Organizations face the global economic and dynamic business situations that are necessary utilize and develop the knowledge of their employees fully in order to stay competitive. Human resource (HR) practitioner plays 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 attempt to explain how people learn and each theory relates to different aspects of the learning process (Rogers, 2002). There are two major learning theories, behaviourist and cognitive to be evaluated in this assignment. Both theories have their specific orientations which are significant different. Behaviourist theories emphasize ‘associating a new stimulus with a new response’ (Brian, 2002: 89). Cognitive theories focus on ‘trying to map and explore the internal mental processes underlying human learning’, such as perception, memory, problem solving and reasoning (CLMS, M1 U1: 1-20).
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This assignment will argue that both cognitive theories and behaviourist theories in 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 both theories are of more use to HR practitioner but depending on 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 for HR practitioner to understand the learning theories in order to considering the appropriate applications to different circumstances when facilitating the learning in workplaces.
In today’s fast dynamic business world, it seems that organizations have to stay ahead of the competition by developing and enhancing the knowledge and skills of their employees. ‘People are our greatest asset’ (Drucker, 2007: 255). In other words, employees are the most valuable resource in an organization. To make employees work their optimal performance, organizations should value the employee development (Pride et al., 2009). According to Reid et al. (2004), learning is the key element for employee development which is essentially about making learning occur. It is found that recent studies about the workplace learning increase the organizations and HR practitioners’ attention on the importance of employee development strategy (CLMS, M1 U1). Most likely workplace learning is one of challenge for HR practitioners.
HR practitioner plays a crucial role on employee development within an organization. Foot and Hook (2008) related that HR professional is responsible to ensure organization getting forward on the development of workplace learning according to the company’s strategy, and evolve a favourable environment for a positive approach to promote continuous improvement. It is believed that learning can appear in many aspects within an organization. In order to maximize learning in the workplace, HR practitioners are necessary to comprehend the concept of learning theory actively, which can contrive the method for achieving the enhancement of employee development (Sims, 2006). Learning theories pertain to how people learn and how learning occurs (Armstrong, 2006). There are various learning theories advocated by academics. Each theory refers to different way of the learning process, which possibly give HR practitioners certain ideas and concepts for how people learn and what can be done to help employees learn so as to achieving the optimization of their performance (Malone, 2005).
Having given a brief description the interrelation of HR practitioners’ role and learning, it is necessary to have primary understanding on learning. Based on the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary, learning is defined as ‘knowledge acquired by study’ (Soanes and Stevenson, 2006: 845). This dictionary definition seems to indicate that learning is a process of gaining knowledge. This approach can be referred to as cognitive. Bass and Vaughan define ‘learning is shown by relatively permanent change in behaviour that occurs as a result of experience’ (cited in Shajahan, 2004: 30). In this definition, it can reflect that learning is a process by a change in behaviour, which has no reference to acquiring knowledge. This view can be referred to as behaviourist. Such definitions give us a preliminary concept to study some of the major learning theories. In view of the aforementioned two definitions, they demonstrate two different approaches to learning – Behaviourist and Cognitive.
The emergence of behaviourist theories is the study from certain psychologists who mainly focus on using the scientific approach to explain the learning process (MacKenzie, 1977). Beardwell and Claydon contend that in the behaviourist approach, ‘learning is the process by which a particular stimulus (S), repeatedly associated with or conditioned by, desirable or undesirable experiences, comes to evoke a particular response (R)’ and this conditioning can be categorized as ‘classical’ and ‘operant’ (Beardwell and Claydon, 2007: 273). Classical conditioning happens ‘when a stimulus leads automatically to response’ (Beardwell and Claydon, 2007: 273). For example, Pavlov (1927) demonstrated that dogs can learn to salivate by correlating the bell with the food. As for operant conditioning, its concept is to ‘act that are reinforced tend to be repeated’ (Mazur, 2006). Skinner’s (1974) work showed that if the response is followed by a rewarding stimulus, it will also strengthen the response. Learning seems to be enhanced when appropriate stimuli and reinforcement are made. This approach sounds quite practical on motivating employees for recurring the behaviour by positive reinforcement. Besides, Skinner deemed that all learning occurred in ‘associative manner’, and that learners can be easier to acquire the ‘complex patterns of behaviour’ when such behaviour could be split into small parts for learning (Foot and Hook, 2008). On the other hand, Mergel (1998) state that behaviourist learning theories are more focused with teaching method than learning itself. After reviewing the aforementioned definitions, it seems that behaviourist perspective merely concentrates on changing behaviour and makes no mention to the internal mental processes.
Cognitive theories of learning are largely focused on a range of ways with human learning, such as ‘perception’, ‘problem-solving’, ‘memory’, ‘concept formation’, ‘language’, ‘reasoning and symbolization’ (CLMS, M1 U1: 1-20). Wood et al. point out that cognitive theories of learning are ‘achieved by thinking about the perceived relationship between events and individual goals and expectations’ (Wood et al., 2001: 169). The basis of cognitive theories of learning are that people can learn and gain understanding through assimilating information in the form of ‘principles’, ‘concepts and facts’, and then ‘internalizing it’ (Armstrong, 2006: 551). Garavan et al. (1995) indicate that the cognitive approaches of learning fundamentally describe the individual as ‘knowing being’ instead of a ‘simple or complex mechanism’. To sum up these several definitions, it can be seen that cognitive theories of learning involve a common element which is internal mental process and complicated. In addition, it is appeared that learners in this learning process would be proactive to construct knowledge by their own.
From the preceding paragraphs the clear definitions of behaviourist theories and cognitive theories in learning have been stated. It appears that there are significant distinctions on the principle for both theories. The skeleton of behaviourist approaches is the stimulus, response and reinforcement (Pavlov, 1927; Skinner, 1974). In behaviourist’s learning perspective, the responses would be evoked by external stimuli without any internal thought process (Martin, 2005). Unlike behaviorism, cognitive theories stress that learning is a change in humans’ mental structures which gives them the ability to show changes in behaviour instead of a mere change in behaviour (Harmon and Jones, 2005). According to Fook and Hook (2008), behaviorists’ focus is on the outputs of the learning process, whereas the cognitivists mainly concentrate on the inputs of the learning process. Besides, they emphasize that behaviourist theories tend to propose that the learner is relatively passive, by contrast the cognitive learner seems to be more active. It is noticeable that the focus of behaviourist theories is quite distinct from cognitive learning theories.
Having examined the differences of behaviourist theories and cognitive theories, it seems that there is no common agreement about learning. It is believed that behaviourist theories and cognitive theories have their specific advantages and limitations. ‘Different theories are espoused with vigour’ (Rogers, 2002: 18). 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 extent whereas behaviourist theories would be much value in other circumstances. HR practitioner should consider this mutability when facilitating the learning and training activities 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 apply their problem solving skills in the daily execution of their jobs. In order to develop the employee’s problem-solving skills, cognitive theories seems to be more appropriate for learning activities and processes to this job nature. Cognitive approaches stress the role of learner in the learning process is active and problem-solving (CLMS, M1 U1). In contrast, behaviourist focuses on ‘observable stimuli’ and the role of learner is passive that merely acquire ‘the knowledge through stimulus-response interaction with the environment’ (Davenport, 2001). It could be noted that such learners do not develop their problem solving skills in the learning process as they only response in certain ways under predetermined basis.
Apart from problem solving skills, it seems that the holistic view on the job is also useful for problem solving when performing the complex and multiple tasks. Since most of such tasks are comprised of different parts which are interactive with each other. Fincham and Rhodes (2005) deemed that learners require considering a whole thing for analysis in the learning process. Ormrod (1995) stated that several cognitive psychologists, Wertheimer (1880-1943), Kohler (1887-1967), Koffka (1886-1941) and Lewin (1890-1947) proposed understanding the whole rather than its parts, and at patterns and conceptual frameworks instead of disconnecting from its parts. In other words, cognitive approach emphasizes the learner is responsible for viewing the entire rather than the disconnected parts of the individual stimuli which proposed by behaviourist theories. It is added that the cognitive perspective that learners would be likely under the settlement of problems in collecting all the required resources or information, after that put it together in different ways to solve the problem. In one of my 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 important when dealing with the complex and multiple tasks.
For the simple and specific task, the characteristics are easy, routine and under the general environment rather than dynamic environment. To perform this task, normally employees are necessary to equip a specific skill without conscious thought and problem solving skill in the workplace. Meanwhile, employees are focused to improve the efficiency of their unskilled operatives rather than other aspects of learning. Martin (2005) depicts that behaviourist orientation underpins training programmes concerned with developing skills through instruction. Instead, cognitive theories are much stressed to ‘the psychological processes of perception, memory, and thinking’ (Harrison, 2005: 79). 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 operative skills.
Except the focusing on the development of employee’s operative skills, the improvement on the efficiency of employee’s unskilled operatives is also vital in the simple and specific task. Malone (2003: 30) stated that ‘repetition’ and ‘learning efficiency’ are the key principles of behaviourist theories in learning. He adds that ‘Practice make perfect, and practice make permanent’ (Malone, 2003: 31). In other words, the learning efficiency can be enhanced through repetitive under the behaviourist perspective. Hartley (1998) depicts that frequent practice can enhance the acquisition of skills and it is necessary for learning to take place. 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 conditioned to make response passively. Also, her supervisor played a facilitated and support role on her learning process 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 essential 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.
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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 may more concern the development on their employees’ thinking, creativity and adaptation to new and dynamic environment rather than other aspects of learning. For this purpose, it seems that cognitive theories tend to fit more comfortably with the process of learning in this kind of business nature than behaviourist theories. In accordance with Leopold (2002) view, the mental process is the dominant component of cognitive learning, which manages the acquisition of knowledge. Likewise, it relates how individual acquire ideas and how they organize perceptions (Leopold, 2002). It could be perceived that the learning process under cognitive approach is the complex interactions of internal mental. Chan et al. (2002) reckon that such learning process cannot be simply broken into simple stimulus-responses components as suggested by behaviourists. In addition, the emphasis of cognitive learning theories is very much on how individual process and interpret knowledge, and contending that learning do not take place when people simply carry out a task themselves, and accepting reinforcement (Landy and Conte, 2006). In comparison with behaviourist theories, it would appear that the manner of learner under cognitive theories orientation is very much active to construct the knowledge and understanding instead of in response to the stimuli passively. ‘Learning is better when the learner is active rather than passive’ (Hartley, 1998: 11).
On the other hand, the organizational context in innovative and technology business nature is dynamic. These organizations are most likely to be driven in turn by their changing business markets owing to 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. In cognitive perspective, human beings are 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 (Jerling, 1996). For example, one of well-known photography company was most famous for its instant film cameras in the 20th century. Since the end of 20th century, digital cameras were rapidly gaining popularity while the demand of instant film cameras dropped significantly. That company was one of the early manufacturers of digital cameras, yet they failed to get a large market share in that area. Finally, the company went into bankruptcy and all the company’s asset were sold to another company in the beginning of 21st century. It was widely believed that the main reason of its bankruptcy is that company’s management failed to anticipate the impact of digital cameras on its film business. This example underlines the importance of the adaptability and problem solving skills to the new environment. Thus, it seems that technological organizations should proactively develop the employees’ creativity, adaptability and problem-solving skills which are suggested by cognitive theories rather than focus on the learning through stimulus-response interaction with the environment so as to improve the competitiveness in current dynamic market.
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 most probably are high specialization, centralized decision and downward communication. Robbins (2001) mentions that this structure is usually found in stable environments since it achieves high levels of production and efficiency through its structural characteristics, which appears that each task in the production process can be separated, divided into its components parts and reproduce continuously. It seems that human workers could be treated as machine like.
In view of the above characteristics, the optimization of operational efficiency would be the focal point of such organizations’ training programs that may mainly stress on accommodating particular aspects of labours’ behaviour. The adoption of behaviourist learning principles would seem to be more appropriate for such business nature. Since the behaviourist perspective believes that the internal mental process ‘cannot be observed, tested, or understood, behaviourists are concerned with actions as the sites of knowing, teaching, and learning’ (Spillane, 2002: 380). It seems that organizations in industrial production business would mainly focus to improve the efficiency of unskilled operatives, with the emphasis on workers’ basic skills instead of other aspect of learning. Employees in such business nature could perform the relevant skills without conscious thought after they trained. Walker (1984) mentioned that organization can deal with the imparting of basic skills through behaviour modification, which is proposed by behaviourist theories. In this circumstance, the assumption of behaviourist approaches about behaviour modification may provide an adequate solution to management predicament for such business nature.
In view of behaviourist learning is a straightforward process of response to stimuli, it is believed that the application of reinforcement can strengthen the response and therefore result in changes in behaviour (Foot and Hook, 2008). ‘Reinforcement is the cardinal motivator’ (Wadhwa, 2005: 14). Skinner demonstrated that learners could be guided towards a new desired behaviour through the appropriate application of reinforcement (cited in Winfield et al., 2004). Singh (2009) holds that positive reinforcement like rewards are more effective than negative one like punishments normally. It implicates finding the suitable reinforcement for shaping the behaviour as one vital element of the effective learning. 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. By implementing this system, the company succeeded in improving the employees’ productivity and the efficiency of learning.
In contrast, cognitivists deemed that the efficiency cannot be impacted by outside; instead it is caused by the changes in mind (Davenport, 2001). Besides, they believe that the reinforcement should be an intrinsic reward such as learners’ satisfaction on learning rather than extrinsic reward, which is proposed by behaviourist (Jensen, 1998). 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 effectively 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 benefit 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 (Gibson et al., 2006). To achieve effective and efficient learning, the diversities among learners must be acknowledged and addressed in the learning design process (Smith and Smith, 2006). It seems that the cultural differences will affect the learning process 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 (Smith and Smith, 2006). Those learners are more likely to play active role during learning while trainer is treated as supportive role to assist learner how to learn. Cognitivists deem that the involvement of learner in the learning process is active rather than passive (Chan et al., 2002). Morgan et al. (1998) represent that knowledge and understanding of learners can be enhanced and internalized by using case studies, group discussion activities, which can encourage learners to get active participation in learning process in accordance with cognitive approaches. 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). It was observed that most learners in China, who is a culture high on power distance, are afraid to question the trainers and highly respect them. This means that the trainer must actively seek out their participation. In such situation, behaviourist approaches could tend to let individuals more comfortable on their learning process since learners would be described as passive receiver for acquiring knowledge (Chan et al., 2002).
Meanwhile, learner from cultures high in uncertainty avoidance is more likely to expect a formal instructional style rather free group discussion basis. One of my practical examples in a large multinational corporation would be stated in this essay. A two-day training camp was designed to the 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 which has been put forward in this paper validates that both the behaviourist and cognitive orientations present unique theories for learning. It seems that the applied learning is not straightforward concept to adopt. Since each assumption has specific advantages and limitations, there is no single learning theory can cover all forms of learning in every circumstances. Behaviourist theories and cognitive theories in learning both are of great value to the organizations (Davenport, 2001). 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. Thus, HR practitioner should consider the appropriate learning theories according to different circumstances when facilitating the learning activities. If HR practitioner fails to do this, it may result that the training strategy or training program will be ineffective and inept. In this assignment, it was demonstrated that 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.
Behaviourist theories and cognitive theories enrich HR practitioners’ understanding of the learning process they observe. Both learning theories also help us find solutions to the practical learning problems that face us within workplace. 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 workplace to learn for achieving the optimization and high productivity.
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