Managing Organisational Learning and Knowledge Essay Sample

Managing Organisational Learning and Knowledge Pages
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Alan Mumford (1993) defined management development as ‘an attempt to improve managerial effectiveness through a learning process’. Critically discuss this statement, comparing and contrasting a range of different approaches that human resource developers can adopt to promote and facilitate learning in organisations.


This essay explores the notion that organisational development is intrinsically linked to the managerial development of is managerial decision makers. It explores a range of organisational approaches to learning and illustrates the changing requirements of a manager to understand, accommodate and develop these approaches for the benefit of the organisation. For this to be successful, it argues that managers must develop their outlook, approach, skills and understanding through a number of learning processes and therefore improve managerial effectiveness.

The contexts have been carefully chosen to illustrate that skills need to be developed, irrespective of the number of organisational subordinates, if a manager is to be fully effective to his employer. It briefly looks at an early management perspective, analyses why change was necessary, illustrates a link between learning and management before looking at some of the skills modern managers need. Finally, the essay will look at coaching, mentoring, experiential and action learning as examples learning approaches human resource developers can adapt to promote and facilitate learning in an organisation..


‘There are three great mysteries in life: air to the bird, water to the fish, and human being to himself.’

Chinese proverb

The role of the modern manager has arguably been no more challenging than it is today. This has caused management development thinkers concentrate on areas often overlooked in earlier decades such as, learning, motivation, change, corporate responsibilities and cross-cultural issues to name but a few.

Consequently, the speed at which organisations must adapt to maintain a share of their respective market has continued to increase over recent decades, pushing the notion of knowledge management further up the strategic ladder. Increasingly, corporate strategists are requesting access to the organization’s human capital. In short, organisations have had to explore the notion that it is its people, with their knowledge, creativity and ability to adapt that can best exploited to gain a competitive advantage. However, as the proverb implies, people are a mystery, a complication which has left managers searching for many different approaches to improve effectiveness of their workplace.

However, irrespective of whichever approach is chosen, managers of an organisation will always have a role to play, and in the case of new processes will have to develop new skills alongside both their subordinates and organisation alike. In short, managers have had to develop through learning, alongside the organisation, if the strategic goals of a changing organisation are to be met. However, within this essay it is the management of explicit and tacit knowledge held by individuals and groups in the company that will be considered, and the relationship this approach has to managers, and how they need tolearn and develop to make this concept work successfully.

Learning and its relationship to the Organisation

Even if an organisation concludes that learning provides the answer to its further development it has to consider, not only the approach, but also how people learn in different contexts. With Constructivism, Behaviourism, Neuroscience, Multiple Intelligences, Right Brain/Left Brain Thinking, Communities of Practice, Learning Styles and Piaget’s Developmental Theory to name but a few, all making a case for consideration, the complex issue of learning becomes self-evident. Yet, understanding how people learn is core to any organisational approach to learning.

In terms of managers, it is still widely believed that management development equates to management training, therefore ‘send him on a course’. However, this view assumes that management development is ‘done’ by someone to someone else, applied, in other words, like an external treatment. Management development planned in this spirit, rarely involves the person who requires development in either the diagnosis of the problem or the formulation of the prescription and follow-up. Thus, he tends to find himself playing a largely passive role in important activities concerned with his learning or development.

Mumford (1993) argues the development a contrary approach, commenting that real development takes place, not through necessarily through training, but when the individual sees for himself the need to modify his behaviour, change his attitudes, develop new skills, improve his performance, or prepare himself for a different role. To this end, the rationale that ‘only the learner will learn’ is being recognised more in organisations and by a growing number of management development specialists, tutors and trainers. Mumford (1999) comments that there three main things about managerial learning which ought to impact on our approach in trying to create effective learning environments. All learning is individual, much learning is achieved through interaction with others and most managerial learning occurs in and around the job, with courses sometimes providing splendid injections.

Early Management Approach

The scientific school of management, as epitomised by F. W. Taylor in the USA at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century were based militaristic overtones in the way people were trained to carry out a predetermined sequence of tasks in a predetermined way. The mechanistic view of people’s roles meant that they were ‘trained not developed, much in the way that horses are trained to be compliant followers of orders’. Walton (1999) comments that this saw employees ‘coached on how to interpret rules and procedures, so as to be able to enact official decisions on behalf of the organisation and justify them to external clients.’ This approach, arguably, would see any additional skills learnt acquired, through experiment and accident, often lost within a strict coaching methodology.

It would be easy to criticise such an approach without considering the context in which it was applied. The manufacturing industry of the early 20th Century required the training of a large number of often unskilled workers to carry out ‘narrowly defined tasks’ Walton (1999: 63). The applied managerial approach may have been appropriate for the time. However, unfortunately, the approach was entrenched during the first half of the Century to a degree that it carried over into many organisations well into the Century, even when the organisational context in which it was applied bore no resemblance to the early context in which it was initially initiated.

Organisations needed to analyse the problem

However, during the last 20 years changes in technology, to name but one factor, have contributed in initiating significant changes in organisational practices and requirements. In turn, this has facilitated a need for organisations fully understand what it requires from its employees. Given the acceptance by many organisations that it is there workforce that is its greatest resource, they are increasingly looking inward to find answers. The changing role of managers in facilitating this is arguably a natural conclusion.

Walton (1999) argues, ‘senior management of organisations have not, until recent years, given a great deal of attention to HRD issues. They have not been seen as strategically significant. He comments that variety of factors have led to a change in this position, most particularly a more general acceptance of the frequently voiced proposition that people are the only sustainable source of competitive advantage for today’s organisations. This new consciousness has led to senior management taking a greater interest than hitherto in the development of HRD-oriented strategies designed to move the business forward. Orchestrating ‘organisational learning’ is now fashionable’. Walton (1999:181)

One clear consequent of this approach is that line managers have had to take on responsibilities that previously had lay within the Human Resource function. Managers have had to learn to coach, mentor, facilitate, question basic assumptions and emotionally relate to employees alongside their traditional roles.

On first look, these new skills may seem straight forward to acquire. However, evidence has shown that managers have found it difficult to adapt. As an example, first referred to as double loop learning by Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, individuals where required, not only question those with whom they are responsible, but also their own approach. The idea that it maybe the manager who is preventing concepts to be grasped, rather than those he is training, requires an understanding and honesty which is a skill that has to be learned for many managers. Double loop learning requires us to challenge basic assumptions, but people learn that for the interests of social harmony, to restrict what they are prepared to say publicly. Consequently double loop learning becomes difficult to achieve.

Additionally, as another example, understanding the emotional needs of oneself and employees and the advantages that brings, is argued by Daniel Goldman as an essential skill of any manager.

In a 1994 report on the current state of emotional literacy in the U.S., author Daniel Goleman stated: ‘…in navigating our lives, it is our fears and envies, our rages and depressions, our worries and anxieties that steer us day to day. Even the most academically brilliant among us are vulnerable to being undone by unruly emotions. The price we pay for emotional literacy is in failed marriages and troubled families, in stunted social and work lives, in deteriorating physical health and mental anguish and, as a society, in tragedies such as killings…” Going on to argue that ‘managers with a high level of emotional intelligence are able to display higher levels of confidence, curiosity, intentionality, self-control, relatedness, communicative ability and cooperation; abilities which fit into a modern management approach.

Goldman has clearly made a name for himself in this field, arguing that ‘Emotional Intelligence in training programs has helped employees cooperate better and motivate more, thereby increasing productivity and profits’ , and therefore feels compelled to emphasis the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) beyond that of other managerial competencies. However, the closeness with which managers are now being asked to work with employees has seen ‘managerial interpersonal skills’ elevated to a level where its importance is well understood in successfully facilitating other skills such as coaching and mentoring.

However, once again, such an inward looking approach can be difficult for many managers, a difficultly a manager must learn to overcome if he is to be successful.

‘Emotional Intelligence is a master aptitude, a capacity that profoundly affects all other abilities, either facilitating or interfering with them.’ Goleman, D. (1995:85).

Learning within the Organisation

This inward looking approach to organisational development was seen in the early success of Body Shop, founded by Anita Roddick. Trying to develop a learning environment rather than training, she commented ‘training was something they did to animals’. Rather than seeing training verses learning as an outward verses inward function, she saw training as passive whereas learning was seen as ‘the active contribution of the learner’. Going on to comment that she wished to ‘encourage continuous learning at both individual and organisational level, and loves to demonstrate commitment to the ethos of a Learning Organisation’.

Walton (1999:166)

To be able to carry this vision out, its responsibility for its success lies with every one with in the organisation; requiring managers to adapt learn and develop new approaches to the work-force.

This new approach to organisational learning as apposed to traditional training methods was commented on by Watkins and Marsick (1993). Using an American insurance company they observed how a company could provide a climate where leaders created an environment conducive to learning and support, operated with a continuous improvement mindset, compelling employees to learn to do things differently, to constantly challenge why and how they do specific work activities. In addition, they observed an organisation that developed an open-communication culture that encouraged the flow of information and ideas between management and support staff. However, more importantly, they saw that the organisation was keen to see learning as an ongoing process that applies to all staff at all levels, identify the importance of managers to facilitate these goals. Watkins and Marsick (1993)

However, for this to approach to be successful, an organisation requires the concept of an ‘understanding and supportive management’ placed higher on its organisational goals, then previously may been the case. Earlier sections have identified the need for learners to have self-confidence, and to receive feedback on their performance. However, for it to work successfully individuals require the opportunity to take risks and hence to make mistakes. This presupposes not only a risk-taking and confident approach on the part of employees, but also a risk- taking and supportive management style. Effective learning and development in the organisation, therefore calls for a ‘managerial style that is compatible with this need’. Beardwell and Holden (2001:153)

Managers HRD Role

One consequence of the approaches mentioned above, is the idea that line managers are expected to take on roles previously undertaken by the HRD function. But specifically what are these roles?

There is a range of possible roles for line managers in the HRD process, from promotion and of general support for learning and development to direct interventions.

Walton (1999) argues that they include:

Championing HRD – through chairing committees, resourcing HRD

Delivering HRD learning activities – as direct trainers

Acting as a central link in the process – in performance management and appraisal-related activities

Providing a supportive learning climate



However, there are problems with simply transferring the HRD function to line managers.

Even the best motivated line managers cannot give the strategic attention to HRD issues that a specialist function would offer. There are problems of co-ordination, even of sharing learning between business sub-units in a systematic way. Also, there is a likelihood that line managers will interpret learning issues in a way that is particular to their own specialism or operational interest. Walton (1999:185)

What is therefore needed is an operational relationship that allows for a partnership which involves managers, employees and specialists. A point strongly advocated by Megginson et al. (1993) where it is proposed that it is the responsibility of the HRD function to help carry out successfully successful strategies which previous lay with HRD.

‘It is no longer a tenable idea that managers are free to choose whether or not to commit themselves to new HRD activities. Whether they like it or not, the implication of decentralisation and the increasing tendency for CEO’s and MD’s to commit themselves to major change initiatives . . . is that managers at all levels will be required to respond.’ Megginson et al. (1993)

Having looked at the context of why managers have had to improve their effectiveness through a learning process, the essay will look at a few approaches in which these new skills can be applied.


But what is mentoring? Daloz (1986: 209-235), for example, suggests that mentors offer their protgs support, challenge and vision. They support their protgs through listening, providing structure, expressing positive expectations, serving as advocate, sharing them- selves with their protgs, and ‘making it special’. They offer challenge by setting tasks, engaging in discussion, drawing attention to dichotomies, constructing hypotheses, and setting high standards. They offer vision by modelling, keeping tradition, offering a map, suggesting new language, and providing a mirror. Beardwell and Holden (2001:154). By any standards, this is a long list. But it clearly identifies the requirement for Managers to undertake a role many will not have been trained for, but most will have learned through experience.

Jeiger et al (1995) argue that successful mentoring relationships do not just happen. Even if an organisation has a workable mentoring system, the relationship will not be a productive one unless the mentor and mentoree both role. They go on to offer the following mentor guidelines:

Meet on a regular basis, at least once a month.

A good mentoring relationship developed if the parties do not get to know each other

Be a good listener

Not betray confidences

Within a mentoring relationship to ability of a manager to understand an individuals problems, question own assumptions and be able to develop interpersonal skill is clearly paramount and for many, far removed from a traditional managerial style. Mentoring requires an ability to listen, reflect, adapt and ultimately learn, from both parties. Jeiger et al (1995)

Within the context of mentoring, one clear difference from a traditional managerial approach is the extra responsibility of a manger is responsibility for the individuals working psychological needs.

Kram (1985) differentiates between these vocational and the psychosocial functions

of mentoring. Commenting that the vocational function serves to aid a protg’s career development, whereas the psychosocial function assists in the development of self-concepts such as self identity and self-esteem. Walton (1999:195) Additional clarification comes from Leibowitz and Schlossberg (1981) who see a mentor’s role as a counsellor, communicator and coach.


However, mentioning the role as a coach raises the question, what is the difference between mentoring and coaching? Megginson and Clutterbuck (1996) argue that mentors focus on the individual learner developing through his or her career or life. By contrast, the coach shifts attention to the results of the job, exploring specific problems with learners and setting out opportunities for learners to try out new skills. Further clarification comes from Megginson and Boydell (1979) who define, coaching as ‘a process in which a manager, through direct discussion and guided, activity, helps a colleague to solve a problem or to do a task better than would, otherwise have been the case’.

Irrespective of a precise definition of the differences, the skills required from a manager include listening and understanding, observing, giving feedback, understanding people, communication, both written and verbal, and influencing. Walton (1999:197). Once again, for this process to be successful, a two learning process must take place, thus facilitating continual managerial development and learning.

Regardless of whether mentoring or coaching is used, one important skill a manager must grasp is the ability to not only accept but also deliver effective feedback, both written and oral. Moreover, for both of these systems to work effectively, appraisal systems must be equally effective. The skill of giving feedback, that is not merely a history of past performance but becomes a forward looking document, becomes more important and will often require more time in composition and delivery than was previously the case. Understanding the importance of appraisals is a hurdle busy managers may need to learn to overcome. This point is made by Handy, who argues that the individual must receive information about his performance, and the standards expected of him, not only in terms of results, but also in terms of his particular learning needs, as they relate to knowledge and skills or to behaviour. ‘This kind of feedback is particularity difficult to give and to receive’. Handy (1999:243)

Experiential Learning

So how will managers learn? Senge (1999) proposes that the most powerful learning

comes from direct experience, arguing ‘we learn eating, crawling, walking, and communicating through direct trial and error through taking an action and seeing the consequence of that action; then taking a new and different action.’ However, he warns of the consequences of when ‘we can no longer observe the consequences of our actions? When our actions have consequences beyond our learning horizon, it becomes impossible to learn from direct experience’. So now we have a concept in which an approach to managerial learning can be developed. However, organising it within a managerial context requires more than an adhoc approach which advocates simply walking into subsequent problems, hoping lessons have been learnt.

Williams (1989) proposes that learning by experience, within a management job, is likely to involve the ‘learner’ in at least:

Doing – followed by analysis and review;

Experimenting with new or different experiences and activities;

Questioning and testing out existing knowledge, custom and practice, prejudices, values and beliefs;

Experiencing (and reviewing) both success and failure;

Examples and models (other managers) against which the learner can compare assess and, if necessary, modify his own management style;

Study and reflection, in order to put experience into perspective and context.

Following this approach there is a clear connection with both Kolb’s Learning Cycle along with Honey and Mumford’s learning styles. If earlier arguments in this essay detailing successful approaches to learning are accepted, the concept of experiential learning has many advantages to managerial learning.

Some of the approaches to experiential learning include, working diaries periodically reviewed, working meetings and the increasingly popular use of simulation exercises. Once again, managers are required to undertake a responsibility that previously may have lay with the HRD function. Yet the success of experiential learning is that it is a two way process which develops a learning environment for both managers and employees alike.

In Cross-functional assignments involving multi-disciplinary teams of subordinates working together (for example marketing, product planning and engineering or production, industrial engineering and finance) where end results rely on cooperative, coordinated effort, experiential learning arguably will see managers develop through a learning process which should improve organisational effectiveness. In short, experience is used to change behaviour.

However, it helps to remember that in this field called ‘learning by experience’, what is in fact experienced by the participant is not the game or simulation as a stand-alone product but the situation created by whoever decides to use it, and the manner in which he or she handles it. Different people can use the same device but create radically different experiences for those taking part. Elgood (1999:352)

Action learning

Another practical approach to managerial learning can be seen in the concept of Action Learning. Similar to experiential learning on face value, in that it is a ‘process’ underpinned by a belief in individual potential: a way of learning from our actions, and from what happens to us, and around us. Beardwell and Holden (2001:154) However, where it differs from experiential learning is in the method in which learning is gleaned from relevant experiences. Acton Learning requires individuals to take the time to question, understand and reflect, to gain insights, and consider how to act in future. Weinstein (1999:228). Weinstein goes on to argue that we learn best and most effectively, when we learn in the company of others who are also learning. ‘None of us has a monopoly on knowledge or insights.’ Weinstein (1999:232)

The six main elements of an action learning programme are:

The set

The same small group of people – five or six – who meet regularly, ideally once a month for a day, to work together in a supportive yet challenging way, and allocating to each member, at each meeting, time to work on their own project.


Work based, real time projects or tasks – Each person (or set as a whole) focuses on a work issue/quandary which needs to be resolved or implemented and uses it as the ‘learning vehicle’. Ideally, participants should be able to choose projects that are important and need to be resolved, and that will give them a chance to develop their own skills, qualities, or behaviours.

The ‘processes’ in the set

An action learning set adopts particular processes as it works. Each person has their own ‘airspace’ (of up to one hour) in which to work on their project. Meanwhile the set members adopt a helpful questioning approach. They focus on helping the person with space to think through what he or she is doing and why, what assumptions they are making or beliefs they hold, what they would like to do and what is stopping them. The set avoids giving advice, or having general discussion. The focus at any one time is on one person. Finally, the set helps each individual create some action plans to work on before the next meeting, when they report back on actions, and on what they are learning.

A set adviser

At the start of an action learning programme, a set needs to work with a facilitator whose task is to help the set work, keep to the processes, and learn. The set adviser models helpful behaviours, as well as asking the set, when appropriate, to become aware of how it is behaving and working.

The duration of a programme

Programmes normally last between five some continue, at the request of participants, for longer. This allows projects to be implemented, an important aspect of action learning.

The emphasis on learning

The focus on both action and on learning is a, Distinguishing feature of action learning. The learning encompasses a wide variety of elements and will occur while participants work in the set, and while they work on their projects. Weinstein (1999:228)

One important aspect of Action Learning is the questioning approach taken. The questions that participants ask of one another as they work in the set, always with a focus on the project or task they are working on, are an invitation to stop and consider, rather than to rush in with answers, solutions or justifications, a role mangers may have previously been compelled to do. So, participants learn to ask helpful and thoughtful questions. They also learn to listen, again a skill which is often not as easy as it sounds.

Reg Revans, the ‘founding father’ of action learning, describes learning ‘L’ as consisting of two elements: programmed or taught learning ‘P’, coupled with asking questions ‘Q’. So, ‘P’ is what we learn on courses, or from books, or what we have picked up in the past and do unthinkingly. ‘P’ is also all our beliefs and assumptions that underpin so much of what we do, again often unthinkingly. It is the emphasis on the Q that is the more important. By asking others and ourselves questions, we challenge, and are challenged. In action learning all the various ‘Ps’ are up for questioning. The purpose of questions posed in action learning is to prompt thought and reflection, from which emerge insights, learning and effective actions.

Reg Revans’ fundamental equation is L=P + Q. Others have added to this: L=P+Q+A+R, where A = action and R = reflection. Much of action learning also focuses on the Kolb learning cycle moving through the elements of action, followed by recall and reflection, onto consolidation of the insights, and finally onto planning next moves in the light of what has been learnt.

However, To gain the most from action learning, participants need to be encouraged to address their fears and prejudices, and take the ‘risk’ of being different. With a manager present, this may prove difficult without appropriate training. Weinstein (1999:230)

Action learning offers a philosophy and a practice that human resource management 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, ‘… carried out at all levels of the organisation.’ Beardwell and Holden (2001:154). Additionally, the reasons for running, or attending, action learning programmes are many and varied, some companies had tried all the ‘traditional’ courses they could find, but found that little learning was being transferred back into work. However, it is ‘a good support mechanism for managers’. Weinstein (1999:237)

What organisation must be aware of, however, is that Action learning takes time. It takes time to learn, and unlearn. It takes time to build up trust among a group as they work and learn together. It is because of this, the involvement of individuals, including managers, at all levels is essential for the process to work.


The environment for organisations is becoming one of intensive competition,

great complexity, short knowledge life cycles and technological breakthroughs. It is also generally accepted that executive education and development have a particularly important role to play in the improvement of managerial performance and development. As a consequence, Managers have been asked to move away from an often restricted, text book bound functional approach to management, to a style which can accommodate a dynamic working environment. Add the increased value to an organisations human recourse, the pressure is on modern managers to learn, develop and produce in this ever-changing world, organisations, like people, need to develop to become more flexible, differentiated and adaptable to their environment. Indeed, the very development of organisational members will contribute to the development of the Organisation itself. ‘Management development is needed by the developing organisation and sets in train, further organisational development.’

Beardwell and Holden (2001:151)

No longer are managers being viewed as a separate entity to the workforce, and are being required to fully involve themselves in the learning development of their organisation a members alongside all other members of the organisation. Within this role managerial development takes place on two fronts. Firstly, managers will be expected to take on roles and functions that have either been part of a HRD function or are new to the organisation as a whole. Secondly, the new learning approaches taken by an organisation such as mentoring, coaching, experiential learning and action learning require a managerial involvement which at the very least should provide managerial feedback. Together, these fronts should ensure that, for those managers who wish to learn, the opportunities for learning have never been so good.

In short, ‘Management learning therefore appears to encompass all aspects of individual learning in which people are collectively engaged (if only by collision) and working towards a joint outcome’. Burgoyne and Renolds (1997:96)


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