Learning in organization

Years of schooling condition many of us to think that learning is something students do in response to teachers in a classroom. With this view, in the managerial world of time dead- lines and concrete action,  learning  seems remote—even  irrelevant. However,  successful managers need specific knowledge and skills as well  as the ability to adapt to changes in the world around them. Managers have to learn.

Learning is a change in behavior or performance that occurs as the result  of experience. Experience may take the form of observing others, reading or listening to sources of infor- mation, or experiencing the consequences of one’s own behavior. This important  way of adapting to  events  is linked to  individual differences  in  attitudes, perception,  and personality.

Two individuals who undergo similar experiences—for example, a business transfer  to a foreign country—probably will differ in how they adapt their behaviors to (that is, learn from) the experience. In other words, each person learns in a different  way.


One model of the learning process, shown in Exhibit 10.9, depicts learning as a four-stage cycle.52  First, a person encounters a concrete experience. This event is followed by thinking and reflective observation, which  leads to abstract conceptualization and, in turn, to active experimentation. The results of the experimentation  generate new experiences, and the cycle repeats.

The Best Buy chain of consumer electronics superstores owes its birth to the learning process of its founder, Richard M. Schulze. In the 1960s, Schulze built a stereo store called Sound of Music into a chain  of nine stores in and near St. Paul, Minnesota. However,  a tornado  destroyed his largest and most profitable  store, so he held a massive clearance sale in the parking lot. So many shoppers descended on the lot that they caused traffic to back up for two miles. Reflecting on this experience, Schulze saw great demand for a store fea- turing large selection and low prices, backed by heavy advertising. He tried out his idea by launching his first Best Buy superstore. Today, Best Buy has nearly 800 retail stores in the United  States and Canada, as well  as a thriving online division.53

The arrows in the model of the learning  process in Exhibit 10.9 indicate that this pro- cess is a recurring cycle. People continually test their conceptualizations  and adapt them as a result of their personal reflections and observations about their experiences.


Individuals  develop personal learning styles that vary in terms of how much they emphasize each stage of the learning  cycle. These differences  occur because the learning  process is directed by individual needs and goals. For example, an engineer might  place greater empha- sis on abstract concepts, whereas a salesperson might emphasize concrete experiences. Because of these preferences, personal learning styles typically  have strong and weak points.

Questionnaires can assess a person’s strong and weak points as a learner by measuring the relative emphasis the person places on each of the four learning  stages shown  in Exhibit 10.9: concrete experience, reflective  observation, abstract conceptualization,  and active experi- mentation. Some people have a tendency to overemphasize one stage of the learning process or to avoid some aspects of learning. Not many people have totally  balanced profiles, but the key to effective learning is competence in each of the four  stages when it is needed.

Researchers identified four fundamental  learning styles that combine elements of the four  stages of the learning cycle.54 Exhibit 10.10 summarizes the characteristics and domi- nant learning abilities of these four styles, labeled Diverger, Assimilator, Converger, and Accommodator. The exhibit also lists occupations that frequently attract individuals with each of the learning styles. For example, people whose dominant  style is Accommodator are often drawn to sales and marketing. A good example is Gertrude Boyle, who took over Columbia  Sportswear after the death of her husband. She and her son, Tim, propelled the company from sales of $13 million to $358 million over a 13-year period by observing what competitors  were doing and actively experimenting to find a novel  sales approach.  The 74-year-old Gert Boyle decided to star in her own “Tough Mother” ads  as a way to distinguish the company from competitors who advertised their products worn by fit, young models. Boyle believes in constantly pushing herself and her company, questioning everything, and trying new ideas.55 Exhibit 10.10 lists other likely occupations for Diverg- ers, Assimilators,  Convergers, and Accommodators.


To thrive in today’s turbulent  business climate, individuals and organizations must be con- tinuous learners. For individuals, continuous learning entails looking for opportunities to learn from classes, reading, and talking to others,  as well  as looking for the lessons in life’s experiences.  One manager  who embodies  the spirit of continuous  learning is Larry Ricciardi, senior vice president and corporate counsel at IBM. Ricciardi is an avid traveler and voracious reader who likes to study art, literature, and history. In addition, Ricciardi likes to add supermarket tabloids to his daily fare of the Wall Street Journal. On business trips, he scouts out side trips to exotic or interesting  sites so he can learn something  new.56

Ricciardi never knows when he might be able to apply a new idea or understanding to im- prove his life, his job, or his organization.

For organizations, continuous  learning involves the processes  and systems through which the organization  enables its people to learn, share their growing knowledge, and apply it to their work. In an organization in which continuous learning is taking place, em- ployees actively apply comments from customers, news about competitors,  training pro- grams, and more to increase their knowledge and improve the organization’s practices. For example, at the Mayo Clinic, doctors are expected to consult with doctors in other depart- ments, with the patient, and with anyone else inside or outside the clinic who might help with any aspect of the patient’s problem.57  The emphasis on teamwork,  openness, and col- laboration  keeps learning strong at Mayo.

Managers can foster continuous learning by consciously stopping from time to time and asking, “What can we learn from this experience?” They can allow employees time to at- tend training and reflect on their experiences. Recognizing  that experience can be the best teacher, managers should focus on how they and their employees can learn from mistakes, rather than fostering a climate in which  employees hide  mistakes because they fear being punished for them. Managers also encourage organizational  learning by establishing infor- mation  systems that enable people to share knowledge  and learn in new ways. Information technology  was discussed in detail in Chapter 6. As individuals,  managers can help them- selves and set an example for their employees by being continuous learners, listening to others, reading widely, and reflecting on what they observe. Can leaders really learn and change their own behavior?

Source: Daft Richard L., Marcic Dorothy (2009), Understanding Management, South-Western College Pub; 8th edition.

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