International Journal of HRD Practice, Policy and Research 2018, Vol 3 No 1: 23-42 doi: 10.22324/ijhrdppr.3.105
Examining Experiential Learning and Implications for Organizations
Alina M. Waite, Indiana State University
The scholarly literature on experiential learning has soared since the 1980s, yet evidence-based data on its use and practice in organizations remain limited. The goal of this study was to fill the research void by examining empirical graduate-level research using a bounded qualitative meta-synthesis framework. Forty documents were retrieved by an unlimited date search of the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT) Global™ digital database using the terms “experiential learning” AND “management” to answer the overarching research question: What can we learn by examining doctoral dissertations and master’s theses on experiential learning in the context of organizations between 1991 and 2015? Analysis of the coded data revealed three central themes: (a) learning from experience, (b) experiential learning interventions, and (c) experiential learning outputs. An integrative framework highlights the significance of experiential learning for organizations from a human resource development perspective. Practical implications are offered around individual competencies, learning processes, and learning outputs.
Key words: xperiential learning programmes, organizations, reflection, action research, leadership development, performance improvement.
Experiential learning, simply defined as the process of learning by doing (Kolb, 1984), has continued to gain broad acceptance and respect in a wide range of situations over the last several decades. As experiential learning has become more prevalent, a field of related scholarship has also evolved (Illeris, 2007; Lewis & Williams, 1994; Moore, 2010). Despite the history and breadth of the experiential learning literature (Dewey, 1934; Kolb, 1984; Seaman et al., 2017), particularly in the context of education, evidence-based data on its use and practice within organizations remain limited (Gitsham, 2011; Holmqvist, 2004; Larsen, 2004). Moreover, to the author’s knowledge, studies reporting results of graduate-level research examining experiential learning in the context of organizations are nonexistent. While it is recognized that doctoral dissertations and master’s theses produce empirical results and are generally considered worthy contributions, their works are seldom disseminated through peer-reviewed journal publications (Park & Timmons, 2008). The oversight by graduates to report original research diminishes opportunities to contribute new knowledge, inform practice and policy, and help advance a field (Maynard et al., 2012; Rocco & Hatcher, 2011).
To draw on the untapped potential of such contributions and thereby address the gap in the literature, this paper begins by briefly reviewing experiential learning. Second, it examines 40 dissertations on experiential learning by using a bounded qualitative meta-synthesis framework to answer the overarching research question: What can we learn by examining doctoral dissertations and master’s theses on experiential learning in the context of organizations between 1991 and 2015? Third, the paper describes three emergent themes: (a) competency development, (b) experiential learning interventions, and (c) learning outputs, revealing how empirical, graduate-level research might add to our understanding of experiential learning. These findings are based on input from a range of newly hired and experienced professionals — team members, managers, senior executives, fire chiefs, medical officers, and human resource development (HRD) practitioners, who represent several types of organizations located in different countries — see Appendix for an overview of the dissertations’ degree granting institutions, methodology, and brief abstracts. An integrative framework highlighting the findings illustrates experiential learning as a learner-centered process within the organization. Fourth, it articulates the significance of experiential learning for organizations by offering actionable interpretations to HRD scholars and practitioners, OD consultants, management professionals, trainers, and others interested in learning and development. Last, final remarks underscoring the powerful potential of experiential learning for organizations are provided.
Experiential approaches to learning have received substantial attention from scholars since the latter half of the twentieth century. The essence of experience originated in part from John Dewey’s (1934) work: “Those situations and episodes that we spontaneously refer to as being ‘real experience’ … It may have been something of tremendous importance … or it may have been something that in comparison was slight” (p. 205). In 1946 Kurt Lewin and associates pioneered action research as a new form of collaboration between researchers and community leaders that involved a two-week workshop to help improve civic policy (Seaman et al., 2017). David Kolb’s 1984 book proposed an experiential learning theory (ELT), which was inspired by the Lewinian Experiential Learning Model of creating and recreating knowledge (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). Learning as an emergent process is also consistent with Jean Paiget’s description of cognitive development (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). ELT is identified as a holistic approach to learning, which follows an active and adaptive process. Through this process, individuals construct knowledge by transforming experience through perception, cognition, and behavior (Kolb, 1984). Recognizing the critical nature of experience, Kolb (1984) posited “Learning, the creation of knowledge and meaning, occurs through the active extension and grounding of ideas and experiences in the external world and through internal reflection about the attributes of these experiences and ideas” (p. 52). Reflective practice moves beyond alternative human actions that yield a similar result (i.e., single-loop learning) to recreation of social structures in light of the appropriateness of the intended result (i.e., double-loop learning) (Greenwood, 1998). Today, experiential learning practice is widespread and proponents continue to introduce its various forms to diverse professions.
Different forms of learning with an embedded experiential component include action learning (Yeo & Marquardt, 2015; Yorks et al., 1999), action research (Maurer & Githens, 2010), and corporate adventure training (CAT) programmes (Gass et al., 1992). Although workplaces take advantage of experiential learning with the goal of increasing individual, group, and organizational performance, there remains a dearth of related evidence-based data reported in the literature to help inform practice and further research beyond that of theoretical papers and a few case examples (Matsuo 2015; Pless et al., 2011). Searching reports on completed graduate research provides a viable alternative to peer-reviewed journal publications, especially if one considers the numbers of postsecondary degrees conferred continue to rise. According to The Condition of Education 2017 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, for example, the number of doctoral degrees awarded between 1994-95 and 2004-05 increased by 17.6%, from 114,266 to 134,387 (McFarland et al., 2017). Moreover, the number of doctoral degrees awarded between 2004-05 and 2014-15 jumped by 32.9% to 178,547 (McFarland et al., 2017). Graduate degrees typically culminate in a capstone experience and for a doctoral degree, most research is prepared as dissertations and reviewed by committees.
A bounded qualitative framework guided this study on graduate-level research around experiential learning in the context of organizations. The approach was initially employed by Banning and Kuk (2009) to explore student affairs organizations and has since been utilized by other researchers in a variety of contexts.
Sampling and data collection
A data set originated from the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses (PQDT) Global™ digital database by querying subject headings using the search terms “experiential learning” AND “management”. Adding the latter term effectively screened for experiential learning studies situated in an organization context. The unlimited date search yielded 68 English records between 1991 and 2016; one duplicate was eliminated and four records published in 2016 were omitted. Excluding the four records that were published during the same year the search was carried out ensured the final data set accounted for all completed works submitted to the ProQuest’s UMI Dissertations Publishing group through to 2015. Scanning the records for relevancy narrowed the data set to 36 doctoral dissertations and four master’s theses (collectively referred to as dissertations hereafter). The study was thus bounded by (a) a category–experiential learning framed within an organizational context, and (b) a twenty-five-year period between 1991 and 2015. Bibliographical data, abstracts, and complete records in PDF format were subsequently exchanged from EndNote™ to NVivo™ software for data analysis.
Full-text dissertations were examined. Qualitative document analysis (QDA) as an emergent methodology framed this study (Altheide et al., 2008). Template analysis helped to organize and analyze the textual data (King, 2004). This set of coding techniques utilized a list of theme-categories (i.e., template), some of which were defined a priori while others were induced. Inductive codes emerged using the constant comparative approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Different strategies were considered to protect this study’s trustworthiness. Bowen (2009) cited several advantages to using documents including, but not limited to, lack of obtrusiveness and reactivity, stability, and exactness.