Tuesday, 8 November 2011

How do managers learn?

I’m interested in the nature of managerial work; of how managerial things get done and to understand how critical knowledge, skills and behaviours are developed; in other words how is it that we learn to do these things, in practice.  

One of the most useful live research inquiries that I did during my masters studies was to interview some managers at a financial services company to find out how they had been learning up to that point.  I used the Critical Incident method to find out how managers felt they had learned to become competent in the critical aspects of their jobs.  I was following up on some similar work done in 1976 by John Burgoyne and Roger Stuart.  Their study addressed the question of how managers acquire their skills - see Burgoyne, J., and Stuart, R. (1976) The nature, use and acquisition of managerial skills and other attributes.  Personnel Review 5 (4) pp19-29 for the full details. A summarised version is available in 'The Manager's Guide to Self Development', chapter 4, by M Pedler, J Burgoyne,T Boydell.  

What was helpful about their analysis was the way in which they created a hierarchy of 11 skills and attributes (10 in the original study): from basic knowledge to higher order cognitive functioning.  These were grouped into three learning categories, based on the work of Gregory Bateson, to try to differentiate between simple and complex issues:

1.  Taking in a fact or piece of data, equivalent to an act of sensing or perceiving, or taking in a stimulus. 

2.  Learning different kinds of responses appropriate for different situations.  This covers a wide range of social, emotional and problem solving skills
3.  Meta-learning skills that makes an individual better at achieving learning of the (2) type.  This could be expressed as meta-cognition, i.e. knowing what you know and knowing what you do not know and covers things like creativity, mental agility and balanced learning habits and skills.

Qualities of a successful manager (Burgoyne and Stuart)
Basic knowledge & information
Command of basic facts
Relevant professional knowledge
Skills & attributes
Continuing sensitivity to events
Analytical, problem solving, decision making skills
Social skills
Emotional resilience
Mental agility
Balanced learning habits
Self knowledge

This provides the context of what I want to comment on: 

First, sources of learning most frequently mentioned by the managers
Second, which theories are most helpful when thinking about management learning
Third, how should management learning practice respond?

Sources of learning

What did the managers cite as their most important sources of learning to become a manager?  The top three in Burgoyne and Stuart's work were: 
  • doing the job (42% of all mentions) 
  • non-company education (21%) 
  • living (12%) - this category is about a broad range of life experiences that take place outside of work.
What's interesting is that in-company education only came fourth in order of importance; in my own research sample, which admittedly was much smaller, it didn't feature at all.  

No real surprises?  Overall, maybe not, although I was quite surprised how infrequently in-company education was mentioned. The findings also raise a critical inquiry:  if the greater part of learning managerial skills comes from natural experiential sources and not events where the learning purposes are deliberately planned, then how should learning practice evolve?

Theories that inform practice

I've summarised in the table below those theories that might help to inform practice.  I've selected a mix of cognitive, experiential and social learning theories. My approach is deliberately multi-disciplinary since this reflects how we learn things.  It also helps to point towards a process of learning and the design of practices that can amplify what's taking place naturally.  By implication, I'm giving less attention to content. Content is important to some extent, but less so than we might think. In fact, if we follow the 70:20:10 model of learning, the 10 = 10% of learning coming from formal learning like courses whilst the other 90% is experiential from doing the job and conversations/interactions/observations with/of the boss and peers. 

To maximise potential we should consider the workings of the human cognitive system.  
This is on the basis that it is the cognitive system that acquires, stores and retrieves information for later use.  Itiel Dror 's work in this field is interesting and relevant
Improving higher order cognitive learning will help learners tackle complex problems
This means raising awareness of meta-cognition or deutero learning that pays attention to knowing what we know and knowing what we do not know. 
Knowing how best to learn opens up choices and encourages commitment
This means explicitly teaching learners how to do this. Charles Jenning's blog posting provides a good list of 'core continuous learning skills' that support meta-learning
Learning is experiential and needs to be reinforced through practice
This point was made as far back as Aristotle and in more recent times by Dewey, Kolb and Marsick & Watkins
Learning is socially constructed through observation and conversation
Social Learning Theory (legitimate peripheral participation, communities of practice - Lave and Wenger)

or as a complex responsive process through conversation - Ralph Stacey.

Donald Clark's  posting on peer learning and another from  Harold Jarche pick up the collaborative learning themes
Learning is a reflective process and can be enhanced through facilitation
See the work of Argyris, Argyris and Schon, Boud and Miller about the animation of learning by facilitators: external or line managers.

Donald Clark's  piece on note taking and reflective writing gives another perspective on self-managed reflection
How should management learning respond?...by placing workplace practice centre-stage

Based on what I have researched, it seems clear to me that managers have learned to do what they do through trial and error and through conversation and observation.  Therefore, as learning professionals, I feel that it's critical that we respect how people learn and adapt our practices to facilitate, support and challenge that which learners are already doing.  

If we look at the traditional problems of philosophy such as how is knowledge created and what is there to be learned about we can see that in much of our traditional management learning practice preference is given to theory and the formal knowledge of the teacher.  The problem that this sets up is that, by our actions, we value more highly abstract theory over the knowledge that can be found in actual practice.  As a result a lot gets taken for granted about the role of the teacher as knowledge provider and the learner as knowledge receiver.   This could be to the extent that it might even separate learning from working which, if so, seems a curious, if unintended, outcome. An alternative perspective on this same issue is that teachers (or senior managers/executives who set priorities for learning) may adopt a kind of superior moralizing or 'knowing what's good for them' that, however well intentioned, has the effect of taking away responsibility.

My position is that we have to change our management learning practices to really help learners look at their workplace practices.  This means reversing the traditional teacher-learner model to something like a workplace practice-facilitator model.  This places what is being done everyday right at the centre of knowledge production and learning.  In terms of learning practice this is likely to include the methods of live workplace observation, facilitated and self managed reflection, collaborative learning practices with others and 'just-in-time' knowledge inputs.  I think the pay-off of so doing is three-fold.  

First, it will help managers to look closely at the situation specific facts as the basis for action and performance improvement. 

Second, it will provide context-specific knowledge about how things get done: in this place, at this time, by these people, in these specific circumstances. 

Third, the development of meta-learning skills will be emancipatory and a boost to self confidence.  I have found through my practice that by encouraging learners to reflect deeply upon what it is that they already know helps to affirm and provides a platform from which they can then develop and follow their learning interests. 

The development of these threads is at the heart of my own practice development and continuing critical inquiry.  I will write more about this in future posts.
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