Senior leader influence on organisational learning: the employees’ perspective

Waddell, Alex
Pio, Edwina
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Master of Business
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Auckland University of Technology

Today, the world is changing at an ever increasing rate. Not only is change “happening faster, it is more dramatic and dynamic than ever before” (Adcroft, Willis, & Hurst, 2008, p. 40). For many organisations, there is only now an awakening to the future which consists of seismic changes in business operating environments, workforce demographics, and levels of employee mobility (Herstatt, Schwarz, & Verworn, 2009). Therefore, if organisations are to remain relevant and viable in the marketplace, they must be able to learn and adapt internally (e.g., by improving systems and processes), and externally (e.g., learning about competitors, and market demands and trends) (Grobler, Grubner, & Milling, 2006). Based upon the premise of organisations needing to learn and adapt to remain viable in the marketplace, the purpose of this thesis was to explore what influence senior leaders have on organisational learning. The link between senior leaders and organisational learning is of growing importance because it is the senior leaders who are typically viewed as accountable for the short and long-term success of an organisation (Vera & Crossan, 2004).

This thesis was based upon a case study of one New Zealand owned Information Technology company. Data were collected from employee interviews and secondary sources. The employees selected to participate in the interviews were the direct reports of at least one senior leader within the organisation’s senior leadership team. The questions employed during the interview process were primarily based upon Lichtenthaler’s (2009) organisational learning themes of explorative, applicative, and transformative learning. To supplement Lichtenthaler’s transformative learning theme, the concepts of ‘looped’ learning (e.g., single, double, and triple loop learning) and mental models were included. In conjunction with the three themes of organisational learning, Bass & Riggio’s (2006) transactional and transformational leadership model was also utilised. Upon completion of the interviews, participant comments were categorised through a thematic analysis. To complement participant responses, secondary sources such as company documents, media releases, newspaper articles, and blog comments were also analysed.

The findings of the thesis demonstrated how senior leaders influenced organisational learning. This influence was primarily through personnel attributes such as relationships, communication, and organisational culture. Another way senior leaders influenced organisational learning was through operational practices such as systems, tools, and organisational processes. In relation to leadership styles, senior leaders’ transformational leadership was primarily associated with explorative and transformative learning, while the senior leaders’ transactional leadership styles were largely associated with applicative learning. What was interesting was that both the transactional and transformational leadership styles had a direct influence on participants’ attitudes and behaviours toward all three learning themes.

The findings from this study have contributed to the existing knowledge under the broad umbrella of organisational learning. It has outlined a set of implications for academia and management practitioners. These implications included implementing certain organisational systems and processes only if they enhance employees’ ability to learn, to view learning as an interconnected system, and to employ leadership styles based upon specific situations and environments. Possible avenues for future research have also been provided.

Organisational Learning , Leadership , Qualitative , Interviews
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