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A proposed conceptual framework of workplace learning

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There is common agreement about the importance of workplace learning. Discussions about the topic have mostly focused on two major components: formal training and informal learning. These components have become the defining features of workplace learning. This article proposes a conceptual framework of workplace learning that is comprised of the interaction of three variables: 1) the location of the learning; 2) the extent of planning that has been invested in developing and delivering the learning experiences; and, 3) the role of the trainer, facilitator, or others during the learning process. The need for the proposed framework stems from two concerns. First, formal training and informal learning represent incompatible levels of discourse, making it difficult to have a cohesive understanding of workplace learning. Second, workplace learning appear to exclude a large segment of HRD practice, particularly when formal training programs occur in the work setting.
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Human Resource Development Review Vol. 8, No. 2 June 2009 133-150
DOI: 10.1177/1534484309334269
© 2009 SAGE Publications
Theory and Conceptual Articles
A Proposed Conceptual
Framework of Workplace
Learning: Implications
for Theory Development
and Research in Human
Resource Development
RONALD L. JACOBS
YOONHEE PARK
The Ohio State University
There is common agreement about the importance of workplace learning.
Discussions about the topic have mostly focused on two major components:
formal training and informal learning. These components have become the defin-
ing features of workplace learning. This article proposes a conceptual framework
of workplace learning that is comprised of the interaction of three variables: 1)
the location of the learning; 2) the extent of planning that has been invested in
developing and delivering the learning experiences; and, 3) the role of the trainer,
facilitator, or others during the learning process. The need for the proposed
framework stems from two concerns. First, formal training and informal learning
represent incompatible levels of discourse, making it difficult to have a cohesive
understanding of workplace learning. Second, workplace learning appear to
exclude a large segment of HRD practice, particularly when formal training pro-
grams occur in the work setting.
Keywords: workplace learning; conceptual framework
There is common agreement about the critical importance of workplace learn-
ing in organizations (Clarke, 2005; Jacobs, 2003; Lohman, 2005). As such, the
topic has received much attention among human resource development (HRD)
scholars and practitioners alike, mostly focusing on two major components:
formal training and informal learning. In effect, these components have become
the defining features of workplace learning. This article proposes a conceptual
134 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
framework of workplace learning that is comprised of the interaction of three
variables: (a) the location of the learning, (b) the extent of planning that has
been invested in developing and delivering the learning experiences, and
(c) the role of the trainer, facilitator, or others during the learning process. The
need for the proposed framework stems from two concerns. First, formal
training and informal learning represent incompatible levels of discourse,
making it difficult to have a cohesive understanding of workplace learning.
Second, definitions of workplace learning appear to exclude a large segment
of HRD practice, particularly when formal training programs occur in the
work setting.
We define workplace learning as the process used by individuals when
engaged in training programs, education and development courses, or some type
of experiential learning activity for the purpose of acquiring the competence
necessary to meet current and future work requirements. The definition
assumes the need to balance, though not always equally, the needs of organiza-
tions, which provide the context for the learning, with the needs of individuals
who may undertake the learning to advance their own work-related interests
and goals (Jacobs, 2001; Muhamad & Idris, 2005; Swanson & Holton, 2001).
Workforce learning may be the most inclusive term used to describe the many
ways that employees learn in organizations. Training typically refers to a sin-
gle program of some kind. Employee development has come to represent a
range of learning opportunities that focus on accomplishing broad career or
professional goals (Jacobs & Washington, 2003; Noe, 2008). Similarly, talent
development involves learning through multiple programs and experiences,
often involving role plays and simulations, with an emphasis on acquiring the
underlying competencies required for a position (Thorne & Pellant, 2007).
The proposed framework seeks to build on the invaluable contributions of
the current literature on workplace learning. Yet continued scrutiny is war-
ranted, given the foundational nature of the topic in the HRD field. Specifically,
the article first discusses the context of workplace learning as it relates to the
need to understand the changing nature of work and implications on managing
employee competence. Next, the article briefly reviews current understandings
of workplace learning. Third, the article discusses two major concerns about
current understandings of workplace learning. Fourth, the article proposes the
conceptual framework of workplace learning. Finally, the implications of the
framework are discussed for theory building and research in HRD. Our under-
lying goal is to help promote a dialogue such that the process will stimulate
the development of new theory building and research.
Changing Nature of Work
and Employee Competence
Workplace learning might be best understood from the context of the
changing nature of work and the resulting employee competence issues. We
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 135
suggest that this perspective better aligns workplace learning with the on-going
challenges of organizations. Two fundamental shifts can be observed in the work
that people do. The first shift is that work has increasingly shifted towards
using knowledge as an integral component (Ackerman, 1998). Knowledge
work can be defined as when individuals receive information from a variety of
sources, use that information to derive a set of solutions, and generate new sets
of information as a result of their own inputs (Mohrman, 2003). Knowledge
work often constitutes the manipulation of information along with objects or
things. The trend towards knowledge work has been relatively pervasive
across job levels, though sometimes to varying extent. Lee (2004) showed that
movement toward knowledge work was noted across all positions in a bank
setting, but it was most visible among customer-service bank employees than
middle and senior managers.
The second shift is that work content has come to have shorter life cycles.
That is, although jobs are undergoing change, the time between the change
events is growing shorter. The relative volatility of work practices is often a
second-order result when organizations undergo change in the way they operate.
Osman-Gani and Jacobs (2005) reported that information technology was the
major driver for prompting job change among companies in Singapore across
all business sectors. The introduction of information technology, whether to
enhance management or production capabilities, invariably causes major
shifts in how work is arranged and done. For instance, lean manufacturing, a
commonly used application of the Toyota production system in many organiza-
tions, represents a major organizational change effort that includes the Kaizen
performance improvement process, invariably leads to substantial revisions of
the workflows and how the work should be done.
These two ongoing shifts affecting work—the movement of jobs toward
knowledge work and the shortened life cycle of the job content itself—have
raised the need for organizations to better understand and manage employee
competence. As shown in Table 1, Jacobs (2002) introduced a hierarchy of
employee competence, starting at the lowest level of competence, the novice
level, moving upwards to the highest level, the master level. The five categories
suggest how individuals progress in their competence to perform a specific unit
of work. In practice, fewer employees ever achieve the expert or master levels,
simply because of the time involved to achieve that level combined with the
frequency of job change. It is commonly observed that individuals may func-
tion at a relatively high level of competence for a period of time, then as some
change is introduced, their level of competence drops to a much lower level,
requiring some time and effort to regain their previous status.
How to manage the constant ebb and flow of job change, and to manage
this on an ongoing basis, continues to challenge many organizations. Indeed,
developing individuals from the novice level to the specialist level might be
the most reasonable expectation for many organizations. The success in which
an organization manages its employee competence may suggest as well the
136 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
organization’s overall competitiveness in the long term. Although managers
often understand the importance of recruiting a qualified and skilled work-
force at the outset, equally important is having systems in place that enable a
response to ongoing changes in work over time. Beyond the absolute need to
capably manage their physical and financial resources, organizations must also
respond to their current and anticipated employee competence needs, mostly
through some form of workplace learning, which have become the primary
means to generate and disseminate this information to others.
Workplace Learning
This section briefly reviews current understandings of workplace learning. The
section is not meant to provide a comprehensive review of the topic, but rather to
highlight its most salient aspects. Table 2 summarizes the various definitions and
respective themes found in the HRD literature. Numerous authors, such as Ellinger
(2005), Lohman (2005), Boud and Garrick (1999), and Sambrook (2005), have
discussed workplace learning and its accompanying issues at length. It is clear
from these sources that workplace learning represents highly complex individual
processes and organizational practices. In general, workplace learning has been
described as the relationship between two significant human processes: working
and learning (Barnett, 1999; Hodkinson & Hodkinson, 2004; Sambrook, 2005).
Barnett (1999) stated that work has necessarily become part of learning and learn-
ing in turn has become part of work. Barnett also asserted that the interrelationship
between learning and working has to be worked out at different levels, namely at
the organizational and personal, and in different modes, formal and informal.
Hodkinson and Hodkinson (2004) constructed a matrix of learning types
which categorized learning based on intentional/planned and unintentional/
unplanned aspects along with three criteria: learning that which is already
TABLE 1: Taxonomy of Employee Competence
SOURCE: Jacobs and Washington (2003, p. 351).
Category
Master
Expert
Experienced specialist
Specialist
Novice
Description
The real expert among experts. This person sets the standards
for others
One who can do both the routine and nonroutine cases of the
work
One who has performed the work repeatedly and can do it
with ease
One who can reliably perform most work, but the range is
limited
One who is new to the work and lacks the ability to meet
requirements
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 137
TABLE 2: Definitions and Key Themes of Workplace Learning
Author(s)
Watkins and
Marsick
Barnett
Boud and Garrick
Billett
Evans and
Rainbird
Date
1992
1999
1999
2001
2002
Definition
Workplace learning defined
by formal, informal, and
incidental learning
Learning is inherent in
work, and work is
inherent in learning
The purposes of workplace
learning are presented
rather than a precise
definition of the concept
Work practices serve to
structure activities and
guide in ways that
influence the learning of
the knowledge required
for performance at work.
These experiences are not
informal or unstructured,
incidental or ad hoc.
Instead, they are structured
by the requirements of
work practice rather than
the practice of educational
institutions
Workplace learning includes
a range of formal and
informal learning; learning
which is directed to
Key Themes
Formal learning
(training): discrete
planned events
Informal learning: not
usually classroom-based
or highly structured
Incidental learning: an
unintended by-product
of some other activity
The interrelationships
between learning and
work has to be worked
out at different levels
(organizational and
personal) and in
different modes
(formal and informal)
Improving performance
for the benefit of the
organization
Improving learning for
the benefit of the learner
Improving learning as a
social investment
Formal learning
Structured learning
Goal-directed activity of
the workplace
Initial work-based
learning, in traineeships
and apprenticeships for
young people
(continued)
138 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
TABLE 2: (continued)
Author(s)
Colley, Hodkinson,
and Malcom
Hodkinson and
Hodkinson
Clarke
Date
2003
2004
2005
Definition
organizational as well as
employees’ needs; and
learning which is
accessed through the
workplace
Workplace learning can be
classified as being formal,
informal, or nonformal,
suggesting that it may be
better to conceive formality
and informality as
attributes or characteristics
in all learning situations
Workplace learning is
sufficiently diverse and
complex that no one
theory, at least none yet
fully developed can
adequately deal with all
its aspects. Within this
complexity, only some
types of workplace
learning are susceptible to
the clear identification of
workplace learning
Workplace learning is formal,
planned learning off the
Key Themes
Work-based degrees and
foundation degrees
(higher education such
as associate degree)
Nonformal work-based
learning (national
vocational qualification,
learning through work
and community
experience)
Access to continuing
nonformal learning
opportunities through
the workplace (on-line
learning)
Formal learning
Informal learning
Nonformal learning
Planned learning of that
which others know
Socialization into an
existing community of
practice
Planned/intended
learning to refine
existing capability
Unplanned
improvement of
ongoing practice
Planned/intended
learning to do that which
has not been done before
Unplanned learning of
something not
previously done
Formal, planned
learning off the job
(continued)
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 139
known to others, development of existing capability, and learning which is
new in the workplace or treated as such. Then, they identified workplace learn-
ing as being of six types:
1. Planned learning which others know
2. Socialization into an existing community of practice
3. Planned/intended learning to refine existing capability
4. Unplanned improvement of ongoing practice
5. Planned/intended learning to do that which has not been done before
6. Unplanned learning of something not previously done.
Sambrook (2005) sought to clarify the meaning of workplace learning by
distinguishing between learning at work and learning in work. Learning at
work is associated with the provision of planned training and education courses.
Learning in work is associated with the more informal processes that are
embedded in an activity, such as observing, asking questions, problem solving,
doing projects, mentoring and coaching others, and participating in ad hoc
discussions. Sambrook further suggests that opportunities exist for learning
outside the boundaries of the work setting, which might be called learning
outside work.
TABLE 2: (continued)
Author(s)
Sambrook
Elkjaer and
Wahlgren
Date
2005
2006
Definition
job, independent on-the-
job learning, and group
on-the-job learning
Work-related learning
encompasses learning at
work (the more formal
provision of education
and training courses) and
learning in work (the
more informal processes
embedded in work
activities)
The workplace is seen as
providing opportunities
for informal and
incidental learning as well
as a combination of these
with more formal
teaching and guiding
activities
Key Themes
Independent on-the-job
learning
Group on-the-job
learning
Formal provision of
education and training
courses
Informal processes
embedded in work
activities
Informal learning
Incidental learning
More formal learning
140 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
Billett (2001) argued that labeling the work setting as an informal learning
environment unnecessarily reinforces the ambiguous nature of this type of
learning. Billett insisted that work practices are not fundamentally informal or
unstructured, incidental, or ad hoc. Instead their nature is determined by the
requirements of the work practices, which should be used as the referent for
the behavior. Mocker and Spear (1982) used three principles to clarify the
concept of lifelong learning: (a) who controls the learning objectives, (b) what
is to be learned, and (c) how it is to be learned when classifying lifelong learn-
ing. Thus, understanding any one learning instance should be based, in part,
on the locus of control of the situation at hand. They further suggest a model
that presents four types of learning: formal learning (learners have little con-
trol over the objectives or means of learning), nonformal learning (learners
control the objectives but not the means of learning), informal learning (learners
control the means but not the objectives of learning), and self-directed learning
(learners control both the objectives and means of learning).
Colley, Hodkinson, and Malcom (2003) proposed that workplace learning
can be classified as being formal, informal, or nonformal. They suggested that
it may be better to conceive formality and informality as attributes or charac-
teristics present in all learning situations. They also identified four aspects of
learning to group these attributes, the location of the learning, the process
used, the purpose of the learning, and the content.
Clarke (2005) proposed that the most frequently described dimensions of
workplace learning include planned versus unplanned learning, formal versus
informal, nonformal versus incidental, and on-the-job versus off-the-job, as a
way of distinguishing what might constitute workplace learning. The terms are
mainly used to distinguish learning situations, but there remains some ambigu-
ity because of the differing ways these concepts have been defined. For
example, some authors have used the terms informal and incidental learning
interchangeably or in ways that they are difficult to clearly distinguish.
In summary, the literature suggests that formal learning or training and
informal learning are the most commonly agreed on components of workplace
learning. Formal training is perhaps the most apparent aspect of workplace
learning for most HRD scholars and practitioners. Formal training is composed
of planned learning activities that are intended to help individuals acquire spe-
cific areas of knowledge, awareness, and skills. Formal training mostly
involves institutionally sponsored and endorsed programs, which would
include almost all training and development programs that organizations offer.
Implicit in this understanding is that formal training occurs in a context spe-
cifically intended for learning, which mostly suggests that the learning occurs
away from the actual work setting.
As stated, formal training is assumed to be planned in nature relying on the
use of the systems approach to design the learning experience in such a way
so that the outcomes can be achieved. Numerous systems approaches for
developing formal training programs have been proposed, most of which are
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 141
composed of the basic phases of assessment, analysis, design, development,
implementation, and evaluation. More recently, organizations that are involved
with quality management systems have adopted the ISO 10015–Quality of
Training Guidelines, which includes the following design phases:
1. Analyze performance problems
2. Identify training needs
3. Develop and plan the training
4. Provide for the training
5. Evaluate the training
6. Monitor and improve the training (Liu, Wang, & Jacobs, 2005).
In summary, formal training involves both the process used to design the learn-
ing experience and the nature of the program that results from the design process.
Much recent attention has also been given to the notion of informal learning
as a component of workplace learning (Boud & Garrick, 1999). Informal
learning recognizes that the acquisition of knowledge and skills in the work
setting does not occur from organized programs alone. Indeed, learning also
occurs during critical moments of need embedded in the context of practice.
In contrast to formal training, informal learning occurs in situations that are
not usually intended for learning, most notably in the actual work setting. As
a result, informal learning is said to call on and require a blending of indi-
vidual difference constructs such as intellectual curiosity, self-directedness,
and self-efficacy (Beckett, & Hager, 2002).
Informal learning arises in situations where learning may not be the pri-
mary aim of the activity, but is activated by some anticipated or existing prob-
lem situation that requires resolution. Informal learning may occur as a result
of evolving activities including group problem solving, hypothesis testing,
mentoring, coaching, and job shadowing. Although no one person may offi-
cially serve as the trainer or facilitator in any of these activities, informal
learning may involve seeking out certain individuals who are recognized to
have higher levels of insight or competence on a topic.
Informal learning may be undertaken by engaging with others or by embark-
ing on some sort of self-initiated study. Most of this learning is unplanned and
somewhat serendipitous in nature, because it occurs as needed. Lohman (2005)
defined informal learning as involving those learning activities that employees
initiate in the workplace, that involve the expenditure of physical, cognitive,
or emotional effort, and result in the development of professional knowledge
and skills. Similarly, Garavan, Morley, Gunnigle, and McGuire (2002) defined
informal learning as the set of processes that occur within specific organizational
contexts and focus on acquiring and assimilating an integrated cluster of knowl-
edge, skills, values, and feeling that result in individuals and teams refocusing
and fundamentally changing their behavior. Informal learning might also
involve some form of sanctioned learning such as mentoring, coaching, job
rotation, job shadowing, and special projects or assignment (Marsick &
Watkins, 1997).
142 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
In addition to formal training and informal learning, the terms incidental
learning and nonformal learning have been introduced as well. However,
their acceptance and clarity of their meaning seems not to be at the same level
as formal training and informal learning. Incidental learning is defined as
learning that results from an unintended by-product of some other activity,
such as trial-and-error experimentation or engaging in ad hoc interactions
with others. Nonformal learning appears to share elements of both formal and
informal learning (Eraut, 2000), as it may be planned, but it is not provided
by an educational institution. The literature provides limited information on
how to differentiate exactly among formal learning, informal learning, and
nonformal learning, and it appears increasingly difficult to do so in practice
as well.
Emerging Concerns
As stated, we view current conceptualizations of workplace learning to be
inadequate because of two major concerns.
Incompatible Levels of Discourse
At first glance, formal training and informal learning may appear to be
related because they broadly represent processes that somehow focus on indi-
viduals and the learning process. However, on closer scrutiny, it is difficult for
us to reconcile the two components into a cohesive understanding of work-
place learning. Consider that they do not represent an input/output relation-
ship, such as learning and performance. Nor do they represent opposite ends
of a spectrum, such as planned and unplanned. In essence, formal training and
informal learning represent two fundamentally different sets of entering assump-
tions, prompts about when to engage in the actions, and expectations for the
outcomes.
Formal training represents the actions of others to plan and implement
programs. That is, formal training fundamentally refers to programs offered by
organizations and the planning process used to prepare, deliver, and evaluate
the programs. Informal learning represents the actions, often internal, of indi-
viduals when they engage in learning. On the other hand, informal learning
fundamentally refers to the ad hoc decisions, actions, and emergent groupings
of individuals when confronted with a learning need in the context of working.
The fundamental differences between formal training and informal learning
have not gone unnoticed in the literature. Colley et al. (2003) noted that the
problem is the complete lack of agreement about what constitutes informal
and formal learning, or what the boundaries between them might be. Similarly,
Clarke (2005) pointed out that the problem is the absence of any agreed defini-
tion of what actually constitutes the notion of workplace learning. Clarke
further argued that a lack of conceptual clarity or specificity about workplace
learning is noted as a barrier for deepening workplace learning studies.
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 143
Advances in HRD Practice
The second major concern focuses on recent advances in HRD practice,
which current conceptualizations of workplace learning appears not to be able
to adequately accommodate. Specifically, the notion of formal training sug-
gests that planned programs can occur only in settings that are designated for
learning, such as a training classroom, corporate university, hotel meeting
space, or some other off-the-job setting. However, in practice, many HRD
professionals now successfully combine characteristics of planned training
with learning on the job.
Perhaps the most notable example of this is the training approach called
structured on-the-job training (S-OJT). S-OJT is defined as the planned process
of using experienced employees to train novice employees on a unit of work
in the actual work setting or a setting that resembles the work setting (Jacobs,
2003). Other training approaches, such as planned coaching and mentoring
programs, also do not fit well within current understandings of workplace
learning. How to place these training approaches, among others, within cur-
rent understandings of workplace learning suggests the inadequacies of rely-
ing solely on the formal training and informal learning distinction to define
workplace learning.
Conceptual Framework of Workplace Learning
The primary focus of this article is to propose a conceptual framework of
workplace learning. As presented in Table 3, the conceptual framework is
comprised of three variables that represent a synthesis of the workplace learn-
ing literature and the realities of HRD practices in organizations. Table 3
defines each of the major variables and describes the ways in which they vary.
TABLE 3: Definitions of Three Variables for Understanding Workplace Learning
Variable
Location of the
learning
Degree of planning
Role of trainer/
facilitator
Off the job
On the job
Unstructured
Structured
Passive
Active
Definition
Learning occurs away from the actual work
setting
Learning takes place in the actual work setting
There is little or no evidence that a systems
approach was used
There is evidence that a systems approach was
used
Trainer/facilitator plays a limited role during
the learning process requiring the trainee to
engage the trainer/facilitator as needed
Trainer/facilitator plays a direct role throughout
the learning process
144 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
Each cell of the framework represents a set of experiences that have value in
certain circumstances. Thus, the cells are presented as being value-free and not
as being inherently positive or negative in meaning.
Briefly, off-the-job learning and on-the-job learning are characterized
as the two levels which define the location of the learning. Off-the-job
TABLE 4: Descriptions and Examples of Cells in the Workplace Learning
Cell
A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
Description
Off the job/unstructured/passive
Learning occurs away from the work setting
without use of a systems approach, and with
limited involvement of a trainer/facilitator
Off the job/unstructured/active
Learning occurs away from the work setting,
without using a systems approach, and with the
direct involvement of a trainer/facilitator
Off the job/structured/passive
Learning occurs away from the work setting as a
result of using a systems approach, and with
the limited involvement of a trainer/facilitator
Off the job/structured/active
Learning occurs away from the work setting, as a
result of using a systems approach, and with
direct involvement of a trainer/facilitator
On the job/unstructured/passive
Learning occurs at the actual work setting
without use of a systems approach, and with
limited involvement of a trainer/facilitator
On the job/unstructured/active
Learning occurs at the actual work setting,
without using a systems approach, with the
direct involvement of a trainer/facilitator
On the job/structured/passive
Learning occurs at the actual work setting as a
result of using a systems approach, and with
limited involvement of a trainer/facilitator
On the job/structured/active
Learning occurs at the actual work setting, as a
result of using a systems approach, and with
the direct involvement of a trainer/facilitator
Example/Comments
Study leave
Paid educational leave
Professional attachments
Self-directed learning
Web-based training
Group-based classroom
Blended training
Corporate university
Casual coaching
Ad hoc mentoring
Job shadowing
Learning while doing
Communities of practice
Reflection-in-action
Unstructured on-the-job
training
Action learning
Structured on-the-job
training
Formal mentoring
Formal coaching
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 145
learning occurs away from where the actual work is done, whereas on-the-job
learning takes place near or at the actual work setting. In general, off-the-job
learning occurs in an off-site classroom near the job setting, in a facility exclu-
sively for training, or in a corporate or private facility far away from the work
setting (Jacobs, 2003). The locations for on-the-job learning are environments
that have not been necessarily designated for learning, but in which indi-
viduals learn naturally nevertheless (Beckett & Hager, 2002). The key
aspect of on-the-job learning is that it represents what occurs in an experienced-
based situation. On-the-job learning is commonly described as informal learn-
ing because of the location in which it occurs.
The degree of planning is defined as the extent to which a systems approach
was used to ensure that the intended learning outcomes were made explicit or
presumed. The degree of planning varies in two basic ways: unstructured and
structured. Whereas unstructured means that there is little or no evidence that
a systems approach was used, structured indicates that there is evidence that a
systems approach was used. The distinction made between means and ends is
a prominent aspect of planned learning (Jacobs, 2003).
In this sense, the system view has two basic implications for workplace
learning. First, it suggests that workplace learning is a system composed of
several interacting parts that work together to achieve common goals. Second,
it indicates that workplace learning should be developed and implemented
systematically (Jacobs, 2003). Based on the systems approach, evidence that a
systems approach was used can be identified in learning inputs, process, and
outcomes. The learning inputs include the people involved, the learning loca-
tion, the information about the work to be learned, and the communications
technology used to deliver information about the work. Learning process
involves the delivery of learning contents to learners. Learning outputs occur
as a result of combining the learning inputs and learning process. Learning
performance, work performance, and trainee development pertain to learning
outcomes (Jacobs, 2003).
Unstructured planning is often characterized by an ad hoc or even seren-
dipitous approach to learning. That is, there is uncertainty or lack of concern
at the outset about the outcomes of the learning or the methods used for the
learning. In a sense, unstructured learning might be viewed as being phenom-
enological in that whatever occurs during and after the training might be
viewed as being acceptable. The experience may itself be sufficient to warrant
the individuals perceiving value from the learning. In contrast, structured
learning suggests the use of a systems approach to develop the learning. That
is, a systems approach requires that the outcomes be specified first then the
methods to achieve the outcomes are specified afterwards. Additionally, struc-
tured learning is occurred with highly structured objectives, contents, time,
and support.
The role of trainer/facilitator is defined as the extent to which others are
involved during the learning process. The role of others in this case involves
146 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
passive and active roles. Passive role means that the trainer/facilitator plays a
limited role during the learning process requiring the trainee to engage another
person as needed. The active trainer/facilitator role means that the other indi-
vidual plays a direct role throughout the learning process.
Figure 1 presents a synthesis of the proposed framework by showing the
interactions of the eight combinations. For instance, off the job/unstructured/
passive cell represents that learning occurs away from the work setting without
use of a systems approach, and with limited involvement of a trainer/facilitator.
The examples of this learning may be study leave, paid educational leave, and
professional attachments.
Off the job/unstructured/active refers to the notion that learning may occur
away from the work setting, without using a systems approach, and with the
direct involvement of a trainer or facilitator. Off the job/structured/passive
learning means that learning occurs away from the work setting, using a sys-
tems approach, and with the limited involvement of a trainer or facilitator.
Self-directed learning is the instance of this learning. The off the job/structured/
active cell represents that learning occurs away from the work setting, as a
result of using a systems approach, and with direct involvement of a trainer or
facilitator. Group-based classroom, Web-based training, blended training, and
corporate university are examples of this combination.
Unstructured
Structured
Location of the Learning
Off the Job On the Job
E
GC
BF
DH
A
Passive
Active
FIGURE 1: Proposed Conceptual Framework of Workplace Learning
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 147
The on the job/unstructured/passive cell occurs at the actual work setting,
without use of a systems approach, and with limited involvement of a trainer
or facilitator. Casual coaching, ad hoc mentoring, job shadowing, learning
while doing, communities of practice, and reflection-in-action may be exam-
ples of this form of workplace learning. On the job/unstructured/active learn-
ing is characterized as learning, which occurs at the actual work setting,
without the use of a systems approach, and with the direct involvement of a
trainer or facilitator. The most prominent instance of this learning might be
called unstructured on-the-job training or follow Joe training. Clearly, there is
a role for these training approaches in terms of allowing some degree of explo-
ration and discovery. But the consequences of such training can be doubtful to
organizations and the individuals involved.
The on the job/structured/passive cell represents learning occurs at the
actual work setting as a result of using a systems approach and with limited
involvement of a trainer or facilitator. Action learning may be considered an
example of this category. Finally, the on the job/structured/active cell occurs
at the actual work setting, as the result of using a systems approach, and with
the direct involvement of a trainer or facilitator. S-OJT, formal mentoring, and
formal coaching are examples of this category. Taken together, the eight cells
provide a relatively comprehensive view on how to understand the various
learning types used in organizations.
Implications for Theory
Development and Research
The most prominent implication is that the proposed conceptual framework
now identifies a set of integrated variables that comprise workplace learning.
Given concerns expressed about the illusive nature of workplace learning
(Clarke, 2005; Colley et al., 2003), the framework explicitly describes what
variables should be included and how each of the variables vary. Explicating
this information is a critical aspect of the theory development process (Dubin,
1978). Future refinement of the conceptual framework, based on research,
depends on having a clear set of variables as a starting point.
It would be premature to suggest that the proposed conceptual framework
should now be considered an emerging theory of workplace learning. The
framework simply seeks to identify and describe the variables that comprise
workplace learning and how each variable might be expected to vary. Thus,
the conceptual framework at this point is purposely descriptive in nature.
Related to this point is the consideration of how gender, ethnic background,
or cross-cultural preferences might influence the proposed conceptual frame-
work. For instance, a growing number of scholars, especially in HRD, have
posited that cross-cultural differences should be taken into account when con-
sidering training and learning in diverse contexts ( e.g., Osman-Gani & Hyder,
148 Human Resource Development Review / June 2009
2008). In this sense, future presentations of the framework might include addi-
tional dimensions to overlay onto the three basic variables presented here.
For example, as part of his analysis of cross-cultural variables, Hofstede
(2001) has introduced at least five dimensions of national work-related values.
One such variable, individualism versus collectivism, refers to the extent to
which people are expected to stand up for themselves and to choose their own
affiliations, or alternatively act predominantly as a member of a life-long group
or organization. Latin American cultures rank among the most collectivist in
this category, whereas Western countries are most individualistic cultures. How
such individual differences tend to influence workplace learning should be
considered of high importance for future HRD theory building and research.
Even without such additional dimensions, the proposed conceptual frame-
work lends itself to the possibility of future theory development, perhaps more
than ever before on this topic. The theory development process requires atten-
tion to a set of attributes (Dubin, 1978; Lynham, 2000). Undertaking the
development and subsequent analysis of a theoretical model requires the iden-
tification of these attributes by which to judge the adequacy of the model. For
example, Jacobs (1989) undertook an extensive analysis of the body of knowl-
edge known as human performance technology using the theory development
criteria as proposed by Patterson (1983).
The most fundamental attribute of any theoretical model is whether there exist
units which constitute the content of the model. As stated, the proposed concep-
tual framework of workplace learning presents three major variables: degree of
planning, location of the learning, and role of others during the learning. In effect,
these variables could be viewed as the units, if the proposed framework should
be viewed as an emerging theory. Future research should focus on establishing
relationships among the variables, such that propositions could be proposed. In
this sense, it would seem advisable to match combinations of the variables with
certain outcome variables or individual different variables.
Conclusion
The conceptual framework was proposed to address two major issues
related to current understandings of workplace learning. By doing so, the
framework suggests the complementary nature of the ways in which learning
occurs in organizations. That is, the framework shows how altering one vari-
able or another makes it possible to change the nature of the learning approach,
such that organizations might be able to make more informed decisions related
to managing employee competence. This would seem true regardless if the
learning approach was structured or unstructured in nature.
In the end, the proposed framework of workplace learning does not neces-
sarily negate the validity of the terms formal training and informal learning, in
particular. Indeed, these terms will likely continue to be used and have meaning
Jacobs, Park / A PROPOSED CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK 149
in the HRD field. However, their continued use to describe the broader entity
of workplace learning seems certain to unduly constrain future theory develop-
ment and research on the topic. How to advance the theory, research, and by
extension the practice of HRD seems dependent on a meaningful understand-
ing of workplace learning.
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Ronald L. Jacobs is a professor of human resource development in the Workforce
Development and Education section, The Ohio State University.
Yoonhee Park is a graduate research assistant in the Workforce Development
and Education section, The Ohio State University.
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