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What is learning and how does learning take place? This essay will address the answer to the aforesaid question by critically evaluating an Induction cum Training program conducted by John Little. Mezirow's instrumental learning and Kolb's learning styles will be discussed to analyse the real life learning that I personally experienced whilst working for the abovementioned retailer. To demonstrate the transfer between theoretical and organizational learning, the understanding gained from the Human Resource Development (HRD) literature will be utilized to provide recommendations on improving the Induction cum Training program to enhance and facilitate adult learning.
John Little is managed by the Robinsons Group, one of Singapore's leading retailers (Robinsons 2009). The departmental store offers a wide range of consumer goods to the general public. Its success is reliant on its commitment to excellent customer service. Staff training in key areas such as product knowledge and presentation is paid particular attention to because, these would reflect on John Little's customer service (Robinsons 2009).
The upcoming critical evaluations of Mezirow's instrumental learning and Kolb's learning styles will aid in analysing the approach used by John Little's management during the induction cum training program for new employees. In my opinion, these two theories implemented together during a learning episode, can provide effective learning for adults.
Mezirow's Instrumental Learning
Instrumental learning happens when one engages in task orientated problem solving as it involves the process of learning to manipulate and control the environment or people i.e., how to do something or how to perform (Delahaye 2005). In instrumental learning, one can reflect on the routine assumptions or content that guided in the problem solving process (O'Neil & Marsick 2007). Therefore, this form of learning allows us to ascertain changes resulting from the learning by measuring behaviours, performance or productivity of employees (Delahaye 2005).
Mezirow (1981) further emphasized that instrumental learning, at all times, involves predictions about observable actions either social or physical, which can prove to be incorrect or correct (Mezirow 1981). Thus, empirical evidence is used in instrumental learning to ensure that the underlying assumptions are correct (O'Neil & Marsick 2007).
Instrumental learning is evident in two spheres of activity, namely; procedural training and empirical research (Delahaye 2005). As noted by Nonaka & Takeuchi (cited in Delahaye 2005), procedural training is the key provider to knowledge generation and as such is essential in any organization as it ensures that knowledge is widely disseminated. Learning through task orientated problem solving and determining the cause and effect relationships are components of empirical research (Delahaye 2005).
The principles of adult learning predominantly shaped the understanding of Mezirow's instrumental learning. A number of researchers have identified these principles to be namely; starting with the known, readiness to learn, part learning, spaced learning, active learning, over-learning, multiple sense learning, feedback, meaningful material and transfer of learning (Delahaye 2005). These principles will be discussed in the forthcoming paragraphs.
Any form of learning episode should start with the basic idea or the learner's current level of knowledge as this aids in learning and in such cases, the learning objective becomes easier to comprehend. Thorndike's Law of Readiness (cited in Delahaye 2005), emphasizes that the learning experience of an individual would be more enriching if the individual is ready to learn.
Part learning and spaced learning are used collectively within the learning context. Part learning stresses that learning materials should be separated into fairly even sized pieces before being presented to the learner. Miller (cited in Delahaye 2005) named this process as 'chunking'. The concept of spaced learning asserts the fact that time intervals should be allowed between the chunks to facilitate learning.
As suggested by Delahaye and Smith (cited in Delahaye 2005), active learning involves the usage of an activity to reinforce the preceding chunk of information. McGehee and Thayer (cited in Delahaye 2005) pointed out that over-learning is essentially the repetition of task or material. This occurs when an individual practices until the material is mastered. The term multi sense learning speaks for itself. Feedback and meaningful material are critical in the learning process.
Learning is transferred to the working situation given the case that the learning and performance situations are similar (Delahaye 2005). For example, transfer of learning occurs when the exact equipment and working materials are utilized during the learning process.
Kolb's Learning Styles
Mezirow's theory focused on the manipulation and control of environment or people. Kolb, on the other hand focused specifically on individuals' learning styles. His theory will be used to complement Mezirow's theory for the purpose of this essay. Kolb's learning styles were developed upon the model of experiential learning (Erdem 2009). The model symbolizes learning in a cyclic structure, 'namely receiving (perception) and transforming (processing) information' (Kolb, cited in Erdem 2009, p. 156). It is believed that the four learning styles consisted of two dimensions. The "feeling" category is related with the concrete experience whereas the "thinking" category is related with the abstract conceptualization of the perceiving dimension (Loo 2004). The "doing" category is related with the active experimentation of the processing dimension whereas the "watching" category is related with the reflective observation dimension (Loo 2004).
As such, the four different styles of learning classified under Kolb's theory are namely; divergers, assimilators, convergers and accommodators. He further suggested that learners may adopt different styles in varying situations as the preferred styles only mirrors a tendency (Kolb, cited in de Jesus, Almeida & Watts 2004). They have a propensity to favour some style of learning over others.
Divergers are skilled in creative imagination as opposed to convergers (Erdem 2009). They prefer multi directional information gathering (Erdem 2009). They are also aware of values, meaning and are interested in people (Delahaye 2005). Assimilators are highly skilled in creating theoretical models that assemble varying observations into one definition (Erdem 2009). They are more concerned with concepts and ideas rather than people (Delahaye 2005).
Convergers emphasise the practical application of ideas and function best in single solution situations (Delahaye 2005). They prefer to deal with technical problems rather than interpersonal and social issues (Erdem 2009). Accommodators are opposites from assimilators. They like to make plans and implement them (Erdem 2009). Furthermore, they seek opportunities, take risks and are action orientated (Delahaye 2005). Therefore, they are perceived to prefer teamwork.
The limitations in Kolb's learning styles must also be discussed to evaluate the weakness in Kolb's theory. Garner (2000) stated that Kolb's theory was often questioned about its validity and reliability and this was due to its poor theoretical foundations. Furthermore, he also mentioned that Tyler's 'possibility processing' (cited in Garner 2000, p. 345) was used as a justification for the constancy of his theory. Tyler's original work which emphasized individual differences was lacking in Kolb's theory as Kolb has categorized learners into groups (Garner 2000). Moreover, confusion and eventually a misunderstanding was created as to whether Kolb is arguing for learning styles that are flexible or inflexible (Garner 2000).
Induction cum Training program at John Little
The aforementioned theories will be applied to a real life experience with the objective of demonstrating the transfer between theoretical and organizational learning. This discussion will focus on the design and implementation stage of the HRD process. Mezirow's instrumental learning will be applied to the design and implementation stage whereas Kolb's learning styles will be focused on the design stage.
According to Delahaye (2005), the design stage in any HRD process is defined such that all aspects of adult learning coalesce when designing the learning experience. He also stated that it is essential for the human resource developer to have skills to employ the appropriate learning strategies in the implementation stage (Delahaye 2005).
As noted, induction and training are two different aspects of an HRD program. John little combined these two aspects into a single session program. This session had employees from different age groups, ranging from teenagers to the middle-aged. The induction session for the new sales associates started off with a brief introduction about John Little. This fundamentally covered the history of the organization, values, policies and mission. Following which, the facilitator went on to talk about work culture, personal presentation, job responsibilities and familiarisation of each department and what was expected of the employees.
Everyone was given a break after which, the training session commenced immediately. The learning materials that were presented to the employees seemed difficult to comprehend, especially so, for the middle-aged employees. It consisted of many pages of procedures, which was written in complex English.
The purpose of John Little's training session was to train and guide the new employees in operating the cash registers and to provide customer service. Training was conducted with the aid of a power point presentation which eventually, ended up being a one way communication as the facilitator didn't attempt to engage the audience. Moreover, while the session was ongoing, the employees were expected to refer to the manual for further clarification without further advice. It was noted that all the employees who were recruited during that period, were undergoing the same training session regardless of their individual job responsibility.
At the end of the day, after the lecture style training session, each employee was allowed fifteen minutes of hands-on session with the cash register. The hands-on session, guided by the facilitator was meant to be an advantage in the training session but as there was only one cash register to work on, each employee had to wait in line for their individual hands-on session.
On the second day, we were introduced to our individual department supervisor and were given a floor tour of our actual working area. Thereafter, we were immediately asked to start work on the spot. Overall, the induction cum training session was conducted over a one and a half day period.
Critical Analysis and Evaluation of Induction cum Training program
The skills and knowledge gained from the induction cum training program should aid John Little in delivering and upholding its current quality of customer service. However, this was not the case as there were glitches in its design and implementation. Thus, the adult learning process was hindered. The forthcoming discussion will further elaborate on the weakness in the design and implementation of this program.
As per Mezirow's instrumental learning, John Little was correct in presenting a brief introduction to the organization. This would have instilled basic knowledge of the organization for the employees. However, John Little did not assess the employee's competence level in tailoring the program. Employees from very different demographics were given the same type of training. This may cause the slow learner to face difficulties in keeping pace with others and thus may hamper their learning process.
If I was the HRD manager, I would have grouped the recruits according to their age group and have had a self introduction cum ice breaker session. This would have eased any uneasiness amongst older employees if they were slow learners. This will also encourage them to ask more questions which will lead them to learn more than if they were grouped with teenagers who nowadays are generally better read and well versed with retail culture. I would have also given handouts in elementary English and more hands-on session as this escalates the understanding process greatly rather than lectures.
As established earlier, the recruits were not introduced to the present staff in their assigned departments. As part of the ice breaker session, I would have introduced the supervisor and all the staffs under the individual departments to the new employees. John Little has various departments with five to six senior employees in each department. The introduction should be done during the induction session to make the employees feel at ease and mix with their future colleagues.
The purpose of induction is to get well acquainted with the work environment, the organization's culture, the people and the processes whilst the purpose of training according to Mathis and Jackson (2007) is to provide employees with specific skills and identifiable knowledge for use in their present jobs and is defined as the process whereby employees acquire capabilities to perform their jobs. Both induction and training should have been conducted separately because both have a different purpose.
I would have conducted the entire program over a three day period. Induction would be done over two days and training would take up one day. It is advisable to conduct the session in parts as this will enable the participants to absorb and retain more information rather than having a concentrated program. In addition, the frequency of breaks during such sessions should be high. It is evident that John Little's human resource developer did not take into consideration the ample availability of resource, which in essence, is time. Everything was packed together and thus the transfer of learning would not have been successful.
The learning material consisted of a thick employee handbook in complex English which may not have been suitable for all recruits. Grasping information would have been much easier if the handbook had been split into its various sections with a more images rather than just plain words. As it has been said, a picture speaks a thousand words. Such visual aids enhance adult learning and it would have enabled the participants to connect more easily with the power-point presentation. And instead of just handbooks, I would have also incorporated worksheets to assess and evaluate the participants understanding of the training. This will enable me to place the recruits in departments best suited for their ability and aptitude.
There was only one cash register available for hands-on session for the entire batch of participants which resulted in everyone barely having fifteen minutes on it. While waiting for their turn, there is a possibility that some of the information could have been forgotten or they may feel neglected. It would have been more productive if a pair of participants had one cash register to themselves for the hands-on session. Furthermore, I would urge every pair to engage in answering each others' queries and getting constructive feedback from the trainer. This kind of active learning will enable them to retain information and liven up the learning process. The constructive feedback on progress of the participants will facilitate them to realize their weaknesses and work on it. Motivational words used by the trainer can encourage participants to perform beyond their job scope which is sorely lacking in today's service industry in Singapore.
Alternatively, to overcome this barrier that hinders the learning process, John Little should conduct specialised training for operation of cash registers. Time dedicated specifically for hands-on training better enables learning to take place as repetition occurs. This should be accompanied by a supervisor who could assist and provide feedback. The importance of feedback in the learning process cannot be emphasized more as it completes the loop in the learning cycle.
All participants were grouped together even though they had different job scopes. An ideal situation would be to group them according to job scope and tailor customized training sessions to meet their learning needs. This will enhance learning as the session would be more meaningful and relevant to them.
Instead of getting employees to start work immediately and independently after a mere one and a half days of induction and training, they should be tasked to understudy an experienced senior employee. Designating a coach or a supervisor in this case, provides a point of reference to new employees should they have any queries or doubts. This again, links back to constructive feedback on the part of the coach. New employees are expected to perform up to expectation on the very first day of work. It is understandable that humans make mistakes especially so, when the training session was not conducted proper. It is also improper of the employee to carry around the handbook until they have mastered a particular skill or task as it would make the feel incapable and unprofessional and will relect badly on John Little. As such, understudying and learning through feedback and active learning is essential in the learning process as it recalls attention.
As mentioned earlier, Kolb has identified four different learning styles of individuals. Each style of learning has to be accommodated for, during the design of the induction and training program. It is important to note that in any group, it is probable that there will be a mixture of learning preferences and this mixture could cover the four learning styles (Delahaye 2005). Since assimilators are able to deal with hefty amounts of information and have the ability in coordinating these information logically the structured technique as mentioned above can be used to benefit them.
The following unstructured learning strategies should be taken into consideration whilst designing the program. Group learning or group exercises should be implemented to further enhance learning by using case studies and scenarios. Since effective handling of customers is essential in customer service and no one human is heterogeneous, scenarios and case studies would utilize creativeness to arrive at an answer. Such exercises would benefit learners who are divergers. Experiential learning in the form of learning instruments, where hands-on learning was conducted with the cash registers would benefit accommodators.
The aforementioned critical evaluation of the HRD literature clearly aided me in analyzing the learning process of an adult. Mezirow's instrumental learning was focused on the control and manipulation of the environment or people whereas Kolb's learning styles was centred on individuals' learning styles. For the purpose of this essay, Kolb's theory was used to complement Mezirow's theory as both theories are essential to the adult learning process.
These theories were applied to John Little's induction cum training program. The weaknesses in the program were identified to be within the design and implementation components. As a learning intervention was applied, I was able to remediate the weakness by suggesting effective learning techniques that were associated with part learning, spaced learning, active learning, feedback, meaning material and transfer of learning. With the known fact that heterogeneous individuals have different learning styles in mind, activities based on Kolb's learning styles were recommended to facilitate learning.
This essay assisted me to apply HRD literature to a real life learning experience and has proved to be beneficial to my-self learning as well.