Conference PaperPDF Available

‘Dancing in the Goldfish Bowl: boundaries to effective learning’,

i.e. is there actually a dance or not? Is it elective or reactive
Cook and Brown?
Dr. Deborah A. Blackman
University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia
Dr. Liz Lee-Kelley
University of Surrey, UK
Diane Phillips
University of Canberra, Canberra, Australia
This paper considers the invisible boundaries that limit effective learning, arguing that
learning is messy, unpredictable and often haphazard, but that it often appears to be
planned and organised. Using qualitative data gathered from the Australian hospitality
education industry examples are given where the observer may perceive a formal,
practiced and performed ‘dance’ between the individuals and the organisation, but
where the reality is somewhat different.
Initially Cook and Brown’s model of the epistemological dance is used to analyse the
formal processes in place within the case organisations, demonstrating that there is an
apparently observable dance of knowledge creation. Analysis of the cases elicited
safety, functionality, opportunity and relationships as themes that affected the
potential for learning and knowledge creation across both the organisations,
irrespective of their context. Using the metaphor of a goldfish swimming as the
individual, the water as the organisational culture, the ornaments as organisationally
determined issues affecting learning and the bowl as the boundary between the
organisation and the environment further analysis reveals that what had initially
looked like a dance is more akin to conditioned responses with little knowledge
emergent. The paper concludes that unless the prescribed dance is initially suitable for
the context and supported effectively the apparent dance of learning will, in fact,
merely be the gentle meanderings of pretty fish.
An important contributor to corporate competitiveness is the ability of one company
to learn faster than others and to use their knowledge effectively (Altman and Iles,
1998; Pemberton and Stonehouse, 2000; Senge, 1990). This presupposes that an
organisation and its employees recognise and accept the need to be flexible and
receptive to change. For organisational change there needs to be new knowledge
acquired by individuals, enabling changes in behaviour (Blackman, 2005). New
knowledge is gained via learning processes within the organisation (Senge, 1990;
Blackman 2001) which are triggered by some perceived difference that lead
individuals to amend the mental models they currently hold of the world (Klimecki
and Lassleben, 1999). Much of the organisational literature assumes an open system
of learning, capable of recognising, assimilating and using new knowledge. However,
there is an argument that such openness should not be taken for granted as issues such
as power, culture, previously held strong mental models, individual or organisational
blind spots and managerial preferences will change the direct links between
something to be learnt and the actual knowledge outcomes (Lee-Kelley and
Blackman, 2005; Wagner, 1993). Barriers to learning limit processes (Senge et al.,
1999) by creating invisible boundaries (Wagner, 1993) which in this paper we call the
“goldfish bowl” effect. While acting as a repository of knowledge, it acts as a physical
barrier to new learning and knowledge. That is, the apparent clarity and fluidity of
idea or knowledge and the ‘dance’ of collaborative learning between actors within it
shields new knowledge from outside from being recognised.
This paper considers the boundaries that limit effective learning, arguing that learning
is messy, accidental, unpredictable and often haphazard, but that it often appears to be
planned and organised. We will argue that the difference is because of their
“invisibility” which leads to reactions at the boundary that are not well understood.
Using qualitative data gathered from the Australian hospitality industry, examples are
given where the observer perceives a formal, practiced ‘dance’ performed between the
individuals and the organisation, but where the reality is somewhat different.
Initially, this paper will consider potential barriers to learning and explain why such
barriers emerge. Their invisibility will also be discussed developing the metaphor of
the goldfish in a bowl that will then be applied to the data presented later. The data
will then be used to identify different limitations to learning that are actually created
by the implementation of the processes and systems themselves.
A great deal has been written about learning and much of it assumes a model whereby
ideas, experiences, new data etc. are identified and then acquired by individuals and
converted into new knowledge which can be applied to the organisation in some
useful way via processes of organisational learning (figure 1).
Current Knowledge
Open Process of
Figure 1: Model of Learning and Knowledge Acquisition Source: Blackman (2001)
The processes of this may vary (Easterby-Smith, 1999; Fiol and Lyles, 1985; Huber,
1991) but the sequencing and acceptance of acquisition are agreed. However, this
makes two important assumptions: firstly, an open system whereby anything that is
available will be accumulated and used appropriately and, secondly, that those
involved in the learning process are both aware and are managing them in a logical,
predictable way.
However, there is considerable evidence that neither of these assumptions is always
valid. Reasons for learning being limited include: the concept of ‘bounded rationality’
where understanding is constrained by an actor’s inability to process new ideas that
are not related in some way (Simon, 1991); the needs to unlearn what is already
known if new ideas are to be assimilated and applied effectively (Hedberg, 1981;
Nystrom and Starbuck, 1981); rejection of new ideas by the potential learner from
doubting their accuracy or the source (Blackman and Henderson, 2004 and 2005);
power relationships leading to the rejection of new ideas (Coopey, 1995, 1996) and
pre-emption by the organisation which leads to ideas being rejected as ‘not useful’ as
they were not what was wanted (Blackman 2001; Blackman and Phillips: 2007).
Despite there being an appearance of learning, any one, or a combination, of the
above can delay or prevent effective learning. When doubts are present, either new
ideas are rejected outright or put aside as they enter the system; they are not
recognised or stored by the individuals and the learning processes, thereby losing the
potential advantages from new knowledge.
We liken this limited learning process to the metaphor of a goldfish ‘dancing’ in a
bowl. A goldfish swims or dances around in its bowl in an apparently predictable way.
The dance metaphor is often used in organisational learning literature (Alred, Garvey
and Smith, 1998; Turner, Mavin and Minocha, 2006; Rowland, 2004). Metaphorical
features include the requirement for improvised cooperation between dancers
leading, following and synchronicity, to develop a relationship between the dancers,
to display the steps to the best advantage and to portray the dance accurately. Dance is
considered to be “a definite succession or arrangements of steps and rhythmical
movements” which is regulated in some way (Oxford English Dictionary, 1991: 387).
It is as a result of such rhythmic and predictable processes that using the metaphor as
a way of framing ideas or behaviours leads to the anticipated outcomes that include:
increased learning facilitated by frameworks that enable exploration (Alred et al.,
1998), the ability to express more freely (Mosak and Ramussen, 2002) and the ability
to create new ideas (Cook and Brown, 1999; Rowland, 2004). In the case of the
goldfish its repetitive pattern of swimming is symbolic of a dance with its
encompassing set of apparently predictable behaviours and practices.
However, appearances can be deceiving. A goldfish is unaware of the confines of its
bowl given its well-known short-term attention span; it would have forgotten anything
it saw on one side of the bowl before it reaches the other. It turns around because there
is an impediment: the glass or possibly an ornament designed to make the bowl
attractive is in its way. The turning action is instinctive and reactive rather than
elective. Dancing around the objects and within the bowl, its movements are
haphazard and random, despite apparent choice and patterns.
It could be argued that mathematically it is possible to plot a pattern and, therefore,
predict its movements as a goldfish’s actions are responses to stimuli and not driven
by cognitive choice. That is, goldfish are ‘unconscious’ of their own actions and
behaviour. In this paper we use the elements of the goldfish bowl metaphor to
elaborate the randomness of the ‘dance’ of the fish, arguing that it is not a predictable
series of learning patterns applicable in a dance such as the Viennese Waltz. We
suggest that learning is haphazard, unmanaged and incidental, occurring primarily
within one’s immediate environment. We caution that although learning often
resembles a fluid waltz leading the casual observer to assume that planned learning is
occurring and knowledge is being created, acquired and utilised, the value and utility
of that learning needs to be examined.
Cook and Brown (1999), on the other hand, argue that there are four distinctive types of
knowledge based upon the numbers involved and the locus of the knowledge (i.e. internal or
external to those holding it) (see figure 1). They argue that for new knowledge to be created
the knowledge needs to be moved from square to square (the order may vary) in order to
generate new knowledge in the other squares.
Individual Group
Explicit Concepts Stories
Tacit Skills Genres
Figure 1: Four Forms of Knowledge Source: Cook and Brown, 1999
This dance generates the process of knowing which leads, in turn, the generation of
something new. We observed what types of knowledge could be traced for each square and
whether there was evidence of the dance.
There research considered whether, where there were processes in place apparently
supporting learning, limitations to the processes actually led to reactive results that
did not develop new learning and ideas. The nature of knowledge to be collected
during the research was exploratory in nature; consequently a qualitative approach to
the collection data was adopted in order to develop an understanding of the
phenomena (Creswell, 1994; Leedy and Ormrod, 2005). This study’s data explores
whether the learning and knowledge creation processes apparently in place within
certain organisations are as effective as they may at first appear.
The foundation for this paper is empirical data gathered from two case studies in the
hospitality education industry. They were chosen, as they were similar sized
institutions that provided a similar product: however their contexts were quite
different. Case 1 reflects, at the time of the data collection, a very positive set of
expectations or psychological contract (Rousseau, 1995 and 2001) between the
employees and the organisation. This was elicited by the analysis of metaphors that
were described to the researchers during the data analysis process. In all cases, when
asked for the metaphor, the respondents gave positive metaphors of their relationship
with their employer. In Case 2 this was not the situation; the metaphors were very
mixed and the psychological contract had been recently breached during a time of
considerable change. The comparison was sought as it meant that, if there were
common themes across the case studies, the limitations were not purely because of the
perceptions that the respondents had of the organisation at the time.
These qualitative studies were undertaken using in-depth semi-structured interviews
and focus groups from a variety of stakeholders within and around the hospitality
education industry. Within the two studies, nine focus groups and 14 interviews were
undertaken that involved over 50 participants in total, representing 50% of the total
staff of the two institutions. Each focus group and interview lasted between 45-60
minutes. Those included were current hospitality managers, Hospitality and Tourism
higher education and vocational educators, administrators and students training to be
managers who are all currently, or have recently been, in employment within the
hospitality industry, in either large and small hospitality or hospitality education
organisations; each interview selection reflected the same population as the focus
groups of the focus group respondents. Similar questions were asked in each data
collection method and used as a comparative process to the group data. This enabled
the data to be correlated, in order to establish that there were no material differences
in the responses in each data collection method. This proved to be the case (i.e. the
data was similar in each mode of collection) and so it was not considered necessary to
interview all the respondents but to cross reference the data from the interviews and
the focus groups.
Respondents were invited to discuss how they conceived of knowledge, how it was
shared, when they would or would not share it and how knowledge was created.
Questions also addressed the notion of boundaries to new knowledge and learning
what they were in general, how learning was for the individual in certain
circumstances and how it was seen as affecting the issues on knowledge, growth and
learning in the organisation. They were also asked what processes were in place to
support learning so that a comparison could be made between the managed,
apparently observable dance of learning and where, in fact, it was merely random
In both Case 1 and Case 2 the managed learning systems were a mixture of formal
processes of training education derived from agreed appraisal outcomes and informal
discussions emerging at both meetings and social interactions. In developing the data
respondents were asked to consider all processes, not merely the formal and, where
appropriate, to compare the two. The objective was to ascertain whether there was
actually any learning and, if so, if what planned or merely accidental.
The data was entered into NVIVO and coded, enabling an analysis using axial coding,
where codes and categories are put together in new ways by making connections and
identifying where points of change occur (Pandit, 1996), and thematic coding (where
common ideas and patterns are linked together into sets or themes (Miles and
Huberman, 1994). From this coding patterns emerged which permitted a range of
issues to be explored and the development of a model that links knowledge creation
potential to boundaries and limitations for effective knowledge building and learning.
These themes included safety, functionality, opportunity and relationships all of which
we seen to be affecting the potential for learning and were common across both the
organisations, irrespective of their context. The axial points emerged as the elements
of the metaphor – the boundaries being the organisational environment, the fish bowl
ornaments being the barriers to learning in and the role and the actual individuals
within the organisation were the fish. WATER?????
Initially the formal processes used will be mapped to the Cook and Brown (1999)
model to indicate the apparent dance. The paper then uses the goldfish bowl metaphor
to consider whether this processes are effective and, if not, what else is emerging.
Cook and Brown (1999), on the other hand, argue that there are four distinctive types
of knowledge based upon the numbers involved and the locus of the knowledge (i.e.
internal or external to those holding it) (see figure 1). They argue that for new
knowledge to be created the knowledge needs to be moved from square to square (the
order may vary) in order to generate new knowledge in the other squares.
Individual Group
Explicit Concepts Stories
Tacit Skills Genres
Figure 1: Four Forms of Knowledge Source: Cook and Brown, 1999
This dance generates the process of knowing which leads, in turn, the generation of
something new. We observed what types of knowledge could be traced for
each square and whether there was evidence of the dance.
The findings will be laid out by axial point exploring the four themes within it. A
relationship encompasses the interactions between the fish(es) and the organisation,
their social networks and relations, the internal and external community, the
organisation. Safety considers whether the fish(es) felt safe and secure when
undertaking learning within the organisational context. Functionality addresses the
perceived usefulness of the learning to both the individual (a sole fish) and the
organisation (as the environment in the bowl and the other fish). Opportunity
describes whether there is a realistic possibility of learning taking place in terms of
access to ideas, time to reflect etc. It considers the reality of the fishes’ existence and
the potential for real learning.
The Bowl
The bowl is conceived as the environmental boundary that restricts the movements of
the fish. It is created externally to the individual by those usually outside the fishbowl
itself. It will inevitably lead to the fish having to react in its swimming and change its
pattern thereby seeming to dance. Moreover, the boundary will act as a barrier to new
ideas entering the water and will retain what is already known.
The first aspect that came out very strongly was an expectation by individuals that
whether they could learn or not was affected by what was expected of them; if the
other fish swim in a certain direction then they should too. As such, patterns reflect
that they had to respond to the organisational demands, informal and formal relations
and the behaviours of others in the structure as well as the everyday ebb and flow of
the business. Moreover, their role in the organisation pre-determined what learning
they should undertake. The espoused version of their role would impact upon their
learning ‘what they ought to do’ as well as the reality of their every day job.
Furthermore, the expectation of role and its relationships are linked with knowledge,
power differentials and the expectation of high levels of learning is a strong one. The
organisational chart in Case 1 reflects such power aspects: we have our positions…
but when it comes to sharing knowledge it doesn’t matter who you approach, they are
all eager to help…everybody is one the same level…I feel more able to share
information…”; as I feel we are on the same level and can contribute to the
The direction and sharing of information, learning and pre-judgement of “on a needs
to know basis” (Case 2), is both a conscious and sub conscious action and is directly
related to role. In role relationships” I am a traffic cop… I make decisions about who
and what I share” (Case 1). It is a deliberate act based on pre-judgement and issues of
confidentiality which were determined as important in terms of role, trust and respect.
The perceived importance of the confidential information was also linked to role and
strong judgemental decisions that were made as to what tended to be passed on and to
whom. Role also indicated issues of managing upwards and the level of pressure on
supervisors advised the actor of the level of sharing.
One aspect of the ability to learn was related to ‘no blame’ and ‘no fear’ cultures. This
is clearly cultural and will emerge from the values and norms set by the leadership. It
was made clear that leaders need to actively demonstrate the safety they propose,
whether in terms of being seen to undertake development in order to encourage
knowledge acquisition, or in actively supporting those who undertake sharing initially.
‘Walking the talk’ was seen as vital in order to ensure that the relational aspects
pertinent to the individual expectations were actively enabling safety.
Other aspects of culture were also discussed in Case 1: There’s such a welcoming
aspect to the culture as well, and even when somebody new starts, well …welcome
into the family… one…not just sitting you down and expecting you to do your
job.. you know, every department joins in, wants to get you know you, there is that
relationship, that trust built in…and the respect…”. As well as the culture making
people feel that it was permissible to make mistakes, the culture also enabled
individuals to feel accepted by their colleagues. It was stressed that “I can be me”
(Case 1) and that it was not about aligning with organisational goals or managerial
positions but that it wasthe way you are; not having to change” (Case 1). Another
aspect was whether sharing had been positively or negatively responded to
previously: how my manager received things last time [will affect it] Case 1. Case
two demonstrated this latter idea well, having a culture where staff were not respected
and where attitudes to new ideas had changed.
The different cases demonstrated the impact of power differentials in very different
ways. In the Case 1 there was a perception that there were low power differentials
throughout the organisation (symbolised by a relatively flat organisational structure)
leading to a preparedness to share and learn. It was stressed that they all felt that their
manager was not only trustworthy, but that she was approachable: “I know I can go to
[General Manager] and say, what about this, and she’ll listen and take it seriously”.
The stress upon the family metaphor was explained by some as relating to the fact that
there were no great divides between groups or levels within the organisation.
Everyone could feed into the decision-making process by giving feedback to their
groups and or teams as appropriate.
In Case 2 the need to be seen to be busy was about gaining apparent control over the
environment and redressing a perceived power imbalance. In this organisation, there
was a strong hierarchy and positional power (French and Raven, 1959) was very
strong with formal structures being the predominant management and control system.
Experts had to report through six levels, many of whom they would perceive to be
inexpert in their field. This led to individuals regaining power through their
relationships with students. It came out very strongly that, in order to serve their
clients (the students), they needed to be busy all of the time as these were the
demands of the business. However, closer reflection indicated that this was about
demonstrating expert and personal power (French and Raven, 1959) that could not be
used elsewhere and was not respected by senior management. This led to ever
increasing reactiveness to the students and a lack of long term proactivity reflecting
the organisational goals as the boundary had become ‘being busy’ in order to be
perceived as worthy.
Another aspect of the safety of being able to swim further afield and challenge the
glass boundary was about an attitude related to the acceptance by others of your place
within the bowl and, if appropriate, the shoal. This encompasses the feelings of threat
that may occur if relationships are not good. These are not so much the feelings of one
individual to another, but are more about the culture of the group as a whole. Such
reactions will be about views as to other types of fish or sharks within the space and
the positional power of such others (Smith, 1987).
The recognition of others (or possibly self) in the glass and moving back into the bowl
as a result is also an issue. As goldfish have no cognition or awareness of self, when
they see other fish in the glass (or people on the other side) this will be enough to
startle and cause confusion in their perception of role. This was seen in the second
case where the high levels of hierarchy led to concerns as to role and place even
when there were no such real differentials. Where there was anxiety as to role and
value the individuals recoiled from the direction they were moving (swimming) in and
stayed with the majority avoiding swimming against the tide, avoiding the ornaments
and consequently, away from learning.
There was a view held by several people that organisational competition engendered a
reduction in sharing as it would give power to others: “If there’s a competition I
wouldn’t share” (Case 1);If you have a boss who takes credit for something you’ve
done then you wouldn’t [share]” (Case 2), Structure of the organisation was also seen
to be affecting knowledge creation and innovation in terms of silos and competition
between parts of the organisation “initially we were very territorial, the established
schools were nervous about us arriving” (Case 1). This speaker went on to explain
that at senior level this nervousness had been overcome earlier as they had spent time
together: “We’ve met again quite a few times and we talk on the phone and that sort
of thing, so I think in that sense there’s still a little bit of wariness, but generally
speaking I think we … can be brought together quite well” (Case 1).
In Case 2 it was argued that a new unclear hierarchical organisational structure,
combined with new policies and procedures were actively working against the
development of a learning culture. Reasons for this were that the dissemination of
information becomes much harder and is controlled by one or two key people.
Moreover, these leaders are seen to take credit for the work of others and it is,
therefore, not seen to be worthwhile to make the effort to learn and create new
knowledge, as it will not be an advantage to the learner. In addition, there were low
levels of decision making at all levels except by senior management, where all
decisions making took place without consultation.
The importance of both culture and leadership emerge at this point. In Case 1 where
there was a positive psychological contract between the employees and the senior
management there was a culture that worked to overcome competition and reduce
structural impediments in order to achieve the organisational goals and values.
However, in Case 2 where there were increasing concerns regarding the new
leadership style this was not the case; increasingly employees were feeling less able to
be creative and, consequently, reverted to be apparently very busy but with no actual
likelihood of change and development.
This links to the notion of manager’s goals in terms of the more senior employees
indicating what is of value to them and the organisation. What will matter is that there
is a clear message being developed which will indicate to those within the
organisation that all ideas are welcomed. “For myself I find that leaders in an
institution make a big difference” (Case 2) was the opening part of an explanation that
in a previous job the individual had felt that there was no interest in what he did. As
such, he did not feel predisposed to get involved, share or learn. Where there was
direct leadership involvement, he did feel a sense of urgency to develop and improve
things. This was discussed at the focus groups in both cases and there was consensus
in the importance of real (not merely apparent) interest from leaders and a feeling of
sharing in the potential outcomes.
The contrast of leadership styles between the cases was very clear and it is relevant
here in terms of setting the culture from the top. In Case 1 it was argued that: “we are
lucky here having [General Manager] as a manager ... this organisation has someone
positive and that permeates right through the organization like grease my last
employer overseas was the complete opposite and management was be fear and
threat. This interviewee made it clear that the positive regard he held the current
manager in was having a major affect upon his willingness to engage with the
organisation. However, Case 2 respondents explained how the CEO talked to
individual members of the organisation and undermined the management team: “he
[the CEO] told us to ignore the middle managers as he’s the boss”. He would actively
seek to use positional and resource “I pay your wages” to get what he wanted, even
when it was against the espoused values or goals of the organisation. This was
proving to be extremely de-motivating and to be reducing the levels of innovation
being undertaken as it was considered useless as he would ignore it anyway. Every
respondent admitted at some stage that they were looking for another job.
This fact of the influence of a senior member of an organisation affecting the likely
learning outcomes was seen to predispose a person’s willingness to share: “kind of
depends on what they want to hear”. There was an indication that anything deemed as
irrelevant would be ignored. Interestingly, this was leading to Case 2 having
extremely limited learning and fears expressed by senior managers that competitive
advantage, only recently achieved with the previous CEO, would be lost
This set of ideas was very much about aspects of the environment which marginalises
an individual. The first element was language used, particularly by senior managers.
Patronising and aggressive language were named as limiters to learning, whilst shared
understanding and greater learning were listed as occurring when people could
understand each other and hang out”. The importance of language in effective
learning is well known (Simon, 1991; von Krogh and Roos, 1995), and it is logical
that the reverse should apply. However, what is of interest from the data is how big a
barrier to learning the way something is said proves to be, even if the language itself
is understood. In Case 2, where the psychological contract is negative and trust is
lower, the way the CEO addresses, and is seen to address, others leads to a
withdrawal. Thus an audience will observe the way new ideas are treated and make
decisions about how they wish to be treated. Negative experiences observed will lead
to those with low power or control reducing their willingness to engage with
innovation and, ultimately, the organisation.
This could be argued to be about the space to learn and that the psychological space, if
missing, becomes a limitation to learning that emerges from the environment
(Blackman and Murray, 2006). There is a realisation by participants that space to
reflect on thinking about a better ways of saying it… doing it [knowledge]” (Case 2)
is essential. As time is perceived as limited to “[we] never…come back to it” [the
knowledge issue] (Case 1). “Input …I see as issue…you have to have a space to
reflect on things… in order to be able to improve” (Case 1). Spaces such as “reading
time” (Case 2), “study” (Case 1), “listening time” (Case 1) or time “when you are
[working] back home” (Case 2) were all identified as spaces for reflection and
thinking time in order to be able to share more effectively in the physical working
Management can create or prevent there being such spaces. This can also be seen in
terms of physical space to learn. In both cases, for example, there is nowhere for staff
to meet and discuss informally. In Case 1, where there is a positive psychological
contract, there are lots of ways found to share and the office layout is conducive for
some of the staff to meet and engage in discussions regularly. In Case 2 there is the
provision to eat together and this is widely used as a space and forum for cross
organisational sharing but it is only possible in an open forum so some potential for
discussions is lost. Interestingly, concerns are felt by some senior management when
such physical spaces are created by the employees and there are efforts made to
reduce them.
The Ornaments
The ornaments in a fish bowl are usually added in order to make the space look more
inviting as well as adding structure and complexity to the environment. They should,
it can argued, make life more interesting and challenging for the fish. In this research
we see the ornaments as being both externally imposed and as being created, often
inadvertently, by the fish themselves. There are some ornaments which lead to the fish
swimming in alternative patterns, but the reason for their existence is not always
externally created but are self imposed ornaments for protection. However, the results
are the same and, if there are to be changes, the locus of the ornaments will need to be
An unforeseen impediment is that where individuals think they know what is required
by a manager or peer they pre-judge and filter what is shared, not because they do not
wish to learn or share, but because they consider it unnecessary. The better individuals
apparently know each other, the less will be shared, yet to the observer there will
appear to be sharing and learning: “It’s so much easier as I know what she thinks so
we don’t have to discuss it” (Case 1); “It’s the same things happening … so there is
no point in discussing what they’ve already done” (Case 2).
This is exacerbated by the perception of the manager or individual involved. Personal
traits, or cultural traits of the organisation, that enhanced sharing were described in
many forms. The principle reoccurring personal values and traits can been seen as
‘good’ personal values and beliefs or professional ethics and strong positive
organisational culture. Confidence in the person, leader or organisation emerged as an
inextricable link to personal or organisational values. A high level of confidence in
leaders was also closely related to their level of knowledge. The leader needed to be
perceived as expert or knowledgeable enough for actors to share information, enable
learning and pass on knowledge of a technical or expert nature: “I don’t bother as I
know he won’t understand” (Case 2); “to be honest I don’t really talk about it as I
know more and don’t want to waste time” (Case 1). Also, the attitude to the learner
mattered: “type of rapport, trust, respect… communication and understanding makes
me feel they have confidence in me” (Case 1).
Respect seems a reoccurring foundation for confidence in order to share. If you don’t
respect me as someone that knows something… then why am I going to share with
you…? and why would you want to learn from me” (Case 2). Statements such as these
seemed to reflect a reduction in confidence and also the confidence to share with the
others. No matter the position of the person in the organisation, there was an element
of expert knowledge that appeared to involve additional expectations. In many cases
“they needed to be treated as professionals” (Case 2), with respect for their position
and knowledge and as individuals and human beings. Being listened to appeared to be
significant throughout the data, the linkages between respect and listening were
central to the sharing process. In order to have confidence in others, the listening
ability of the leader was key to both the self confidence of the leader and to the self
confidence that individuals had in the leader in order to share. So you’re interested
and you want them to be interested, so you want to share it to try and excite them”
(Case 2).
The need for openness, honesty, clarity, transparency, as well as similar goals and
values were reflected throughout the data. Statements such as “no hidden agenda”
(Case 1) or “trying something behind your back” (Case 2), “no empire building”
(Case 2), “no politics” (Case 1). A belief such as someone is trying to undermine
you or threaten your overall …job makes you suspicious of them” (Case 1) leads to
apprehension about sharing as well as reducing confidece in others sharing ability.
“Low levels of transparency by one manager” (Case 1) was seen to significantly
reduce the overall sharing in the organisation: “I don’t trust their desire” (Case 2);
“it’s terrible to characterise the whole organisation by one or two individuals, but in
a sense it is the individual leaders that embody [cultural values] (Case 1).
In terms of learning and knowledge creation this is an important issue as many senior
individuals hold strong world views of what is “right” or “needed” for their
businesses to be able to achieve the changes necessary for long term survival
(Blackman and Hindle, 2006). Consequently, they are extremely likely to reject ideas
which are not seen to be aligned with the current vision, as such leaders may have
blank spots and blind spots (Wagner, 1993), thereby reducing the opportunities for
learning knowledge creation as they may indicate to employees that their ideas are not
relevant for the business (Blackman and Henderson, 2005).
However, what needs to be understood here is that such behaviours were not always
negative: “I filter lots of information… there is no point (in talking about everything)
otherwise they wouldn’t get the key points” (Case 1);I channel to particular people
what is relevant” (Case 1); I tend to first judge the issue based on relevant useful
information… [and] I think sometimes you filter knowledge upwards as well … I make
a judgment simply on what I share with her because I know she is so overwhelmed
with knowledge or information” (Case 1).
When discussing safety in terms of the analysis level of The Bowl, it was argued that
the style and attitude of the leader would be extremely influential. We argue that this
also affects the learning at the ornament level, as the individuals that continually
reduce the prospects of learning and change will create cognitive habits. The reduced
perception of control, and consequently, autonomy lead the fish to avoid any form of
creativity. The actual idea of creativity and innovation becomes an ornament in itself.
It becomes something to be discussed as a process, but avoided in reality.
Such discussion will lead to reactive responses to requests for new ideas, for example,
but no pro-active idea generation. Moreover, the reactive response will largely be
regurgitation or re-interpretation of what is already known and accepted is habit. In
Case 2, where this was clearly seen, discussions with respondents showed that they
were equating ‘busyness’ with creativity because this enabled them to react to all
requests, prove expert power, but not actually change anything.
Another way to react to the learning requests, but not do anything, is by using
ornaments as a place of safety. In the bowl the ornaments will be somewhere to hide
behind or in, providing security from apparent external danger, interactions with other
fish, or spaces to rest peacefully. These provide comfort within the structure and
enable the avoidance of new challenges. In Case 1 it was argued that the leader was
reliable and so there was an openness in the bowl. In Case 2, where there were greater
reasons to be concerned, employees were creating ornaments, in terms of spaces and
work, where they could meet and hide from others. Customer focussed ‘busyness
enabled them to be obscure and unavailable to other members of staff.
In Case 1 the organisation had recently been taken over and this had clearly had a
major affect in two ways that were interesting in terms of knowledge creation and
sharing. The first was that it had created a greater feeling of unity amongst those who
had worked through it, which was good for the development of internal relationships,
and feelings of trust. However, for the organisation as a whole it was a problem as
there was still a feeling of ‘us against the world’ that meant there was antagonism as
far as relationships with other parts of the group were concerned. In Case 2 there had
been a change of leadership. The ‘new ‘leader had been the CEO previously and had
returned to managing the business. Although there was new staff, there were still
many historical stories circulating about him from his previous interactions with the
organisation. These were leading to individuals feeling that, in the new paradigm, his
view alone would be counted and there “was no point” in getting involved leading to
poorer decision-making and frustration.
Issues here related to time, location and access. Any of these could become
impediments to learning if the individuals did not perceive ideas and knowledge
through or around them.
From both recently employed personnel and more long term team members, the data
discussed on time has been interpreted as it takes ”time to understand the culture”
(Case 2) or “the way things are done around here” (Case 1). Timeliness of sharing
and what appears as the depth of knowledge about the organisation appear linked to
sharing. This could be thought of as organisational knowledge or power or
understanding organisational culture or even “the right to comment”. The second
theme that emerged from the data is that there is a perception that there is not
enough time to share” (Case 2); We are all so busy all of the time, since we have
been taken over” (Case 1). It appears that hotel managers and educators give priority
in their time to problem solving. As such, making time for sharing is a response to be
considered for organisational and job design issue or an aspect that needs to be
teaching or mentoring personal time management.
Factors relating to location began with the physical location, people tended to share
with their office neighbours in their immediate vicinity. Sharing a location also did
not seem to matter, as a multitude of other relational factors such as trust, respect and
recognition impacted on sharing. Location of the management can be an issue which
impacts on sharing. If management location is seen as an ivory tower and is “located
in one area” (Case 2) then limited sharing could occur. If management are mobile and
are seen to come to you” (Case 1) then this action could enhance actors’ ability to
The Fish
In the literature the attitudes, readiness to learn and personal values (Easterby-Smith
and Lyles, 2003; Somech, and Drach-zahavy, 2004) are argued as having major
affects upon an organisations’ propensity to learn. However, from our research, what
becomes clear is that whilst the actual fish itself, its values, perceptions etc. will affect
its ability and willingness to learn, much of the learning potential is actually framed
by the environment (bowl) and perceived impediments (ornaments). We argue that in
both Cases 1 and 2 the environment and the socially constructed framework that
individuals were working within had a far greater impact upon the potential for
learning than did the differences between the individuals. In each case the data
collected reflected the same ideas across the organisations. The only serious
differences in perspectives were found at senior level in Case 2. SO??
In our earlier discussions we can see how the impacts will affect individual fish or
shoals of similar fish, but there is a generalisability to their impacts which means that
the management of the environment becomes of greater value than worrying about the
In terms of the dance, therefore, it can be seen that the problems occur because the
organisation is framing the dance. Earlier we said that the planned dance or espoused
organisational behaviour does not always workout as planned, nor does it fit within
the expected norms of the dance. The fish, within the boundaries of the bowl and
through the structure (the ornaments) go about their dance in the bowl may not learn
the correct steps; they do however learn incidentally and could create an unacceptable
version of the dance which simply does not meet the expectations of the management
and organisation. The observed patterns imply that there is a dance that leads to
learning. We argue that, because of these impacts the dance may actually be a
different one where the fish react and interact in order to survive. In Case 1, where
there is a positive attitude to learning and knowledge creation, the dance may lead to
learning as the steps may have been designed that way. In Case 2, the dance step may
be out of sync and lead to learning that does not meed organisational needs.
The question is what does this mean in terms of organisational learning and
developing capability for the future. There are aspects of this analysis that lead to
some points for consideration. The most important of these are, what are the major
effects upon individual learning which will impact upon the potential to transfer new
knowledge to the organisation and where are they located.
It is often argued that the effectiveness of organisational learning is down to the
individual and that the role of the organisation is to support those efforts (Easterby-
Smith and Lyles, 2003). With the increasing focus of human resource development
upon empowering the individual and encourage self-supported and self-directed
learning this would become more important (Beattie, 2006). Our findings imply that
these support mechanisms are more important than may be imagined for three
reasons. Firstly, the perception of the bowl, secondly, the way the ornaments are
placed and, thirdly, the type and numbers of the fish.
The perception of the bowl
The bowl is the environment and is representative of the attitude to learning and
innovation. This will have a serious impact upon the likelihood of learning as, if the
glass reflects the learning away from it, the fish will react adversely by not engaging.
What became clear was that the glass was a serious barrier as it led to perceptions by
the individual as to what was, and was not, acceptable. It acted as a constraint to
possibilities that led, in some cases, to no learning occurring at all. This supported
work by Blackman and Henderson (2005) who demonstrated that the actions and pre-
dispositions of the organisation may lead to the learning process reversing and new
ideas being actively ignored.
In terms of the dance, the organisation was indicating which dance steps were, or
were not, acceptable and the participants were left unable or unwilling to participate if
they did not know how to do this particular dance. It appears as if someone who
knows how to dance is leading a beginner – the beginner may do well as they abdicate
any control. Thus, the dance emerges but no learning is done as the responses are
purely reactive and any stylish outcomes are down to luck and not judgement.
Moreover, although it is see through, the fish cannot pass through the glass and so,
although support mechanisms may be visible, they are not accessible. The
environment may demonstrate the dance steps, but the observer must stay as that, an
observer only as they are not actually able to engage. This was seen in the cases where
employees stated that espoused-theory in their organisations was for involvement and
development. However, in one case the theory-in-use was, in fact, that all new
knowledge was to come from the senior management team and the others must just
watch through the glass.
The way the ornaments are placed
The second series of issues comes from the barriers in the way. It is possible to swim
around them but they still will impede the progress of the fish. It may appear that they
are a part of the dance, and sometimes they may be – meetings for example may be a
limitation, but they may also be a way of developing new ideas and making progress.
So some ornaments will be advantageous providing inspiration, protection or at least
amusement to the fish involved.
Some ornaments are purely decorative in that they do not impede the dance but
neither do they improve it. However, care must be taken that they are understood in
this way. It may be that an ornament is seen as a way of energising systems and
developing innovation when in fact they have little to no impact. One example for the
data was the installation of a series of new academic administrative processes. These
were seen by the senior team as a way of harnessing new ideas, developing new
synergies and creating the space for new ideas. However, those involved with them
did not see any purpose for them and so, although they did not actively prevent new
ideas, they were simply ignored. The harm was that the senior team thought that, by
using the processes, new things would emerge. This was, to the observer, clearly not
going to be the case.
The last category is those ornaments which actually impede the dance and mean that
logical steps can no longer occur. In terms of the goldfish bowl this is where an
ornament prevents a part of the bowl from being accessible, is too small to get into
although it is supposed to provide protection or is actively distasteful to the fish and is
consequently avoided. There were examples of each of these given above. What is of
interest is that many of these are self-developed in that they are ornaments because the
fish perceives them that way; often as a result of the way that the pattern of the dance
leads them to encounter them. We saw this in terms of the impact of the different
styles of leadership this led employees in Case 1 to work the ornaments into the
dance and those dancers in Case 2 to actively avoid the same types of ornaments.
What emerges is that the problem for those setting up the bowl is to identify which
type of ornament is which and what can be done to make it useful. The relationship
between the bowl and the ornaments is important, as is the way that fish instinctively
adopt apparent dance patterns.
The type and numbers of the fish
In many cases we have talked of the goldfish as though it is one fish. In some cases,
though we have spoken of shoals or at least multiple fish. Different fish swim in
different ways. For example, they may swim at the base of the bowl (and hide a lot),
they may keep to the surface and circle, or they maybe the useful ones in the tank who
keep it clean. In any case their reactions will vary depending on who they are with
and how closely they have to interact. In some cases, the other fish will become the
ornaments as they are seen as barriers to be avoided, or attractive things to play with.
However, the fish does not have the control of the environment or, in the most part the
ornaments (although their perceptions of these will change)
What becomes clearer is that whilst the individual is the locus of learning, they are not
necessarily able to manage the dance themselves. They may appear to know the steps
and to have been invited to dance but it is very likely that they are following along,
copying others and not understanding the rules and precedents for what they are
The organisation that wishes to encourage, facilitate and possibly manage learning
needs to consider these findings in several ways. Firstly, consider what in the current
environment is acting as limiting glass and apparently allowing access but actually
preventing the fish from moving on. What is developing reactive and reflexive
tendencies, which are not enabling learning transfer? Secondly, where are the
ornaments and which the ones are that enable and support learning (from the fishes
perspective). Thirdly, what types of fish are swimming in the tank and how does their
pattern of dance usually work. If their swimming patterns can be drawn into the dance
there is a greater chance of learning than trying to teach a fish a new dance.
In this paper we considered the limitations to learning in terms of an individual within
their organisation and their environment. We considered whether the dance patterns
apparent to the observer as a goldfish swims in its bowl are ordered steps of a
functioning dance, leading to useful outcomes or whether, despite apparent order, they
are random steps that do not lead to a meaningful pattern of recognisable steps.
In each Case Study the themes identified were invisible boundaries and impedimenta
that, in the same way as the glass and the ornaments limit the movements of the
goldfish, constrained the ability or propensity of individuals within an organisation to
learn. We have argued that there are many invisible reasons why the dance of learning
is, in fact, a set of patterns that may or not be effective dependent upon the way that
the fish tank is set up. In many cases we argue that the movements of the fish were not
managed, patterned or pre-mediated, but were reactive based upon pre-learned
behaviours that did not necessarily enable or encourage learning. Far from being
structured processes that create knowledge the apparent dance of learning is, in fact,
the gentle meanderings of pretty fish.
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