Liberal and horizontal learning on multiple levels

In the course “Seminar in HRS” in my masters year I had to write with three other team members an essay about different themes, this one is from the multi-level perspective. “Organizational level” is the part I solely wrote for the essay.


Human resource development (HRD) professionals have the purpose to increase and develop learning within organizations while considering different levels. But how could HRD professionals influence learning on different levels?

‘An organization is not one entity’ (Poell, 2016). There is a large variety of actors involved in establishing and maintaining an organization, who have colliding or coinciding interests. As mentioned in the stakeholder theory, an organization could not perform best when these interests are not taken into account (Jensen, 2001). We categorize these actors in shop floor employees (e.g. salesmen, machine workers, and assembly workers) and managers. Additionally, external actors (e.g., trade unions and government agents) also have interests that should be taken into account.

In the rational design, HRD is used as a tool of management whereby development strategies are imposed by senior managers (top-down) (Poell, 2016). A discussion exists between rational design and organizational emergence of development, however the most critical decisions about development are made apart from this rational design (Grant, 2003). To improve the influence of HRD apart from the rational design, a learning culture should be underlined. A learning culture is shown to have a positive impact on financial and knowledge performance (Ellinger, Ellinger, Yang, & Howton, 2002; Marsick & Watkins, 2003; McHargue, 2003). The learning network theory distinguishes four theoretical types of learning networks: liberal, vertical, horizontal, and external (Poell, Chivers, van der Krogt, & Wildemeersch, 2000). We argue for a combination of two types of these networks; liberal and horizontal. Liberal learning encourages employees to have a studious attitude and “create their own set of learning activities” (Poell et al., 2000, p. 36). Horizontal learning focuses on learning by working and reflecting in teams (Poell et al., 2000).

This essay investigates the influence HRD professionals have on the organizational, team and individual level. Recommendations for enhancing learning within an organization will be provided in the conclusion.

Organizational level

For the success of an organization competitive advantage is paramount. According to the resource-based view of the organization, internal knowledge and skill can be regarded as important resources (Hendry & Pettigrew, 1990; Leonard-Barton, 1995). Human capital theory argues that a method for protecting core competencies is by investing in learning and development (Lepak & Snell, 1999). HRD work is most successful if the activities are consistent with organizations’ mission and goals, the involvement of all stakeholders and the alignment with culture and values (Garavan, 1991). According to Garavan (2007) HRD is best achieved through a strategic approach that is consistent with the above stated theories. Furthermore, political and economic systems and power have a major role on the organizational level in HRD (Yorks, 2004).

Scholars like Argyris and Schon (1978) believe that organizations are capable of learning by improving the communication between their members. From the perspective of organizations the creation and exchange of knowledge is crucial for innovation processes (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Ayas, I996). This implies that internal and external actors benefit from an organization which embraces a learning culture which should be actively influenced by HRD professionals. To a considerable extent a “strong” culture, good communication, and team working could be comprehended as a revisiting of what in industrial relations would be described the “unitary perspective” (Storey and Sisson 1993). According to Farnham and Pimtott’s “the essence of the unitary theory of industrial relations …  is that every work organization is an integrated and harmonious whole existing for a common purpose” (1990, p. 4). This line of thinking is in coherence with horizontal learning network that likewise promotes inter-organizational social exchange.

In the Netherlands the government stimulates higher education and organizational learning via budget incentive ( When the actors create this harmonious environment and increase the organizations’ social legitimacy, interests of external actors in the form of union and government agents will be satisfied. Furthermore, in aforementioned environment, shop floor employees and managers will have overlapping but also contrasting needs of development. It is up to the HRD professional to create an environment where all members of the organization have the opportunity to learn and develop themselves so that their interests are fulfilled.

 Team level

Teams are “collections of individuals who are interdependent in their tasks . . . share responsibility for outcomes . . . and who manage their relationships across organizational boundaries” (Cohen & Bailey, 1997, p. 241). Learning on team level is the linking pin between learning on organizational level and individual level (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). According to Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995), teams are essential for organizational innovation. Furthermore, teams, leadership, and social networking can be seen as crucial components of learning (Preece & Iles, 2009). Therefore, teams are key to successful learning (Oltra & Vivas-López, 2013), and HRD professionals should focus on optimizing teams as effective as possible.

The HRD professionals should focus on establishing creative, open environments within teams (Oltra & Vivas-López, 2013), to enhance the invention of innovative solutions. Furthermore, a supportive team environment must be promoted in order to let the shop floor employees express their ideas and solutions (Iles, 2008; Oltra, 2005). Concerning the enhancement of knowledge sharing, the HRD professionals should focus on creating a flow of information and learning between different teams (Bontis, Crossan, & Hulland 2002). HRD professionals could organize special trainings to enhance team bonding, and thus creating an environment of trust (Newell, Tansley, & Huang, 2004) to increase knowledge sharing. In this manner, the interests of shop floor employees (for instance to be heard and develop themselves by expressing ideas) are taken into account by the HRD professionals.

The HRD professionals are dependent on the managers to further support the environment of creativity and knowledge sharing. HRD professionals should learn and guide managers in new ways of thinking, such as letting employees be more autonomous (Oltra & Vivas-López, 2013), in order to increase efficiency. In this manner, the HRD professional meets the interests of the managers. The influence HRD professionals have on team level is in line with horizontal learning. The combination of an open environment and autonomy enables learning by reflecting on problems and solutions (Poell & Van der Krogt, 2010). For instance, the horizontal dimension conveys itself in self-managing teams, whereby team members are responsible for both the management and the team effectiveness (Hackman, 1987).

Individual level

HRD professionals will have a dominant role in affecting the undertaken activities and the way they are delivered to and evaluated by shop floor employees and managers (Garavan, Collins, & Brady, 2003). HRD should be aware of the fact that organizing work-related training is not just about adjusting people to their workplace. Instead, they should emphasize more on empowering the employee to strengthen the employees’ professional and work development (Poell et al., 2000).  Furthermore, HRD professionals influence to what extent employees are involved in the construction of learning and development programs (Poell et al., 2000). Moreover, they should acknowledge the fact that not all employees are capable, willing, and demanding to learn continuously (Poell et al., 2000). For example, the demand for different types of learning differs greatly between low skilled and high skilled jobs (Poell et al., 2000).

The employee creates coherence and meaning by engaging in new learning-relevant experiences and/or by the reflection on past experiences (Poell & Van der Krogt, 2010; Van der Krogt, 2007). This means that every single employee creates their own learning path and therefore differences in interests among employees exists. Aligned with liberal learning, individuals are enabled to express their interests and wishes. For instance, shop floor employees could suggest a more basic training, such as window decoration, whereas managers could be more interested in leadership training.

Employees are increasingly concerned about their employability and career advancement (Schneider & Bowen, 1985). Furthermore, employees who are well trained and embedded in their professional discipline have more possibilities to stay employed in interesting jobs (Poell et al., 2000). For these reasons, learning is always to some extent in the interest of the managers as well as the shop floor employees. The managers benefit from having skilled subordinates. Shop floor employees also benefit from the emphasis on learning in organizations because it increasingly secures employability and enhances career opportunities (Schneider & Bowen, 1985).


These days jobs have become broader and more complex and the need for more autonomous team based problem solving is required (Bouwen & Fry, 1996). Therefore, we argue for a combination of liberal and horizontal learning network (Poell & van der Krogt, 2010). HRD professionals should include teamwork to improve the organic horizontal learning in an organization since “effective teams may well outperform groups of ‘talented’ individuals” (Pfeffer, 2001, p. 21). Additionally, HRD professionals should include individual interests to enhance liberal learning in an organization. Concluding, management should refrain from using HRD as just a tool for learning in organizations, but instead should see it as base for liberal and horizontal learning at all levels for increasing competitive innovativeness.



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