Membership Negotiation and Organisational Structure: From Learning Styles to Meta-Systematicity

“Companies and shop-floors thus produce the heat of chatter, some of it meaningless and some of it subversive, creating code within code and internal signs that route-around management practices, filling in gaps and moving capacity by creating autonomous junctures via intra-shop-floor negotiations and informal guidelines”[1]. Organisations are a locus of activity, from membership negotiation to their structuration. They tessellate across informal and formal methodologies of practice, never fully controlling but never fully autonomising either. As they flit between adaptivity and rigidity, they must find methods of integrating the formal and informal, particularly when it comes to incorporating members and meshing individual aptitudes with organisational ideologies and needs.

“Learning is both a process and an outcome concerned with knowledge, skills and insight”[2]. Learning and development are the cornerstone of organisational cohesion, bringing forth the knowledge necessary to coherently construct strategies that evolve members’ understanding of their work and adapt to changing circumstances. It involves the integration of various individual and stakeholder knowledges that makeup the array of informational systems and patterns that organisation’s find themselves within into a series of ideological circuits that then project an organisation’s core mission and melds together individual skills and learning styles with organisational imperatives.

Learning styles or processes here are a series of flows that interact with organisational goals and ideologies. If we concomitantly understand an organisation as a series of flows of information/goods, this means conceptualising learning and development as multi-directional imperatives that structure how one does something and how one influences that thing through their own capabilities. In other words, tasks and patterns are set both vertically by management processes and organisation charts, and horizontally through melding the tasks with a member’s learning styles and capacities.

Within institutions, “centers of power exist that are not officially recognized; rich net­works of informal communication supplement and sometimes circumvent the regulated channels; and decision processes flow through the organiza­tion independent of the regulated system”[3]. Further, “at the managerial levels, study after study shows that managers of all kinds favor the verbal channels of the informal system over the documents of the formal (spending 65 to 80 percent of their time in verbal contact), and that they spend almost as much of their time (about 45 percent on average) communicating outside the chain of formal authority as inside it”[4]. Referencing Mintzberg’s illustration of regulated control flows[5], hierarchical integration of information flow is important, but so is intra-divisional coordination as it allows best practice to develop in specific contexts, modifying organisational demands to the needs and situations of its different units. Information and task allocation criss-cross across organisational bounds so that individual, team and institutional development are pointing in the same direction rather than conflicting.

In such systems of formal and informal communication, understanding learning styles and development patterns is as imperative as understanding organisational goals and formal work modalities, as there is a need to combine individual learning and development with wider collective needs so that goals are met and cohesion is maintained, structuring work flows so that they achieve required results. Looking at Honey & Mumford’s learning styles, here is one method of identifying different learning processes that individual’s hold, allowing organisations to create systems that integrate individual’s initial skillsets with current imperatives as well as implementing ways of evolving these skillsets to become more holistic.

Honey & Mumford identify four learning types, activists, theorists, pragmatists and reflectors[6]. Activists learn with a hands-on approach; theorists work best with models and ideas, comprehending the reality around them; pragmatists favour putting ideas into practice; and reflectors contemplate and observe the workings on around them. None of these types are distinct or fixed, but instead represent contextual variables that relate to individual learning styles in relation to particular tasks. They reveal tendencies and present opportunities to increase the capacity of one’s skills, rather than being rigid archetypes that wholly define an individual.

Learning styles are analogous to Gibbs reflective cycle model[7], whereby learning goes through a process of description, evaluation, analysis and action planning so as to integrate new tasks into one’s existing skillset, modifying the task to match skills and evolving skills to meet the task. As we move through work patterns, integrating various knowledges into our existing skillsets, we evolve and adapt, moving between learning styles and gaining a holistic view of how goals are achieved and which processes to use. It is a movement through communal modes of being (one basic learning style) to systematic modes of thinking (understanding and integrating tasks into your learning style while also adapting to those tasks) and forward onto meta-systemic means of learning[8] (moving through various learning styles depending on context and needs). From the singular to the multiple as learning becomes an adaptive process of implementing flexibility and connecting the parts to the whole (connecting members to an organisation).

As learning styles are only snapshots of how we learn in particular contexts, development should then be geared toward this holistic direction, moving from communal thinking to meta-systemic understandings that integrate organisational and individual goals and skills. As Honey & Mumford learning styles are based on an experiential understanding of learning i.e. our styles relate to how we deal with experiences, they reveal a mechanistic understanding that isn’t fully realistic in development situations. People do not simply experience something, review it, reach conclusions and plan next steps. Instead they come into experiences from many angles, learning things through theory and then application or picking things up as they experiment with processes. “Experiential learning, in this sense, results essentially from a transaction between the individual and the situation”[9]. In other words, it’s contextual, with learning styles equating to preferences and development being the process of moving individuals out of their comfort zone so as to move beyond one limited perspective into a cyclical conceptualisation that allows one to move between learning styles depending on circumstances.

Learning is a cyclical feedback loop of multiple styles integrating toward different tasks, moving from a singular learning method to a holistic series of learning styles attuned to the context of organisational surroundings. Looking at barriers to this process, one of the major learning barriers is the integration of individual learning styles with organisational imperatives. Membership negotiation is a key component of development. “Prospective members must be evaluated and categorized; both the new member and the organization must decide to create a relationship; and the new member must be incorporated into the routines and structures of the organization, and vice versa”[10]. In implementing such evaluation and categorisation, having an insight into member’s preferred learning style and aptitudes provides a platform for developing best fit between individual expectations and institutional needs. Without it, situations can either become command-and-control based where tasks are dictated and rote learning is the norm or learning and development become a hotchpotch of undirected initiatives that create an ambiguous understanding of institutional needs and fail to fully integrate new members, leaving them undirected and unable to participate as the resources aren’t provided.

Another major element in complex organisations is activity coordination. “Organizations, by definition, have at least one manifest purpose, and the activity of members and subgroups is partly directed toward it. To a substantial extent, these activities are coordinated as a result of the organization’s self-structuring, which creates a division of labor, a standard task-flow sequence, and a series of policies and plans for work. However, such structural directions can never be complete or completely relevant, are never completely understood, and are frequently amended in an informal patchwork of adjustments”[11]. This juncture between formal processes and informal implementation is key to melding collective and individual development. It can become unbalanced if communication is vague and there isn’t an understanding between member’s aptitudes and the wider organisational context. Such issues lead to inefficient task allocation and lower morale as workloads and patterns aren’t directed based on member needs and capacities. This also effects the targeting of development goals for employees, as without knowing their preferences and learning styles a poor approximation is used to implement such goals.

Such issues are particularly salient in highly complex organisations. Looking at Mintzberg’s list of organisational configurations[12], many modern organisations fit approximately three descriptions, being machine and professional bureaucracies as well as adhocracies. We can see this with platform companies and supply chains, where organisations have a constant tension between autonomous team-led work and strong centralised direction[13]. Think Amazon, Google, Wal-Mart or Toyota and their various units, divisions, teams, suppliers and other interconnected groups that inform their growing complexity. Such variety presents various challenges to development amongst its workforce, as bureaucratic and adhocratic forms conflict and contradict each other. Different barriers to learning come up, such as the bureaucratic tendency to quantify and officialise knowledge into organisation charts and policy documents, providing clear guidelines for how one should work and complete tasks while also limiting autonomy and presenting a one-size-fits-all methodology that isn’t amenable to different capabilities and learning styles. This then clashes with the adhocratic forms present, such as the sub-units and arms-lengths elements in complex organisations I mentioned earlier.

Such a structure creates contradictions between centralised obligations and decentralised processes, making development more difficult as the capacity to meld organisational and individual capacities through membership negotiation and task allocation is complicated by this institutional complexity, where different imperatives pull at various group’s work patterns in sometimes different directions. Adapting development to this field means covering multiple methods of working, from rote learning of regulations (bureaucratic imperatives) to adaptive development of processes for teamwork (adhocratic imperatives). This presents an anarchic field pulling between restricting autonomy through centralised rules and developing processes that entrench a higher degree of autonomy. This makes it difficult to move to holistic, looped learning styles as these variable organisational fields are problematic to traverse due to their contradictions and conflicts in task allocation and work patterning.

The barriers created by the contradictory flows of complex organisations make membership negotiation and task allocation problematic. They require balance between conflicting directives so as to develop cohesion between individual learning preferences and organisational ideologies that ensconce the structure (as according to Mintzberg). A major aspect of melding individual and organisational learning through membership negotiation is the capacity to uncover “the intricate and often unnoticed or hidden learning that takes place and influences what occurs within the organization. ‘Hidden learning’ is acquired and developed in the normal course of work by people acting as individuals and, importantly, in groups or ‘communities of practice’”[14].

A key aspect of overcoming development barriers is connecting the informal aptitudes of learning styles and adaptive working to organisational work patterns, making them function with variable skillsets. A case study of this is the Northamptonshire Healthcare Trust, where to improve their patient care and quality they implemented a strategic overhaul that redistributed tasks and work patterns where every member of the trust is given a series of responsibilities over their work, removing a managerial hierarchy in favour of a cross-collaborative approach that emphasised negotiated division of tasks combined with outreach and training programs targeted at particular elements of their membership, thereby gearing leadership training and work distribution to specific categories based around learning styles and aptitudes rather than implementing a command and control approach to management and development.

Comparing with Honey & Mumford’s learning styles, they created a meta-systemic structure of distributed leadership above them that prized autonomy and a combination of training and self-directed learning, increasing the learning aptitudes of their members and moving them beyond a single style. “It was more about agreeing how we expected them to behave instead of just having certain skills,’ says Oakes. ‘We want them to see a problem and do something about it, not walk away because it’s too stressful’”. This filtered down in developing learning methods that fit with their member’s preferences. “For example, targeting the courses at certain groups of staff has helped those taking part get the most out of them, and they are now offered as part of a portfolio of training”[15].

What the trust did is successfully navigate centralised, formal development processes and informal learning styles to increase patient care and overall quality while also giving a platform to members to develop their own skills and take ownership over their task allocation. Similar methods are applicable to other multifaceted settings, where overcoming the complexity of combining formal and informal learning could be done by a redistribution of task allocation away from pure hierarchies to heterarchical methods, forcing different learning styles to collide and work together. Such actions give greater ownership over the array of administrative and management duties encountered, as well as increasing skillsets. Groups and individuals don’t get locked into one method of learning or doing, instead gaining greater contextual understanding so that different aptitudes (theorising, acting, reflecting, brainstorming, etc.) can be applied in different situations. This means they can then better navigate the organisational complexity of intricate, tessellated settings, moving between bureaucratic regulation and adhocratic autonomy.

In moving from a single method of learning to a holistic picture that works within the flows of a complex organisation, development needs to be focused on increasing the cycles or loops of learning that run from motivation to self-direction, goals and feedback and finally methodologies, thus implanting a combination of organisational and individual aptitudes that fit different learning styles and allow for evolution and adaptation of one’s preferences to a more holistic level. A spectrum of learning from informal to formal should be developed to meet specific learning style criteria. Armstrong lays out how this cycle of informal to formal looks in the abstract:

  • Unanticipated experiences and encounters that result in learning as an incidental by-product, which may or may not be consciously recognized;
  • new job assignments and participation in teams, or other job-related challenges that provide for learning and self-development;
  • Self-initiated and self-planned experiences, including the use of media and seeking out a coach or mentor;
  • Total quality or improvement groups/active learning designed to promote continuous learning for continuous improvement;
  • providing a framework for learning associated with personal development planning or career planning;
  • the combination of less structured with structured opportunities to learn from these experiences;
  • designed programmes of mentoring, coaching or workplace learning;
  • formal training programmes or courses involving instruction.[16]

Also important are feedback tools for constant re-assessment of objectives and updating of competency profiles. These include informal meetings, formal linking of development goals to KPIs and the identification of priorities and goals at the team and division levels, feeding these into corporate objectives to influence overall direction and maintain links between informal and formal elements. This feedback loop of communication and information (up the hierarchy and across the heterarchy) means a constant ability to adapt expectations and modify allocation of tasks based around member’s new competencies.

There are multiple examples where learning-based feedback loops are implemented to meld the organisational mindset with individual and group one’s, from Toyota’s quality circles to Haier’s ZZJYTs. At a wider level, similar methods of integrating the informal methodologies of individual groups into a formalised series of processes and cross-collaboration can be seen in the impannatore of the Emilia-Romagna industrial district[17], where different elements in the supply chain, from craft producers to metal workers are integrated into semi-autonomous districts that adapted large-scale industrial technologies to the needs of small shop production firms and artisanal craft-makers, integrating consultancy firms, technological producers, ceramic and metal-workers and construction firms into horizontal outfits that could scale without bureaucratic hierarchies directing from the top. Here an organisational ideology connected the development processes of varied actors across a large geographic space. Similarly phyles and guilds[18] are another institutional form that coheres members into a horizontally formatted organisational ideology.

As companies and organisations increasingly move from command-and-control units to cross-collaborative groups that contain many factions and sub-units, their complexity grows and the ability to integrate new members and create a holistic ideology that incorporates individual learning aptitudes with organisational needs becomes more difficult. In the constant need to be adaptive, look for niches and prevent rigidities from overtaking the running of business, understanding the multiplicity of learning styles and moving from singular perspectives to feedback loops which help mesh the informality of individual learning with the formality of organisational development can aid in finding the balance between group and team autonomy on the one hand and managerial oversight and control on the other. Without such understandings in place, task allocation becomes either an undirected mess or a series of dictates that are ignored or subverted, increasing turnover and general institutional churn. “One finds multiple processes and attitudes toward the organization. For example, members can coordinate on how not to do work, or coordination may be in abeyance as members seek power over one another or external advantage for themselves from the system. Nonetheless, what seems inescapable is that members presume that they are working not just on related tasks but within a common social unit with an existence that goes beyond the work interdependence itself”[19]. Creating that common social unit is imperative for melding the style of members and team’s aptitudes and learning preferences toward the wider organisation, thereby developing and/or maintaining a dynamic holism throughout.

[1] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2018/05/30/the-decentring-periphery-language-and-exit/

[2] Michael Armstrong, A Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice

[3] Henry Mintzberg, The Structuring of Organizations

[4] Henry Mintzberg, The Structuring of Organizations

[5] Henry Mintzberg, The Structuring of Organizations

[6] https://www.eln.io/blog/honey-and-mumford-learning-styles

[7] https://www.eln.io/blog/gibbs-reflective-cycle-model-1988

[8] https://vividness.live/2015/10/12/developing-ethical-social-and-cognitive-competence/

[9] https://docplayer.net/51450875-Reflections-of-two-pragmatists-a-critique-of-honey-and-mumford-s-learning-styles-jim-caple-and-paul-martin.html

[10] http://www.cios.org/EJCPUBLIC/010/1/01017.html

[11] http://www.cios.org/EJCPUBLIC/010/1/01017.html

[12] https://www.12manage.com/methods_mintzberg_configurations.html

[13] https://thelibertarianideal.com/2020/01/19/organisational-mechanics-of-voice-and-exit/

[14] Michael Armstrong, A Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice

[15] https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/voices/case-studies/why-northamptonshire-healthcare-nhs-ft-tore-up-traditional-management-structure

[16] Michael Armstrong, A Handbook of Human Resource Management Practice

[17] Michael J. Piore & Charles F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide: Possibilities for Prosperity

[18] Kevin Carson, The Desktop Regulatory State

[19] http://www.cios.org/EJCPUBLIC/010/1/01017.html

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