Transformational Learning: Not the usual song and dance.

It would be impractical for one to consider a topic inquiry that includes workforce development or human performance improvement without asking the question: Why do so many organizational change efforts fail?

Organizational Development and Change

Asumeng and Osae-Larbi (2015) sought to answer this observation during their study of four of the prevailing ODC theories. The researchers found that, regardless of the approach, methodology, or unpinned theory, in order for an organization to move from the status quo – it must change.

Organizations must accept that ODC, when done properly, will seek to engage the organization and its member in ongoing and creative processes. Organizational leaders must be ready and able to develop, adapt, and position their organization to respond appropriately to the both internal (employees) and external needs (customers).  Finally, organizations willing to make such changes must be ready to assume control of their destiny by moving from the past and walking into the future transformed (Asumeng & Osae-Larbi, 2015; Burnes, 2015; Burnes & Cooke, 2012).

Transformational Learning

Well. Sounds good.  But, how could something like that happen?

According to theorists, transformation learning could lead the way. Jack Mezirow (1996) first articulated his theory of transformational learning while researching a women’s prisoner reentry program in the 1970s. Based on his observations, Mezirow explained, in the absence of knowledge, habits of the mind and resulting points of view govern human actions and interactions.

Habits of the mind are those broad-based assumptions that become ingrained into our psyche as a result of our personal experiences. Habits of the mind include our moral consciousness, social and societal norms, philosophies on life, and views about the world.  

Points of view are those attitudes, beliefs, and judgments we develop to support our sense of self and our values. Points of view include bias, prejudice, beliefs, and perspectives that lead us to conclude “that’s just the way things are and it unlikely things will ever change.”

Transformational Change Process

Mezirow suggests individuals must consciously decide to break free of these binding barriers to personal growth by committing to an often-uncomfortable course of action: transformative learning. Mezirow’s theory argues, for someone to truly change, they must:

  1. Face a disorienting dilemma
  2. Undergo self-examination with feelings of guilt, shame, pain, or anger
  3. Make a critical assessment of their epistemic (knowledge), sociocultural, and psychological assumptions
  4. Negotiate the need for change with like-minded individuals to ensure the transformation is socially acceptable
  5. Collaboratively explore options for replacing old ideas, values, and beliefs with new roles, relationships, and actions
  6. Create a course of action to implement the personal transformation
  7. Acquire the knowledge and skills for implementing the transformation plans
  8. Try taking on the new transformed values, beliefs, and morals
  9. Continue to practice their new selves in a variety of situations and under diverse circumstances to build confidence in their new perspectives
  10. Reintegrate into their lives as a new and transformed individual (Owen, 2016, p. 1)

Whoa. If that process sounds difficult for an individual, imagine how scary all of this could sound to an organization.

Transformational Change and Action Research

Waddill, Banks, and Marsh (2010) opine that future trends, such as increased globalization and competition, are instigating the need for organizations to engage in deliberate strategic planning, leadership development, and technology integration. Otherwise, they may not be able to survive (p. 262). Waddill, Banks & Marsh recommend organizations consider Lewin’s (1946) action learning approach as a possible vehicle for sustainable organizational change (Waddill, Banks & Marsh, 2010).

Referring back to Asumeng & Osae-Larbi’s description of Lewin’s eight-step action research model (p. 33-34), one could get the impression that Mezirow’s ten-step transformational learning theory could be integrated into Lewin’s action learning theory framework – including the provisions for institutionalization of transformational organizational change (Asumeng & Osae-Larbi, 2015).

Moreover, Brooks (2004) also appears to have come to this conclusion. Brooks highlighted the problem-solving aspects of Lewin’s action learning as a possible steps in the transformational learning process and would appear to be particularly useful during human development efforts (p. 216 – 217). Brooks supported her position by citing research by Dilworth and Willis (2003) who found that transformational learning characteristics emerge from organizations that successful undergo the active research growth process. Specifically, Dilworth & Willis was cited by Brooks as concluding that the much-pursued outcomes of: immediate transfer and application of learning; the ability to use and adapt to new expressions and terminology; the act of reflective journaling; and the tendency to learn from individualized self-direction all appear to emerge as outcomes of the action learning process (Brooks, 2004, p. 218).  (That sounds very, very good to me.)

Jennie’s Perspective

Back to the question: Why do so many organizational change efforts fail?

I think organizational change efforts fail because, as the above research attests, change is something that is really very difficult for both individuals and organizations. So, if it is one’s intent to transform an organization, its culture, and its people, you will need the knowledge, skills and abilities of a change agent.

Change agent? That sounds simple, right?

Not according to the above research. My perspective is that any OD practitioner that dares to step to the transformative change rostrum must understand that process must be orchestrated with diligence and care.

Therefore, I advise caution when attempting to undertake organizational change and transformative development of its workforce. Decades of research indicates changing organizations and its people is not the usual “song and dance”.

You will need to know what you are doing.  

I’m just sayin’


Asumeng, M. A., & Osae-Larbi, J. A. (2015). Organization development models: a critical review and implications for creating learning organizations. Eur J Train Dev Stud, 2, 29-43.

Brooks, A. (2001). Narrative Dimensions of Transformative Learning.

Burnes, B. (2015). Understanding Resistance to Change – Building on Coch and French. Journal of Change Management, 15(2), 92–116. (Links to an external site.)

Burnes, B., & Cooke, B. (2012). Review Article: The past, present and future of organization development: Taking the long view. Human Relations, 65(11), 1395–1429.

Dilworth, R. L., & Willis, V. J. (2003). Action Learning: Images and pathways.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education1997(74), 5-12.

Waddill, D., Banks, S., & Marsh, C. (2010). The future of action learning. Advances in developing human resources12(2), 260-279.

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