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Organizations increasingly recognise the learning and development in order to stay competitive they must utilize and develop the knowledge of their workers as fully as possible. Human resource (HR) practitioners play an important role in ensuring that the organization develops in a way which facilitates the learning. They need to understand the learning process in the provision of learning activities to ensure that this happens. Learning theories related to how people learn and each theory relates to different aspects of the learning process. There are two major learning theories, behaviourist and cognitive. Behaviourist theories emphasize on learning as a straight forward process of response to stimuli. Cognitive theories focus on trying to map and explore the internal mental processes underlying human learning, such as perception, problem solving etc.
This assignment will argue that both cognitive theories and behaviourist theories of learning are of use to the HR practitioner but depending on the situations, one may be of more value than the other because they have their specific advantages and limitations. Thus, HR practitioner should consider the appropriate learning theories to fit into the different circumstances when facilitating the learning activities.
This paper is divided into four parts. The first part will briefly define what employee development is and the role of HR practitioner in such area. The second sections of this assignment will highlight what is meant by the term learning, the explanation of behaviourist theories and cognitive theories, and the main differences of both theories. The third section of this assignment will examine these two learning theories and demonstrate why cognitive theories and behaviourist theories are of more use to HR practitioner under the three aspects: (1) nature of job; (2) nature of business; (3) culture by using related literature and practical examples. Finally, the assignment will conclude by illustrating to the reader that it is important to understand the learning theories to fit into the different circumstances when facilitating the learning in workplaces.
In today's fast changing business world, organizations increasingly recognize employee development in order to keep ahead of the competition they must develop the knowledge of their employee. People are the most precious resource in an organization and it is extremely important that they work to their optimum level of performance. Employee Development makes an important contribution to this. Reid et al. (2004) deemed that employee development is essentially about making learning happen - any form of learning although usually in the service of some work goals. It seems that learning is the key component for employee development. Recent research into the concept of the workplace as a site for learning has profound implications for Human Resource Development (HRD) professionals and for any one concerned with trying to ensure that organizations develop the most appropriate employee development strategies (CLMS, M1 U1). Thus, workplace learning is one of challenge for HR practitioner.
HR practitioner plays an important role in ensuring that the organization develops in a way which facilitates the learning that organization wants to occur, and that a suitable environment is created in which continuous improvement is actively encouraged (Foot and Hook, 2008). Learning in organizations can occur in many ways, and there are many different approaches to attempting to maximize learning in the workplace. To doing this, human resource practitioners must develop a solid understand of learning theory and be able to devise the tools that enhance individual development. Learning theories relate to how people learn and each theory relates to different aspect of the learning process (Armstrong, 2006). They may give HR practitioners insights into how people learn and how they can help those in organizations to learn for creating high-performing organizations.
Having given a brief description the interrelation of HR practitioners' role and learning, it is necessary to have primary understand what learning is.
The Oxford English Dictionary definition of learning defines it as knowledge acquired by study. This dictionary definition seems to indicate that learning is a process in which people are involved. Bass and Vaughan (1966) defines learning is shown by relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a result of experience or practice. This definition sees learning as being shown by a change in behaviour which has resulted from activities or experience in which the individual has been involved. These two definitions of learning serve as a useful starting point to examine the major theories of learning. The above definitions illustrate two differing approaches to learning. The first one implies that learning is about acquiring knowledge; we refer to this approach as cognitive. The second implies that learning is about changing behaviour, hence we refer to this perspective as behaviourist.
Behaviourist theories grew out of a desire by a number of psychologists, to stress the use of empirical scientific principles, in order to raise the status of this discipline as an area of academic study. The behaviourist approach proposes that learning is the process by which a particular stimulus, repeatedly associated with or conditioned by, desirable or undesirable experiences, comes to evoke a particular response. This conditioning can be of two kinds, classical and operant (Beardwell and Claydon, 2007). Classical conditioning occurs when a stimulus leads automatically to response. Pavlov (1927) demonstrated that dogs could be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell rung before food is presented. Operant conditioning takes place after a desired responses, which is then reinforced, or rewards, to increase the probability of the repetition of the same response when the stimulus recurs. Skinner's (1974) work demonstrated that if the response is followed by a rewarding stimulus, it will also strengthen the response. Individuals can be 'conditioned' to repeat the behaviour by positive reinforcement in the form of feedback and knowledge of results. Besides, Skinner believed that all learning took place in associative manner, and that all complex patterns of behaviour could be broken down into small steps that could be taught one by one into a simple fashion (Foot and Hook, 2008). In behaviourist perspective, it only concentrates on behaviour and make no reference to the cognitive processes and they are more focused with teaching, or facilitating types of learning than learning itself.
Cognitive theories of learning emphasize on trying to map and explore the mental processes underlying human learning, such as perception, problem solving, memory, concept formation, language, reasoning and symbolization (CLMS, M1 U1). Wood et al. (2001) depicts that cognitive theories of learning are achieved by thinking about the perceived relationship between events and individual goals and expectations. Cognitive learning involves gaining knowledge and understanding by absorbing information in the form of principles, concepts and facts, and then internalizing it (Armstrong, 2006). Most definitions of cognitive theories of learning involve a component: internal mental process. It would seem that cognitive approaches to learning and development are much focused on the self-constructed nature of knowledge and learner ownership of the learning process. This learning can be described as proactive. The cognitive school of thought essentially sets out to describe the person as knowing being rather than a simple or complex mechanism (Garavan et al., 1995).
From the preceding paragraphs the clear definitions of behaviourist theories and cognitive theories in learning have been stated. There are different assumptions in the learning and understanding process for both theories. Behaviourist approach can be capsuled as the stimulus, response and reinforcement. It emphasizes that learning is initiated by external stimuli which call forth responses and make no reference to internal thought processes (Martin, 2005). The focus of behaviorists is on the outputs of the learning process. Besides, these theories tend to propose that the learner is relatively passive. Unlike behaviorism, cognitive theories stress that learning is not just a change in behaviour; it is a change in individuals' mental structures that gives them the capacity to demonstrate changes in behaviour (Foot and Hook, 2008). The focus of cognitivists is on the inputs of the learning process. The learner is seen to be active rather than passive.
Having examined the differences of behaviourist theories and cognitive theories, it is found that there is no consensus about learning. Different theories are espoused with vigour (Rogers, 2002). Behaviourist theories and cognitive theories have their specific advantages and limitations. Therefore, the assumptions made by these two learning theories are likely to provide a better fit with some aspects than with others. This in turn demonstrates that cognitive theories in learning are of more use to HR practitioner than behaviourist theories in certain extents whereas behaviourist theories would be much value in other circumstances. HR practitioner should take all the variables into consideration when facilitating the learning and training in workplaces.
It is suggested that there are three aspects that influence the way in which theories benefit to HR practitioner more. There are three aspects (1) nature of job; (2) nature of business; (3) culture.
The nature of work is one of the factors for HR practitioner to consider what learning theories should be used. In the job nature, it can be divided into two main categories: (1) complex and multiple tasks; (2) simple and specific task. In the following section, it will be argued that either cognitive theories or behaviourist theories are more favored to HR practitioner under these two categories.
For the complex and multiple tasks, employees are required to deal with different jobs. It led employees have to exercise their problem solving abilities in the day to day execution of their jobs. In order to develop the employee's problem-solving skills, cognitive theories are more appropriate for learning activities and processes to this job nature. Cognitive approaches stress the active, problem-solving role of the trainee in the learning process (CLMS, M1 U1). In contrast, behaviourist theories explain learning in terms of strictly observable behavior with the learner as a passive recipient of knowledge through stimulus-response interaction with the environment (Armstrong, 2006). It could be noted that these learners are actually predetermined to response in certain ways rather than the development of the learner's intellectual flexibility in the solving of everyday work problems.
In addition, the holistic view on the job is vital for problem solving when performing the complex and multiple tasks. Learners need to develop more holistic units of analysis and accept that internal mental process do play an important part in the learning process (Fincham and Rhodes, 2005). In the cognitive approaches, the individual is accounting for organized wholes, and not disconnected parts of the individual stimuli which proposed by behaviourist theories. The cognitive psychologists, Wertheimer (1880-1943), Kohler (1887-1967), Koffka (1886-1941) and Lewin (1890-1947) proposed looking at the whole rather than its parts, and at patterns and conceptual frameworks instead of isolated events (Ormrod, 1995). It showed that such learners under cognitive approaches would tend to gather all resources necessary for solving a problem, and then put them together in different methods until the problem is solved. In one workplace example, the Human Resource Manager was designed a brief training to the Human Resource Officer (HRO) for a new Human Resources Information System (HRIS), which is composed of different modules and each module is interrelated with others. The training only focused on the individual modules separately rather than the whole. It was observed that the HRO was unable to manipulate the system completely to improve the work effectiveness and always encountered the problem on it whereas she did not have the whole concept of this new HRIS. After the explicit re-training on the whole system was provided, the HRO made a significant improvement on this job.
This evidence highlights that the holistic view proposed by cognitive theories is necessary when dealing with the complex and multiple tasks.
For the simple and specific task, the characteristics is routine and under the general environment rather than dynamic environment. To performing this task, normally employee is required to equip a particular skill without conscious thought and problem solving skills in the workplace. Employee is concerned to improve the efficiency of their semi-skilled and unskilled operatives rather than other aspects of learning. Behaviourist theories underpin training programmes concerned with developing skills through instruction (Martin, 2005). Instead, cognitive theories are much concerned to explore the mental process underlying human learning, such as perception, problem solving, memory and concept formation (Harrison, 2005). Comparing to the cognitive theories, it seems that behaviourist approaches are fit to the simple and specific task as it is more focused on the development of learner's skills. In behaviourist perspective, trainers needed to develop approaches to training that were closely focused on adapting specific aspects of workers' behaviour to ensure the most efficient execution of task (CLMS, M1 U1).
Except the focusing on the development of employee's skills, the improvement on the efficiency of employee's unskilled operatives is vital in the simple and specific task. Malone (2003) stated that one of the key principles of behaviourist theories in learning is repetition and learning efficiency. "Practice make perfect, and practice make permanent" (Malone, 2003: 31). In other words, under the behaviourist approaches, the learning efficiency can be enhanced through repetitive. James Hartley (1998) depicts that frequent practice is necessary for learning to take place and skills are not acquired without frequent practice. For example, the job duty of one office assistant (OAA) in Account department is responsible for document filing. This job is routine and only required to file the account document in sequence of number. Therefore, OAA was received a training, which is focused on the development of her skills by instruction and demonstration rather than other aspect of learning. In contrast, another office assistant (OAS) in Shipping Department performs the same duty as the one in Account department. She received the training which is focused on the self - constructed knowledge rather than skills. Also, her supervisor played a facilitated and support role on her learning only. It was observed that the work efficiency of OAA was significantly higher than OAS as she could directly absorb the skills and employ it into her job accordingly.
In view of the characteristics of a simple and specific task, behaviourist approaches in learning are more adapt to the simple and specific task than cognitive approaches for enhancing the workers' efficiency in the workplace.
Having examined the cognitive approaches and behaviourist approaches under these two different kinds of job nature it is useful to look at the training paradigm that underlies the requirements for the jobs. The assumptions made by cognitive theories are likely to provide a better fit with the complex and multiple tasks. On the other hand, behaviourist theories are more adapt to the simple and specific tasks.
The nature of business is another aspect for HR practitioner to consider which learning theories would be more adapt than the other one. In different kinds of business nature, cognitive theories and behaviourist theories in learning have their own value to HR practitioner. In following section, it will be evaluated the both theories in learning to see which theories are more fit for the business nature of innovative and technological, and industrial production.
For the innovative and technological business nature, organizations are required to create and develop new products based on the customers' needs in order to enhance the competitiveness in the market, such as computer technology company, mobile phone manufacturer etc. These organizations are more concern the development on their employees' thinking, perception, creativity and adaptation to new and dynamic environment rather than other aspects of learning. In view of these conditions, it seems that cognitive theories tend to fit more comfortably with the process of learning in this kind of business nature than behaviourist theories.
According to Leopold (2002), cognitive learning is the mental process that governs the acquisition of knowledge and involves intuition, perception, imagination and reasoning, and concern how people acquire ideas and how perceptions are organized. Since cognition derives from complex interactions of thoughts, emotions, observations and experience, the learning process cannot be dismembered into simple stimulus-responses components as suggested by behaviourists (Chan et al., 2002). In addition, cognitive theories focus on how individual process and interpret information, while acknowledging that human do not always learn by performing a task themselves, and receiving direct reinforcement (Landy and Conte, 2006). In comparing with behaviourist theories, it would appear that cognitive theories in learning are very much concerned with self-constructed nature of knowledge instead of conditioned to make a response passively. Learning is better when the learner is active rather than passive (Hartley, 1998).
The organizational context in innovative and technology business nature is dynamic. These organizations are driven in turn by their dynamic business markets because of the demand for high quality products, great variation in products and intensive competition. It also led to the need for employee's problem solving skills and adaptability. Referring to Jerling (1996), in cognitive perspective, human beings are easily able to adapt to their environment and are also capable of changing it instead of merely react to the environment which is proposed by behaviourist. For example, one of well-known photography company was most famous for its instant film cameras in the 20th century. After that, digital cameras were rapidly gaining popularity at the end of 20th century while the demand of instant film cameras was falling-off significantly. The company also was one of the early manufacturers of digital cameras, yet they failed to capture a large market share in that segment. Finally, the company went into bankruptcy and all the company's asset were sold to another company in the first year of 21st century. Its bankruptcy was widely believed to be the result of the failure of its management to anticipate the effect of digital cameras on its film business.
This example underlines the importance of the adaptability and problem solving skills to the new environment. Hence, in order to strengthen the competitiveness, technological organizations should proactively develop the employees' creativity, perception, problem-solving skills, which are suggested by cognitive theories rather than focus on the learning through stimulus-response interaction with the environment (Martin, 2005).
Another business nature, which is being evaluated in this section, is industrial production. These organizations usually are mass production of standardized products such as umbrella, stationery etc. while their structure generally is mechanistic. The features of this structure are high specialization, centralized decision and downward communication. It is usually found in stable environments as it achieves high levels of production and efficiency through its structural characteristics (Robbins, 2001). Each task in the production process can be isolated, divided into its components parts and reproduce over and over. It is done by sub-dividing activities so that human labour could become as machine like.
In view of the above characteristics, organizations needed to develop approaches to training that were closely stressed on adapting specific aspects of workers' behaviour to ensure the most efficient execution of jobs, thus their ready adoption of behaviourist learning principles. The behaviourist perspective, associated with Skinner, holds that the mind at work cannot be observed, tested, or understood. Therefore behaviourists are concerned with actions as the sites of knowing, teaching, and learning (cited in Hill, 1997). Organizations in industrial production business, managers are mainly focused to improve the efficiency of unskilled operatives, with the emphasis on workers' motor skills instead of other aspect of learning. They could perform the relevant skills without conscious thought after they trained. In this circumstance, the assumption of behaviourist approaches about behaviour modification offered a sufficient solution to management predicament.
It is mentioned that organization can deal with the imparting of basic skills through behaviour modification, which is proposed by behaviour theories. Skinner showed that through the appropriate application of reinforcement an organism's natural behaviour could be guided towards a new desired behaviour (cited in Hills, 1997). In behaviourist perspective, learning is a straightforward process of response to stimuli. The provision of reinforcement is believed to strengthen the response and thus result in changes in behaviour (Foot and Hook, 2008). Hartley (1998) deemed that reinforcement is the cardinal motivator. Positive reinforcement like rewards and successes are generally more effective than negative events like punishments and failures. It seems that one of the keys to effective learning is discovering the best consequence (reinforcement) to shape the behaviour. For example, one new established industrial production company implemented the performance bonus reward system for new employees. If the new workers can acquire the skills and achieve the target for the production, they can get this reward. It was observed that the new workers paid more attention during the training as they would like to absorb the skills as far as they can and apply to the job for achieving the reward. This system succeeded in improving the productivity and the efficiency of learning.
In contrast, cognitivists deemed that the efficiency does not result from outside influence; rather it results from changes in the brain's physiology. Jensen (1998) depicted that learner who succeed usually feel good, and that is reward enough for most of them. However, the workers in industrial production company only perform the relevant skills without any conscious thought. As a result, it seems that the efficiency of learning may not be enhanced in such business nature under the cognitive approaches.
Culture is one of key factors for HR practitioner to consider which learning theories would be more adapt than the other one. To facilitating learning, consideration should be given to cultural dimensions (Filipczak, 1997). Culture is a term applied to a commonly held set of beliefs, value and behaviours. It is of importance in examining the human resource development-related diversities that may exist amongst learners in a multicultural and global business environment (Smith and Smith, 2006). It seems that the culture differences will affect the learning in certain extent. The relationship between the learning process and two different cultures from Western countries and Asian countries will be evaluated as the follows.
In some western countries such as United States, the characteristics of their culture are low power distance (Hofstede, 1980). In such countries, a culture low on power distance, interaction between the trainer and the learner is viewed as a positive characteristic of the learning environment. Learner is more likely to play active role during learning while trainer is treated as supportive role to assist learner how to learn. Cognitivists view the learner as an active participant in the learning process rather than a passive recipient of knowledge through stimulus-response interaction with the environment, which is proposed by behaviourist (Chan et al., 2002). In cognitive approaches, knowledge and understanding of learners can be enriched and internalized by using case studies, group discussion activities, which can encourage learners to get active involvement in learning process. Westerners will tend to learn more efficient by using such approaches. This can be illustrated that cognitive theories in learning provide a better fit in the western culture.
In contrast, some Asian countries such Japan, South Korea, its characteristics of their culture are high power distance and with high uncertainty avoidance (Hofstede, 1980). For instance, in China, a culture high on power distance, learners do not question the trainers and highly respect them. This means that the trainer must actively seek out their participation. In such situation, behaviourist approaches will be made learner more comfort on their learning process. Behaviourists depict learner as a passive recipient of knowledge through stimulus-response interaction with the environment (Chan et al., 2002).
Meanwhile, learner from cultures high in uncertainty avoidance will expect a formal instructional style rather free group discussion basis. For example, large multinational corporations designed a two-day training camp to their employees from different countries in order to develop their creativity, problem solving skills and team building skills through case studies, group discussion activities, etc. It was observed that the employees from Asian countries such as China always kept silence during the group discussion and low responsiveness, whereas the employees from western countries such as Australia were active and high involvement in the whole training.
It is noticeable that cultural differences would affect the individual learning process. To achieving optimum efficiency and result on learning, HR practitioner should take account of this aspect.
In conclusion, this assignment began by briefing the definition of employee development and the role of HR practitioner in such area. It then stated the different definitions of learning, explanation of cognitive theories and behaviourist theories and their main differences. The assignment then focused to illustrate both cognitive theories and behaviourist theories of learning are of use to the HR practitioner but depending on the situations, one may be of more value than the other because they have their specific advantages and limitations.
The evidence that has been put forward in this paper validates that both the behaviourist and cognitive orientations present unique theories for learning. The applied learning, knowing, and development are complicated notions to adopt, and each assumption has specific advantages and limitations. There is no single learning theory will be appropriate to all forms of learning in all circumstances. Behaviourist theories and cognitive theories in learning both endure useful concepts and models for organizations to employ. The assumptions made by these two learning theories are likely to provide a better fit with some circumstances than with others. The locus of both learning theories is also different. Behaviorists stress on the stimuli in external environments, whereas cognitivists have internal cognitive structuring. Thus, HR practitioner should consider the appropriate learning theories to adapt the different circumstances when facilitating the learning activities. If the learning theories are not fit to the different aspects in organization, it may find that the strategy or training program will be ineffective and inept. For example, cognitive theories in learning would be better fit for the training application on multiple tasks, innovative and technological companies, and Western culture. Whereas behaviourist theories would be more benefit to training application on simple and specific tasks, industrial production companies and Asian culture.
Cognitive theories and behaviourist theories enrich our understanding of the learning situations we observe and to help us find solutions to the practical learning problems with which we have to deal. Each is valuable in directing and guiding research and appropriate training methodology in workplaces. Therefore, in certain extent HR practitioner should be familiar with the learning theories to get better understanding on how people learn and how they can help those in organizations to learn for creating high-performing and high productivity organizations.
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