experiment to identify the consequences and implications of this frame, listen to the situation’s ‘talk back’ and, if necessary, ‘reframe’ again. Other kinds of employee could also be encouraged to engage in Schön’s (1983) reflective practice, thereby strengthening their learning to learn. See also Brockbank et al., (2002).

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