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Organisational learning has become the focus of much research and scholarship (Walters, 2012). Within the context of a learning organisation, individuals are seen as major key players given that they act either to produce results or to learn relevant skills set.

The Behaviourist Model of Learning and its relevance to HRD

Learning and training is an integral component to the development of any organisation. In the early 20th century, behaviourism emerged through the work of John Watson, who is often credited for coining this term (Ormond, 1999). One can also identify some other prominent proponents of the behaviourist model including Clark L. Hull, Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. Despite the fact that there were major differences among the aforementioned proponents approach to behaviourism, one can identify some core assumptions which are common to them all. These include the fact that learning processes can be objectively studied through careful observation of stimulus and response. Furthermore, one should also notice that behaviourists placed no importance to internal cognitive processes, as their main assumption is that learning essentially involves a behavioural change. In addition, proponent of the behaviourist model also firmly believe that organisms are born as blank states and, therefore learning is largely a product of environmental events and influences (Zhang et al, 2013).

In this way, behaviourists put primary emphasis on the way in which the environment impinges upon the individual, and how this process leads to subsequent learning and changes in behaviour (Zhang et al, 2013). It should be evident that behaviourism has played a key role in human resource development (HRD), given that the focus on behaviour is significant because changes in performance do not occur, without relevant behavioural changes. In addition, one should also note that cognitive change on its own (without behavioural changes) is by no means desirable. Thus, internal cognitive changes must be followed by subsequent behavioural changes. Moreover, the behaviourist model plays an instrumental role in remaining one about the central role that external surroundings play when it comes to understanding human performance and learning. For example, one should consider the fact that organizations are structured around a wide range of Behavioral factors such as supports, rewards and incentives, which inevitably influence the performance of its employees.

It is also worth mentioning that the behaviourist model provides useful insights into understanding the ways in which learning is transferred within organisational settings (Rouiller & Goldstein, 1993). In this respect, much research and scholarship has been devoted to understanding the how the environment impacts the ways in which employees use learning in the job place. Behaviourist principles are also thought to provide the key foundations for necessary competency and skill oriented development and training of employees within organisational settings (Zhang et al, 2013). However, it is also interesting to notice that the behavioural paradigm has been criticised on the grounds of viewing the learner as completely passive and dependent. Furthermore, behaviourist paradigm does not take into account the crucial role played by individuals' subjective interpretation, personal insight, and attribution of meaning in the process of learning (Yeo, 2002). However, there are circumstances in which behaviourist principles have been applied in training interventions. For instance, teaching security officers to appropriately respond to attackers requires them to make use of behavioural methods given that in most instances they must react instinctively. Similarly, there are other professions in which individuals are required to pass rigorous certification programs that are grounded in behaviourist methods (Davis & Luthans, 1980). Among such professions one can identify nuclear plant operator and airplane pilots.

What are the contributions of Cognitivism Learning Approach to HRD?

It is thought that cognitivism emerged as a product and consequence of the limitations of behaviourist approach (Fiol & Lyles, 1985). Moreover, one can trace the roots of cognitivism back to the work of Edward Tolman during the 1930s. Cognitivism also owes much of its existence and development to the contributions of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget (Ormond, 1999). Furthermore, in terms of its core assumptions, it has been postulated that cognitivism is primarily focused on individuals' understanding and level of insight by placing emphasis upon cognitive and learning processes which are unique to human beings. In addition, cognitivists argue that individuals are not simply passive and at the mercy of environmental variables, but instead they actively play a role in shaping their environment (Fiol & Lyles, 1985; Kraiger, Ford & Salas, 1993). It is also interesting to notice that central to the Cognitivist epistemology are three key perspectives including contextual views, constructivism and information-processing theory (Jones, 1995). For instance, the information processing paradigm regards the human mind as an information processor which is responsible for information storage and retrieval. In addition, within organisational settings, studies focused on cognitivist approach seem to be more concerned with thinking processes which are involved in emotional responses and learning in the work place (Yeo, 2002). Researchers adopting this paradigm tend to focus more on qualitative methods such as interviews and observations (Yeo, 2002). One should note that this approach to learning has received much criticism due to the fact that it regards the mind as very mechanic in nature (Easterby-Smith, 1997). However, the cognitive learning account has proved to be a much needed and useful step beyond 'pure' behaviourism. This is because cognitive learning approach acknowledges the fact that that learning is more complex than simply responding the external stimuli, given that it involves relevant skills such as mental mapping, imagination, creativity and problem solving (Yeo, 2002).

Social Learning Theory and HRD

It is well established that social learning theory is primarily concerned with the way in which individuals learn through interactions with and observing others (Ormond, 1999). In this way, key emphasis is placed upon the social context in which the learning process takes place (Zhang et al, 2013). It is interesting to notice that some regard the social learning paradigm as some sort of behaviourism given that it seems to reflect processes relating to the ways in which people learns from others located in their environment (Zhang et al, 2013). However, a fundamental attribute of social learning theory is the assumption that people learn through others, or in other words they simply imitate others' behaviour in the process of social interactions. Thus, one should notice that the social learning paradigm advocates that individuals learn through role models. This factor on its own directly contrasts the behaviourist model, given that the latter strongly advocates that individual learners must perform actions and be reinforced in order for learning to occur (Ormond, 1999). In this way, social learning theory put forward some key assumptions. Firstly, it stipulates that organisational learning can occur without any significant changes in behaviour, and that cognition play a pivotal role in the process of leaning. Secondly, it postulates that learning in the workplace can also occur by simply observing the outcomes of other people's behaviour or by imitating others.

It has been argued that social learning occupies a distinct role within HRD, given that much of classroom development is centred on the notion of a human facilitator whose model for behaviour has to be learned. Within organisational settings, social learning also makes a huge contribution, especially when it comes to new employee development and its related socialisation processes (Holton & Russell, 1999). Similarly, social interactions are also present in informal processes such as new employee mentoring. In addition, one can also find the presence of such social interaction when organisational members pass rules and norms concerning the organisational culture of a particular institution to new employees (Holton & Russell, 1999). Therefore, social learning plays a pivotal role when it comes to on-the-job training, whereby new employees learn through direct instruction, as well as through observing others in the process of executing their respective tasks in the workplace. In this way, one must note that social learning is a very useful tool in HRD. This is due to the fact that it effectively enhances the learning process within organisational settings when properly applied.

The contributions of Constructivism to HRD

Another relevant theory of human learning is well known as Constructivism. This theory postulates that all knowledge has its context specificity, and therefore individuals make attribute personal meaning and situate their experiences within a given context (Wiswell & Ward, 1987). From this vantage point, it would appear that knowledge cannot be separated from the context within it is used or produced. In other words, learning occurs when individuals connect new information to existing in order to make sense of, and contextualise such information (Wiswell & Ward, 1987). Some theorists have argued that constructivism may in fact just be another form of cognitivism as opposed to another new theory (Ormond, 1999). In terms of its contributions to HRD, constructivism has provided useful insights into understanding the ways in new employees make sense and attribute meaning to new information within organisational settings (Knowles et al, 1998). It is also worth noting that drawing upon constructivism one can also explain the ways in which incidental and self-directed learning occurs within organisational settings (Knowles et al., 1998).


In conclusion, organisational learning and its related theories has become paradigmatic for much research and scholarship. It should be evident that learning has always been an integral component of HRD, and it continues to be an essential aspect of Organisational strategies for promoting employee learning and development. In addition, careful examination of relevant body of empirical literature revealed that two main approaches are the most prominent, including the cognitive learning approach, and the behavioural learning approach. However, constructivism and social learning theory also provide very useful insights into understanding learning within organisational settings. In this respect, social learning theory most significant contribution to HRD can be found in on-the-job training interventions, whereby new employees learn through direct instruction, as well as through observing others in the process of executing their respective tasks in the workplace. Similarly, the contribution of constructivism can be found in the ways in which new employees make sense and attribute meaning to new information within organisational settings. It could also be argued that behaviourism has played an important role in human resource development.

This is mainly due to the fact that changes in performance do not occur, without relevant behavioural changes. Overall, it appears that the four theories examined in this paper provide useful insights into understanding learning processes within organisational settings. However, much research and theoretical sophistication is still needed in order to fully grasp the intricacies surrounding the dynamic and multifaceted nature of employee learning and development in the workplace. Therefore, future studies should seek to integrate a wide range of human learning theories and, in this way adopt and develop a multidisciplinary approach. The present paper may constitute a much need piece of organisational 'puzzle' given that little is still know about how a combination of behavioural, cognitive, and interpretative factors can lead to employee learning and development in the job place. Thus, it is hoped that this paper will act as a catalyst for future studies connecting learning theories and human resource development.


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Author:Austin, Robert T.
Publication:Journal of Social and Psychological Sciences
Date:Jan 1, 2015

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