Managing to abstraction

Even as we are learning classic management theories, our brains are busy embedding the essential data deep in our long-term memory banks, minus irrelevant details like, for example, whose original idea it was anyway. Report by Laurie Robinson and Jan Francis-Smythe 


abstract faceMany managers will be familiar with the proposition that conceptualising is one part of the experiential learning cycle1 that consists, firstly, of concrete experiences; then observations and internalised reflections; followed by the formation of abstract concepts and generalisations; and finally active experimentation in new situations. However, for managers, conceptual thinking is much more important than this. Indeed it is argued that an individual’s ability to perform some key conceptual operations is a critical success factor for a career in management.


Relevant experiences

For managers whose substantive role includes responsibility for operational issues, rather than purely long-term, strategic planning matters, the evidence regarding the basis of their decision-making is clear and unequivocal. Managers make the overwhelming majority of these decisions by utilising expert recognition processes2. They frequently describe this with terms such as experience, instinct, intuition, or common sense3.

By these means, an experienced manager identifies the key characteristics of the situation that is of concern to them. Then, from their data store of relevant experiences, they retrieve a small number of potential responses and, almost instantaneously, they are able to select the most viable option for implementation.

When circumstances are similar to, but not identical to any previous situation that they have experienced, the manager will deconstruct a number of previous experiences and reconstruct these, until they create an approach that is potentially viable3.

Where the situation is completely beyond the manager’s experience and even this kind of deconstruction and reconstruction is unable to identify a viable approach, their response is to seek advice and guidance from their fellow practitioners, rather than to consult academic theory3.

The evidence is that even in relation to an individual’s most difficult organisational and personal challenges it is wholly exceptional and genuinely rare for a manager to overtly consult academic theory3. In fact it is so rare that the majority of managers are unable to identify a single occasion, over an entire career, when they have done this.


All in the mind

So what happens to all the theory that managers are exposed to during their training and education? When, in the light of their recognition-based decision-making, managers are asked to explain the role that academic theory plays in their approach to managing, they will frequently assert that it ‘must’ exert a subtle, covert, subconscious, or even subliminal influence over them3. Whilst it would be easy to dismiss this as ‘wishful thinking’, there is good evidence to suggest that these assertions may actually be true!

For insights and understanding regarding what may be going on, we need to turn our attention to the scholarship regarding the human memory system. The first key insight is that the placing of any experience into the long-term memory of a human being involves a process of ‘chunking’, elaboration and encoding4.

The more extensive the elaboration and encoding, the more connections there will be between the new experience and the existing data store of experiences. This in turn, increases the potential for relevant information to be easily retrievable.

A second important aspect of this scholarship is that the human memory is an ‘adaptive’ system4 that over the evolution of humankind has developed a whole series of useful adaptations and features. A key aspect of this was the emergence of a ‘gist’ based memory system. This frees human beings from the tyranny of being constantly bombarded by a huge deluge of trivial facts.

Thus, an individual’s ability to conceptualise, to form abstractions and to grasp the ‘gist’ of information, rather than to focus upon the details, would appear to be some of the essential prerequisites to appreciating both the relevance of that information and the breadth of its potential applicability.


A repertoire of concepts

So what are the implications of this for managers?

Well firstly, it would be to appreciate that the key professional requirement is not the appropriation of academic theory and models per se. In addition, it would be to also understand that neither is it to simply acquire a range of tools and techniques that would inevitably form an important aspect of managerial competence.

Rather, it is to recognise that a key aspect of a manager’s professional calling is to participate in the difficult, relentless, lifelong task of abstraction, elaboration, encoding and ‘chunking’ that will underpin the process of building a repertoire of concepts that will be held in their long-term memories.

By this means each experience will also be organised and consolidated into the structure of an individual’s long-term memory in the way most likely to facilitate its subsequent retrieval, and good managerial ‘moves’ would become almost instantaneously apparent.

Laurie Robinson is an executive coach and mentor and a part time, post graduate, research student of the Centre for People@Work, at the Business School of the University of Worcester. Dr Jan Francis-Smythe is an Occupational Psychologist (HPC Registered), Chartered Psychologist, and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. She is the director of the Centre for People at Work ( in the Business School at the University of Worcester.  


Extract from an article published in the September issue of Professional Manager



1.     Kolb. D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. London: Prentice Hall
2.     Klein, G. (1993). A recognition-primed decision model of rapid decision making, in Klein, G. A.; Orasanu, J.; Calderwood, R. & Zsambok, C. E. (Eds.) Decision making in action: Models and methods. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex
3.     Robinson, L.; Ross, C. & Francis-Smythe, J. (2010). The appropriation of ideas, theories, concepts and models by management practitioners. British Journal of Management, (in prepn.)
4.     Craik, F. I. M. & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 11, 671 – 684


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