Organizational Behaviour – Learning

“the process of acquiring knowledge through experience which leads to a lasting change in behaviour”
(Buchanan and Huczynski, 2010, p. 139)

Taking the above as a working definition of learning, we can examine its component parts to explore learning at the level of first, the individual, and second, the organization. It is important to consider both as any group consists of people, who will differ from one another in the ways that they think, learn and behave. This article aims to touch briefly on several of the issues involved in successful learning and introduce related topics that can be researched in greater depth if required.

1. the PROCESS…
There are various theories of how individuals learn. Behaviourism was introduced by J.B. Watson a century ago, and states that behaviour is determined wholly by the environment. An
action has a favourable or an unfavourable outcome, and the positive or negative consequences increase or decrease respectively the chance of the behaviour re-occurring. Simply, if a rat pushes a lever and receives a treat, it will press the lever again because it was reinforced previously for doing so. If it stops getting food, it will learn to stop bothering to push the lever. Behaviours are seen as learned sequences of muscle movements, nothing more.

Bandura (1977) proposed a social learning theory in which we learn through observing others. If a behaviour we copy is reinforced by positive results, we are more likely to repeat it.
Reinforcement is feedback about the success of a past behaviour. This information is perceived, interpreted, and used to guide future behavioural decisions; hence the prevailing idea today of learning as a process. This is the basis of the Experiential Learning Cycle used by FOCUS Adventure, where we actively reflect on what we did, what happened next, and whether it would benefit us to do so again in similar situations.

As for organizational learning – how does an organisation learn? According to Gherardi (1997), in the same way as does an individual – through experience, by processing information,
and changing accordingly. As for an individual, the aim is to increase one’s advantage over competitors in the struggle to survive. An organization that is able to develop and use its
knowledge is said to be learning (Arnold et al, 2005). Senge (1990) writes of 5 ‘learning disciplines’ in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline: personal mastery; mental models; shared
vision; team learning; systems thinking. This last reminds us that learning is indeed a process.

If, as Bandura’s social learning theory has it, we learn through observing others, who do we choose to copy? There are numerous studies of the effects on children of watching ‘models’ perform either social or aggressive behaviours; whether or not they copy the behaviour is affected by the consequences they see the model receive. There is research suggesting that we select from whom we are willing to learn, and that we copy behaviours consistent with our own self-image and with how we want to be seen by others (Buchanan and Huczynski, 2010).
Primate children learn from peers and adults through imitation and emulation but only humans practise active instruction (Tomasello, 2000). Two of the most influential child psychologists of all time, Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, disagree on the importance of others on children’s learning. Piaget described a 4-stage developmental sequence – universal, independent of adult input, and fixed according to age and therefore cognitive maturity. Vygotsky, on the other hand, saw learning as primarily a social process, with children benefiting from the guidance of a more knowledgeable partner. At the level of the organization, learning can occur through imitation of other companies, from internal and/or external training, or from day-to-day interactions with colleagues. A learning culture is one in which:

a) the benefits of training are promoted
b) there are firm policies regarding and adequate resources available for training
c) employees are supported and their newly acquired knowledge respected
d) the management models the way by also attending courses (Arnold et al, 2005).

Like rats, we are willing to work if we reap benefits; unlike rats, we are able to complain loudly over extended lunch hours if we don’t get them!

The typical learning curve shows performance of a new skill improving slowly at first, then accelerating to reach a plateau. In learning to ride a bike, the initial stages require thinking about each step and each body part, and a great deal of trial and error (and possibly bruising). Practising makes it easier and with time it becomes almost automatic. Fitts (1962) expresses this as 3 phases of skill development: i) the cognitive phase: requires attention, effort and includes lack of understanding and errors; ii) the associative phase: behaviour patterns are established and improve with practise; iii) the autonomous phase: performance is increasingly automatic and resistant to interference.

Anderson(1983, 1987; in Arnold et al, 2005) differentiates between procedural knowledge – knowing how to do something, without necessarily being able to explain it – and declarative knowledge, which is factual and can be made explicit. Declarative knowledge may not result in a change in behaviour unless it is processed in some way (Arnold et al, 2005), as described in the Experiential Learning Cycle mentioned above.

In our modern, globally connected world, technology is advancing and changing almost too fast for us to keep up (some of us have given up trying!), it is important for employees to be able to use and understand current tools, systems and knowledge, therefore, has become a valuable resource. Organizations which can make the implicit, procedural knowledge of individual employees available for everyone else to learn from are therefore at a distinct advantage.

Knowledge management is the conversion of individual into organizational learning (Rajan et al, 1999). Some companies have databases of knowledge created by employees considered expert in their field which are available to everyone else within the company. Knowledge that the organization itself has can be found in SOP’s, manuals, job descriptions and patents, and more gained from assessments, evaluations and learning from the experiences of other companies.

4. … through EXPERIENCE…
Experience is different for each individual – the same event can be pleasant for some people and boring, or scary for others. Put 10 people on ‘whale watch’ together and they’ll have 10 different experiences. What we attend to and focus on, how we interpret what we do and what happens to us is affected by personality, cognitive style, and some temporary factors such as mood, fatigue, or anxiety level. How rewarding an experience is to us is determined by the levels of neurotransmitters in our own brain, (especially dopamine).

We do not passively experience the world, but actively seek out certain environments and activities and avoid others. The experiential learning cycle emphasises learning by doing, but as Bandura and his followers show, we can also learn by listening, watching and hearing about other people’s experiences. Some personality types are better able to learn from mistakes than others and inhibit the impulse to make them again.

If experience is unique, how can it be discussed in terms of an organization? Companies can observe the strategies of their competitors and see how well they work. They can then monitor and evaluate the effects without ever being directly affected. Of the events which happen to a company itself – recession, expansion, moving offices – it is likely that all those involved will be affected but in different ways. Perhaps the key message is that the whole does not equal the sum of the parts. That is to say, what happens overall does not accurately reflect what has happened to each bit. How to recognise, understand, and cater for different personalities in the workplace will be considered in a separate article.

Not everything that we experience will result in a change. The cellular basis of learning and memory, Long-Term Potentiation, involves a change in the connections between synapses, which are the tiny gaps between brain cells (neurons) across which messages pass. There is a famous saying in neuropsychology: “neurons that fire together, wire together”– in other words, experiences that stimulate the firing of groups of neurons cause those neurons to strengthen their connections with one another. Learning circuits are strengthened through repeated use – so experiences lead to changes in behaviour according to how often they are repeated.

There are examples of cases in which experience does not lead to change. Learning may be impeded by brain injury, anxiety, stress, depression, or by old age. There are numerous developmental disorders, learning disabilities, and neurodegenerative conditions which affect various aspects of learning or ability to acquire and remember knowledge (e.g. dyslexia, ADHD, autism, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease).

Arnold et al (2005) suggest that transfer of learning brought from training courses back into the workplace, depends on the characteristics of the trainee, the quality of the course, the supportiveness of colleagues and management, and opportunities to use the new knowledge. Acquiring knowledge is all very well, but what determine whether or not it ever gets used are both the individual’s own competence and motivation, and the company’s receptiveness and willingness to adapt. At this level, it is still: “Use it or lose it” – it is not repetition that matters but factors that affect implementation in the first place.

Acquired knowledge may not translate into visible change in organisations where the culture is not one of openness and flexibility, or where employees are suffering from work overload. Change is more likely to occur in an environment of recognition and encouragement. The children in the social learning studies who saw models rewarded for a behaviour copied the behaviour – adults who see colleagues rewarded for putting in the time and effort to learn are likewise motivated to follow their example.

We, our behaviour, and our environment are linked together in triangle of reciprocal interaction where each of the three cornerstones affects the others. We are able to think about and to choose how to behave, we can learn from what others do and how the consequences of their actions affect them. Learning is shown to have occurred by a change in what we do or don’t do, in the methods we use or in how well or how often we act. An exploration of the factors that influence the many and varying behaviours shown by any individual are beyond the scope of this article. They include but are not limited to: personality, genetics, environmental experience, goals, motivation, and stress.

Buchanan and Huczynski (2010) differentiate between single-loop and double-loop learning. A system that demonstrates single-loop learning acts to maintain performance at a desired level. It is able to adjust and adapt to correct deviations from a pre-determined norm. Double-loop learning, however, involves an evaluation of the norm as appropriate or not, and challenging assumptions, beliefs, routines and decisions. It is related to the ‘Challenge the process’ component of the The Leadership Model – MICE from Kousner and Posner. This form of learning can improve the behaviour of an organization because it insists on the justification of what the company does and how it does it.

In conclusion, learning can be said to involve a number of components which apply at both the individual and group level. In order for an organization to learn, its members must learn and apply their newfound knowledge in the communal environment. The clients of FOCUS Adventure are the companies whose logo are displayed on the welcoming power-point slide, but the activities and debriefs are experienced by the individuals who attended and take away the learning points. What they then do with those learning points depends both on their own characteristics and those of their company.


Arnold, J., Silvester, J., Patterson, F., Robertson, I., Cooper, G. and Burnes, B. (2005). Work
Psychology: Understanding Human Behaviour in the Workplace (4th edition). Essex: Pearson
Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory.Taken from Arnold et al (2005).
Buchanan, D.A. and Huczynski, A.A. (2010). Organizational Behaviour (7th edition). Essex: Pearson
Fitts, P.M. (1962).Factors in Complex Skill Training.Taken from Arnold et al (2005).
Gherardi, S. (1997). Organizational learning. Taken from: Buchanan and Huczynski (2010).
Rajan, A., Lank, E. and Chapple, K. (1999). Good Practices in Knowledge Creation and Exchange.
Taken from: Buchanan and Huczynski (2010).
Senge, P. (1990). The 5th Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation.
Taken from: Buchanan and Huczynski (2010).
Tomasello, M. (2000). The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. USA: Harvard Univerity Press