Organisational Change Management Volume 2

8. Individual and Organisational Learning


. 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

Evidence-based, data-driven research has identified strategies that will encourage learning in the education system and are relevant to the workplace include

- mega-cognition and self-regulation (setting goals and taking responsibility for learning, ie think about how you learn, set your goals and take responsibility for achieving them - for more detail see multi-intelligence and goal setting)

feedback (must be specific, accurate and clear with guidance on how to improve - for more detail see feedback in other parts of this knowledge base)

- comprehension (techniques to improve reading)

collaboration (small groups working on tasks with everyone participating - for more detail see teams)

homework (re-enforces learning - for more detail way we learn)

mastery learning (understanding one thing before moving on to the next)

peer tutoring (people tutor each other with benefits to both - for more detail see mentoring, executive coaching)

social learning (training to improve social relationships and attitudes - for more detail see EQ, SQ, etc)

behaviour intervention (handling problems like violence, bullying, drug use, etc - for more detail see behaviours)

NB In the education system, the above strategies are relatively cheap to implement and when used successfully are able to push students months ahead in their learning. A similar case can be made for adults in the workplace.

Strategies that do not work include performance pay (paying staff based on outcomes)


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


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