Widening mental models with experiential learning

Polanyi (1996) classified human knowledge into two categories: tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge is that which is difficult to express with any language. Explicit knowledge may be expressed through words, drawings, or other articulation mechanisms. While tacit knowledge may be possessed as it is, explicit knowledge must be understood and applied tacitly. In any case, all knowledge is either tacit or based on tacit knowledge. And this can only be indirectly expressed and transferred by means of metaphor. As Michael Polanyi emphasises, we often express ourselves and transfer our knowledge only indirectly, through metaphorical explanations.

The source of organisational knowledge lies in the tacit knowledge of its members. However, organisational knowledge is not simply an accumulation of personal knowledge. Individual members’ knowledge needs to be shared and legitimated before it becomes organisational knowledge (Tsuchiya, 1993).

The only way to reform interpretive environments is by creating new knowledge, free of the restrictions of existing knowledge, then carrying out new actions and decisions based on that new knowledge and interpreting the results (Tsuchiya, 1996).

By means of games and simulation, members of organisations can generate metaphors using words, data, graphs and images. These metaphors make it possible to create knowledge free of the restrictions imposed by existing interpretive models. This new knowledge changes the members’ decisions and actions, and by interpreting the results of these new decisions and actions, they develop new interpretive environments.

These new interpretive environments have the advantage of being generated by the participants themselves through a natural, fluid process, so they are automatically integrated and legitimated as valid. Gaming/simulation permits the legitimisation of knowledge by providing it with the necessary processes; legitimacy often depends more on the adequacy of the processes than on the results (March & Olsen, 1976). At the same time, gaming/simulation allows for the creation of new cause maps. A cause map summarises people’s suppositions about a specific structure (Weick, 1979). With the cause map, the new interpretive environment acquires rationality and foundation, consolidating its validation.

Modification of mental models has particular relevance for learning, as it permits what is known as Level 2, or double-loop learning, in contrast to the technical learning of Level 1, or single-loop learning. In the latter, what we do varies based on analysis of the results of our previous actions. We modify our way of doing things, working the content within our schematic and reinforcing the governing mental model. In Level 2, however, it is the very way of thinking, the way we do things, that is changed.

For the organisation to evolve and learn, it is necessary to incorporate these new mental models, enabling it to experiment and go beyond its existing limits.

If an organisation should starve or suffocate some mental structures, these will probably undergo modification or remain in the shade. In a company, the longest-serving supervisors and employees show newcomers what to do, what not to do, and how to proceed. This is called ‘socialisation’. New employees may, in some cases, be indoctrinated with company philosophy; any deviation from this could result in their not being promoted or not assigned an interesting job. This is known as ‘marginalisation’. Or, they could be ignored and excluded. This is ‘ostracism’ (Maruyama, 1998).

Experiential learning

The concept of learning may be defined as an adaptive change to inputs from the environment (Witteman, 1997:6). In the Theory of Education, it is cognitive learning that receives the most attention. Cognitive learning means the interpretation and processing of information. It’s about making sense of things, which means choosing, interpreting and situating information. It is a process by which individuals develop cognitive maps of their environment. It makes sense of the environment by recognising the events that do not fit in with the individual’s experience, then absorbing and codifying them, taking the reference frame as the basis from which to work. Making sense of something is a self-referential activity, which implies that the selection of what makes sense is based on the actor’s framework of choice (Joldersma, 2000).

Experiential learning assumes that knowledge is created through the transformation brought about by experience. The experience is translated into an abstract conceptualisation actively tested through new experiences. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb, 1984) perfects the work of other authors following the same line, such as Lewin (1951), Dewey (1938), and Piaget (1978); centred on the idea that experiential learning exists as a special form of learning, distinguished by the central role that experience plays in the learning process.

Kolb’s Cycle of experiential learning

Organisational Learning

Individuals are the origin of all organisational learning. It is the thoughts and actions of the actors that influence learning at the level of the organisation. Individual actors all have their theory-in-use, which is implicit in the results of the actors’ behaviour patterns. On interacting, the actors exchange their theories-in-use, creating the organisational theory-in-use. Shared behaviour cycles are created, involving negotiation and agreement on the significance of different situations for the organisation (Weick, 1979).


We always learn on an individual level. It is when we formalise knowledge that organisational learning is carried out sustainably. However, the game and simulation can greatly help us communicate complex concepts or abstract realities when transmitting knowledge. The game and simulation are also great allies when involving the individual, motivating them, or facilitating mental model change.


  • Dewey, J (1938) Experience and education, Kappa Delta, New York
  • Joldersma, C. (2000), Policy learning through simulation/gaming, in Simulation & Gaming Yearbook: Simulations and Games for Transition and Change, 6 pp.79-80
  • Kolb, D (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Prentice Hall, New Jersey
  • Lewin, K (1951) Field Theory in Social Sciences, Harper & Row, New York
  • March, J.G.& Olsen, J.P. (1976). Ambiguity and Choice in Organizations. Bergen: Universitetsforlaget.
  • Maruyama, M (1998), Esquemas Mentales: Gestión en un medio multicultural. España. Dolmen.
  • Piaget, J (1978), What is psychology? American Psychologist, July, pp.648-52
  • Polanyi, M (1996) The Tacit Dimension, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
  • Tsuchiya, S (1993). Improving Knowledge Creation Ability through Organizational Learning. IIIA, Proceedings of International Symposium on the Management of Industrial and Corporate Knowledge 93, 87-95.
  • Tsuchiya, S. (1996). Simulation/Gaming as a Facilitator of Communication. A new role in the ambiguous business world. Simulation and Gaming: An International Journal, 26, 1, 93-100.
  • Weick, K. E (1979). The Social Psychology of Organising, 2nd, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA
  • Witteman, H P J (1997). Styles of Learning and Regulation in an Interactive Learning Group System, Nijgh & Van Ditmar

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