Organisational Change Management Volume 2

8. Individual and Organisational Learning

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. Organisational transition involves understanding how individuals and organisations learn.

. Individuals and organisations both learn, but organisational knowledge is something more than just the sum of what the individuals in an organisation know.

. The fact that educated workers don't necessarily make smart organisations doesn't mean that you can ignore individual learning. On the contrary, individual learning is a necessary but not sufficient condition for organisational intelligence. The crucial factor is not just what and how much individuals in organisations learn, but how effectively they transfer what they know to the organisation as a whole, ie the linkage between individual learning and organisational learning.

. So how do individuals learn and, perhaps more importantly, how do they transfer what they learn to the organisation so it can learn also?

. Learning is defined as the acquiring of knowledge or skill. Notice that learning has two meanings - acquiring knowledge and acquiring skill. Knowledge is the know-why, conceptual part of learning - knowing why something works or happens. Skill is the know-how, application part - having the ability to use the know-why to make something happen. True learning requires the acquisition of both know-why and know-how.

. The path to true learning, however, is often blocked by common misconceptions such as the classroom being the best place to learn; an expert passively passing information to a student; understanding the explicit rules, operating procedures, and policies of the workplace, etc.

. The most effective learning, particularly for adults, results from a continuing cycle of experience in the workplace itself. Real learning occurs something like this:

- we have concrete experiences in the workplace.

- we reflect on these experiences, trying to understand what happened and why.

- we form concepts and generalisations based upon those experiences.

- we test those concepts and generalisations through new experiences.

- then we repeat the cycle, similar to the turning of a wheel

Learning and memory (biological process)

. Memories are part of learning. Memories are formed in the brain by a process called "long term potentiation"(LTP). Memories are formed at the instant they happen. The first stage is

"...a neuron receives an intense signal due to incoming information, its interior floods with calcium. This alters the balance within the neuron, priming it to fire much more vigorously and for longer in the same pattern.....The calcium also encourages the neuron to make growth changes, developing new connections to other neurons. The dendrites - where information is received by a neuron - swell in response to the calcium flood, maximising the number of synapses with which the neuron can communicate. The swelling goes down after six hours or so, but as this occurs, the growth of the new dendrites will be cementing the pattern for as much as two days after the event. Meanwhile, regular pulses of chemical activity will pass down the circuit, keeping the regional experience alive and preserving its memory in a circuitry of the brain......certain areas being particularly significant for human memory. The hippocampus is particularly endowed with LTO-responsive cells. Its location, at the back end of the sensory processing trial within the brain, suggests that its purpose is to capture and preserve incoming information. Furthermore, the hippocampus seems to be particularly sensitive to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in suppressing prior activity in order to divert and focus attention......the amygdala also plays a role in memory. Here the brain 'tags' incoming information with an emotional value. The frontal cortex uses this tag to devise and direct the appropriate plan of action......The more intense the emotions, all the more novel they are in the context of our everyday lives, the deeper they are etched into the memory. The emotional content of a memory helps us learn important messages ......various regions that act as convergence zones for the uniting of sensory information about people, perceptions and emotions. The hippocampus......would simply be the structure that brings the process together and filters out what is not required......the hippocampus straddles these separate units of experience, splicing them together like a tape-editing machine to form different memories......memory does not just capture events and experiences, but also skills and sequences of action. This distinction has led neuroscientists to discriminate against 'episode' and 'semantic' types of memory. Episode memory equates to what we have described above, and memories of events and episodes. Semantic memory is a sum total of what we have learnt, distinct from how or where we learnt it, or any of the emotions associated. It seems that the hippocampus is chiefly important for episode memory..."

Robert Winston, 2003


"...inside the brain, we can see a corresponding shift from higher cortical areas of processing to the lower rungs......and we learn and master a skill. When it is new to us, we consciously think about it - remembering what to do at Stage A and Stage B, monitoring our progress. Over time, we start think about it less and less, to the point where we are merely conscious. Once the procedural memory is still in its lower-level, it becomes permanent. This is why we don't forget how to swim or ride a bike......the reason for this shift from the higher conscious levels of the brain to the lower, unconscious regions is one of economy. The ever-plastic, ever-adapting brain sends procedural memories bound to the basement as soon as it can, in order that it can be freed up for the new tasks..."

Robert Winston, 2003

. As new tasks become habits, there is a corresponding shrinkage in neuronal activity

. There is no limit to what we can learn in a lifetime. On the other hand, limits to what we learn depend other factors, such as on the importance of the skill to us, the degree of motivation, etc

organisational development change management

Furthermore, there is

" link between the level of activity inside the brain and the person's IQ. A 'busy' brain was not......a clever brain at all - in fact, it would be rather the opposite. It seems that a clever brain was one that could swing back to the barest levels of energy consumption in the swiftest time - thereby freeing up its circuitry for other purposes. It's not what you know, but how quickly you can master it..."

Robert Winston, 2003

. The difference between short-term and long-term memory is that short-term memory seems to be able to hold around 7 units of information, such as words, names or numbers


"...short-term memory uses proteins that are already present in the synapses. But in order to ship this information into the long-term memory, new proteins have to be manufactured. The creation of these proteins is controlled by a further protein called CREB. CREB would seem to be involved in many other situations where the brain has to 'get used to' new conditions - for instance, in adjusting the body clock or in developing tolerance to drugs..."

Robert Winston, 2003

. The site of short-term memory is thought to be within the frontal lobes of the brain, ie

" the English-language, we talk of certain ideas for information as being in the 'front of our minds', and the neurological evidence does suggest that this is where the brain activity is happening..."

Robert Winston, 2003

. There is a variety of factors that determine whether the information is moved from short-term to long-term memory. Some factors include motivation, environment setting, what we do after the event, consistency, sleeping (REM sleep improves recollection), ie

"...a good night's sleep, like emotion, acts as a kind of cement for our memories......some interesting work that shows the potential of the 'power nap'......even a nap improved learning.......the midday snoozing is not such a bad thing. It reverses the morning irritation, boredom and frustration with mental tasks......20 percent overnight improvement in largely traceable to a later stage of sleep that early risers miss......studies suggest that the brain uses a night's sleep to consolidate the memories of actions and skills learned during the might a nap help? Recordings of brain and ocular electrical activity monitored by napping revealed that longer one-hour naps contain more than four times as much deep or slow-wave sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep as do the half-hour nap. Since a nap hardly allows enough time for the early morning REM sleep affected to develop, it would appear that a slow-wave effect is the best antidote to burn-out......neural networks involved in this task are refreshed by 'mechanisms of cortical plasticity' operating during slow-wave sleep..."

Robert Winston, 2030

. There is evidence that memories can be improved by using special techniques, such as making strange or unfamiliar associations, putting words/things into categories, making particular pictorial images in your mind's eye and attaching them to a point along a memorised route, etc

. In summary

"...the novelty of the incoming information and the intensity of the emotions attached to it help determine how indelibly a memory is stored. So does the frequency with which the information is encountered..."

Robert Winston, 2003

The Wheel of Learning

organisational development change management

. This learning process can be perceived as a wheel that goes around and around. During half the cycle, when we are testing our concepts and observing what happens in a concrete experience, we are learning know-how. In the other half of the cycle, when we are reflecting on our observations and forming concepts, we are learning know-why.

The Wheel of Learning and Our Mental Models

. Real learning occurs when we store in our memory the know-how and know-why we pick up through the multiple turns of the wheel as assumptions, notions and theories about how the world works are accumulated. These are assumptions, beliefs, notions, and theories of our mental model. These can be simple generalisations, such as "people are untrustworthy,"or they can be complex theories about business, politics, economics, consumer behaviour, etc. They represent our unique view of the world and our assessment of the consequences that are likely to flow from any given action we might take. Our mental models are the inner voice that says, "If you do this in this type of situation, then this will happen".

. Our mental models are deeply-held images of how the world works, but they aren't passive images since our minds are far from being static storage crevices. Not only are our minds shaped by our experiences in the world, but our minds also shape our experiences. Our mental models not only are formed by the turns of the wheel of learning but they also shape how and when the wheel turns, and how fast it turns. It has been observed that

organisational development change management

"...Mental models represent a person's view of the world, including explicit and implicit understandings. Mental models provide the context in which to view and interpret new material, and they determine how stored information is relevant to a given situation. They represent more than a collection of ideas, memories and experiences - they are like the source code of a computer's operating system, the manager and arbiter of acquiring, retaining, using and deleting new information. But they are much more than that because they are also like the programmer of that source code with the know-how to design a different code as well as the know-why to choose one over the other..."

organisational development change management

Daniel Kim in Boycott et al, 1998

Our mental-model source code is extremely powerful, literally controlling and directing what we see, hear, and pay attention to. It affects our interpretation of events and even our physical response to those events. A good example of how mental models work is

"...Two men are walking down a dark street late at night. Suddenly, a shadow moves rapidly across their path. One man's heart begins to pound and he takes a short quick breath. The other man remains calm.....Both men experienced the same event, but their reaction was totally different because of their differing perceptions of reality, caused by their different mental models of what shadows mean on dark streets at night..."

William N. Isaacs as quoted by Joseph Boyett et al, 1998

Shared Mental Models

organisational development change management

. Everyone develops mental models. They are a natural part of human life and a natural consequence of the work experience. When we begin to share our knowledge of know-why and/or know-how with others, organisational learning begins.

. In the early stages of an organisation's existence, individual learning and organisational learning are almost synonymous. As an organisation grows, an effort is required to capture some of the knowledge and learning of individual members in the form of paper and computer files, reports, training manuals, operating procedures, strategic plans, memos, letters, etc. Some of the know-why and know-how in an organisation is retained through such devices. However, even in the most bureaucratic organisations, much more knowledge and learning go unrecorded than are captured. The vast amount of organisational know-why and know-how, accumulated through years of constantly turning wheels of learning and the sharing of mental models, remains a kind of tacit, shadowy, and fragile but necessary collective memory of the community of workers. This accumulated tacit knowledge is both unique to an organisation and critical for its success.

. A good test on tacit knowledge has been developed by Robert Wagner and Robert Sternberg. It can be used to rank staff on occupational success and job performance. The IQ test (intelligence test) is not a good indicator of occupational success and job performance, because it does not pick up effectiveness and common sense, such as effectiveness when working with people. It involves knowing how to manage yourself and others, and how to navigate complicated social situations. An example of this:

" have just been promoted to head of an important department in your organisation. The previous head has been transferred to the equivalent position in a less important department. Your understanding of the reason for the move is that the performance of the department as a whole has been mediocre. There have not been any glaring deficiencies, just a perception that the department has a so-so record than very good..."

Malcolm Gladwell, 2002

Your objective is to improve the department. Results are expected quickly.

Based on the above, rate the quality of the following strategies for succeeding at your new position.

i) always delegate to the most junior person who can be trusted with the task

ii) give your superiors frequent progress reports

iii) announce a major re-organisation of the department that includes getting rid of whomever you believe to be "dead wood"

iv) concentrate more on your people than the tasks to be done

v) make people feel completely responsible for their work

It has been found that good managers select strategies (ii) and (iv); bad managers tend to select strategy (iii)

(sources: Joseph Boyett et al, 1998; Malcolm Gladwell, 2002)

organisational development change management

The Communities of Practice

. In understanding how people and organisations really learn, it is the organisation's unrecorded wisdom that is more valuable than its captured knowledge. Furthermore, it is found that this unrecorded asset is developed and enhanced by social exchanges in a community atmosphere. People form so-called "communities of practice," and it is through these communities that real learning occurs. These communities involve a very complex, versatile web of informal networks. Through exchanging questions, meeting in hallways, telling stories, negotiating the meaning of events, inventing and sharing new ways of doing things, conspiring, debating and recalling the past, they complement each other's information and together construct a shared understanding of their environment and work. To perform any job requires the ability to learn and perform on shared memories, routines, improvisations, innovations and connections to the world. The community functions within and without - and sometimes in spite of - the company's official organisational and procedural frameworks.

. The health of these social learning communities is important as their well-being seems to be vital to the survival and renewal of organisations. It is better to lose data than lose people, as the people have the unwritten know-why. The reasoning is simple - the static memory of the organisation is eliminated, but the employees' shared mental repository of know-why and know-how remains intact. The community of practice endures. With their mental models, the people can recreate most of the policies, procedures, manuals, and so on. They can rebuild the organisation's static memory. On the other hand, if people are lost, the shared mental models are gone. The community of practice is destroyed and the linkages between the minds that form organisational memory are irretrievably severed.

"...Without these mental models, which include all the subtle interconnections that have been developed among the various members, an organisation will be incapacitated in both learning and action..."

Daniel Kim in Joseph Boycett et al, 1998

The organisation's mind dies and its body soon follows!!!!!!!

The basis for learning is unchanged
The basis of learning has not changed as human biology is the same, ie we are hardwired to enquire and learn; the building blocks of learning are being creative and curious.  It is a basic survival technique. Learning should be about developing creative citizens who are critical thinkers. On the other hand, the world has changed with the context of learning moving from one that essentially centred on vocational learning to one that is now dominated by the imperative of continual learning and lifetime capacity building. Today's students are going to make many significant career changes throughout their professional life.  But it is essential for success to know how to live with and make the most of rapid change, and to become change makers rather than change takers.  This has resulted in rethinking about how to deliver education.
Learning is about understanding your experiences.  A teacher's job is to
"...give students the lens and the toolkit that will enable them to pick up and interpret the world around. The lens is a critical filter that gives the ability to judge the worth of the oceans of information and opinion to which they have access today via technology.  The toolkit comprises core skills, such as research and creativity, numeracy and literacy, which are applicable to many subjects; and also discipline-specific skills, such as science skills or historiography. Both provide the capability to be actively engaged co-creating the future direction of our society and the world. In the past, teaching was the lens; the teacher provided, presented and interpreted the content.  Today, teachers are no longer content experts; rather, their role is to be diagnostician, a collaborator, a co-learner students to develop powerful lens and toolkit.  They do this by designing and supporting the richest possible set of experiences and perspectives with which the student can engage..."
Andrew Baylis, 2016
Linked with this is the student's need for a personalised journey rather than the rigid batch or class model where students are clustered by chronological age. The student's abilities, strengths and approaches to learning, rather than age, determine their individual program.  Also the boundaries between subjects/disciplines will blur and dissolve, as the overlap in skills and content accelerates.
Furthermore, the traditional teacher/student model will be replaced by collaboration and team teaching.
"...The ability work in teams - teachers and students are co-learners together - will become an absolute priority for learning.  Why?  Because innovation dies in isolation.  Students need to see that their teachers are learning with them, that they too are vulnerable in a world awash with information; that they too take risk in order to progress their understanding that working together opens new horizons......we are in the midst of a thinking revolution to meet the challenges of lifelong learning......looking at the different types of thinking that lead to deeper learning - in other words, better ways to use your brain to maximise potential..."
Andrew Baylis, 2016

(sources: Malcolm Gladwell, 2002; Joseph Boycett et al, 1998; Robert Winston, 2003)


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