Searching for Personal Significance: A foundational element of a learning architecture

Written by Guest Writer

April 21, 2021

Cliff Brunette
Dr. Rica Viljoen
In today’s fast-paced, commercially-orientated world of work it is easy to lose some of what we, as humans, are.
The demand to produce more, in less time, is an ever-changing expectation that each employee must be able to cope with. Yet, what we teach employees during training programmes is to cope with more content, more rules and more conformity.
Most training programmes today are focused on compliance and administrative efficiency, rather than learning. In this article the authors are turning their search to an often elusive missing ingredient. If it becomes part of the focus of the training effort, this ingredient can assist the employee to be better in many more procedural aspects and also teach them how to better deal with the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of today’s corporate world.
That ingredient is personal significance.
Key words

Personal significance; VUCA; Sense-making; Consciousness; Self-efficacy; Locus of control; Relevance; Flow theory

Societies today are faced with overwhelming challenges of complexity – and a good measure of chaos. With what seems to be a breakdown in general value systems and the lightning speed of change and technological development, it would be easy to find a person clinging to anything that is remotely familiar.
One of my favourite books, Illusions, by Richard Bach (1977), tells the story of a village of creatures that live at the bottom of a big, crystal-clear river. The entire village of creatures cling to any rock or twig on the river bed, because clinging is what they do.

The current sweeping over them is strong, and if anyone dares to let go, that current will bash and smash them, and sweep them away. It has become their ‘doing’, to cling, because clinging is the only thing they can do to resist the unstoppable tide thrusting over them. Their ‘doing’ – clinging – has now become their ‘being’ – what they are. They are a village of creatures; clinging. They have lost their significance.
Like the creatures in Illusions, the question begs: what about the human? The person? The employee? The student? How do organisations, institutions, and social leaders ensure that the ‘human’ survives, strives and excels in this disruptive new world of work? More importantly: how do we ensure that the human ‘being’ doesn’t get lost in the human ‘doing’? In the context of a chaotic world, how does the whole human contribute, collaborate and co-create in the reality of the new disruptive world of work?
This article focuses on a single aspect of one of the most researched fields of human sciences – that of human learning. In this article the authors intend to share some insights gained through a research study on personal significance within the field of corporate learning.
The article intends to share some understanding gained of the value that the human being still has as a person of significance within the world of work, but more so, within the process of change – and specifically in the process of adaptation, evolution and transformation through a process of learning.

The current learning and development conundrum
Companies, as living organisms, must try to make sense of a chaotic world, driven by constant changes in technologies, regulations and new competitors, who bring new business models and best practices, market pressures and constantly changing customer demands (Drotskie, 2008). Organisations and leadership today are faced with overwhelming challenges of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, or VUCA (Wolf, 2007).
The importance of recognising the complexity of the new world of work is centred on the dynamic relationships in which similar inputs may yield vastly different outputs (McNulty, 2015). Currently, some of the more prominent dynamic relationships within the VUCA world are the advances in convergent technologies, shifts in generational cohort balance, artificial intelligence and machine learning, a stronger commercial orientation and moving into a post-information era.
The reality of a VUCA world, generational balance, convergent technologies, stronger commercial orientation and the move into the experience age brings different values, expectations and mind-sets to the world of work. It would appear that learning and development are currently caught in a conundrum of a disruptive, fiercely-paced, changing world and a compliant, legislative mind-set towards learning and development practices. Within this conundrum, the authors set out to find understanding of the role that personal significance plays in a learning architecture that can enable learners to co-create work realities within this new world of work.

Compliant and legislative mind-set
It seems that the learning and development marketplace in South Africa has a very strong compliant and legislative mind-set towards learning and development. Allais (2011) argues that education policy that is concerned with vocational and occupational education, or skills development in South Africa, has been trapped in a paradigm of self-help, employability and labour market flexibility that work against the possibility of achieving improved levels of education and skills.
Allais (2011) further argues her point from Clark (2011, p. 108), focusing on two approaches to occupational and vocational education. First, that of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system provided through comprehensive programmes as part of the national education system, as a continuation of education rather than training. VET is provided as more narrowly-focused on the labour market driven by job requirements and the flexibility of short-term labour requirements.
In the second approach, the labour process is fragmented into discrete work tasks, or jobs, and employers play a leading role in determining curricula that address the immediate skills need argued by Brockmann, Clark and Winch (2011). VET is seen as training, and becomes separated from the formal education system.
Providers and consumers of learning and development efforts in South Africa, are seemingly less focused on the long-term development of the human being within the occupation and the vocational strength that is required to sustain, grow and prosper as a country within the local and international economies. The focus of the providers is seemingly more set on creating their competitive advantage through effective administration (Azam, Afiqah, Madi and Huda, 2013), rather than the importance of the personal significance of the learner, and the impact that learners can have on co-creating the work reality of the future.

The missing ingredient
It is the authors’ view that personal significance is the missing ingredient in many learning and developmental efforts. With the strong mind-set of compliance and administrative effectiveness, there seems to be a low focus on learning, and specifically what the authors believe is one of the key fundamental elements of a learning process: that of the development of personal significance.
An online search of four prominent academic journals in 2016 for the concept of personal significance in learning; yielded a less than 1% usable result, with an average of 880 returns per search. This was seen as indicative of the low focus on the development of personal significance development during learning processes.

Defining Personal Significance
Within the context of low visibility of the concept of personal significance, and specifically in learning, the authors set out to provide a working definition for personal significance. This working definition is contextualised within the world of learning, and the view that the development of personal significance is a foundational element of a learning architecture for any learning intervention.
The word “personal” originates from old French in the late 14th century, and refers to concepts pertaining to the self. It refers to the meaning of “aimed at some particular person” (Harper, 2016), related to, or affecting that specific person, as opposed to the outside world, or anyone else (LoveToKnow Corporation, 2016). The concept “personal” also relates to the nature of a person, or self-conscious being, or having the nature of such a person (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000).
The word “significance” originates from the old French significance, or from the Latin significantia, meaning force, energy, importance or significance. (Harper, 2016). The Collins English Dictionary (2003) defines “significance” as a measure of the confidence that can be placed in a result, especially a substantive causal premise, and not merely a matter of chance.
The authors therefore propose the following working definition for this concept: Personal significance is a reference to the confidence of an individual (a specific person) to a level beyond mere chance in their ability to perform a specific task with the confidence that the desired result will be reached.
Furthermore, personal significance is a phenomenon that provides a specific energy or motivation to an individual which adds importance in what that individual does or contributes. It provides meaning that signifies a reason for existence within a specific task or specific situation.
Within the proposed description of personal significance as stated above, the authors recognise the importance of emotional significance as argued by Price (2013). It is suggested that emotional significance be considered as part of personal significance, or linked to it, given that emotional significant situations are ones that bear on the individual’s interests or concerns (Price, 2013, p. 2). Price (2013) refers to two accounts of emotional significance that may be influenced by learning, namely, moral emotions and preference emotions. Given Price’s (2013) reference, the researcher proposes that personal significance, including emotional significance, might be developed through a focused learning architecture, and, in a paradoxical relationship that the level of personal significance may enhance the learning process itself.

Manifestation of Personal Significance
The authors posit that an individual learner’s sense of personal significance is that individual’s personal experience and awareness of the collective of sense-making, consciousness, self-efficacy locus of control, relevance and flow.
These six elements are all found as separate theories and constructs within current and well-defined learning theories and are individually described within its respective field.
The six elements of personal significance as described by the authors are: Sense-making within the context of complexity theory (Snowden, 2003); consciousness as a complex system (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002); self-efficacy as a person’s belief (Bandura, 1977); locus of control as the internal and external control of reinforcement (Rotter, 1990); self-worth as the tendency to establish and maintain a positive self-image and relevance (Covington, 1992) and personal flow within the context of flow theory as a concept of the holistic sensation that people experience (Csikszentmihalyi & LeFever, 1989).
Personal significance manifests within a natural and transformative learning experience. For personal significance to manifest within its natural and transformative state, an understanding of the relationship between training and learning is required. The relationship between training and learning must be respected and the dynamic balance between training and learning must be maintained.
Personal significance also manifests through relevance and personal sense-making of context. Therefore, a learning process that aims at developing or contributing to the development of personal significance of the individual learner should challenge the relevance of the learner’s beliefs, myths and frames of reference within the context of the learning experience. Not only should the learner’s relevance to the context be challenged, but context itself should be challenged.
As the learner discovers their own relevance to the context, and not just the relevance of the context to them, personal significance is established. In finding personal significance within the context that is personal and unique, through relevance and sense-making of the context, not just is the learning experience enhanced, but learning is also deepened.
Personal significance further manifests in the learner’s ability to choose to change, or not to change their behaviour. When learning is seen as the individual’s ability to choose to change, or not to change, rather than just as a blanket statement that learning is a change in behaviour; it allows the learning experience to focus on the process of the decision to change, or not to change behaviour. This choice becomes a personal choice by each learner, and personal significance then manifests within this choice as current knowledge, and new context becomes new knowledge which leads to new choices.
However, for this ability to develop, the learner is required to apply higher-order thinking and multi-frame thinking. Therefore, the training intervention and the learning experience should focus on these thinking skills to develop a stronger personal significance within the individual learner. This manifestation of personal significance of choosing different frames of thinking or different behaviours is seen as a requirement in the new world of work.

In conclusion, personal significance as a collective of the elements described in this article, manifests during a training intervention within the learning process.
The learning process should be positioned and conducted as a personal sense-making process which provides a new world of work context. Therefore, the learning process must emulate the VUCA world and provide real contextual challenges to the learner, whereby the learner can test their own context to the new world context.
In challenging the context of the learner, the learner develops higher-order and multi-frame thinking skills, which should be directed to the learner choosing to change or not to change behaviour, depending on the context of their new world of work, rather than the context of the training event.
In this, the authors confirm their working definition of personal significance and summarise it as: Personal significance is the sense of importance of an individual’s contribution to their world of existence, and the confidence to make such a contribution. Personal significance provides a specific energy or motivation to an individual who adds importance in what that individual contributes. Personal significance can be found within a training intervention focused on a learning process within a learning architecture that will enable learners to co-create work realities.

Allais, S., 2011. What are skills? Reflections on policy in South Africa in the light of international debates. Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand.
Bach, R., 1977. Illusions. The adventures of a reluctant messiah. London: Arrow Books.
Bandura, A., 1977. Self-efficacy: Towards a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change. Psychological Review, 84(2), pp. 191-215.
Brockmann, M., Clark, L. & Winch, C., 2011. Knowledge, Skills and Competence in the European Labour Market: What’s in a vocational qualification?. First edition ed. Oxon: Routledge.
Collins English Dictionary, 2003. Complete and Unabridged. 5th ed. s.l.:HarperCollins Publishers.
Drotskie, A., 2008. Customer experience as the strategic differentiator in retail banking. Bellville: University of Stellenbosch. Unpublished.
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Price, C., 2013. The problem of emotional significance. Acta Analytica, 28(2), pp. 189-206.
Rotter, J. B., 1990. Internal versus External Control of Reinforcement. American Psychologist, 45(4), pp. 489-493.
Snowden, D., 2003. Complex Acts of Knowing: Paradox and Descriptive Self-Awareness. Bulletin of the American Society of Information Science and Technology, pp. 23-28.
Vora, T., 2016. Critical Competencies for Leadership in a VUCA World. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 20 December 2016].
Wolf, D., 2007. Prepared and Resolved: The strategic agenda for growth. Performance and Change, p. 115.

South African Department of Higher education and Training (DHET); 2018; Research Bulletin on Post-School Education &
Training: Number 7; p20. Pretoria;

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