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Organizational Psychology – Learning, Training and Development

Answers the Question

What forms of training and development are available?

How it Began

To remain viable, today’s workforce must continually develop new knowledge, skills and attitudes in order to adapt to changing technological and environmental demands.  The concepts of learning, training and development are integrally intertwined.  Evidence suggests that a fraction of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) learned and trained actually transfer to the work environment.

Learning

Behaviourism suggests that our behaviour is a learnt response.  John Watson proposed that the process of classical conditioning was able to explain all aspects of human psychology.  Everything from speech to emotional responses were simply patterns of stimulus and response. Watson denied completely the existence of the mind or consciousness.

Watson believed that all individual differences in behaviour were due to different experiences of learning. He famously said:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors”. (Watson, 1924, p. 104)

Classical conditioning theory involves learning a new behavior via the process of association. In simple terms two stimuli are linked together to produce a new learned response in a person or animal. There are three stages to classical conditioning. In each stage the stimuli and responses are given special scientific terms:

  • Stage 1: Before Conditioning: In this stage, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces an unconditioned response (UCR) in an organism. In basic terms this means that a stimulus in the environment has produced a behavior / response which is unlearned (i.e. unconditioned) and therefore is a natural response which has not been taught. In this respect no new behavior has been learned yet. This stage also involves another stimulus which has no affect on a person and is called the neutral stimulus (NS). The NS could be a person, object, place etc. The neutral stimulus in classical conditioning does not produce a response until it is paired with the unconditioned stimulus.
  • Stage 2: During Conditioning: During this stage a stimulus which produces no response (i.e. neutral) is associated with the unconditioned stimulus at which point it now becomes known as the conditioned stimulus (CS). Often during this stage the UCS must be associated with the CS on a number of occasions, or trials, for learning to take place. However, one trail learning can happen on certain occasions when it is not necessary for an association to be strengthened over time (such as being sick after food poisoning or drinking too much alcohol).
  • Stage 3: After Conditioning: Now the conditioned stimulus (CS) has been associated with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) to create a new conditioned response (CR).

David Kolb published his learning styles model in 1984 from which he developed his learning style inventory.  Kolb’s experiential learning theory works on two levels: a four stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.  Much of Kolb’s theory is concerned with the learner’s internal cognitive processes.  Kolb states that learning involves the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations.  In Kolb’s theory, the impetus for the development of new concepts is provided by new experiences.

Kolb’s experiential learning style theory is typically represented by a four stage learning cycle in which the learner ‘touches all the bases’:

1. Concrete Experience – (a new experience of situation is encountered, or a reinterpretation of existing experience).

2. Reflective Observation (of the new experience. Of particular importance are any inconsistencies between experience and understanding).

3. Abstract Conceptualization (Reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept).

4. Active Experimentation (the learner applies them to the world around them to see what results).

Effective learning is seen when a person progresses through a cycle of four stages: of (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

Kolb (1975) views learning as an integrated process with each stage being mutually supportive of and feeding into the next. It is possible to enter the cycle at any stage and follow it through its logical sequence.

However, effective learning only occurs when when a learner is able to execute all four stages of the model. Therefore, no one stage of the cycle is an effective as a learning procedure on its own.

Kolb’s learning theory (1975) sets out four distinct learning styles, which are based on a four-stage learning cycle (see above).

Kolb explains that different people naturally prefer a certain single different learning style. Various factors influence a person’s preferred style.  For example, social environment, educational experiences, or the basic cognitive structure of the individual.

Whatever influences the choice of style, the learning style preference itself is actually the product of two pairs of variables, or two separate ‘choices’ that we make, which Kolb presented as lines of axis, each with ‘conflicting’ modes at either end:

A typical presentation of Kolb’s two continuums is that the east-west axis is called the Processing Continuum (how we approach a task), and the north-south axis is called the Perception Continuum (our emotional response, or how we think or feel about it).

Knowing a person’s (and your own) learning style enables learning to be orientated according to the preferred method. That said, everyone responds to and needs the stimulus of all types of learning styles to one extent or another – it’s a matter of using emphasis that fits best with the given situation and a person’s learning style preferences.

Key Terminology

Learning – The acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, practice, or study, or by being taught.  Learning refers specifically to an intervention using training content such as training materials which is delivered or guided by an instructor. The desired outcome of training is a specific change in behaviour.

Training – The action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behaviour.  An intervention using training content such as training materials which is delivered or guided by an instructor. The desired outcome of training is a specific change in behaviour.

Development – The process of developing or being developed. A specified state of growth or advancement.  The act, process or experience of gaining knowledge or skills with a view to application in the context of an organisation.

Education – the act or process of acquiring knowledge. Education does not simply train people to perform specific tasks.

In Brief

In a rapidly changing and increasingly knowledge-based economy, the intangible value that organizations hold, including the skills, knowledge and attributes and talent potential that employee’s hold are an increasing source of competitive advantage for organisations. This is particularly true of professionals who operate in a global and highly dynamic role.

Historically, Training, Learning and Development in the workplace has applied the classical approach of the “training” model of instructor led, classroom based training.  Over the past twenty years there has been an adoption of a wider approach to development focused on translating into tangible operational benefits.  It has also been recognised that individuals have different learning styles, and that the objectives of any learning process would heavily influence the methodology used.

Importantly however, the most effective way to develop people is quite different from conventional skills training, which many employees regard quite negatively. The most effective way to develop people is instead to enable learning and personal development, with all that this implies.

As the workplace changes, new specialisms will emerge and new skills will be valued. It is expected that the roles may become more polarised – moves towards specialisms in some areas, moves to generalisation in others with increased cross functional activity. Increasing complexity driven by globalisation and regulation will drive this change.

New challenges and risks will emerge to question the knowledge of employees in a highly globalized, fast moving technologically connected economy. In response the individual and organizations will be required to more regularly update skills and knowledge. Those organizations and individuals committed to learning and development will therefore be best placed to take advantage of the emerging opportunities.

These developments have resulted in a wider range of tools at the disposal of organisations to impart knowledge, educate their employees, apply learning undertaken to meet organisational objectives and further develop the competencies employees hold.

What does this mean for Organization Development?

Training, Learning and Development is extremely important to both individuals and organizations. From an individuals perspective, it is vital to maintain or enhance your knowledge, skills and behaviours in order to meet business objectives.

There is a positive correlation between the competencies of each individual employee and the long term growth and productivity of organisations. Well designed and executed learning and development can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool because investment in developing employees demonstrates that the organisation values its people.From the employee’s perspective, the provision of development opportunities assists with the achievement of performance objectives.

Learning and Development provides a framework to help organizations understand what new skills and knowledge can be acquired, and how this can be applied in the work environment. It gives individuals greater autonomy over their career and development, and can provide a motivating influence.

There are some guiding principles that organisations will benefit from when developing effective training, learning and development strategies and programmes. The core principles are:

  • Obtain senior executive buy-in – It is vital to obtain and demonstrate senior level support for the development of your people for L&OD to support the business effectively. Benefits of this support will include greater employee engagement as employees understand how their individual activity links back to overall business goals.
  • Align L&OD activity with individual, team and organisational objectives – All Development needs to be business led – individual activity must be aligned to business goals both in the long and short term. This can be achieved by developing a clear L&OD strategy with objectives cascading from the human resources strategy. This should support operational and strategic objectives.
  • Utilise an effective mix of L&D activities – Recognising that people learn in different ways and that different learning is best achieved with different methods is the first step in designing an effective programme. Providing a range of learning opportunities will help. These may include: training courses, coaching, project work, secondments, self development and e-learning.
  • Co-ordinate the provision of L&D activities to ensure economies of scale – L&OD, like all other business activities, should be planned and linked to business requirements – unfortunately this is not always the case. With the help of a clear and agreed L&OD Strategy all activities can be linked back to business goals.
  • Measure the outputs of the L&OD process – To measure outputs it is first essential to understand the business need which triggered the L&OD intervention. Outputs can be measured on four levels with increasing value: the reaction of participants, the increase in knowledge / skills, the extent of improvement in behaviours and capabilities, the results in terms of effect on the business.
  • Undertaking a cost–benefit analysis / ROI – The ultimate goal when evaluating training is to measure Return On Investment. This is notoriously difficult to achieve as business improvements can rarely be linked back directly and exclusively to one activity, e.g. provision of L&OD opportunities. Nevertheless, ROI analysis should be attempted and used to support the business case for L&OD.