ISSN 0798 1015
Vol. 38 (Nº 07) Año 2017. Pág. 23
Renato PRZYCZYNSKI 1; Tania Marlene Marques TYBUSCH 2; Alceu de Oliveira LOPES 3; Milena Pizzolotto de Conti MENEGHINE 4
Recibido: 29/08/16 • Aprobado: 21/09/2016
2. Organizational Learning
3. Scope of practice as source of learning
4. Practice-based research
6. Results and discussion
7. Final considerations
This article presents a review of managerial practices and organizational learning in small and medium-sized enterprises under the perspective of informal experience and formal academic knowledge. The qualitative approach was useful to identify stages related to managerial learning. Eighty managers from small and medium-sized companies were interviewed. Forty managers were classified as specialized workers for having completed the Business Administration graduation course and 40 managers were selected for not having a graduation course. The collected data were reduced and submitted to content analysis as proposed by Bardin (1977). Seven learning stages were identified and revealed theoretical subsidies for more effective managerial performance.
Este artigo apresenta uma revisão do tema práticas gerenciais e aprendizagem organizacional em pequenas e médias empresas sob a perspectiva da experiência informal e do conhecimento acadêmico formal. A abordagem qualitativa foi adequada na identificação dos estágios relacionados à aprendizagem gerencial. Oitenta gerentes de pequenas e médias empresas foram entrevistados. Quarenta gerentes foram classificados como funcionários especializados por terem concluído o curso de graduação em Administração de Empresas e quarenta gerentes foram selecionados por não terem obtido qualquer graduação. Os dados coletados foram reduzidos e submetidos à técnica de análise de conteúdo de Bardin (1977). Os sete estágios de aprendizagem identificados revelaram subsídios teóricos para um desempenho gerencial mais eficaz.
Understanding managerial practices and the effects on organizational learning represents an innovative firm capacity and a competitive driving force that has experienced considerable growth since 1990. Such growing interest for the theme has influenced academic publications quite positively (Easterby-Smith, 1997). In 1993, the number of publications exceeded all the publications during the eighties (Crossan and Guatto, 1996). The popularity and expansion of organizational learning have reached organizational studies and have influenced debate over managerial learning and its effects on performance (Contu, Grey and Örtenblad, 2003). In 2015, the vast theoretical field available on managerial practices and organizational learning keeps supporting practical interventions that lead to the growth of individual managerial knowledge and development of shared collective understandings within organizations (Popova-Nowak and Cseh, 2015).
Organizational Learning as a theme of research has suffered over exposition and this may have led to “loss of specificity of its own concept” (Antonello and Godoy, 2011a, p.32), but it has unveiled a new dimension capable of improving research possibilities related to managerial learning and firm’s overall performance. Managerial learning stands out as one of the most prominent research possibilities. The concept of manager, for example, has suffered changes over the years. Peter Drucker proposed the concept of manager as an improved function, from a position connected with hierarchy, supervision and performance to a position whose holder is responsible for the creation and application of knowledge that is useful to integrate people and exploit opportunities.
Despite the studies aimed at investigating managerial learning under different perspectives “one can hardly find studies aimed at investigating small and medium-sized enterprises” (Antonello and Godoy, 2011b, p.586). Small and medium-sized enterprises can be distinguished from large organizations by a number of known peculiarities. Small and medium-sized companies represent 99% of all registered enterprises and 51% of all formal non agricultural jobs in Brazil (Sebrae, 2011). The satisfactory performance level has revealed the importance of the small and medium-sized enterprises in the Brazilian national economy. However, such improvement has not been reported in the literature.
The aim of this study is to identify, from a practice-based perspective, the managers learning stages considering the differences and the similarities among specialized and non-specialized managers in small and medium-sized companies. For the purpose of this study, a specialized manager is the one who has satisfactorily completed the Business Administration graduation course, and a non-specialized manager is the one who has not completed the Business Administration course nor any other graduation course. Investigating the common aspects among specialized and non-specialized managers may allow for the identification of important managerial learning stages despite some theoretical dissonance and contradictions. Thus, investigating common features among managers may offer additional complementary studies beyond social conventional research.
This study is organized in four main sections. Initially, the main theoretical approaches to practice in organizational studies are presented. Next, the methodological aspects are explained. Lastly, empirical results and discussions are presented followed by final considerations and future research.
The field of Organizational Learning originated in the sixties and developed through isolated term research in the eighties. It was only in the nineties, with the development of globalization, that seminal studies were published causing great impact on business management. A bibliographical study by Romme and Dillen (1997) reported that in 1992 more studies were published in the Organizational Learning domain than from 1963 to 1991.
Since the nineties Organizational Learning studies have spread over a large scientific area including Economy, Anthropology and Computing (Easterby-Smith, 1997). Such spreading was responsible for the emergence of different theories but none of them managed to unify the relevant literature about Organizational Learning. Tsang (1997) emphasizes the need to propose a conceptual framework aimed at summarizing the advancements in the field of Organizational Learning.
The theoretical fragmentation can partially explain the complexity of the Organizational Learning phenomenon, considering that organizations are not human beings but part of the most intrinsic elements in any learning process regardless of being individual or organizational (Argyris and Schön, 1996). According to Shrivastava (1983), individual learning is part of the Organizational Learning and its investigating process. In this respect, Hedberg (1981) warns very starkly that Organizational Learning literature has originated mainly from individual learning based on cognitive ability.
However, Gherardi (2005) emphasizes that learning must not be understood as individual, collective or organizational isolated phenomena but as a process into which all these elements are simultaneously taken into account. Being so, the field of organizational practice is understood as a composition of interconnected activities that are constantly changing its patterns.
According to Antonello and Godoy (2011):
Individuals play a crucial role in the Organizational Learning processes considering that organizational conditions may represent driving or limiting forces regarding creativity, information exchange, knowledge exchange and consolidation of new socially constructed learning in the organizational environment. The identification of the individual as the subject of the learning social process forms the basis for the formation and knowledge sharing and for understanding the learning processes in organizations (p. 274).
Additionally, the same authors support the idea that a new way of seeing the managerial learning process may generate valuable insights and this may contribute to a better understanding of the organizational working environment. According to Pozo (2002) managerial learning may occur implicitly, when there is no planned intention of learning something nor a conscious behavior related to what is being learned, or explicitly, as a consequence of a deliberate, conscious and socially organized activity, commonly known as formal education. The explicit learning category comprises knowledge that can be codified, transmitted, and acquired formally through graduation, post-graduation or in-company training courses. The implicit learning category comprises knowledge that is specific, resulting from practical experience, difficult to codify, acquired away from school, and personal in its nature.
This study intends to investigate managers from small and medium-sized enterprises, graduated and non-graduated in Business Administration courses, comparing and contrasting their implicit or explicit learning process.
In order to facilitate the understanding of the Organizational Learning phenomenon, the next section is divided as follows: learning through implicit practical experience and learning through explicit formal academic education. Both learning ways are applied to organizational practice.
Learning through experience, or implicit learning (Pozo, 2002), suggests that there are interactive contacts among individuals and their working environment, whose interactions generate tension and conflicts resulting from past relationships and concrete experiences. Antonello and Godoy (2011) emphasize that every concrete experience involves participation of individuals at a given event, fact observation, reflection over the observation and a permanent revision of the learned concepts. According to the authors, the informal dimension refers to learning through daily practices, horizontal knowledge and non-educational spaces.
By analyzing Dewey´s learning theory of continuous reorganizing and reconstruction of experience about learning as a notion of experience, Elkajer (2003) explains that this theory cannot be considered an opposite approach to the theory of situated learning proposed by Brown and Duguid (1991) and Lave and Wenger (1991). Every dualist separation tends to disappear to be replaced by a unified comprehension in terms of acting and knowing (Elkajaer, 2003).
The experience learning approach considers new knowledge acquisition from inquiries, reflections and possible solutions to problems. The whole process must be analyzed within a defined organizational context, where participants find themselves engaged in continuous reorganizing and reconstructing of experiences. Every time the process occurs within a concrete organizational or social context new competencies are acquired. According to Lave and Wenger (1991), new competencies are acquired from participation in communities of practices, enhancing not only the individual role but the quality of learning in organizational contexts.
Learning from experience is usually uninterested, unintentional, and it frequently occurs at working places while individuals are trying to solve a conflict and the resulting learning is only perceived through the development of ability or through acquisition of a new knowledge after the occurrence of a situation (Antonello and Godoy, 2011).
Formal learning or explicit learning occurs in an organizational environment created for this purpose by following a sequence of contents that are previously programmed and closely mediated by a professional instructor (Eraut, 1998; Pozo, 2002). There seems to be a mutual understanding among different authors about the programmed nature of the formal learning process that emphasizes the presence of an instructor who coordinates activities following either teaching-learning behavioral or cognitive approaches. According to Antonello and Godoy (2011), formal learning is individual, formal and promotes vertical knowledge within educational establishments.
The formal learning process requires embeddedness from different areas of knowledge. Given the interdisciplinary nature formal learning faces initial expectations and new challenges about what is actually being learnt aimed at developing competencies. Another difficulty faced by the participant of this learning modality is sharing the developed competencies with other participants in the organization.
Regardless of being through practical experience or formal academic formation, learning is a phenomenon that occurs in a specific organizational context. If the purpose here is to understand the different processes through which learning occurs, it is necessary to consider the different aspects of the context under study and the nature of the acquired learning.
The term practice is extensive, imprecise and open allowing researchers from other areas and traditions to enter this field without having to refuse previous notions and concepts. Being so, the term practice is considered a concept capable of promoting scientific development (Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks and Yanow, 2009).
Learning through experience and learning through formal academic education are both extensively discussed and contrasted in the literature. However, Antonello and Godoy (2011) warn us that adopting a dominant view is a mistake. The most important aspect is to identify the integration between both ways of learning through the identification of common features.
Interpreting learning difficulties may invariably occur given the classical occupational terminology, a heritage from Taylor’s Scientific Management which offers distinct terms for metaphorical differentiations similar to Rose’s “hand and brain” (Rose, 2007). The following terms are commonly used to describe non specialized work (hand): practical knowledge, physical job, blue-collar worker, and so on. And to illustrate specialized work (brain) Rose (2007) adopts terms like: theoretical knowledge, mental job, white-collar worker, and so on.
Bernstein’s (1971) study revealed that the concept of work had already been proposed by Hegel and Marx by the end of the eighteenth century. For these classical scholars, work must be understood as a practical objective activity posited as a solution for the dualist opposition between idealism and materialism. Learning through practice remained as the main investigation object when Bernstein incorporated Pierce and Dewey’s pragmatic theories, whose philosophical principles consider the integration between the human body and its environment. In addition, Sartre and Taylor were also incorporated and the concept of learning through practice started to be analyzed under the theories of existentialism and analytical philosophy.
Antonello and Godoy (2011) organized the Organizational Learning contributions from national and international literature in five groups (learning curves, behavioral learning, cognitive learning, action learning, and social learning). The five groups were submitted to critical analysis that resulted in four relevant aspects in Organizational Learning research: learning occurs at interpersonal level; learning can be seen as something positive or negative (neutrality); not all learning results in behavioral change; learning is a process. From the different contributions found in the literature and approaches identified in previous studies, it makes sense to imagine that all kinds of learning lead to some change in the organizational environment.
The potential of analyzing the phenomenon of practice as source of useful knowledge capable to generate learning to enterprises has been discussed in the literature through a variety of methods over the years (Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks and Yanow, 2009). The theme was incorporated in the organizational studies in addition to other themes associated with Organizational Learning, Knowledge Management and some sociological and anthropological studies (Schatzki, Knorr and Von Savigny, 2001). The practice-based perspective has been investigated from three levels of analysis: micro level related to what people do; meso level associated with routine activities; and macro level takes institutions into consideration (Boden, 1994).
Historically, the practice-based approaches have been adopted in the literature mainly in organizational studies since Frederick Winslow Taylor. However, after a reduction in the number of studies, the practice-based perspective was taken up under a new terminology named practice turn in the early nineties. From that point on, a great deal of studies came about aimed at investigating organizational practice as source of knowledge and learning for managers (Gherardi, 2009; Eikeland and Nicolini, 2011; Miettinen, Samra-Fredericks and Yanow, 2009; Geiger, 2009). Nevertheless, there is not a unified theoretical field, nor a social theory of practice. The concept and the practice-based perspective have been used in different ways and this has led organizational practice researchers to create new terminologies and to make different associations. The terms Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, for example, are considered inappropriate as knowledge does not exist in minds or in books. Knowledge is not a commodity, not an asset, either. Therefore, this new literary approach is emerging to form a partnership with the practice-based studies, emphasizing knowing and learning in practice (Gherardi, 2005).
The analytical power of the terms knowing and learning in organizational practice-based studies needs continuous enforcement, mainly empirical studies through innovative research instruments that make possible the analysis under new perspectives, an ontology and epistemology that is different from the traditional ones (Chia, 1999). Rose (2007) suggests an interesting perspective to analyze “knowing” at work, the “points of contact” between specialized and non-specialized managers as a different possibility for investigating organizational practice. A point of contact is supposed to occur when theory-based learning meets practice-based learning in a working context.
Traditionally, the expression practice-based research has been influenced by prejudice and distorted views among tasks considered intellectual and ordinary physical jobs. The methodological procedures adopted by this research to analyze specialized and non-specialized managers are described in the next section.
This study intends to analyze the different ways of learning, mainly the identification of differences and similarities of learning between specialized and non-specialized managers from small and medium-sized enterprises. For the purpose of this study a specialized manager is the one who has finished the Business Administration graduation course, and the non-specialized manager is the one who has not finished the Business Administration nor any other graduation course. A small enterprise reaches a gross operating revenue up to U$ 727.000 (2,4 million Brazilian Reais) and medium-sized enterprise from U$ 727.000 to U$ 4.8 million (16 million Brazilian Reais), according to the classification adopted by the BNDES – Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social Brasileiro.
In order to accomplish the aim of this study a qualitative exploratory descriptive approach was adopted. The descriptive approach attempts to observe, describe, classify and interpret the phenomena in order to understand the variables related to managers learning features. The exploratory approach allows the researcher to collect opinions and to look into the managers perceptions related to the contexts into which learning occurs and how it relates to the practice of business management.
Forty (80) managers from small and medium-sized companies from the metropolitan region of the city of Porto Alegre (RS), Brazil, were interviewed. Out of 80 managers, 40 (50%) were classified as specialized workers (i.e. finished the Business Administration graduation course) and the remaining 40 managers (50%) without a graduation course. Semi structured interviews were carried out guided by a list of open questions followed by complementary questions that could fit in the managers reality specificities during the data collection process. Interviewees were asked to describe their formal and informal learning experience. All the forty managers were interviewed in their working places from November 2015 to February 2016. The collected data were reduced and submitted to content analysis (Bardin, 1977) which seemed appropriate for a better understanding of the studied phenomenon. The full interview content was transcribed, analyzed and grouped into categories that emerged in the analysis by agglutination for the divergent opinions. All the interviewees volunteered to take part in the study. For ethical reasons, all the interviews were treated collectively without identification of the participants. The results are presented and discussed in the following section.
The content analysis revealed seven managerial learning stages: beginning of the managerial career, managerial development, decision process, consolidation of managerial competence, search for development, managing people, and professional life prospects. For each category, opinions and perceptions were grouped and analyzed. Such categories are presented and their results are discussed based on the theoretical approaches that have supported this study.
The majority of the interviewees referred to the beginning of their careers as managers as a period filled with sensations of professional insecurity, professional instability and, at the same time, sensations of personal and professional achievement. All the managers had already occupied non managerial positions (technical, operational or administration assistance) in the company where they were assigned the first managerial position.
Professionals formally educated (Business Administration certificate holders) revealed that, at the beginning of their careers, there was skepticism as they did not think the Business Administration course had prepared them for real life situations. They also admitted considerable fear of not coming up to expectations. Although formal education plays an important role, Gherardi (2005) argues that learning is deeply rooted in routine activities and daily experiences, through actions and reflections. Put simply, discussing the actions by thinking over “what” is being done and “why” is being done.
At the beginning of the career, all managers admitted being comfortable with most organizational aspects like culture, internal policies, organizational structure and all the features associated with operational activities. The moment they took up managerial positions represented a landmark in their professional lives. However, the specialized managers did not refer to the new activities and duties as difficulties to overcome but focused only on the effects of the new activities and duties on their personal performance. Among the new activities and duties, special attention was given to self-recognition and to changes in personal behavior like gestures, body posture and language. The parameters they used to understand and interpret daily situations were all reconfigured. Situations, once seen as banal started to have a new meaning. Changes in social relationships were also noticed as contact with peers suffered significant reduction and became rather cold and emotionless.
Antonacopoulou and Gabriel (2001) propose that emotions are reaction systems affected by the way individuals interpret a given situation and such interpretations are based on knowledge, values and existing beliefs. It is possible to infer that interpretations depend on previous knowledge and may differ among analysts. The authors add that learning is a profoundly emotional process, driven, inhibited and guided by distinct emotions including fear and hope, excitement and despair, curiosity and anxiety. Therefore, it seems plausible to accept that there is a dialogic relationship between emotion and learning.
The first three months were emotionally stressful and professionally challenging given the demands of the new managerial position and, as one of the managers described as the “intensively oppressive isolated work”. At this point, it is important to examine Rose’s (2007) view on the manager’s job, specifically on the caution needed to avoid reducing all the managers to an only massive category of workers. Managers tend to find new meanings despite their limitations even in risky circumstances when work threatens human integrity.
Learning how to be a manager “alone”, without the support of a more experienced person was pointed by the managers as a powerful source of anxiety. Both groups, specialized and non-specialized ones, mentioned that it was necessary (not desired) to perform isolated tasks. These isolation moments brought about positive feelings associated with negative sensations that started to be understood as challenges and a source of learning a new ability as well as inspiration and self-confidence for future experiences.
Leite, Godoy and Antonello (2006) explain that the burden of responsibility and anxiety when taking up a managing position reduce and even destroy positive human feelings. Emotion and learning are interrelated, interactive and interdependent phenomena. In spite of the importance for organizational learning, emotion and learning are usually neglected by many organizations and understudied in the literature (Antonacopoulou and Gabriel, 2001).
A common feature in both specialized and non-specialized managers was the prioritization of activities related to established-expected goals. Few managers mentioned activities related to the ability of dealing with people. Managers emphasized activities associated with organizational goals and results. Most of the time achieving a goal was considered crucial to validate their positions as managers. According to Leite, Godoy and Antonello (2006) there are managers who do not value people, neither demonstrate interest in dealing with them, but recognize their influence on the job.
Learning the decision making process was experienced differently by the two groups of managers. Specialized managers demonstrated ability to make decisions much faster than the non-specialized ones. The non-specialized managers faced more difficulties finding solutions for problems that required different perspective to be more clearly understood and therefore solved. The non-specialized managers also struggle to measure the impact of their decisions mainly on suppliers, clients, companies, employees and competitors. Non specialized managers made reference to the new problems and situations they had not dealt with till then.
According to Gherardi’s (2005) view, organizational learning is intrinsically derived from challenges that demand different attempts to solve problems. This perspective entails a variety of decisions and therefore different effects on organizations and on managerial learning.
Although first experiences were described as the hardest ones both groups (specialized and non-specialized) admitted that the initial difficulties played an important role on training and as preparation for similar situations in the future as well as adaptation to different contexts. Both groups of managers informed that, after the initial months of managerial practice, despite the same daily pressure for results, they felt more self-confident to interpret and direct their professional development projects.
It would be strange to imagine some kind of learning and knowledge acquisition without some kind of daily practice. “Daily practice makes us better in a way never imagined before” Bjorkeng, Clegg and Pitsis, 2009, p. 157).
All the managers, specialized and non-specialized ones, informed that the need for academic development led them to search for basic and more advanced educational alternatives (internal and external courses) to obtain a better preparation for the managerial activities. The overload of activities and job demands, a typical context in managerial positions, generates a growing pressure towards new development, change and improvement programs within the company. The idea of searching for improvement opportunities and therefore, achieving a better managerial performance may have come as a dynamic adaptation mechanism in a threatening and changing environment for the managers. One of the most challenging tasks for the managers is learning maintenance in a context filled with different and growing knowing and savoir-faire which requires an ongoing formation, recycling and permanent effort (Closs, 2009).
Most non-specialized managers (36%) demonstrated desire to get a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. In some cases, a degree would be an important step towards further education such as a post-graduation course. In other cases, a university degree would have been a way of developing a database containing applicable knowledge. Both instances would allow for improvements in the field of organizational practice. Eikeland and Nicolini´s (2011) grammatical model suggests that theoretical knowledge may represent a possibility to break free from the restrictions imposed by the practice-based approach. According to the grammatical perspective, theory constitutes a useful tool to visualize, transcend and expand practice in new directions and may justify the need of complementary formal education.
Twelve specialized managers (15%) declared that they usually exchange information and share knowledge gained from previous experience with managers who were attending university courses and facing similar situations. They highlighted the importance of performing activities interactively. According to them, interaction leads to more creative solutions and to the development of techniques that are applicable to the working environment.
When questioned about the reasons to look for professional development opportunities, the managers from both groups (specialized and non-specialized ones) mentioned the pressure for professional development (constantly imposed upon them), desire to know more about the position and the company, and the challenge to reach higher positions in the organizational structure.
When asked about the events that happened after the activities had been organized and a satisfactory performance level had been reached, non-specialized managers mentioned the hard challenge of managing people from their working teams. The non-specialized managers only felt legitimated in their positions after recurrent achievements. On the other hand, specialized managers started to direct attention to people under their command from the very first day.
Developing interpersonal ability was recognized by all the managers as critical for managerial positions. Nevertheless, developing interpersonal ability can be understood as a hard competence to achieve. Learning how to interact with people while in a managerial position was described as a challenge in constant allomorphy.
Managing people has proved to be a complex and ambiguous task. Despite being recognized as a crucial ability to all managers, Leite, Godoy and Antonello (2006) posit that it can be learned either before taking up a managerial position or during its daily practice and current events.
Emotional maturity was cited as an additional and important aspect of learning that contributes to enhance professional prospects. Such maturity allows managers from both groups to understand the effects of their performance on the results of the company, on the dynamic of the sectors under their control and, mainly, on the future professional life of the employees.
People with whom managers interact go through changes over time. Professional goals and motivation levels also affect and are affected by changing working conditions. Managers change their managing habits over the years in their most subjective aspects that influence their understanding and their behavior within the organizations.
This study attempted to identify, from a practice-based perspective, the differences and similarities between the tasks performed by specialized and non-specialized managers in small and medium-sized companies. The content analysis emphasized the learning process based on the experience of managers. Seven different learning stages were identified in the lives of specialized and the non-specialized managers.
The initiative presented in this study may be understood as an extension of the individual level suggested by the Organizational Learning model proposed by Crossan at al. (1999), which entails a multilevel analysis combining individual intuition and organizational institution. It now seems plausible to assume that the two groups of managers are moving closer each other and that the integration of formal and informal learning is an essential condition for developing new abilities in response to the changes taking place in working life.
From interrelationships, interactions and interdependence between emotion and learning, identified in this study and proposed by Antonacopoulou and Gabriel (2001), it is possible to imply that an organizational scaffolding support (manager preparation and follow up) during managerial function adaptation constitutes an important aspect that may interfere in managerial learning by generating positive emotions (belonging, security, and other associated emotions). Organizational support allows non specialized managers to obtain subsidies for a more effective performance and allows specialized managers to view more clearly the application of their theoretical wealth in the organizational environment.
Future studies may investigate the nature of school learning and workplace learning. The ways managers learn alongside other organizational actors and how learning occurs at group level should also be investigated through the lenses of social strategies that transcend the traditional formal processes used by organizations. Consistent with Gherardi (2005), Practice-Based Studies (PBS) constitute an option to discuss collective non formal learning processes in organizations
Lastly, it is expected that this study furthers reflections and discussions over managerial organizational learning to foster competitiveness through ways that are more compatible with professional practice and that produces applicable insights to human development programs in organizations.
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