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The Learning Organization

A learning process model to achieve continuous improvement and innovation

Bill Buckler
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Bill Buckler, (1996),"A learning process model to achieve continuous improvement and innovation", The Learning
Organization, Vol. 3 Iss 3 pp. 31 - 39
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A learning process The management philosophy of W. Edwards
model to achieve Deming[1] with its profound implications for
management-led business transformation, is
continuous underpinned by the practice of innovation
improvement and and continuous improvement of systems and
processes, based on understanding and
innovation knowledge. More recently, business process
re-engineering has been adopted by many
Bill Buckler organizations as a tool for a fundamental
review of their key business processes, and is
providing many opportunities for significant
step change improvements. It can also provide
the added opportunity to design into the new
process the capability of continuous ongoing
improvement. Success in this area will depend
on the ability of leaders, working in the
The author
process, and the overall system in which it
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Bill Buckler is at Marton House, Marton, Rugby,

operates, to create an environment where
Warwickshire, UK.
learning and innovation can be facilitated.
This article seeks to help practising
According to Revans, for an organization to be successful
Develop an understanding of how learning
in todays rapidly changing environment, its capacity to
can be stimulated, by examining various
learn must exceed the rate of change imposed on it.
relevant theories, concepts and techniques
Through an examination of the processes by which
of learning.
individuals in organizations learn, develops a learning
Examine how this knowledge can be
process model to facilitate continuous improvement and
applied to the design of processes, so that
innovation in business processes. Draws on relevant
learning, and thereby continuous improve-
theories which provide an understanding of how and why
ment and innovation, is maximized.
people learn, barriers which prevent learning, and the role
managers need to play in the learning process. Provides a
vision of what may be achieved by the systematic imple- Learning as a process that results in
mentation of the learning process model. Demings system changed behaviour
of profound knowledge provides a focus for learning
Figure 1 shows learning as a process. Three
activity. The model has been developed in a way which will
ingredients are needed for this process to be
be of practical use to managers working in organizations.
(1) focus to plot a course for the learning
(2) an environment which facilitates
(3) techniques which enable learning to be
The interlocking circles on the model imply
Authors address that the ingredients are not discrete, but
Authors name here overlap, and are interdependent if the
Address 1 whole learning process is to be optimized.
Address 2 In simple terms these are the hows, whys,
Address 3 and whats of learning, and these will be exam-
Address 4 ined in more detail. Readers are invited to
Address 5 relate the hows and whys to their own lifetime
e mail: insert here learning experiences, to establish a ring of
truth, before going on to examine what has
The Learning Organization
Volume 3 Number 3 1996 pp. 3139 to be learned to achieve continuous improve-
MCB University Press ISSN 0969-6474 ment and innovation in business processes.
A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

Figure 1 Learning as a process

What should I learn? What will be

the result?

The learning process


Environment Technique
Why should I learn?
How can I learn?
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The hows of learning techniques to or gestalt in the case of discovery learning.

help the learning process The extreme versions of the models, together
with the characteristics which seem to accom-
The learning debate centres on two models, pany them, are shown in Table I.
which reflect profound differences in values Each model has a distinct set of advantages
and ideology. In very simple terms the first and disadvantages. I believe it is useful to
model, which I have called the taught consider the models as the opposite ends of a
model, sees learning as something which is spectrum, with an infinite range of options in
done to people, whereas the second, the between. This approach allows us to relate the
discovery model, sees it as something which relative benefits of each learning model, more
people do for themselves. Each model precisely to the objectives of the business
appears to be based on sound theory; mainly process being considered, rather than take
behaviourism in the case of the taught model up a black/white, good/bad position.

Table I Learning methods two extremes

Taught Discovery
Model Learn theory based on research. Identify problems. Experiment to
Test by application. Change behaviour. discover solutions. Develop theory.
Teach others, until better theory is Change behaviour. Apply to
developed similar situations
Focus Teacher-centred Learner-centred
Learning managed by the organization Learning managed by the
Motivation Extrinsic Intrinsic
Culture Controlled Empowered
Bureaucratic Autonomous
Theoretical basis Behaviourist school Skinner et al. Gestalt school Kohler et al.
Determinism Free will
Advantages Consistency Creativity
Conformity Innovation
Low risk Responsiveness to customers
Disadvantages Can stifle intrinsic motivation Can focus on personal rather than
Can cause conditioned responses which organizational objectives
create barriers to change and learning Higher risk of failure

A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

To implement the learning company con- potential, resulting in behavioural change and
cept[2], seems to require a move through the creative and innovative process improvements
spectrum towards the discovery model, to will only really happen if existing learning
gain the benefits of creativity, innovation, systems move radically towards the discovery
customer responsiveness, and continuous model.
improvement, which this style of learning
can deliver. At the same time it is necessary
to manage the disadvantages of discovery The whys of learning creating an
learning, namely aligning organizational and environment which provides meaning
personal objectives, and minimizing the risk
of failure. A move too far along the spectrum Whichever learning method is appropriate, it
will lose some of the benefits of the taught is useful to consider the learning process as
model, such as consistency and conformity. taking place in stages, and the model devel-
Also, the move away from the taught model oped to explain this is shown in Figure 2.
will be resisted by conditioned responses In concept, learning requires a movement
which that model has itself created, and which through the stages, but for this to happen, the
show themselves as learning disabilities and individual will need to be motivated to expend
barriers to change. the effort necessary. Motivation can be
I do not believe that the taught model is intrinsic, i.e. from within the individual,
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bad, per se, and that the discovery model is or extrinsic, i.e. imposed from outside, usual-
good. It is more a case of what is appropriate ly by the organization. Theory suggests that
to the business requirements. For instance, in individuals will be intrinsically motivated to
a matter relating to the safety of staff or the move through the model, and the strength of
public, there may be a need to adhere strictly this motivation will vary from individual to
to safety procedures, and a taught learning individual. Also, individuals will be prevented
process may be the only effective way of from moving through the model by inbuilt
ensuring such conformity. A key requirement attitudes, values, beliefs and responses, of
in developing organizational learning will be which they are often not aware. These
to achieve an optimum balance between the responses may be the direct result of condi-
learning systems described, which meets the tioning, by the organization, or taught
detailed requirements of the business process. learning systems in general. An individual
Nevertheless the release of individual will only move through the model while the

Figure 2 The stages of learning

I want to know more

I am not good enough to do this 5 Enactment

What have we learned?

How have we learned?
I do not believe this will work 4 Commitment I want to
try this
6 Reflection

This is not my job 3 Understanding I want to know about this

I now have a better understanding

I do not need to change 2 Awareness I need to know about this

I do not know
and do not care 1 Ignorance I ought to know about this

A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

driving forces exceed the restraining forces, to learn. This desire cannot be directed, but
and will become stuck when the forces are must come from within the individual. How-
exactly matched[3]. Typical expressions ever, it can be nurtured and encouraged. To
which describe the driving and restraining be most effective, learning at this level must
forces at each stage of the process are shown be pulled by the individual, not pushed by the
on the model, but it is important to under- organization. Also, the barriers preventing
stand that these will be unique to each indi- the transition from commitment to enactment
vidual[4]. It will be useful to look at each can be formidable. Usually, they will require
stage of the model in turn, and explore some the individual to change behaviour. Often this
of the issues which may surround it. will bring into play a powerful, inbuilt, and
unconscious defence mechanism. Argyris[6]
Ignorance calls this defensive reasoning. The individ-
No one knows what they dont know, so ual will need to develop a high level of self-
no blame can be attached to individuals who awareness if this barrier is to be breached.
finds themselves in a state of ignorance.
Indeed, this stage is, or was, the starting point Enactment
for everyone. It can be argued that it is also When individuals, working within teams,
the easiest stage to move from by enquiring. move to enactment, real improvements to
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working processes will start to emerge.

Awareness However, this involves a degree of risk, and
Having developed an awareness, motivation the working environment must allow this if
will be needed for the individual to input benefits are to be gained. Development of
sufficient effort to gain an understanding of this environment will facilitate insight learn-
the subject[5]. Barriers to learning are likely ing[10], and increase the probability of inno-
to be a legacy from rigid organizational and vation and creative solutions to problems[11].
wage structures Its not my job, and Im The release of this creativity will be the source
not paid to know that being typical respons- of future competitive advantage. Effective
es. The development of supportive teamwork- discovery learning systems can enable individ-
ing, and peer recognition for the effort of self- uals to move very quickly to this stage, and
development may be powerful antidotes. Revans action learning concepts[12] are
Conversely, ill-considered reward systems and based on this. On the other hand, the environ-
team structures reinforce the barriers. ment created by taught learning systems may
inhibit changes to processes and limit their
Understanding capacity to improve. For instance, quality
The development of understanding will take management systems, such as BS 5750 and
place in stages, as the depth of knowledge ISO 9000, can create a culture of confor-
increases. Shallow understanding will gener- mance, where changes to processes and
ally result from single-loop learning[6], but new ideas are discouraged, and would be
double-loop learning will be needed if deep criticized by auditing procedures.
understanding is to be achieved. Commit-
ment will start to develop provided the knowl- Reflection
edge is perceived as meeting the needs of the This is probably the most important part of
individual and the organization[7,8]. On the the learning process which is often missing in
other hand, as the depth of understanding taught organizations. This is where actions,
increases, it may start to challenge deeply held outcomes and theories are evaluated, and
beliefs and values, which either overtly or sub- deep learning takes place. The compliant
consciously may limit the move to commit- nature of taught systems often means that
ment. Senge[9] calls this creative tension. individuals are not encouraged to question or
challenge theories, and inappropriate actions
Commitment continue to be taken long after those theories
Commitment will not be achieved without have been discredited. In extreme cases of
intrinsic interest and curiosity[9]. If this is operant conditioning, where actions are a
not present, the move to action may not take result of learning by rote, the difficulties
place. Many training courses do not have the in achieving a change in behaviour needed to
desired effect because they are imposed, and enable deep learning to take place should not
are not attended because of an intrinsic desire be underestimated. When effective, reflection
A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

increases understanding, which, in turn may be of benefit to both the individual and
increases commitment and action, and a the organization. The leader will need to have
virtuous cycle of learning is unleashed. this knowledge already, and the enthusiasm
and commitment to put it into practice. The
The role of leadership in creating a leaders position as a role model[13] will
learning environment therefore be vital in gaining the attention
My experience has shown me that success in and interest of the team. Other team members
achieving the learning company vision may also have greater understanding, and can
depends greatly on the effectiveness of man- provide help as mentors and role models.
agers and team leaders in creating an environ-
ment where individual, team, and thereby, Developing shared vision and ownership
organizational learning is facilitated. In order Senge[9] sees developing a shared vision as
to do this they will need a deep understanding one of the five disciplines of learning, and an
of the learning process, to be able to identify ability to do this in a participative way with
an individuals position on the stages of learn- the team will be a key requirement of the
ing model, to understand the driving and leader. This will be a two stage process, as the
restraining forces applicable to the individual level of understanding of the team develops.
at that time, and have intervention strategies Initially the leader will concentrate of the
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to facilitate movement through the stages. whats of the vision, and the role that learn-
Figure 3 shows the stages of learning ing will play in its achievement. As learning
model, with the role of leadership super- develops, the debate will increasingly move
imposed. The various aspects of the leader- into the why areas, and the facilitation of
ship role will be examined in more detail. this process up and down the organization will
enhance organizational learning. It will also
Questioning start to expose the barriers preventing move-
The first step up the learning ladder is to ment up the learning ladder, and enable the
move from a state of ignorance to being aware leader to evolve his own understanding and
that an area of knowledge exists, and that it develop strategies to minimize their effects.

Figure 3 The role of leadership

I want to know more
Develop ownership

I am not good enough 5 Enactment


to do this

Allow risk taking

What have we learned?
Remove barriers How have we learned?
I do not believe this 4 Commitment I want to

will work try this


6 Reflection

Develop shared

vision whys
This is not my job 3 Understanding I want to know about this

I now have a better understanding


Develop shared

vision whats I do not need 2 Awareness I need to know about this

to change

I do not

Question know and Learning requirements


do not 1 Ignorance I ought to know about this

Deming Process

A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

The participative approach[14] will help to come directly from the requirements of the
unlock intrinsic motivation, by enabling business process to which they relate, and the
individuals to satisfy their inner needs[7,8]. needs of the individuals working within that
process. By applying the four areas of learning
Enabling outlined in Demings system of profound
At some stage there will be a need to try knowledge[4] to a business process, a
something new. We can develop an under- menu of learning, as shown in the
standing and commitment to riding a bicycle, Appendix, can be developed. This will form a
but until we try we will never be able to ride. basis from which detailed, prioritized learning
However, the first few attempts involve a high plans can be formulated.
risk of falling off. The leader must, at this The menu contains a mixture of knowl-
stage, provide both opportunity and encour- edge, attitudes and skills, and different
agement, if the benefits are to be achieved. approaches will be needed to assess, and
Strategies must also be developed to minimize provide learning opportunities in these areas.
risk, and ensure that failure does not prevent
the individual from trying again. The more
A learning process model
quickly individuals can be moved to the enact-
ment stage, the more quickly experiential The learning process model, Figure 4, has
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learning will start. been developed as a tool for systematically

applying the various concepts which have
Removing barriers been outlined to achieve improvement of
Probably the most important role of the business processes.
leader is to identify and minimize the effects The various components of the model
of barriers to learning[3]. These will be pre- will be examined in more detail.
sent at each stage of the learning process, but
will become more challenging as the higher The learning support system
stages of the ladder are reached. The leader The learning support system will need to be
will need to understand the sort of things designed to provide the environment in which
which cause individuals to become stuck on learning will be facilitated, and its success will
the ladder, and develop an awareness of when depend heavily on the quality of leadership
and why this is happening. Individuals will provided by managers and team leaders. Con-
not necessarily be aware of the high level sideration will need to be given to the learning
barriers which are operating within them- styles of the individuals concerned[16,17]
selves, and these will need to be drawn into and other learning techniques to enable tai-
conscious awareness before they can be man- lored support to be developed which will
aged. This is a very complex area to delve enable learning experiences to meet individ-
into, and to be effective, leaders will require a ual and team needs.
high level of understanding of psychology. The main features of the learning support
The level of understanding needed is very rare system are described next.
in most organizations. Clearly we have here a
Systematic approach
chicken and egg situation, where leaders
While discovery learning requires a minimum
from the top down will need to be highly
of control and direction to be effective, never-
motivated to learn about psychology, without
theless a systematic approach to learning
yet having the very understanding which will
support will be needed if individual learning is
be needed to remove the barriers to such
to contribute towards achieving and develop-
learning. The work of Senge[9], Argyris[6]
ing the aims of the organization. Also it will
and Goldratt[15] will help to start this learn-
demonstrate the organizations commitment
ing process, but as high level barriers are
to supporting individual learning.
encountered, outside help may be needed to
understand and manage them. Leadership
It is clear that effective leadership is the key
ingredient for the success of the learning
The whats of learning enabling a
model. A participative leadership style will be
focus on organizational goals
required, with high levels of facilitation and
The learning requirements, which will pro- coaching skills. Leadership behaviours which
vide the focus for learning activity, will need stifle learning will need to be recognized and
A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

Figure 4 A learning process model

Learning support system

Individual learning support

Mentoring programme
Self-managed learning
Company policy Distance learning
deployment process

Personal development

Learning needs diagnosis

Learning resource
Business process requirements
Individual and team assessment Learning resource database Progress review
Prioritized learning needs Multimedia PC interface
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Team development

Team learning support

Action learning support

Facilitator development
Action learning groups

avoided. Extensive work will be needed with motivation. At the same time, activities
managers and team leaders during the imple- will need to be aligned with business objec-
mentation of the model. tives.
Team learning support Experimentation opportunities
Flatter structures, with fewer tiers of manage- Discovery learning requires that opportunities
ment, and greater empowerment of teams, are for individuals and teams to experiment are
a feature of business process re-engineering. maximized. This will require a creative
These structures require changes in the way approach to problem solving, which initially
people work together, and support each other. will not sit easily with the existing culture of
Support for these changes towards effective most organizations. Careful management of
teamworking will be necessary. The move of risk will be needed, which will include identi-
leaders from a directive role to a facilitating fying and minimizing exposure to risk.
role, and the greater responsibility placed on
Learning resource information systems
team members will need to be supported by
Recent developments in computer systems
team building and group learning activities.
present exciting opportunities to develop
There will be a need to move teams more
learning resource material, which can be
quickly towards action mode, with effective
accessed according to need. This enables
what have we learned? reviews.
training and learning material to be pulled
Individual learning support by individuals and teams on a just-in-time
Support for individual learning will come basis. Multimedia systems open up enormous
from coaching and mentoring, assisting with potential for demonstrations to support the
self-managed learning, and making opportu- learning of skills. Feedback from learners can
nities available for distance learning where be added to the database. The result can be an
this is appropriate. The emphasis will need to organic learning resource, capable of rapid
be on identifying and removing barriers to response to changing circumstances, which
learning, and allowing individuals sufficient will help to maximize the effectiveness of
freedom to maintain high levels of intrinsic organizational learning.
A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

Learning needs diagnosis Company policy deployment process

Successful diagnosis and prioritization of This is the process by which the company
organizational learning needs should be develops, communicates, and implements the
directly related to the companys strategy via strategies and policies necessary to meet its
its policy deployment process. The diagnosis business objectives.
will take place in three stages:
(1) Defining the process requirements: The Conclusions
shopping list of learning, outlined
earlier, can be used as a basis for develop- The models and processes outlined have been
ing detailed learning requirements for the developed following many years experience
people in a particular business process. in managing change and process improve-
(2) Individual and team assessment: Using the ment in a large organization. They seek to
stages of learning model as a guide, team provide an explanation why some initiatives
leaders and individuals can jointly make were successful, while others were less so.
an assessment of the level of knowledge or They should not be considered as models to
skill in each area. By summating the levels be rigidly followed, in a taught manner, but
rather as a framework against which past
of understanding of individuals, it should
experience can be assessed. All managers
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be possible to build up a profile of the

have experiences of actions which produced
whole team. Mentors, who have high
successful outcomes, and actions which
levels of skills and knowledge, can be
failed. So often, however, we omit the reflec-
identified during this stage of the process,
tion stage of the learning process, and contin-
to help individuals with their learning.
ue to take inappropriate actions, destined to
(3) Prioritizing learning needs: A process will
fail. Worse still, we copy initiatives which have
be needed to merge individual and team
worked elsewhere, and do not understand
learning priorities with the priorities of
why they do not work for us.
the organization, again using a participa-
Instead, it will be more useful to view the
tive style. A little and often approach is models using a discovery learning process, to
recommended here, so that individuals help evaluate successful initiatives, and exper-
and teams are not swamped with a daunt- iment with other ideas which are of interest,
ing list of activities, but focus on a few always adding a reflection stage to our
vital areas, within a short timescale. thought process.
Ideally managers will be stimulated to
Progress review follow up some of the references, to increase
Probably the most important feature of the their depth of understanding.
model, is the progress review process. By In todays uncertain economic times, it is
questioning What have we learned? and essential that our capacity to improve and
How have we learned?, and feeding this innovate exceeds the rate of change imposed
information back into the learning process, on our organizations. It is essential, therefore,
a cycle of continuous improvement will be that managers understand the learning
established. More importantly, by establish- process and know how to facilitate its applica-
ing a feedback loop to the company policy tion throughout their areas of responsibility.
deployment process, company policy can be
questioned, challenged and modified as learn-
ing takes place. Such double-loop learn-
ing[6] is the hallmark of a learning organiza- 1 Neave, H.R., The Deming Dimension, SPC Press,
tion, and is the vital mechanism for convert- Knoxville, TN, 1990.
ing individual and team learning into organi- 2 Pedler, M., Boydell, T. and Burgoyne, J., Learning
zational learning. Company Project Report, Department of Employment,
Sheffield, 1988.
The review process will only be truly effec-
3 Lewin, K., Group Decision and Social Change , Read-
tive in an environment where challenge and
ings in Social Psychology, Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
criticism are not perceived as threat, and New York, NY, 1958.
where the views and considered opinions of 4 Deming, W.E., A System of Profound Knowledge ,
everyone working in the business process are British Deming Association Booklet No. 9, Salisbury,
valued by managers at all levels. 1990.
A learning process model The Learning Organization
Bill Buckler Volume 3 Number 3 1996 3139

5 Vroom, V.H., Work and Motivation, Wiley, New York, Project management;
NY, 1964. The competitive environment.
6 Argyris, C., On Organizational Learning , Blackwell,
Oxford, 1992. Learning/knowledge acquisition;
7 Maslow, A., A theory of human motivation, Psycho- Learning processes;
logical Review, Vol. 50, 1942.
Learning styles: how we learn;
8 Herzberg, F., Mauser, B., Peterson, R.O. and Capwell, Learning process model: how to use it; how
D.F., Job Attitudes: Review of Research and Opinion,
to extend knowledge database;
Psychological Service of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA,
1957. Personal development opportunities.
9 Senge, P.M., The Fifth Discipline The Art and Practice
of the Learning Organization, Century Business, New Variation/data analysis;
York, NY, 1990. Quality management tools:
10 Kohler, W., The Mentality of Apes, Harcourt Brace brainstorming;
Jovanovich, New York, NY, 1925. Pareto;
11 Koestler, A., The Act of Creation, Pan Books, London, histograms;
1970. check lists;
12 Revans, R., The A.B.C. of Action Learning, Chartwell- cause and effect diagrams;
Bratt, Bromley, 1983. scatter diagrams;
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13 Bandura, A., Social Learning Theory, Prentice-Hall, flowcharts.

Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1977.
Statistical process control: control charts;
14 Lewin, K., Lippitt, R. and White, R., Patterns of
Benchmarking data;
aggressive behaviour in experimentally created social
climates, Journal of Social Psychology, 1939.
Customer research;
Staff opinion research;
15 Goldratt, E., Its Not Luck, Gower, Aldershot, 1994.
Quality function deployment;
16 Kolb, D.A., Experiential Learning, Prentice-Hall,
Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1984. Failure modes and effects analysis;
Design of experiments;
17 Honey, P. and Mumford, A., The Manual of Learning
Styles, Honey, Maidenhead, 1986. Process and performance measurement:
identifying/eliminating variation.

Appendix: process requirements menu People/psychology;

Systems/processes Team working model: definition of roles;
Company mission/values; Team skills;
Strategy/business plans; Motivation: intrinsic vs. extrinsic;
High level business processes; Removing barriers to learning;
Policy deployment process; Leadership: transition to self directed
Policy deployment plans; teams;
Policy statements/instructions; Facilitation skills;
Budgeting instructions; Coaching skills;
Investment management process; Directive vs. process management;
Manuals of procedure; Effective behaviours;
Design standards/manuals; Managing change;
Low level business processes; Performance counselling;
Process flowcharting ; Team briefing (including feedback);
Process management understanding; Transactional analysis.

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