Silo thinking in learning

Bryan Hopkins Consulting
Learning and development services for international organisations
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Silo thinking in learning

Bryan Hopkins Consulting
Published by Bryan in Thoughts · 8 May 2019
I imagine that most people of a certain age interested in management will have come across or even read Peter Senge?s The Fifth Discipline. Published in 1990, it took the somewhat nebulous and ill-defined concept of 'organisational learning', and by a neat flip of the words, planted in mainstream consciousness the idea of the 'learning organisation'. The term had been in use before Senge's book, but something about his mixture of explanation, practicality and evocation of spirituality captured the pre-millennial zeitgeist. It also introduced many people to the idea of systems thinking, albeit presenting a very restricted explanation of what this means.

As part of my ongoing research into using systems thinking approaches to evaluate training I have been digging deeply into the organisational learning literature. After all, training is about learning in organisations, so surely this area of academic research should have a lot to say about the role training plays, right?

Well, wrong actually. I cannot claim that the world of organisational learning literature has no references to training, but after reading several dozen articles and books by respected authors in the field I have come to the conclusion that structured learning opportunities would seem to be regarded as having little to do with organisational learning.

But this myopia seems to work in both directions. How does the training and training evaluation literature deal with organisational learning? Not that much better it seems to me. That is probably because most texts on training focus very much on individuals and how they learn, exploring in great detail the mysteries of experiential learning and how to design cognitively effective programmes. The training evaluation literature does actually think about impact on organisational performance though its nostalgic attachment to the 50-year old Kirkpatrick framework and 'Level 4', but then throws its hands up in the air and says that it is generally too difficult to do any meaningful evaluation at this level.

Things improve a little when you slip sideways into the literature on training transfer, but even this seems to be trapped in an individualistic, cognitivist mindset. In this world the effectiveness of training is influenced by a range of factors such as learner readiness, cognitive ability, learning design, support received from peers and supervisors and the relevance of the training to the individual.

So what is going on here? Technology probably plays some part. The increasing importance attached to online self-study and its economies of scale chimes with the fragmented, individualistic, neoliberal world that organisations inhabit. Synchronous learning technologies can bring people together in a virtual sense, but the structured nature of such events means that the informal conversations of face-to-face events that can add so much value to learning cannot happen.

Then there are the knowledge silos. Experts on individual learning just do not seem to mix with experts in organisational learning it seems. But to me this is where a systemic way of looking at things can bring dividends. The research into training transfer has much to say that can inform discussions about single and double loop learning, and broadening the individual focus of something like experiential learning to show how that it contributes to social learning can also shine light on how learning happens within organisations.

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