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2009 What the HR literature tells us about reflective learning

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Presentation at UFHRD 2009

Presentation at UFHRD 2009

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  • Purpose – This paper sets out to review the HR journal literature in relation to the promotion of reflective practice at work for performance improvement. The key questions here include whether educational institutions which are happy to promote reflection as a key improvement practice tool can justify the hyperbole and demonstrate practical benefits in the workplace from reflective practice, or whether talking about reflection, and assessing reflective practice belong more comfortably in the domain of Higher Education and professional institutions’ attempts at CPD. Design/methodology/approach – Three major subject-relevant online databases: EBSCOHost, Business Source Premier and Emerald were used, in addition to publisher databases, such as Wiley Interscience and Sage Premier, to search the academic HR, HRD and management development literature over the last five years. High quality academic journals were the main focus for the review, including Human Resource Management, the International Journal of Human Resource Management, Human Resource Development Quarterly, Human Resource Management Review, the Journal of Human Resources and Personnel Review among others. Additional academic and professional literature found through these databases to relate to the promotion of reflective practice was also searched, to give a wider background context to the HR literature search.  Findings – Articles which related to the topic of reflective practice were systematically reviewed for their key themes, research methodology and practical recommendations. The HR literature is predominantly focussed on the teaching of reflective practice, mainly in educational institutions, rather than practical strategies for promoting reflective practice in the workplace. There is nothing wrong with this as a legitimate and important objective; however if as academics we believe in the tremendous importance of reflective skills development, we should also be able to spot opportunities to develop practical reflective tools for performance improvement. Other literature as disparate as workplace learning, healthcare professions, project management and engineering offer alternate perspectives on practical approaches to reflection and its relevance to performance improvement. In particular, notions of coached, critical, facilitative and collective reflection were reviewed for their potential impact on promoting reflection as a performance improvement tool. Research limitations/implications – Only journal articles were reviewed, rather than published books in the field, although the legacy of Schön (1983) in particular is to be found widely in journal publications.  Practical implications – This paper is intended to support research into reflective strategies in the workplace by identifying gaps and opportunities in the literature, but also assessing the extent of practical interventions discussed in this body of work. While there is strong agreement on the benefits of reflective practice, it is hard to find good studies which show implementable solutions which can capture the benefit of notions of experiential, critical and reflective learning within the constraints of the modern workplace. There are opportunities for Human Resource Development practitioners and researchers to address this gap.    
  • Background   “HRD is a field that values reflective practice .., questioning assumptions.., and embracing change...” (Bierema 2005)  “..reflective and critical thinking practices could be the most significantcomponents of transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991).”  “(reflection) bridges practical knowing and theoretical knowledge about practice.” (Schultz 2005).  The purpose of this paper was not to reiterate the broad traditions of reflective practice, there are many good references on this (including Sambrook & Stewart 2008, van Woerkom 2008, Schultz 2005, Brookfield 2000). Rather the intention was to look beyond the theoretical exposition of reflective practice into the workplace and find out how this was operationalised. Anecdotal experience suggested relatively little practical reflective activity embedded in workplace learning. Studies of reflective practice in Higher Education abounded, but there seemed to be less literature which followed up the practice on the job. Surely if universities believed so strongly in the practice of critical reflection, there was a place for it in practical HRD? Or perhaps the workplace was too complex a context for critical reflective practice? Having had some experience of trying to introduce deadline-hitting, KPI and action-focussed managers to the practice and benefits of critical reflection (Greener 2007), I set out here to review the HR literature to look for practical help and advice based on sound theory. 
  • Methodology The approach to literature search began with the HR and HRD literature as this was where workplace learning and development was expected to feature strongly, if critical reflection was likely to have a beneficial impact on performance. Accordingly, three major subject-relevant online databases: EBSCOHost, Business Source Premier and Emerald were used, in addition to publisher databases, such as Wiley Interscience and Sage Premier, to search the academic HR, HRD and management development literature over the last five years. High quality academic journals were the main focus for the review, including Human Resource Management, the International Journal of Human Resource Management, Human Resource Development Quarterly, Human Resource Management Review, the Journal of Human Resources and Personnel Review among others. Additional academic and professional literature found through these databases to relate to the promotion of reflective practice was also searched, to give a wider background context to the HR literature search.  A total of 19 journals associated with HR including HRD were searched for the keyword “reflective practice”. Seven of these journals did not offer articles relating to reflective practice over last five years, at least not in relation to workplace learning, although some offered articles on the use of reflective practice in educating practitioners in Higher Education. Eight additional journals offered articles relating to reflective practice – clearly one of these – Reflective Practice - was entirely devoted to this domain and offered a wide range of articles relating reflective practice to learning at work, of which a selection were reviewed for this paper. Other domains notably included healthcare/clinical professions journals in which reflective practice plays a significant formative role. Other titles revealed by the search included fields ranging from project management, or small business to marketing, all recognising the role of reflective practice in developing sound practice.  
  • Findings Those journals offering articles focussed on reflective practice in the workplace were reviewed to establish main purpose or theme, research methodologies and methods, and practical recommendations. Each of these headings is discussed below. Themes and purposes: Table 1 showing main themes on reflective practice for workplace learning in the HR/HRD related literature (2005-2009)Journal , Article title,Authors, Date, publisher, Purpose/themeAdvances in developing human resourcesScenario-based strategy in practice: a frameworkvan derMerwe, L.2008Sage PublishingTo review best practice guidelines for scenario planning. Proposes scenario planning as a way of reaching improved quality thinking by looking below events and at underpinning patterns of behaviour and system structures.Development and Learning in OrganizationsWhat is the problem? Chew it as food for thought..lessons for workplace learningYeo, R.K.2009EmeraldTo explore reflective-action learning process impact on performance.Education and TrainingThe transition from higher education into work: tales of cohesion and fragmentationHolden, R & Hamblett, J2007EmeraldTo explore the transition from HE to workHRDITechnical Rationality and Professional Artistry in HRD practiceSadler Smith, E & Smith, P.J.2006RoutledgeTo distinguish practical reflection from a technical rationalist (plan do review) approachHuman Resource Development ReviewCritiquing Human Resource Development's Dominant Masculine Rationality and evaluating its impactBierema, L.2009SageTo claim dominant masculine rationality in HRD and critique this from critical feminist perspective - over emphasis on performative developmentIJTDSustaining critically reflective HRD practitioners: competing with the dominant discourseCorley, A. & Eades, E.2006Blackwell PublishingArgues for critically reflective HRDJournal of European Industrial TrainingMethods to enhance reflective behaviour in innovation processesVerdonschot, S.G.M2006EmeraldAims to find practical recommendations in literature on using reflective tools to develop innovatory practiceJournal of European Industrial TrainingPostgraduate education to support organisation change: a reflection on reflectionStewart, J., Keegan, A. & Stevens, P.2008EmeraldUse of reflective journals in teaching and assessing reflective practice among professional HR practitionersJournal of European Industrial TrainingLearning institution to learning organizationYeo, R.K.2006EmeraldTo explore whether reflective enquiry and action learning affect work performance and organisational effectivenessJournal of European Industrial TrainingCritical reflection in the workplace: is it just too difficult?Rigg, C., & Trehan, K.2008EmeraldTo explore critical reflection's contribution to organisation developmentJournal of European Industrial TrainingLet’s not get too personal: critical reflection, reflexivity and the confessional turnSwan, E.2008EmeraldTo identify value of debates on critical reflection for pedagogic practiceJournal of European Industrial TrainingDeveloping critical reflection in professional focussed doctorates: a facilitator's perspectiveSambrook, S. & Stewart, J2008EmeraldTo explore critical reflection in management education and developmentJournal of Workplace LearningFacilitating conversational learning in a project team practiceSense, A.J.2005EmeraldTo report outcomes of learning to learn conversations intended to lead to critical reflectionJournal of Workplace LearningLearning in complex organisations as practising and reflectingSchultz, K.P.2005EmeraldTo study the relationship between practising and reflectingPersonnel ReviewOperationalising critically reflective work behaviourvan Woerkom, M. & Croon, M.2008EmeraldTo operationalise critical reflectionHuman Resource Development ReviewCritical reflection and related higher level conceptualisations of learning: realistic or idealistic?van Woerkom, M.2008SageTo review traditions of critical reflectionHuman Resource Development ReviewProcess: Integrating the Concepts of Individual Learning and Learning: A Theoretical Approach to the Organizational Knowledge FormationHoon Song, J., and Chermack, T.J.2008SageTo establish link between individual learning and organisational learningHuman Resource Development ReviewThe Development of Group Interaction Patterns: How Groups Become Adaptive, Generative, and Transformative LearnersLondon, M. & Sessa, V.I.2007SageDevelopment of group interactionHuman Resource Development ReviewReconceptualizing Developmental RelationshipsRock, A.D. & Garavan, T.2006SageTo look at development relationships to produce typologyMentoring and TutoringLeadership mentoring and situated learning: catalysts for principalship readiness and lifelong mentoringBrowne-Ferrigno, T. & Muth, R.2006RoutledgeTo identify readiness to take on headship (principalship) in schoolsJournal of Vocational Education and TrainingMaxims, tacit knowledge and learning: developing expertise in dry stone wallingFarrer, N. & Trory, G.2008RoutledgeHow learning is acquired in specific craft vocational context (dry stone walling)
  • We can see from Table 1 that there are not too many articles related to reflective practice in the workplace. Most of the above offer a useful review of earlier literature on reflective practice, usually choosing literature which supports or relates to the proposition of the theme. Using the portals described above to search for literature, a broad range of non-HR journal articles in this domain were revealed, a small selection of their themes are noted in Table 2 below. Table 2 Main purpose or theme in non-HR literature relating to reflective practice in the workplace Development of reflective practitioners in project managementImpact of self-regulated learning theory on reflective practice in nursingPresents a model of reflective learning in marketing based on Kember and Mezirow.Evaluates effects of innovation programmes in manufacturing SMEsReviews undergraduates’ use of Blackboard™ to reflect online (public health and social care)Reviews reflection in action on the job Reviews faith development in relation to reflective practiceIntroduces reflective practice in health promotionProposes that reflective practice can and should be taughtTests reflective practice groups externally facilitated over six months, healthcare professionals developmentScenarios presented in groups for discussion - initially to help pre-service teachers develop practical knowledge construction, then used with more experienced teachers to promote deeper reflection Table 2 themes and purposes are broadly similar to the HR literature – these articles also provide literature reviews on reflective practice and rehearse often similar ideas about application of reflection to the workplace. However it proved easier to find articles on reflective practice in journals relating to healthcare and clinical professions than it did in the HR literature. Why should this be? Clearly reflective practice is well-established a development method in training clinical practitioners: why is this not such a feature of management development? 
  • Methodologies By far the most common approach in both the HR and non-HR literatures reporting on reflective practice was to undertake a small case study or multiple case studies, or simply to undertake a literature review. Where articles sought to propose a political, social or methodological viewpoint, for example in critical reflection there is frequent reference to feminist research perspectives, then such articles frequently chose simply to present logical argument supported by references relating to perceived dominant discourses. Other methodologies in this domain included surveys, interviews with stakeholders in organisations and focus groups, methodologies being largely qualitative or interpretative. There were two examples in this small collection of action research methodology, and two of claimed ethnographic approaches to case study development.
  •  Practical applications Such applications were few and far between, even when articles seemed to set out with a practical purpose. However there were some advocates for the use of coached reflection: times for structured questions to support reflective practice, many drawing on Bourner’s earlier paper in Education and Training (Bourner 2003) which offered 12 questions to trigger reflective thinking. Structured questions were found in several articles to help individuals avoid self-indulgence and solipsism in reflective journal writing. There were also several advocates for a longitudinal approach, including references to learning journals and diaries, which was surprising in a workplace context as these, though common in Higher Education assessment of reflective practice, are less likely to fit the time commitments of managers and other professionals at work. Nonetheless there were cases made for programmes of up to six months in which individuals would be able to get used to their interviewers, or develop habits of reflection by revisiting journals or reflective questions over a period of time.  Action learning (Revans 1982) was widely acknowledged in this group of articles as promoting reflective practice in the workplace, based on Kolb’s work on experiential learning. Some authors advocated a version of action learning (such as reflective practice groups) which despite the move away from action learning ground rules and system, nonetheless still encouraged participants to identify current problems and share the task of problem solving. Several papers mentioned the vulnerability this implied, as people have to open up to sharing mistakes and difficulties, seeing this as a pre-requisite to effective reflective learning. Scenario-building or envisioning was another practical suggestion for reflective practice, allowing a move away from always reflecting based on past experience, and focussing on personal and professional reactions to possible futures. Other practical strategies proposed included story-telling, critical incident analysis, looking for discontinuities and break-throughs and formative evaluation. There was a strong thread of positive psychology running through some of the proposals, building on the concept of appreciative enquiry (Whitney and Trosten-Bloom 2003), focussing on what has gone well and why, rather than focussing on the traditional post-mortem approach of workplace reflection. Several papers advocated the use of a mentor or facilitator to enable reflection and there was a strong flavour of group and socially situated reflective practice, rather than remaining at the level of individual experience. The complexity and fragmentation of managerial work in particular brought with it suggestions for group or network-based developmental relationships to make sense of problems and experiences and draw metacognitive outcomes. One article (Russell 2005) identified five conditions of work environments which would be conducive to reflection in action: autonomy, feedback, interactions with other people, pressure and momentary solitude.
  • Conclusions This search has yielded some practical ideas for stimulating workplace reflection yet few papers to date seem to tackle the complexity and time pressures of local contexts, albeit acknowledging these issues. The more politically or methodologically driven papers argue strongly for more critical HRD in the workplace, but often fail to offer a way forward. Case study papers are interesting but embedded in local context and hence may be difficult to apply to other workplaces. We could suggest that the emphasis in Higher Education on reflective practice will train and develop the managers of tomorrow into good reflective habits, but somehow I cannot see them maintaining their learning journals into mid-career, unless required to do so by professional bodies for CPD. There is a genuine need on the basis of this short paper for further research into practical ways to encourage people at all levels of responsibility to develop reflective thinking, building on some of the suggestions mentioned above and conducting evaluative research for influences on both organisational performance and sustainability. References Bierema, L. (2005) 'Women's Networks: A Career Development Intervention or Impediment?' Human Resource Development International, 8, (2), 207-224Bourner, T. (2003) 'Assessing Reflective Learning', Education and Training, 45, (5), 267-272Greener, S.L. (2007) Helping managers to discover the value of reflection: professional and academic approaches contrasted, Universities Forum on HRD (UFHRD) 2007. Oxford, UK, June 2007. Revans, R. (1982) The Origins and Growth of Action Learning. Chartwell-Bratt: London.Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action. Temple Smith: London.  Note: full references from the study can be supplied by the author but are not included here for brevity. 
  • Transcript

    • 1. What does the HR literature tell usabout promoting reflective learningto improve performance?Dr Sue GreenerBrighton Business SchoolUniversity of BrightonS.L.Greener@brighton.ac.uk
    • 2. The point• Can educational institutions justify the hyperbole about promoting reflective practice as a performance improvement tool?• Do talking about reflection and assessing reflective practice belong more comfortably in HE and professional CPD than in the workplace?• Searched online and publisher databases for relevant journal articles from 2003-9
    • 3. The assumptions “HRD is a field that “..reflective and values reflective critical thinkingpractice .., questioning practices could be the “(reflection) bridges assumptions.., and most significant practical knowing and embracing change...” theoretical knowledge (Bierema 2005) components of about practice.” transformative (Schultz 2005). learning (Mezirow, 1991).”
    • 4. Literature search19 Journals associated with HR/HRD searched viaESBSOHost, Business Source Premier, Emerald plusWiley Interscience and Sage Premier 7 had no recent articles on reflective practice in relation to workplace learning 8 non HR journals offered such articles, including the main journal Reflective Practice Main domains outside HR: healthcare/clinical practice, project management, small business, marketing
    • 5. Figure 1. Situating themes in the HR literature on reflectivelearning for the workplace Theory E.g. Aims to find practical E.g. To establish recommendations link between in literature on individual learning using reflective and organisational tools to develop learning innovatory practiceSpecific context Generic context Eg. How learning is acquired in E.g. To specific craft operationalise vocational context critical reflection (dry stone walling) Practice
    • 6. Aims in non HR literature:•• Development of reflective practitioners in project management• Impact of self-regulated learning theory on reflective practice in nursing• Presents a model of reflective learning in marketing based on Kember and Mezirow.• Evaluates effects of innovation programmes in manufacturing SMEs• Reviews undergraduates’ use of Blackboard™ to reflect online (public health and social care)• Reviews reflection in action on the job• Reviews faith development in relation to reflective practice• Introduces reflective practice in health promotion• Proposes that reflective practice can and should be taught• Tests reflective practice groups externally facilitated over six months, healthcare professionals development• Scenarios presented in groups for discussion - initially to help pre-service teachers develop practical knowledge construction, then used with more experienced teachers to promote deeper reflection
    • 7. Methodologies in these articles• Small case study or multiple case studies• Literature review• Frequent reference to feminist research perspectives• Surveys, stakeholder interviews, focus groups, action research, ethnography• Most from qualitative, interpretivist paradigm
    • 8. So were there practical applications to improvingworkplace performance?Some advocates of coached reflection using structured questions –avoid self-indulgenceSome advocating longitudinal approaches: logs, diaries – how do theyfind the time?Group approaches: action learning/reflective practice groups, networkrelationships – vulnerability?Scenario-building/visioning/story-telling to achieve breakthroughthinking – commit to creativityMediation through mentor/facilitator – cost?Focus on positive psychology – appreciative enquiry rather than post-mortem
    • 9. Conclusions• Few papers to date tackle complexity and time pressures of the workplace• Much argument for more critical HRD in workplace, few ways forward• Much case study with little possible generalisation• HE encourages reflective learning habits but how sustainable are they into the workplace?• Genuine need for research into practical strategies for reflective thinking in workplace designed to improve performance

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