Transformational Learning and Change

Learning and change are two areas which are closely linked in practice as well as in research. This is why I decided to kick off my blog with a post about the work of Jack Mezirov, Robert Keagan and other researchers who explored the differences between informational and transformational learning and the associated implications for anyone who wants to support transformational change in people and – by extension – organizations. This is a longer post as it sets up a number of topics I want to discuss in future posts.

What is Learning?

Before we get into the thick of transformational learning, I would like to introduce the (rather broad) definition of learning as used by Knud Illeris, Professor for Educational Research at Roskilde university and imminent learning theorist. He defines learning as

‘…covering all processes that lead to relatively lasting changes of capacity, whether they be of motor, cognitive, psychodynamic (i.e. emotional, motivations or attitudinal) or social character, and which are not due to genetic-biological maturation.’ (Illeris, 2003)

Using this definition, one can argue that any type of change requires some form of learning!

Most of this discussion is based on two chapters in the book Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words edited by Illeris:

  •  What form transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning by Robert Keagan
  • An Overview of Transformative Learning by Jack Mezirov.

Let’s begin by looking at different types of learning. In his chapter, Keagan provides an excellent overview:

Informational Learning

This type of learning is the most frequent. For most individuals, it starts during childhood and continues throughout their entire life, with particularly busy learning periods during school, university, professional training or the acquisition of a new hobby.

According to Keagan, Informational Learning changes what someone knows, often with the aim of addressing a technical challenge. The what can consist of factual knowledge, abilities or behaviours.

Transformational Learning

Transformational Learning happens less frequently in most individuals’ lives. It is different in that it influences our frame of reference (other authors refer to it as frame of mind). It changes how we know.

Frame of Reference

In his chapter Jack Mezirov defines a frame of reference as involving

  • a habit of mind – the criteria applied by an individual to decide whether a position is justified or not (this can be subconscious)
  • a resulting point of view (this is usually more outwardly visible)

Keagan adds that a frame of reference isn’t a purely logical construct but can encompass emotional, social and moral aspects which guide an individual’s assessment of information and situations.

Mezirov emphasizes that changing a person’s frame of reference should never be a purpose in and of itself. The change should always be motivated by providing the individual with a better ‘mindset’ to deal with the situation she/he is facing.

At this point I won’t go into the different ways people build their frames of reference because this will form part of a future post related to the social aspects of organizational minds.

To summarize:

Informational Learning Transformational Learning
    • Results in a change of knowledge and/or behaviour
    • Results in a change of frame of reference
    • Addresses ‘technical’ challenges
    • Addresses ‘adaptive’ challenges
    • Changes ‘what’ we know (within an existing frame of reference)
    • Changes ‘how’ we know by restructuring the frame of reference

While Informational Learning involves ‘meaning-forming’, Transformational Learning (and the resulting transformational change) involves changing the ‘meaning-forming’ process. These two types of learning serve very different purposes.

What useful insights can we draw for change and learning activities in organizations?

Implications for Adult Learning and Change Management projects

Keagan argues that in order to support adult learners on their journey, it is important to understand

  1. Past: their previous transformational path – How did previous learning and change initiatives go in this organization? What did people experience? What do they remember most?
  2. Present: their current frames of reference – In which way do the organizational culture and people’s individual characteristics (age, years of service, educational background, nature of day-to-day work, etc.) influence their ‘meaning-forming process’?
  3. Future: the impact of the challenges they are facing on their frames of reference. Does the situation require informational or transformational learning? If so, how much? How does is vary between different groups?

In practical terms, planning a successful learning or change project in an organization has to involve an analysis of peoples’ previous experience with change and learning in general, and their relationship to the particular subject. Only then can we determine the type of learning and change interventions required as well as the pace of change that is feasible .

Understanding an Organizations’ Change Past

In my experience, workshops with sub-sets of change targets to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of previous change initiatives are an excellent way of gauging the organizations change and learning history (item 1). I believe in identifying potential change agents as early as possible in the change process and making this activity an integral part of the change network kick-off event. It sets the expectation that lessons learned from previous initiatives are recognized as valuable input and provides a forum to share concerns in a constructive way.

Asking change agents to work in small groups to complete sentences like ‘Previous changes in our organization were…’ or ‘The last transformation initiative resulted in…’ allows them to provide feedback on a broad range of topics, from factual results to personal experiences.

The way working groups are formed for this activity determines the output that can be gleaned from the analysis:

  • Mixing change agents from different parts of the organization allows for a wider sharing of experiences and more creative brainstorming
  • Function-specific work groups tend to provide more insight into the very different ways change was previously experienced by different parts of the organization.

This type of exercise provides a great starting point to explore the present state.

What is the present state like?

This is where the change agents are asked to describe their current daily work environments. Prompts like ‘How we do things today’ or ‘What are the unwritten rules, the traditions, ways of working we apply? What is important/the priority in our daily work? How do we know we’ve done well? What behaviours do we encourage in our teams? ‘ usually illicit the information required to draw a picture of current frames of reference as they apply to the organization.

This type of activity should always involve looking at the advantages and disadvantages of the status quo as a path into the next activity which aims to visualize the benefits the change initiative will provide.

The reasons for change identified by organizations’ senior leaders rarely resonate with the employee groups most affected by the change. Finding out their daily pain points and hopes for improvement provides the change practitioner with the grass roots levers to use as motivation for change.

Organizational culture is an extensive topic of research in itself which I hope to address in more detail in a future post.

The nature of the transformation ahead

There are a few questions we can ask ourselves to determine the nature of the change:

  • Is an addition to or deepening of existing knowledge or behaviours sufficient to prepare the change targets for the future state?

Informational learning requirements can be addressed with the traditional tools for organizational learning, ideally taking into consideration any new technology or learning approaches which suit the respective environment and generational learning preferences (digital learning, self-serve learning, post-learning reinforcement through communities of practice, etc.). Many experts have explored this area of learning and there are abundant resources online.

  • Will the change targets have to ‘unlearn’ part or all of their current understanding of their daily work activities?

This process is not just an intellectual challenge but also emotionally draining. People who used to think of themselves as knowledgeable and competent within their area if work have to go through a period of half-knowledge and frequent mistakes. Minimizing anxiety and keeping the in-between state as short as possible are key to a successful transformation that involves un-learning and re-leaning. Plan to provide positive experiences and numerous small victories on the way. Change targets need to see an upward trend at all times and get plenty of positive reinforcement, particularly from their peers and direct supervisors.

  • How much of their existing understanding and perceptions can be re-used to form part of the new reality they will be dealing with?

Spending time early in the process (and using the insights gained through the change agent workshops) to find analogies and transferable aspects between the old and the new can save a lot of energy later by reducing anxiety and resistance to the change. Sometimes all it takes is the right angle to see how the new process/ environment allows the application of existing skills.

For example, a factory belonging to a global manufacturing company might pride themselves on being at the forefront of shop floor innovation and process improvement practices. Why not look at the introduction of an Enterprise Resource Planning system with the same lens?

Not: But:

‘Corporate HQ is forcing this one-size-fits-all system down our throat which won’t really work for us anyway. We will have to remind them why this can’t be implemented without serious negative impact on our numbers.’

‘We live a tradition of taking on engineering challenges and competitive pressure from other manufacturers’   ever-evolving products every day. We can use our experience in process improvement and creative problem solving to design a new way of working that supports the new reporting requirements. Let’s show HQ what process excellence across the board looks like!’

If transformational learning is required, a more in-depth analysis should be conducted to answer additional questions:

  • Which parts of the change targets’ frames of reference need to be changed to make them successful in the modified environment?
  • Where do these elements of their frames of reference originate from? Longer-held beliefs tend to be more deeply engrained and take longer to change.

Changing frames of reference is a difficult process which has to be tailored to the specific situation at hand. Support during the transformation can come from:

  • Role Models within (or outside of) the organization who have already adopted the new frame of reference
  • Rewards for behaviours that originate from the new frame of reference
  • Emphasizing the growth and development aspect of the new frame of reference – where else would it beneficial outside of the work environment?
  • The use of story-telling to provide a common language and imagery for the journey ahead
  • Structuring the transformation to involve entire groups of change targets, so that social cohesion is kept where possible and early adopters can inspire and motivate the others. Depending on the environment, this could involve communities of practice and social media. Give everyone a specific role within the transformation so they feel needed

If transformational learning is required, Mezirov argues that the role of the educator is to support some of the principal aspects of the process:

  • Transformation learning happens mostly subconsciously – educators should help make it apparent to learners
  • Transformation learning requires ‘dialectical discourse’ to validate learners’ judgments – educators should encourage frequent exchanges between learners

I would appreciate your feedback and comments on this post.



Illeris, K. 2003. Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. Int. J. of Lifelong Education 22 (4):396-406

Keagan, R. 2008. What form transforms? A constructive-developmental approach to transformative learning. in Illeris, K. editor. Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge

Mezirov, J. 2008. An Overview of Transformative Learning. in Illeris, K. editor. Contemporary Theories of Learning – Learning Theorists…in their own words. 1st ed. London and New York: Routledge


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