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Implementing an outcomes approach to postgraduate learning: An organisational learning framework

Margaret Nowak and Rick Ladyshewsky
Graduate School of Business
Curtin University of Technology


Developments in information technologies are posing significant challenges to the traditional course delivery mechanisms of universities.

In responding to these challenges individual schools face strategic decisions about their own responses to the burgeoning options for technologically mediated delivery. To a large degree, in the Australian context, schools have faced these decisions "alone". The decisions they make are strategic decisions about the change process they themselves engage with. The decision by some schools to engage with technologically mediated learning delivery implies that the school will embark on a major learning journey itself.


It is useful to look at this phenomenon as "strategic renewal" (Crossan, Lane & White, 1999 p522). Crossan et al argue that organisational learning is a principal means for achieving strategic renewal. Renewal, they argue, requires the organisation to explore and learn new ways while concurrently exploiting what they have already learned.

Organisational learning then supports the organisation's purpose, is shared among its members and the outcomes in the form of organisational knowledge and process become embedded in the systems and culture of the organisation (Snyder & Cummings, 1998).

In Figure 1 below an outline of the organisational learning cycle is derived:

Figure 1

Figure 1. Derived from Snyder & Cummings (1998) and Crossan, Lane & White (1999)

Crossan et al argue that organisational learning is multilevel (individual, group/team and organisation) and these must be linked through social processes and actions. This is illustrated in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Social processes and actions
(derived from Snyder & Cummings, 1998 and Crossan, Lane & White, 1999)

Social cognitionActivity LevelProcess/action
Crossan et al




Snyder et al (1998)




Individual recognition


. Develop
shared understanding
embed in the organisation

(pattern, possibility)

(verbalise, develop

(seminars, dialogue,
joint action)

(systems structures,

Crossan et al point out that cognition and action are interrelated in organisational learning, a position supported in alternative learning frameworks such as action learning. For example, Revans notes "learning is best achieved by people with similar problems working together as 'comrades in adversity' " (see Mumford 1997, p4).

In the interrelation of cognition and action, context is important. Crossan et al emphasise "communities of practice" (1999, p7). Brown and Duguid (1996) argue that the "central issue in learning (in the workplace) is becoming a practitioner not learning about practice" (p69); they make a strong case, based on a series of case studies, for the central place of context in learning.

Thus, learning in the context of the work place necessarily involves practice and is facilitated by "a community of practice" where interaction both stimulates and authenticates that learning.

Case study

The 'community of practice' in this case study is a community of academics who work with mature students in an MBA. The elements required for the process of organisational learning are the skills of the practitioners (eg. curriculum design, classroom interaction, etc), their cognitions (eg. discipline content, knowledge of learning styles, assessment instruments, etc) and the organisation systems (classes, unit outlines, etc) for product delivery.

This case study encompasses the processes of learning associated with the School's response to the potential of the Internet as a medium to facilitate learning.

The approach taken is to look first at the documentary record held by the School to determine the "documented history" of the development. A focus group was then held with staff involved in the process. The objective of the focus group was to identify what, for the professionals involved, were the key steps in the process, in a retrospective analysis and without access to the historical record. The focus group also asked staff to outline the impact they perceived on their professional practice.

The "history" of the learning (from the documentary record)

Stage 1:

December 1997 School Retreat - Subject, scan the environment for new developments, thus surfaced Internet facilitated learning.

How could the school take advantage of this competitively?

Issues surfaced were: Classroom contact - what (if any) is the unique value to learning of classroom contact with the academic?

Internet facilitated learning - what can be developed to replicate what is important in the classroom? Are there Internet activities which have an advantage over classroom activities.

What is important for/to our students?

Action 1: brainstormed a list of generic outcomes which staff felt were dependent on classroom facilitated interaction.

Action 2: reconvene to look at classroom interaction in relation to the MBA.

March 1998: Reconvened meeting - one staff member proposed a review of what the graduating MBA "would look like" as a starting point to any analysis of online and face to face delivery.


This has the hallmarks of the intuiting phase; individual participants reacted to the "trigger" of online opportunities by recognising the effect on the learning facilitation process and the learning achieved; this process led to the "discovery" that there needed to be a clear focus on the "generic outcomes" for the course to provide guidance in the new context of online learning facilitation.

The dialogue established among practitioners in this case led to individual recognition; "pattern identification/solution possibilities".

Stage 2:

December 1998: School Retreat - School made decision to apply for a Curtin Learning Effectiveness Alliances Program (LEAP) grant to assist move its MBA Course to mixed mode with an online component. School won the LEAP Grant for this purpose, January 1999.
March 1999: Centre for Educational Advancement facilitated workshop to discuss the LEAP project. Presenters discussed outcomes and reinforced the position the School had come to that learning outcomes the MBA graduate would manifest as a result of learning at GSB will provide guidance for developing a mixed mode delivery.
March 25: Facilitated school workshop with Rob Baker, designed specifically to develop 'outcomes', identified preliminary list of 5 'desired' learning outcomes.

Action: Working group established to further review.

May/June: Revised "generic learning outcomes" distributed and feedback collected.
August: Workshop to finalise generic learning outcomes;
Matrix developed to look at where in the course these were already covered, determine gaps, etc.


This was the interpreting phase of individual and group learning. The initial idea was followed by workshops, outside experts, group discussion, individual feedback and continued iterations. The School began to be able to verbalise and develop language around the original idea and developed its first complete iteration of "learning outcomes" for the MBA..

Stage 3:

March/May 2000: Pace of unit development for the mixed mode program picked up. Noted by one academic that despite the work done on generic outcomes and the matrix, the published MBA learning objectives and unit learning objectives were unchanged. Outcomes were not yet integrated in staff practice.
May 10, 2000: Learning Outcomes Workshop facilitated by education expert. Theory relating to the use of "learning outcomes" to guide content and assessment discussed. Demonstrated the approach using work of another area. Literature provided to staff.

Action: Existing 5 outcomes refined and expanded to 6.
Action: Decision to replace objectives on all published materials with outcomes.

May/June 2000: Working Party refined and circulated the outcomes Learning Outcomes use to develop the specific outcomes for Economic Analysis and Asian Economies 550. Demonstrated need for a seventh knowledge related outcome.
Staff Meeting July 2000: Staff meeting discussion relating to finalised list of outcomes. Seventh outcome relating to knowledge acquisition added.


This phase seems to involve bringing together of the individual idea with the group and the organisation. It corresponded to the "integrating" phase. In this phase the use of an education expert, literature plus dialogue and seminars occurred . There was a decision to replace an "existing process" with the new process. It seemed to be recognised both individually and by the group that in the work of developing and understanding this revitalised way of looking at the course, the School also had achieved guidance for decisions on assessment and delivery to learners which, when assimilated, had the potential to add value to learning.

Stage 4:

July 2000: At a staff workshop integration of outcomes with the teaching/learning program was demonstrated using the work of one staff member on one unit (Economics Analysis and Asian Economies 550). This demonstration showed how outcomes would be reflected in assessment criteria and in the management of class contact and on line learning facilitation. It was agreed at this workshop that the outcomes would be included in the Schools unit outline template and hence all unit outlines.
August 2000: Icons were developed for each outcome (7 in all); learning outcomes incorporated into the flexible learning website as they relate to the course as well as the unit outline templates.
November 2000: Workshop - Director of Master of Leadership and management (MLM) requests to workshop learning outcomes for the MLM; brainstorming using technology (work ongoing).


In this final phase 'outcomes' became embedded organisationally through the unit outline template and migration of the "outcomes" concept across to the MLM. This accords with the "institutionalising" phase. A further development at the same November workshop was a proposal for both courses to have a culminating "practice" unit. It was recognised that measurement of "culminating" outcomes (Spady, 1994) achieved by students would be facilitated by the development of practice based projects as the capstone unit which students in both MBA and MLM will take.

Focus group

The focus group discussion was conducted in November 2000 to review, retrospectively, the organisational learning from the perspective of those involved. One objective was to identify, from the viewpoint of participants, critical points in the learning journey. Two questions were put to the focus of the group:
  1. What were the steps in the organisational learning process as viewed retrospectively?
  2. What has been the impact for each of those involved in the full process on their own professional practice.
Trigger: A definite trigger for the development was identified by the focus group as occurring in December 1997 in a brainstorm session; the group identified and put a value on face to face classroom interaction. It was noted that Professor Whiteley raised prior learning and asked us to identify what the GSB "value added".

The next point recognised was a 1999 Staff seminar with Centre for Educational Advancement (CEA) staff following the success of the LEAP application. Staff recalled that this covered a range of educational theory (including Bloom's taxonomy) and "sensitised us to the need to develop outcomes".

Staff recalled that there was then a subsequent staff seminar. This presentation deliberately avoided description of alternatives and a new paradigm was presented. Rob Baker presented the School of Education 'outcomes' as information. "At this time we had committed to 'outcomes' for the MBA (May 10, 2000).

The staff recalled this was followed by a "session in the strategic decision laboratory" and involved three iterations "to get the MBA outcomes list". It was noted that when Margaret Nowak applied the "outcomes" to a specific unit and suggested a gap appeared at the application phase, viz "knowledge outcomes", that was when we "reviewed and finalised" seven overarching outcomes.

Adoption: "Leap pushed it along, made it happen".


The retrospective view does support the 4 Is view of this example of organisational learning. The focus group was able to identify a trigger and the initial intuiting phase.

The interpretation phase for those staff involved clearly focussed around a seminar which advanced a number of aspects of educational theory as background to a strategic move to mixed mode learning.

Integration appears to have commenced subsequently at the point where "a new paradigm was presented" and continued in the following iterations.

Implementation for the group can be interpreted as occurring at around the point where a trial on one unit led to modification. At this point the outcomes were an integrated part of the organisation product.


What does the story tell us about organisational learning?
In an area of professional practice, such as teaching, where practice itself becomes very focussed in the individual activities and particular classes, it may be important to deliberately develop opportunities for the group to focus on strategic issues in professional practice. However it seems likely that in this case the original "intuition" was not going to be developed further as organisational learning until it was "rediscovered" in a series of professionally focussed seminars for the group. This "interpretive" phase, which was an organisationally triggered phase, was critical to further practice development. The historical record tells us that the original "intuition" had lain fallow for over a year. Nevertheless, when reactivated through an organisationally managed intervention that original trigger was still identified.

Weick and Westley argue "learning moments and spaces tend not to be obvious precisely because they retain vestiges of order, routine and expected exploitation ... what keeps them from being nothing but business as usual ... is the uncovering of forgotten meaning, hints at flaws or limits in current practice" (1996 p450/1). The experience of this case study accords with a process which is 'unplanned' and opportunistic.

How do staff perceive practice has been impacted?
The regime as it is experienced by students has been changed as a result; for example, reassessment of the value of closed book exams has occurred and questioning of the volume of material delivered is now important in staff decision making.

However two other important issues raised by staff can be summarised as:

  1. the process has helped to develop staff sensitivity to general issues of educational practice in a way which should continue to reverberate in new insights;

  2. the approach provides a rationale for decisions about delivery and content which can be conveyed to students.


Brown, J. S. & Duguid, P. (1996). Organisational learning and communities of practice. In Cohen, M. D. & Sproull, L. S. (Eds), Organisational Learning. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks.

Crossan, M. M., Lane, H. W. & White, R. E. (1999). An organisational learning framework: From intuition to institution. Academy of Management Review, 24(3) pp522-537.

Mumford, A. (1997). Action learning as a vehicle for learning. In Mumford, A. (Ed), Action Learning at Work. Gower, London, pp3-24.

Snyder-William, M. & Cummings-Thomas, G. (1998). Organisation learning disorders: Conceptual model and intervention hypotheses. Human Relations, 51(7), 873-895.

Spady, W. G. (1994). Choosing outcomes of significant. Educational Leadership, 51(6), 18-23.

Weick, K. E. & Westley, F. (1996). Organisational learning: Affirming an oxymoron. In Clegg, S. R., Hardy, C. & Nord, W. R. (Eds), Handbook of Organisational Studies. Sage Publications, London.

Appendix A

What was the impact for each of you on your own professional practice?
Authors: Professor Margaret Nowak
Director, Graduate School of Business

Dr Rick Ladyshewsky
Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Business
Curtin University of Technology

Please cite as: Nowak, M. and Ladyshewsky, R. (2001). Implementing an outcomes approach to postgraduate learning: An organisational learning framework. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/nowak.html

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