Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Process of Learning

Jason Haseldine February 2004

Learning is a change in behaviour through the acquisition of some skill, knowledge or experience. There are four activities associated with the process of learning; they are reinforcement, feedback, observation and direct experience.

Learning is a critical component within work and organisations for it can increase efficiency and performance. In today’s information age learning contributes to a company’s intellectual property and knowledge capital.

Company Boards will look to assess employee skills and the training that has been undertaken to ensure the future competitiveness within the market. Long-term investors are beginning to realise the importance of learning in organisations and will seek information to ensure responsible ownership resulting in long-term value to the company.

Learning is presented in terms of two theories, behavioural and cognitive. Behaviourism is based on the observable changes in behaviour and focuses on a response to some type of stimuli. Cognition or cognitive behaviour focuses on individuals thought processes to determine his or her emotions and behaviours.

Other distinctions between the two theories include: behaviourists are interested in applying laboratory findings to explain the functioning of human beings. Cognitivists seek to explain how the brain processes and stores new information. Further, behaviourists problem solving occurs via trial and error compared to cognitive problem solving which involves insight and understanding.

Learning is often defined by the terms cognitive or behavioural. A search on for the term ‘learning’ provides over 50 definitions. These include definitions such as ‘the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge’, ‘changes in an individual's behaviour arising from experience’, ‘changes in a person's behaviour caused by information and experience’ and ‘a relatively permanent change in cognition, resulting from experience and directly influencing behaviour.’

Delbridge et al. study in 1995 (cited in Athanasou 2003, p.1) identifies learning in both a traditional and psychological manner. ‘The act or process of acquiring knowledge or skill’ and as ‘the modification of behaviour through interaction with the environment.”

Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.110) define learning as ‘the process of acquiring knowledge through experience which leads to an enduring change in behaviour.’

Finally McShane and Travaglione (2003, p.44) identify learning as a behavioural tendency and that interaction within an environment can permanently change a person’s behaviour.

Whilst there is no precise definition of the term learning, the basic premise from the definitions provided above is that of a change in behaviour via the acquisition of some skill, knowledge or experience.

From these definitions we can articulate the process of learning.

McShane and Travaglione (2003, p.45) identify the process of learning as: reinforcement, feedback, observation and direct experience. These activities are now articulated to capture the explanation of the process of learning;

Reinforcement: is the strengthening of behaviour or behaviour that is more likely to occur in the future. Reinforcement is the effect of operant conditioning posited by Skinner. (Durell 2001).

Operant conditioning demonstrates how new behaviours become established through association with particular stimuli. Skinner identified that any behaviour that is rewarded or reinforced will tend to be repeated; he proved this via reinforcement techniques to teach pigeons to dance and bowl a ball in a mini-alley. This is opposed to Pavlov’s theory, respondent conditioning or classic conditioning, which occurs when a natural reflex responds to a stimulus. The most popular example is Pavlov's observation that dogs salivate when they eat or even see food. (Huczynski and Buchanan 2001, p.115; McShane and Travaglione 2003, pp.45-46; On Purpose Associates 2001)

Research has found that reinforcement or operant conditioning significantly improves learning in a work setting. An example of this is the reduction of absenteeism, by rewarding staff with a perfect attendance record each month a chance to win a $1,000. (McShane and Travaglione 2003, p.49)

Feedback: is defined by McShane and Travaglione (2003, p.51) as ‘any information that people receive about the consequences of their behaviour.’ Feedback influences behaviour, hence learning, and increases performance as it clarifies roles, improves the individual’s ability and helps motivate them.

A recent example of feedback that I received was through a 360-degree feedback model. My employer was undertaking a realignment and in need of a Chief Financial Officer. A performance assessment was undertaken on myself, whereby feedback was sought from my colleagues, subordinates and the Chief Executive Officer. Feedback was obtained via an electronic questionnaire and personal interviewing. The results were positive and I currently reside in the position. I learnt a considerable amount about myself and the organisation through this exercise, including my strengths and weaknesses, which have enabled me to undertake specific courses to build my knowledge and improve as a leader.

Observation: is a process of learning, people learn by observing the behaviours of others. People will model the behaviour that leads to a favourable outcome as opposed to a behaviour that leads to punishing consequences. Observation can increase a persons ability and motivation by witnessing others succeed and identifying themselves within that position. (McShane and Travaglione 2003, p.56)
Direct experience: McShane and Travaglione (2003, p.58) identify that the majority of what is leant within organisations today occurs through experience. The authors make reference to Kolb’s four-stage experiential learning model: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation.

This is further sported by Dale’s study in 1991 (cited in Barron 2002) who asserted that ‘learners could make valuable use of more abstract instructional activities drawing on reservoirs of their more concrete experiences.’ Dale created the ‘Cone of Experience’ (cited in Kuykendall 1991) refer Appendix A, which identifies that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they hear and see, 70% of what they say or write and 90% of what they say as they are experiencing it.

These four activities identifying the process of learning is further supported by Nonaka’s work in 1994 (cited in Hawryszkiewycz 2000). Nonaka defines the learning process in four phases also, being: socialization, externalisation, combination and internalisation. The first phase, socialisation, is where people share their experiences and elaborate on existing knowledge. This can result in new concepts and ideas that can be followed through in later steps. Secondly externalisation is where current knowledge or expertise is captured to develop a better understanding by generating focused discussion. Thirdly ideas are combined with existing information to make use of previous experiences and finally internalisation is whereby the knowledge developed is then carried out and evaluated.

Learning within work and organisations is a critical component of success. The development of employee learning enhances the knowledge capital within an organisation. The world has progressed from the industrial age to the information age, intellectual property, knowledge capital and its management are crucial ingredients in the success of today’s organisation.

A critical component of organisational behaviour is the exploration of individual’s emotions and behaviour. Organisations are concerned with the pursuit of the company mission or strategy, through the successful performance of its individuals. Learning can positively influence individual behaviour and performance by increasing their knowledge to perform tasks more effectively. Learning can clarify role perceptions, hence develop a better understanding of their tasks and finally learning can motivate employees. (McShane and Travaglione 2003, pp.44-45).

From an organisational perspective a highly learned staff results in people being more effective at accomplishing what they want. (Society for Organizational Learning n.d.)

An individual’s behaviour is comprised of: learning, personality, communication, perception and motivation. (Huczynski and Buchanan 2001, p.6).

The establishment of the Accounting for People Task Force in January 2003 within the United Kingdom (UK) has recently highlighted the advancement of learning within organisations. This task force has identified ways in which organisations can measure the quality and effectiveness of their human capital management (HCM). The task force states:
Human Capital Management (HCM) relates to the management of the recruitment, retention, training and development of employees, viewing them in positive terms as a business asset, rather than just a cost. HCM is a key source of competitive advantage and, ultimately, profitability. Any business that wants to compete successfully needs to ensure that its workforce has the right mix of people, with their skills and experiences, to fit the needs of its business. (Accounting for People 2003).

The task force undertook an analysis of over 200 individuals and organisations within the UK, this then resulted in five recommendations, the first being a strategic focus for company Boards to receive communication on the size and composition of the organisations workforce via the retention and motivation of employees and the skills and competencies necessary for business success, and the training required to achieve this.

Learning is an imperative component within work and organisation, not only does it contribute to the success of an organisation through increased efficiency and performance, the Accounting for People Task Force has identified that investors who take an interest in the longer term are beginning to recognise HCM as a factor to observe. They see that responsible ownership can have an impact on long-term value creation.

Learning is presented in terms of two theories, behavioural and cognitive. Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.112) state that ‘these approaches are based on the same empirical data, but their interpretations of those data are radically different.’

Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.112) identify these two theories as contradictory but they can be viewed as complimentary. My analysis based on the research undertaken in this paper is that the two theories are not contradictory, for cognitive perspectives are built on behavioural techniques.

Behaviourist Theory
The primary theorists involved with behaviourism were Pavlov, Watson and Skinner. Behaviourism is based on observable changes in behaviour and focuses on a response to some type of stimulus.

Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.109) identify the process of behavioural psychology and its association with the study of rats. The authors identify that humans act similarly to animals and that we can learn about ourselves through studying other creatures.

Durell (2001) states that ‘behavioural psychology attempts to deal only with relationships between observable behaviour and observable conditions in the environment.’ Behaviourists are interested in applying laboratory findings to explaining the functioning of human beings.

Watson introduced behaviourism as a scientific technique in 1913, he took the notion of conditioned reflexes developed by Ivan Pavlov and applied it to the study of behaviour. In 1920 Watson provided an example of classical conditional by experimenting with a nine month old boy named Albert. He conditioned the boy to become frightened of a rat by clanging metal with a hammer behind the head of Albert when confronted with the rat.

Cognitive Theory
Behaviourism was important to the research of cognitivism. There were many limitations to behaviourism and it’s relation to learning. One primary opposition of behaviourism was Gestalt psychology. Behaviourism focused on the response to a stimulus and the change in observable behaviour. Cognitivism focused on the ‘brain’. How human’s process and store information was very important in the process of learning. This became the focus of the cognitive theorists. (Walker 2003)

The primary theorists involved with cognitivism were Weiner, Piaget and Vygotsky. Cognitive psychology looks at behaviour as an expression of the thoughts and ideas in the mind. Cognitive learning theories seek to explain how the brain processes and stores new information.

Cognitive theory is focused on an individual's thoughts to determine his or her emotions and behaviours. Many cognitive theorists believe that without these thought processes, we would be without emotion and behaviour and would thus not function.

By changing our thoughts we can change our mood, decrease our anxiety, or improve our motivation. We can quit smoking, make more friends, and enjoy our work more. AllPsych (2003) state ‘The basic premise: If we perceive the glass as half full rather than half empty, the world will look much brighter; In a brighter world, we are happier individuals.’

In 1947 Weiner posited cybernetic analogy, being the notion of the control of system performance through feedback whereby the inputs to the system are external stimuli which are measured by the senses, the output is behaviour and a feedback control loop delivers the experience to the inputs. (Huczynski and Buchanan 2001, p.117)

The feedback can take four forms being: intrinsic feedback, that which comes from within our body such as muscles or joints, extrinsic feedback comes from the environment such as smell or visual information, concurrent feedback arrives during our behaviour such as entering a phone number on a mobile phone and lastly delayed feedback which is information received after a task has been completed. (Huczynski and Buchanan 2001, p.118)
Behaviourists construct an understanding of learning on the basis of observable behaviour as opposed to cognitive psychologists who use conjecture about the processing that goes on in our minds. Cognitive learning looks at behaviour as an expression of the thoughts and ideas in the mind; it is concerned with mental processing as an explanation of behaviour. (Durell 2001)

Huczynski and Buchanan (2001, p.112) present a table that summarises pertinent differences between the behaviourist and cognitive perspectives. They note that behaviourists study only observable behaviour and that behaviour is determined by learned sequences of muscle movements, further problem solving occurs by trial and error. This is compared to cognitivism which studies mental processes, identifies behaviour as being determined by mental processes and expectations and that problem solving involves insight and understanding.

Learning is an imperative component within work and organisation in today’s society. Not only does it contribute to the success of an organisation through increased efficiency and performance in can increase the long-term value of the organisation.

Learning is the change in behaviour through the acquisition of skill, knowledge or experience. The learning process involves four activities: they are reinforcement, feedback, observation and direct experience.

Several distinctions have been made between behaviourist and cognitive perspectives on learning, the most significant being behaviourism is based on the observable changes in behaviour and focuses on a response to some type of stimuli. Cognitive however focuses on individuals thought to determine his or her emotions and behaviours.

Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’ (cited in Kuykendall 1991).
Accounting for People, 2003, ‘Task Force On Human Capital Management Reporting’, viewed 1 Feb. 2004,

AllPsych Online, 2003, ‘Personality Synopsis’, viewed 1 Feb. 2004,

Athanasou, J. 2003, ‘A Judgement Based Model of Workplace Learning’ in the 12th National Vocational Education and Training Research Conference, Perth, p.1.

Barron, D. 2002, ‘A Refresher Course in Ed Psy 301’, The School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at the University of South Carolina, viewed 5 Feb. 2004,

Durell, B. 2001, ‘Psychological Foundations of Learning and Development 2000-2001’, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, viewed 1 Feb. 2004,

Hawryszkiewycz, I. 2000, ‘Supporting Integrated Learning Processes’, Southern Cross University, viewed 7 Feb. 2004,

Huczynski, A. and Buchanan, D. 2001, Organisational behaviour: an introductory text. 4th edition. Hemel Hempstead UK: Prentice Hall Europe.

Kuykendall, C. 1991, ‘Improving Black Student Achievement By Enhancing Student's Self Image’ Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, viewed 7 Feb. 2004,

McShane, S., and Travaglione, T 2003, Organisational Behaviour on the Pacific Rim.
McGraw Hill Australia.

On Purpose Associates, 2001, ‘Behaviorism’, Funderstanding, viewed 1 Feb. 2004,

Society for Organizational Learning, n.d, ‘An Overview of Organizational Learning’, viewed 1 Feb. 2004,

Walker, C. 2003, ‘Cognitivism Theories’, Syracuse University, viewed 5 Feb. 2004,

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