Category Archives: experiential learning

Transformative Learning and Executive Coaching in the Workplace

 Abstract

Transformative learning is a concept most often associated with the field of education.  However, organizations are often seeking to transform executives in order to prepare them for more responsibility, more challenging roles or environments. Coaching is often used as one of the interventions to help facilitate significant executive change and transformation. This paper discusses the intersection of coaching and transformative learning.

Transformative Learning and Executive Coaching In the Workplace

Executive education and adult learning are often seen as formal processes requiring participation in corporate retreats filled with “team building” exercises and instructor-led seminars.  Conversely, executive coaching is often used as a direct intervention with a coach performing the role of catalyst helping an executive mitigate some shortcoming impeding his or her success in a current role or to prepare him or her for more responsibility or a promotion.  Here, we explore the intersection of executive coaching and adult learning that leads to individual transformation.

What is Executive Coaching?

            The International Coach Federation (ICF), the largest professional association representing coaches worldwide, defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential”.  According the ICF a competent coach will possess the following Core Competencies:

  • Setting the Foundation

¨      Meeting Ethical Guidelines and Professional Standards

¨      Establishing the Coaching Agreement

  • Co-Creating the Relationship

¨      Establishing Trust and Intimacy with the Client

¨      Coaching Presence

  • Communicating Effectively

¨      Active Listening

¨      Powerful Questioning

¨      Direct Communication

  • Facilitating Learning and Results

¨      Creating Awareness

¨      Designing Actions

¨      Planning And Goal Setting

¨      Managing Progress and Accountability

Coaching shares many similarities to mentoring.   As we see, most of the primary tasks of mentors, “engender trust, see the student’s movement, give the student a voice, introduce conflict, understand, emphasize positive movement and keep one eye on the relationship” (Daloz, 1999, pp.122-124) are found among the ICF’s Core Competencies. One can see how these same skills would be important to success in counseling and consulting as well. Indeed, coaching draws much of its empirical base and practice from the field of psychotherapy (Judge & Cowell, 1997).

Within the coaching profession, there are many concentrations. Life, leadership, relationship, career and executive coaching are some of the more popular areas of specialization. The executive coach is often seen as a change agent within a business, corporate or other organizational environment.  While there is no single definition or best way to practice executive coaching (Stern, 2004) suggests the executive coach is the “organizational consultant who can provide the coaching to help carry the weary executive through the constantly changing and harsh environment faced by business leaders of the 21st century” (p.161).  A good description of executive coaching is “an experiential, individualized, leadership development process that builds a leader’s capability to achieve short and long-term organizational goals.  It is conducted through one-on-one interactions, driven by data from multiple perspectives, and based on mutual trust and respect.  The organization, an executive, and the executive coach work in partnership to achieve maximum learning and impact.” (Ennis et al., 2003, p.20).

Within the corporate environment many coaches coach for skills, performance, development or the executive’s agenda (Gray, 2006).  According to Gray, skills coaching is directed at helping the client learn “basic concepts, strategies, methods, behaviours, attitudes and perspectives, for business success” (p.478). It is not intended to nor does it often produce long-term change (Fitzgerald & Berger, 2002).  Performance coaching seeks to help the executive become better at performing in her or her current role.  The goal of development coaching is to prepare the client for movement into another role.

Coaching for the executive agenda often encompasses a broad range of issues. The executive may be contemplating a merger or an acquisition, his organization may be experiencing rapid growth or contraction or her company may be impacted by major regulatory changes and need to respond.  Since the executive coach may play many roles, it is important to understand the theoretical underpinnings from which the coach operates. One of the major epistemologies of coaching is found in adult learning theory, more specifically transformative learning (Gray, 2006).

Kilberg (1996) suggested “executive coaching is defined as a helping relationship formed between a client who has managerial authority and responsibility in an organization and a consultant who uses a wide variety of behavioral techniques and methods to help the client achieve a mutually identified set of goals to improve his or her professional performance and personal satisfaction and, consequently, to improve the effectiveness of the client’s organization within a formally defined coaching agreement” (p.142).

In many instances, the terms coach and teacher can almost be used interchangeably.  Certainly, there are many intersections and overlaps of the two roles.  According to Jarvis, Holford and Griffin (1998), teachers may play several roles. Some of these roles are:

  • Provide information on certain topics
  • Serve as a resource for the individual
  • Assist learners to assess their needs and competencies
  • Locate resources or secure new information
  • Set up learning experiences
  • Work with learners as a sounding board for ideas
  • Help learners to develop a positive attitude towards learning and self-directed

Certainly coaches do these things too.  However, the executive coach is typically expected to help his client achieve something beyond simple skill development.  Often, she’s expected to help lead her client through some significant change, growth or “transformation”.  Adult learning theory, specifically transformational learning theory, offers great insight into the processes and approaches coaches might use to help their clients make significant change (Gray, 2006).

What is transformative learning?

             Popularized by two major theorists of adult learning, Jack Mezirow and Paulo Freire, the terms transformational learning or transformative learning have become somewhat diluted by some academicians and researchers, according to Mezirow contemporaries Stephen Brookfield (2005) and Robert Kegan (Mezirow, 2004).  Brookfield (Mezirow, 2004) points out Mezirow has been consistent in “asserting that a transformation is a transformation in perspective, in a frame of reference, in a personal paradigm, and in a habit of mind together with its resulting points of view” (p.139).  Elkins (2003) suggests transformative learning is facilitated by a cognitive process wherein our responses to our experiences are brought into our awareness through reflection and are evaluated.

Perhaps the definition most relevant to executive coaching comes from Mezirow (2000) where he states, “Transformative learning is learning that transforms problematic frames of reference—sets of fixed assumptions and expectations (habits of mind, meaning perspectives, mindsets)—to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective, and emotionally able to change. Such frames of reference are better than others because they are more likely to generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action.” (p.58).

Mezirow (2000) identified four conditions for transformation:  “the presence of the other, reflective discourse, a mentoring community, and opportunities for committed action” (p.112). The presence of the other provides a contrast through which one compares his or her beliefs, thoughts and ideas.  Reflective discourse is “the process in which we actively dialogue with others to better understand the meaning of an experience” (p.114).  A mentoring community refers to the social learning aspects of transformation and opportunities for committed action refers to the ability of the individual to act upon the “evolving commitments” (p.117).

According to Kegan (1994), when people develop the ability to reflect upon something they were previously unaware of or took for granted and make conscious decisions about it, they have the opportunity to become transformed.  Kegan distinguishes between informational learning or new knowledge added in a form that currently exists in our minds and transformational learning, knowledge that actually changes our perceptions and interpretations of the world. Transformative learning occurs when someone changes “not just the way he behaves, not just the way he feels, but the way he knows—not just what he knows but the way he knows” (p.17).  Kegan believes transformation can take place when someone moves from Subject to Object.

According to Kegan, things that are Subject to us are a part of our selves. They are beliefs that form the frameworks and lenses through which we see the world.  We are often unaware of them. We take them for granted.  We assume they are true.  “We don’t have things that are Subject; things that are Subject have us” (Fitzgerald and Berger, 2002, p.30).  Things that are Object “can be seen and considered, questioned, shaped and acted on” (Fitzgerald and Berger, 2002, p.30).  Object isn’t how we see, it is what we see. Therefore, it can be analyzed, evaluated, retained or discarded.  Our worldview becomes more complex as we move from Subject to Object. We are more aware, more conscious and can be more responsible.  Indeed, one of the great ongoing developmental tasks of life is the moving from Subject to Object.

Transformations frequently follow the following phases, according to Mezirow (2000),   (p.22):

  • A disorienting dilemma
  • Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • A critical assessment of assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships, and actions
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional trying of new roles
  • Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.

The most significant transformations occur when we are able to analyze our own frameworks.  Exploring and challenging one’s own assumption about one’s self, society and one’s reality can often lead to a transformation (Mezirow, 1996).  Self-awareness is a critical component of this framework analysis.  We cannot analyze until we know. Knowledge is essential.

Cranton (2006) discusses three kinds of knowledge; technical, communicative and emancipatory. Technical knowledge is about cause and effect.  Acquiring it does not often lead to a transformative experience.  In the technical knowledge domain the coach or educator often performs the role of subject matter expert.  Communicative knowledge is “concerned with how we see ourselves and the social world that shapes us” (p.106).  The facilitator of communicative knowledge is in a co-development relationship with the learner.  Emancipatory knowledge is created when people “critically question their habits of mind in order to become open to alternatives” (p.106).  Emancipatory knowledge frees the learner from constraints, leads to awareness, reflection and development. The coach or educator working with students of emancipatory knowledge acts as a provocateur. The coach helps the learner become aware of limiting beliefs and to address discrepancies between their expressed values and their behaviors (Cranton, 2006).  From the social learning perspective of theorists like Albert Bandura and Julian Rotter, transformational learning requires an experience, and a critical reflection upon that experience followed by a developmental opportunity (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007). Certainly coaches can be instrumental facilitators of this experience.

Coaching and transformational learning

            Coaching’s links to counseling and psychology have been well documented.  Indeed, much of the profession’s body of knowledge, techniques and competencies are rooted in psychotherapy.  Some variation of many of the ICF’s Core Competencies highlighted above can be found among the skills utilized by counselors, social workers, psychologists and other professionals working in psychotherapy and individual change.  More recently, many have highlighted the coaching profession’s ties to adult learning, more specifically, transformational or transformative learning (Brookfield, 1998; Elkins, 2003; Gray, 2006; Griffiths, 2005).

Griffiths (2005) suggests combining coaching and transformative learning to create a new, synthesized model for growth.  Facilitated through traditional coaching processes like “active listening, powerful questioning, problem solving, self-regulation and observation” (p.62), the student/coachees’ readiness would determine their development plan and goals.  Organizational transformation might be facilitated by creating competency models including such transformational learning theory components like critical, objective and reflective thinking, collaboration and consensus building about individual reflections into leadership development and individualized coaching plans. (Elkins, 2003).

Brown and Posner (2001) connect learning to leading.  They suggest transformational learning theory can be used to “assess, strengthen, and create leadership development programs that develop transformational leaders” (p. 279).  They suggest learning to apply adult learning principles and fostering transformative learning is one of the attributes of an evolved leader. Daloz (1999) and others support this idea suggesting that mentoring becomes a responsibility of leadership.

Helping clients become better at reflective thinking is one of the most important aspects of the coach’s role.  Summarizing, integrating, reframing are communication skills considered important skills, according to the ICF.  Coaches need to be critically reflective in order to help clients create awareness that can lead to transformation (Brookfield, 1998).  Indeed, according to Mezirow (1998), transformative learning cannot occur without critical reflection. Ducharme (2004, Peltier, 2001, Sherin & Caiger, 2004) and others reinforce the importance of reflective thinking through advocating a cognitive-behavioral approach to executive coaching.  In cognitive-behavioral therapies like Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Therapy, the therapist focuses upon helping the client create awareness then encourage the client to evaluate and possibly reconsider the emotions the client associates with their life circumstances (Merriam, Caffarella & Baumgartner, 2007).

Gray (2006) makes a strong argument that coaches serve as educators.  He compares Mezirow’s comments about the educator’s role to that of a coach:

“Education [coaching] for competence involves cultivating the learner’s [coachee’s] ability to negotiate meanings and purposes instead of passively accepting the social realities defined by others” (p.489).

Coaches facilitate reflective action by “helping their clients overcome situational, knowledge or emotional constraints (p.489).  Emotional constraints are often presented in the schemes or frameworks through which we view our lives and the world. These frames of reference determine, to a great extent, form our worldview.  Cranton (2006) defined these points of view as “clusters of meaning schemes”.  They are habitual, rules for interpreting experiences.  They often impede our ability to see things objectively.  Sometimes referred to as “habits of mind” these predispositions or interpretations are components of these frameworks.  Much of the work of the executive coach is designed to help the client identify and deconstruct these schemes.

Gray (Gray, 2006) suggested the term Meaning Structures to define these frameworks.  Meaning Structures provide rules for interpreting.  He broke Meaning Structures into two components, Meaning Perspectives and Meaning Schemes.  Meaning Perspectives form sociolinguistic, psychological or epistemic “codes”.  Meaning Schemes are defined by concepts, beliefs, judgments and feelings.

A personal reflection is a critique of our assumptions.  Teaching clients how to engage in behavioral self-monitoring through awareness created by self-reflection is an important task of executive coaching (Stober & Grant, 2006).  Reflections might be about content, process or premise.  Reflection is often triggered when life hands us contradictions to meaning structures.  According to Mezirow (1994), reflection occurs during problem solving.  In order to break down the barriers to self-awareness these frameworks create, the coach or educator might lead the client through a process of critical reflection.  Mezirow (1994) identified phases of a critical reflection process. These are:  Epistemic, Sociolinguistic, Psychological, Moral ethical, Philosophical, Aesthetic.  Distortions in meaning can occur in these stages.  The role of the coach/educator may be to help the client/learner become aware of these distortions.

Typically, the coach/educator will help the client develop a learning plan.
Effective development plans should include some basic elements, according to (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011). These are the content of the problems or challenge, the process of the problem solving and an underlying premise. Ideally, the coach/educator and the client/learner will collaboratively construct a development plan which identifies a process which attempts to mitigate the client’s deficiencies against competencies.  Competencies are requisite abilities or qualities important to creating successful goal attainment.

Cognitive, humanistic and adult education theorists suggest the individual is the most important component when building competencies. Individual may not know what competencies he or she needs.  The role of the coach/educator is to expose the learner to role models.  The elegance of the competency model isn’t critical, according to Knowles, et al. What is important is the learners understanding of how acquisition of specific skills and abilities will improve their lives. This helps put the learning experiences into context.  “It (personal competency model) converts course-takers and seminar participants into competency developers.” (Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2011, p. 124).

Coaching is said to work because it facilitates action learning (Whitworth, Kimsey-House & Sandahl, 1998). “Clients take action and learn, which leads to more action based upon what they learned, which leads to more learning, etc.”(p.79). Sustained over time, action learning through coaching leads to transformational change.  Along with collaborative inquiry, Mezirow (2000) supports action learning as method to support transformational learning.

Many executives enter coaching to address a specific challenge or need. They’ve been promoted and feel ill-equipped for their new role or their progress is being impeded by a lack of skill or behaviors deemed inappropriate by their organization.  In these instances, it is common for both client and coach to view the coaching work as task-oriented and situational.  Major theorists and the research suggest more meaningful and enduring change might be achieved by approaching the work as a transformational learning opportunity rather than a routine, linear coaching assignment.

References

Bacon, T. & Spear, K. (2003). Adaptive coaching:  The art and practice of client-centered approach to performance improvement.  Mountain View, CA: Davis-Black Publishing.

Brookfield, S. (2005).  The Power of Critical Theory: Liberating adult learning and Development.  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. (1998). Critically reflective practice.  Journal of Continuing Education.  18:4:197-205

Brown, L. & Posner, B. (2001).  Exploring the relationship between learning and leadership.  Leadership and Organization Development Journal.  22:6:274-280.

Cranton, P. (2006). Understanding and promoting transformative learning: A guide for educators and adults.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Daloz, L. (1999). Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners. San Francisco, CA:  John Wiley and Sons.

Ducharme, M. (2004). The cognitive-behavioral approach to executive coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal:  Practice and Research.  Fall.

Elkins, S. (2003).  Transformational learning and in leadership and management positions. Human Resource Development Quarterly. 14:3:351-358.

Ennis, S., Stern, L., Yahanda, N., Vitti, M., Otto, J., Hodgetts, W., et al. (2003). The executive coaching handbook.  Wellesley, MA: The Executive Coaching Forum. Retrieved from http://www.executivecoachingforum.com

Fitzgerald, C. & Berger, J. (Eds.) (2002) Executive coaching:  Practices and perspectives. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

Gray, D. (2006).  Executive coaching: Towards a dynamic alliance of psychotherapy and transformative learning processes.  Management Learning. 37:4:475-497.

Griffiths, K. (2005).  Personal coaching: A model for effective learning.  Journal of Learning Design. 1:2:55-65.

International Coach Federation, Core competencies (2012). Retrieved from http://www.coachfederation.org/icfcredentials/core-competencies/

Jarvis, P., Holford, J. & Griffin, C. (1998).  The theory and practice of learning. London, UK:  Kogan Page.

Judge, W. & Cowell, J. (1997). The brave new world of executive coaching. Business Horizons.  4:40:71-78.

Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads:  the mental demands of modern life.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Kilberg, R. (1996). Toward a conceptual understanding and definition of executive coaching.  Consulting Psychology Journal:  Practice and Research. 48:2:134-144.

Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (2011).  The adult learner:  The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development.  Oxford, UK:  Elsevier.

Merriam, S., Caffarella, R. & Baumgartner, L. (2007).  Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (1994).  Understanding transformation theory.  Adult Education Quarterly.  44:4:222-223.

Mezirow, J. (1996). Contemporary paradigms of learning.  Adult Education Quarterly.  46:3:158-173.

Mezirow, J. (1998).  On critical reflection.  Adult Education Quarterly. 48:3:185-198.

Mezirow, J. (Ed.) (2000). Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mezirow, J. (2003).  Transformative learning as discourse.  Journal of Transformative Education.  1:1:58-63.

Peltier, B. (2001).  The psychology of executive coaching: Theory and application.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Sherin, J. & Caiger, L. (2004). Rational-emotive therapy:  A behavioral change model for executive coaching?  Consulting Psychology Journal:  Practice and Research.  56:4:225-233.

Stern, L. (2004).  Executive coaching:  A working definition.  Consulting Psychology Journal:  Practice and Research.  56:3:154-162.

Stober, D. & Grant, A. (2006). Evidence based coaching handbook: Putting best practices to work for your clients. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Whitworth, L, Kimsey-House, H. & Sandahl, P. (1998).  Co-active coaching:  New skills for coaching people toward success in work and life. Mountain View, CA:  Davies-Black Publishing

Witherspoon, R. & White, R. (1996). Executive coaching: A Continuum of roles.  Consulting Psychology Journal:  Practice and Research.  Spring.

How do people “make sense” of things in organizations?

            The formation of the concept of organizational sensemaking is attributed to Karl Weick, an American psychologist (Hatch, p.44).  According to Choo (1996), “The central concern of sensemaking is understanding how people in organizations construct meaning and reality, and then exploring how that enacted reality provides a context for organizational action, including decision making and knowledge building” (p.337).  Organizational sensemaking is set in motion, when members encounter events or circumstances that appear to contradict what they believe they already know.  This “ecological change” forces members to try to understand the differences (Choo, 1996, p.333).  It is how circumstances are categorized and converted into explicit language. It is how knowledge is converted from tacit to explicit.  It is an ongoing process that is “instrumental, subtle, swift, social and easily taken for granted” (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 409).  Wright, Manning, Farmer & Gilbreath (2000) introduce the term “resourceful sensemaking” which they define as “the ability to appreciate the perspectives of others and use this understanding to enact horizon-expanding discourse”.  They believe the individual’s past experiences as well as their current standpoint is important to resourceful sensemaking (p. 823).

            Sensemaking theory suggests the real organization exists primarily in the minds of its members.  Organization sensemaking is not just an amalgam of individual cognitions but something more and different.  Sensemaking is a complex and dynamic process where members shape and are shaped by events (Weber & Manning, pp. 238-239).  It is how members deal with ambiguity.  The members create cognitive maps or schema of their experiences through which they construct or “make sense” of the organization.  These schemas have several functions.  They provide a structure to map experience, they direct information storage and retrieval, they impact efficiency and speed of information processing, they help to fill in information gaps, they provide problem solving templates and they facilitate planning for the future (Harris, p. 310).  Schema guided sensemaking can occur consciously or unconsciously and this internal dialogue impacts individual image and decision making (Harris, p. 315). 

             Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld, assigned the following characteristics to sensemaking in organizations:

            “Sensemaking Organizes Flux-organizes chaos

            Sensemaking Starts with Noticing and Bracketing-classifies

            Sensemaking Is About Labeling-defines

            Sensemaking Is Retrospective-compares to experience

            Sensemaking Is About Presumption-tests intuition

            Sensemaking Is Social and Systemic-beyond the individual

            Sensemaking Is About Action-evolves through action

            Sensemaking Is About Organizing Through Communication-tacit knowledge is   made explicit through dialogue” (pp. 411-413).

             In organizations, sensemaking evolves through action.  As members take actions, they learn and make meaning.  The number of plausible options often gets reduced.  Because sensemaking is an evolutionary process, it is less about accuracy than it is plausibility (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 415)

            It is generally agreed among the leading theorists that organizational sensemaking follows a connected sequence of stages.  Choo (1996, pp.333-334) indentified these stages as:

            Enactment-bracketing, labeling and rearranging, generate data

            Selection-choose meanings, create schema

            Retention-store successful sensemaking for the future

            Some sensemaking is belief-driven.  That is, members start with beliefs then seek out information to support those beliefs.  Other sensemaking is action-driven. Here, members start with actions and grow structures around them thereby creating meaning to justify or explain their actions.  Once the environment has been enacted, selections made and retained the organization is now faced with the “what now?” question or what Weick called, a consequential moment (Choo, 1996, p. 337).

            Power and emotion are two areas where more research is needed.  Power plays into sensemaking in that those in positions of power may disproportionately impact the sensemaking process.  According to Weick, Sutcliffe and Obstfeld the seven dimensions of sensemaking are:  “the social relations that are encouraged and discouraged, the identities that are valued or derogated, the retrospective meanings that are accepted or discredited, the cues that are highlighted or suppressed, the updating that is encouraged or discouraged, the standard of accuracy or plausibility to which conjectures are held and the approval or proactive or reactive action as the preferred mode of coping” (p. 418).  Members have emotional experiences when the sensemaking process is interrupted or resumed.  Their expectations impact the emotional reactions they will have to these events (Weick, Sutcliffe & Obstfeld, p. 419).

            According to Choo (1996), three types of knowledge exist in organizations—tacit, explicit and cultural.  Tacit knowledge resides in the experience and expertise of individuals.  Explicit knowledge is found in artifacts and it is defined in terms of rules and routines.  Explicit knowledge can be articulated.  Cultural knowledge is found in the “assumptions, beliefs and values” of the organization.  Choo believes new knowledge and capabilities comes from the mingling of these three (pp. 334-335).

            Choo (1996) believes there are four knowledge conversion modes: 

            Socialization-tacit knowledge is obtained through shared experience

            Externalization-converting tacit knowledge into explicit concepts

            Combination-creating explicit knowledge through combination

            Internalization-“embodying” explicit knowledge (p. 335-336)

            If one considers organizations as “decision-making systems” then an organization, like an individual is limited by the concept of “bounded rationality”.  It cannot have all of the information about decision choices before making them.  It’s not possible in reality.  Therefore, like the individual, the organization is limited by “the mental skills, habits, and reflexes; by the extent of knowledge and information possesses; and by values or conceptions of purpose which may diverge from organizational goals”, as stated by Simon. 

            In order to protect itself, the organization establishes decision premises to guide its members.  These premises set up two decision making conditions.  First, members seek to satisfy, not exceed expectations.  Second, members seek to simplify in order to avoid uncertainty and reduce complexity (Choo, 1996, p. 331). One of the purposes of organization sensemaking is to reduce equivocality of information (Choo, 2002).

            Although often considered distinct processes, the information use areas of sensemaking, knowledge building and decision-making are highly interconnected.  Perhaps best thought of as concentric circles with sensemaking the outermost circle, then knowledge building then decision-making the three processes leading to organizational action are analogous to information interpretation, information conversion and information processing as shown below (Choo, 1996, p. 339).

  • Sensemaking—Information Interpretation
  • Knowledge Creation—Information Conversion
  • Decision Making—Information Processing

Choo characterizes an organization effectively integrating these processes as a “knowing organization” (1996, p.339).  In these organizations, there are continuous reiterative cycles of sensemaking, knowledge creation and decision making.  Certainly more research on the interplay of these processes would be of great value.

            Isabella (1990) identified stages of sensemaking taking place during organizational change.  These are anticipation, confirmation, culmination and aftermath.  With anticipation, managers may consider a plethora of information from rumor to bits and pieces of factual and non-factual information.  Confirmation is an interpretational stage following anticipation.  Here, events are put into a framework or schema and standardized.  It’s what Isabella calls “reasoning by analogy”.  Culmination follows confirmation.  Here, organizations members adjust their interpretations of an event. Isabella’s final stage is aftermathAftermath is a post-mortem analysis or an evaluation.  (pp. 16-26)  Weber and Manning (2001) assert the processes proposed by Isabella are circular rather than linear as she suggests (p. 240).

            Meindl, Stubbart & Porac (1994) suggested there are many important questions for those conducting research in organizational cognition. 

  • What is an appropriate construct system for describing managerial and organizational cognition?  While there is general agreement schemas play an important role in the sensemaking process, there is not much agreement about how to use and interpret them (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 290).
  • What is an appropriate way to treat level-of-analysis issues in cognitive research?  Should research be conducted at the individual, group, organization or industry level? (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 290), (Walsh, p. 280).
  • What is the relationship between cognitive structure and cognitive process?  Most of the research has looked at either the process (individual/collective) or structure (schema, etc.) of thought. Very few have looked at both. (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 291)
  • What is the relationship between managerial cognition and organizational outcomes?  There has been pressure to link research on organization cognition to outcomes.  Unfortunately, the measures are difficult at best.  (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 292)
  • What role do “cognitive aids” have in shaping managerial and organizational cognition?  Not enough attention has been given to collective problem formulation and solution development (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p. 292).

            Substantial research exists about sensemaking and innovation. Dougherty, et al (2000) suggests innovative and non-innovative organizations have qualitatively different sensemaking systems.  Innovative organizations link knowledge to solve customer problems.  Non-innovative organizations link knowledge to solve functional operational problems which do not necessarily directly address customer concerns.  Innovative organizations differ from non-innovative organizations in how they manage tension.  Innovative organizations purposefully contrast new technologies and insights with established ones at the product, business and strategic level in order to create new knowledge.  Non-innovative organizations use tension to “confirm, verify and exploit existing knowledge”.  It’s more about doing what they do better than doing something new or different (pp. 342-344).

            Weber and Manning (2001) suggest cognitive maps may help further understanding of sensemaking in organizations by explaining how hierarchy and culture impact the process.  Their study indicated one’s position in the organizational hierarchy, and access to information, were significant factors in sensemaking during organizational change.  They advocate a broad distribution of information as a means to address those differences (p. 243). 

            Research suggests information technology can be designed to better support the sensemaking processes in organizations.  In their article, Boland, Tenkasi & Te’eni (1994), argue information technology has not addressed the distributed cognition phenomenon of sensemaking.  They believe distributed cognition should be viewed as a hermeneutic inquiry and technology should be designed to support that process.  Information technology should “support distributed cognition by enabling individuals to make rich representations of their understanding, reflect upon those representations, engage in dialogue about them with others, and use them to inform action. The authors suggest six design principles for distributed cognition.  They are:

  1. Ownership-an interpretation belongs to an individual
  2. 2.    Easy Travel-an interpretation should be easily linked to another
  3. 3.    Multiplicity-individuals should make their own interpretations and participate in critique
  4. Indeterminacy-interpretations are not necessarily complete or precise
  5. Emergence-new concepts emerge during interpretation
  6. Mixed Form-members should be able to represent their interpretations in mixed form.  They should not be limited to written communication.

                                                                                                            (pp. 456-457)

                A substantial amount of research has been conducted around individual cognition.  However, much work is needed in the area of organizational thought processes.  Weick speaks of the “collective mind” in organizations.  According to Weick and Roberts (1993), “collective mind is conceptualized as a pattern of heedful interrelations of actions in a social system”.  The mind, says Weick, “is an integration of feeling, thinking and willing”.  An organizational mind evolves from social processes.  Weick says, “People act heedfully when they act more or less carefully, critically, consistently, purposefully, attentively, studiously, vigilantly, conscientiously, pertinaciously” (p. 361).  When organizations practice “mindfulness”, they seem to be more effective (p. 357).

            Wright, Manning, Farmer and Gilbreath (2000) suggest the sensemaking practices “shape and are shaped” by events and the “lifeworld”.  Events are occurrences which trigger a need to interpret.  The “lifeworld” is the background against which these events are evaluated.  It is the “routines, interactions, values and skills which are essential to the conduct of everyday affairs (pp. 818-819)

           Isabella (1990) suggests one of the implications of the organizational sensemaking research is that organizational change professionals and leaders might begin to think differently about change resistance. Rather than something to be mitigated, it may be better construed as a necessary part of the organization’s learning process.  Additionally, her research indicates manager’s roles may vary according to the stage of cognition (p.33). 

           Walsh (1995) identified several areas for a future research agenda.  In the area of representation, he suggests researchers need to reconsider the value of descriptive studies of knowledge structure.  He believes a better understanding of the relationship between knowledge structures and the environments they represent is needed.  Walsh suggests the study of content and structure should be combined.  He believes researchers should look at organization cognition as something other than an aggregation of individual minds (pp. 303-308). 

           In the area of use, he suggests many researchers may be guilty of “The Fallacy of the Wrong Level” when investigating supra-individual knowledge structures.  Walsh thinks more research is warranted in the area of knowledge structure use.  As he states, “research suggests we can be mindful, mindless or ‘out of our minds’.  We need to know more about “out of our mind” behavior.  We need to know more about how knowledge structures are linked to managing organizations (pp. 303-308).

           Development is another area where more research is needed.  Since there is so much evidence of the dynamic nature of organization knowledge structures, we need a better understanding of information processing.  Additionally, we need more information about the “costs and benefits of forgetting”, according to Walsh.  And finally, more research about the “social and emotional bases of change” is needed (pp. 306-308).

           There are significant methodological challenges for researchers in this domain.  The subject matter is inherently difficult to classify and measure.  It is even difficult for researchers to be certain they are measuring their subject’s processes and not their own.  Advances in research design are called for.  Longitudinal studies incorporating cognitive mapping, argument mapping and semiotic analysis techniques have promise. (Walsh, pp. 308-311)

           The field of organization sensemaking and cognition is still very broad.  It’s believed future research will focus upon areas of the domain which hold the greatest promise.  The highly-exploited arena of level-of-analysis is likely to fall by the wayside to more promising topics such as interpretive dominance.  Future research will better integrate the study of both process and content and the most important studies will link cognition, behavior and organization outcomes.  And finally, information systems will play a more important role in facilitating, managing and measuring sensemaking and other organizational cognition processes (Meindl, Stubbart & Porac, p.293).

References

Boland, R., Tenkasi, R. & Dov Te’eni. (1994).  Designing Information Technology to Support Distributed Cognition.  Organization Science, Vol. 5, No. 3, August, pp.456-475.

Choo, C.W. & Bontis, N. (Ed.) (2002).  Sensemaking, Knowledge Creation, and Decision Making:  Organizational knowing as emergent strategy.  Strategic Management of Intellectual Capital and Organizational Knowledge.  New York:  Oxford University Press.

Choo, C.W. (1996).  The Knowing Organization:  How organizations use information to construct meaning, create knowledge and make decisions.  International Journal of Information Management, Vol. 16, No. 5, pp. 329-340.

Dougherty, D., Borrelli, L., Muni, K. & O’Sullivan, A.  (2000).  Systems of organization sensemaking for sustained product innovation.  Journal of Engineering and Technology Management.  Vol. 17, pp. 321-355.

Dougherty, D. (1992).  Interpretive Barriers to Successful Product Innovation in Large Firms. Organization Science, Vol. 3, No. 2, May, pp-179-202.

Fiol, M. & Lyles, M. (1985) Organizational Learning.  The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, October, pp. 803-813.

Harris, S.G. (1994).  Organization Culture and Individual Sensemaking:  A schema-based perspective.  Organization Science, Vol. 5, No. 3, August, pp. 309-321.

Hatch, M., (2006).  Organization Theory.  New York: Oxford Press.

Isabella, L. (1990).  Evolving Interpretations as a Change Unfolds:  How managers construe key organization events.  Academy of Management Journal.  Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 7-41.

Manning, M.R. & Weber, P.S. (2001).  Cause Maps, Sensemaking, and Planned Organizational Change.  The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 37, pp. 227-251.

Meindl, J., Stubbart, C., & Porac, J. F. (1994).  Cognition within and between Organizations:  Five Key Questions.  Organization Science, Vol. 5, No. 3, August, pp. 289-293.

Thomas, J., Clark, S., & Gioia, D. A. (1993).  Strategic Sensemaking and Organizational Performance:  Linkages among Scanning, Interpretation, Action and Outcomes.  Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, April, pp-239-270.

Walsh, J. (1995).  Managerial and Organizational Cognition:  Notes from a trip down memory lane.  Organization Science, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 280-321.

Weick, K. & Sutcliffe, K. (2005) Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking.   Organization Science, Vol. 16, No. 4, July-August, pp. 409-421.

Weick, K. & Roberts, K. (1993).  Collective Mind in Organizations:  Heedful interrelating on flight decks.  Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 3, September, pp.358-381.

Wright, C.R., Manning, M.R. (2004).  Resourceful  Sensemaking in an Administrative Group.  Journal of Management Studies, 41: 4, June, pp. 623-643.

Wright, C.R., Manning, M.R., Farmer, B. & Gilbreath, B. (2000).  Resourceful Sensemaking in Product Development Teams.  Organization Studies.  21: 807, pp. 808-825.

Spirited Leadership

In today’s challenging economic environment leaders need to have exceptional behavior and communication skills to deal with this challenge:

·  27% of employees are actively engaged in their jobs.  (They are fired up and full of spirit).

·  54% of employees are not engaged in their jobs – (they are switched off- they have lost their competitive business spirit).

·  19% are actively disengaged – (they are tuned out) 

Different times call for different leadership

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Experiential Learning and Neuroscience

The result of recent research in neuroscience is proving insight into how coaching, mentoring and other experiential learning approaches work.  David Rock has done some great work in leading the charge of gathering some of the most important information.

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