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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.


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.


About Endings – Organization Development

I hope that you will forgive a more personal post today, and a diversion of the social psychology series which I have been writing for the last few weeks.  I promise that I will get back on track  next week with the intended post on Minority Influence.

However, today I find that I have been diverted from my normal day as I received a phone call from my mother to tell me of my grandmothers passing.  Endings such as these come with great sadness, my grandmother was a grand lady who in recent years has faded before us suffering from dementia.  It is a cruel disease, made crueller still because of the vibrant lady my grandmother was.


But passing on need not always be a bad thing.  Organization Development means that very often the change that happens results in something ending and endings can be painful.  But just like my grandmother, I can focus on the pain of the ending or I can reflect on the past, remembering the things that my grandmother has added to my life.

When working with teams and individuals in organization development interventions I always focus on the positives. I use focused conversation and appreciative inquiry techniques to help people focus on their strengths which can then be taken forward to make the changes needed within the organization, team or individual performance.  When moving a team forward away from the past it is important not to dismiss or mourn what has been, but rather celebrate all that has been good that we can take forward into the future.

So as we wave goodbye to something that has ended, and like me, replace sadness with a time of reflection on the good that has been, I ask that you consider the following questions before we allow ourselves to lose all that is Good about what has been. Reflect on the past for just a moment. We all have memories of key events in the life of your Organization, Team or our own life.

  1. What are some events and accomplishments in your organization/team/for yourself for the last ten years?
  2. What for you have been high points in the life of your Organization/Team/for yourself?
  3. What do you associate with these high points?
  4. What have been low points?
  5. What do you remember about the low points?
  6. If you were going to divide the last 10 years up into three parts where would you put the divisions?
  7. What title would you put on these three periods?
  8. What have we learned from this 10 year journey?
  9. What does that tell us about who we are now and where we need to go in the future?

Notice the language you use when focusing on the past, what learnings can you utilize from the past as a launch pad for the future. Experience for yourself being part of a larger picture and heal any wounds from the past. Address any ‘sacred cows’ that need to be slaughtered.

As you look at your answers to these questions, What are you struck by?

I believe that our past accomplishments tell us we can have a GREAT future.


OD Theory – Psychodynamic Theory

In addition to the five core OD theories there are other theories that a solid OD practitioners must understand to build on their theoretical foundation for practice.  Good grounding in theory is essential for every OD practitioner.  The better you understand the theory, the better you will understand the complex and intricate nature of the OD process and OD tool kit.

Psychodynamic Theory in Brief

The Psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person or organisation, particularly unconscious, and between the different structures of the personality.

Psychodynamic Theory explores, experiences that have been pushed out of conscious awareness and argues that individuals and organisations have an unconscious that contains vulnerable feelings that are too difficult to be consciously aware of and as a result have developed defence mechanisms, such as denial, repression, rationalisation, etc., but that these defences cause more harm than good and that once the vulnerable or painful experiences are processed the defence mechanisms reduce or resolve.

At its core the theory emphasises the examination and resolution of inner conflicts helping organisations and individuals gain a perspective of pure insight in order to recognise the character traits, actions, responses, and behaviours that need to be transformed if performance is to be achieved.

The application of the theory in the organisational setting seeks to uncover the underlying conflicts that are the catalysts for the disturbing and unhealthy symptoms. The first job of the OD practitioner is to address the symptoms before working with the client to devise and construct elements of change that can be implemented.

Key Points

  • Human behaviour and relationships are shaped by conscious and unconscious influences.
  • All behaviour has a cause or reason (usually unconscious). Therefore all behaviour is determined.
  • Different parts of the unconscious mind are in constant struggle.
  • Personality is made up of three parts (i.e. tripartite). The id, ego and super-ego.
  • Behaviour is motivated by two instinctual drives: Eros (the sex drive & life instinct) and Thanatos (the aggressive drive & death instinct). Both these drives come from the “id”.
  • Parts of the unconscious mind (the id and superego) are in constant conflict with the conscious part of the mind (the ego).

Applying Psychodynamic Theory in an OD intervention

  1. Design activities that work to expose areas of transference and resistance
  2. Develop processes for addressing difficult and challenging issues in order to develop cohesive and supportive relationships within the organisation.
  3. Encourage groups and teams to experiment and express themselves creatively as a method for strengthening their bond and accessing deeper tools of communication.
  4. Address questions such as “What does it mean that this organisation, with their unique history and concerns, is doing or saying this particular thing at this time?  How might past experiences be impacting the organisation now?  What are the unspoken expectations and underlying beliefs that are limiting potential?”



Everyday Learning and Development – Personal Development

The human capacity to learn and develop is phenomenal.  Have you ever stopped to wonder how you have managed to learn everything you know, and how to do everything you do?  Just think about the things you don’t think about; walking, talking, getting dressed, understanding social cues, eating, driving, reading – at some point you would have had to learn about all those things.

I learnt about Language acquisition when I was at Leeds University studying my degree, but to watch my two year old daughter learn how to communicate is amazing.  As a newborn crying for attention, but as a parent I soon learnt there were different cries for different needs.  Then babbling, making different noises, grunting and pointing to get her point across (and getting upset when I didn’t understand).  Then the babbling and pointing began to turn into recognisable words, and every day there were a couple of new words.  Now those words are turning into sentences and are very recognisable – and she has a few words that are unique to her, but we all understand what she means.

But learning new things isn’t restricted to the young.  At 37 I learn new things all the time.  It may be that I have to learn how to drive to a new football ground for my sons Sunday league football; how to use my new mobile phone; or how to increase my SEO ratings.  This week I will find out how to make my way to Costa Coffee in Warrington, and any number of titbits picked up from various , tweets and webinars.

I bet you have all ‘learnt’ similar things this week but took it for granted, after all finding your way to places, learning how to use equipment or technology and digesting the news is just part of life; and yet we will pay thousands for courses to learn new skills or knowledge; spend millions on the implementation of new technology platforms, and publishing is no longer restricted to publishing houses but all add to our collective knowledge.

It is well known in development circles that the most  are on the job.  Learners tend to retain the learning for longer and take in a greater measure of development than they do on workshops.  Being able to immediately apply knowledge and skills, rather than trying to retain newly acquired learning as a concept is also more efficient.

As a I still like the workshop for its ability to take people aside from their busy lives and focus on a specific area of development.  I think it is especially useful for teams who wish to develop strategy, the team or a deeper understanding an individuals strengths, beliefs and values.

But there is a distinguishing feature of workshops that I would like to prompt your thinking about.  Very often will say to me, this development is fantastic, I’ve really enjoyed today and got a lot out of it, but I am worried about getting back to reality; as if the workshop is some kind of parallel universe where real work doesn’t get done.

Yet if you were to ask a manager whether they feel that meetings are real work or not, the answer would be depends on the meeting, whether the meeting is useful or not.  So if the manager found the workshop useful, why do they see it as not being real life?

Too often individuals separate their personal development from their work environment, and then struggle to apply their learning.  But if you were to take your learning; whether in a workshop, a conversation or what you read on the internet and asked yourself “so what does that mean for me?” you might be surprised at how your new learning can help you grow and development regardless of the position you work in now.

My challenge for those who have the opportunity to attend a development workshop is to see it not as stepping out of reality but as an opportunity to step aside from (but not out of the reality of) the hubbub and concentrate on something important without interruption.

I would then like to deliver a to them.  Very often in a workshop I will ask participants to think about what the workshop has reminded them they have learnt previously but forgotten about.  Very often a participants development gets forgotten when they return back to their ‘day job’.  Workbooks get put in a pile, are used to prop up a wonky desk or are stuffed in a draw or brief case where they start gathering dust.

So I urge you to take ten@ten – and pay attention to the #DevelopmentElephant.

The purpose of the Development Elephant is to remind you to take 10 minutes at 10 o’clock every day to revisit an action plan or workbook from a previous workshop, meeting or personal development time, and think about;

  1. What were the things that you were going to do differently?
  2. What have you done so far?
  3. What do you still need to do?