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Defining Workplace Learning

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Abstract

This paper focuses on the significance of workplace learning. Learning is often defined as the route in which any type of knowledge is attained (Eraut, 2000: 4; Lave & Wenger, 1991: 47). The workplace can be an important place for learning and development, and in which knowledge can be created (Avis, 2010: 171). A discussion of the various types of workplace learning is included in this paper, namely those which fall under the category of formal, informal and unconscious. Research shows that 80% of the learning occurs informally through self-directed learning, networking, coaching and mentoring (Yeo, 2008: 318). However, there may be obstacles that can hinder learning at the place of work. Examples of these obstacles are also tackled in this paper.
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DEFINING WORKPLACE LEARNING
Karen Cacciattolo, D.Soc.Sci., Leic.
M.Sc., Trng & HRM, Leic.
University of Malta, Malta
Abstract
This paper focuses on the significance of workplace learning.
Learning is often defined as the route in which any type of knowledge is
attained (Eraut, 2000: 4; Lave & Wenger, 1991: 47). The workplace can be
an important place for learning and development, and in which knowledge
can be created (Avis, 2010: 171). A discussion of the various types of
workplace learning is included in this paper, namely those which fall under
the category of formal, informal and unconscious. Research shows that 80%
of the learning occurs informally through self-directed learning, networking,
coaching and mentoring (Yeo, 2008: 318). However, there may be obstacles
that can hinder learning at the place of work. Examples of these obstacles are
also tackled in this paper.
Keywords: Workplace Learning, Situated Learning, Communities of
Practice
Introduction
Working is interconnected with learning and consequently,
workplace learning is the way in which skills are upgraded and knowledge is
acquired at the place of work. The literature in this paper concerns
workplace learning and offers different definitions. Broadly speaking
however, it can be defined as the acquisition of knowledge or skills by
formal or informal means that occurs in the workplace. According to Collin
et al (2011) learning in the workplace is perceived as an ever-present
practice that occurs through customary work systems (2011: 303).
Workplace learning mostly occurs through work-related interactions,
and is generally described as contributing to the learning of both the
individual employee and the organisation as a whole (Collin et al, 2011: 303;
Doornbos et al, 2008: 131; Felstead et al, 2005: 360, 363; Fenwick, 2008a:
228). Fenwick (2008b) defines workplace learning as occurring through the
relations and dynamics between ‘individual actors’ and ‘collectives’ (2008b:
19). Moreover, workplace learning can enhance skills that may lead to
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formal qualifications, as well as informal narrowly focused skills (Stroud &
Fairbrother, 2006: 458). Research shows that 80% of the work-related
learning occurs informally and this includes self-directed learning,
networking, coaching and mentoring (Yeo, 2008: 318). Therefore,
workplace learning can include formal elements but is predominantly
informal in nature, and is often incorporated into workplace social
interactions and everyday practices.
According to some authors, workplace learning is also ‘culturally
bound’, meaning that the skills that an employee learns represent the
requirements of his or her tasks within the organisation (Muhammad & Idris,
2005: 65). Moreover, much evidence shows that people learn more from
each other and through finding solutions for their day-to-day problems at the
workplace (Felstead et al, 2005: 368; Hager & Johnsson, 2009: 497;
Silverman, 2003: 15). In this regard, it is often argued that the most
important source of information, from which one can learn, is the existing
job predecessor. An experienced person is commonly described as the best
source of information about a new job wherein he or she can inform about
the challenges of and changes required to a task (Silverman, 2003: 14). In
addition, workplace learning can be identified as a two-way representation in
which employers and employees can mutually address skills development
through a process of social discourse in relation to the workplace.
Categories of Workplace Learning that Involve Intervention
Workplace learning is more concerned with informal learning rather
than formal education and qualifications. However, methods of workplace
learning may take many forms and, according to Silverman (2003), these can
be categorised into three types that involve a learning intervention of some
sort: in-house training, experience-based learning opportunities and training
through coaching and mentoring, and continuous learning (2003: 2).
In-house training involves planned learning activities that take place
near the job or outside work. Here, the organisation provides either short
training courses at the workplace setting or information and communication
proceedings that have a learning element. Trainers are usually from the
organisation itself or from external entities.
According to Silverman (2003), experience-based learning is an on-
the-job learning activity that is supported and evaluated, mostly through
coaching and mentoring (2003: 4). However, Eraut (2000) states that
experience-based learning often occurs in an either unplanned or in an
unaware manner during the usual day-to-day tasks (2000: 115). In the case
of learning that is supported and evaluated, one or more employees are
identified as people who trainees and other employees can go to for advice.
Experience-based learning may also take the form of job rotation and
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increased autonomy. Here an employee is given a somewhat straightforward
task and then gradually shifts to more intricate tasks along with the relative
responsibility and autonomy.
In their study, Bishop et al (2006) hypothesized that the belief that
once employees are empowered, they will use that increased autonomy in a
responsible way, could be an important part of a learning-supportive culture.
Other studies show that lower level employees are often ready for greater
autonomy than they usually exercise and are eager to learn how to participate
in decision-making related to their tasks (Silverman, 2003: 17). It is often
argued that mentoring provides opportunities for peers to help novices
become experts (Yeo, 2008: 318). In this regard a skilled employee guides
the learner in carrying out particular tasks. Another method would be for a
trainee to work beside an experienced employee to observe and learn.
Experience-based learning may also push employees to learn
informally through discussions with customers, suppliers and other external
stakeholders of the organisation. Eraut (2000) mentions thereactive’ kind
of learning in which learning is explicit but takes place impulsively in
response to recent, current or forthcoming situations without any time being
specifically reserved for it (2000: 115). This type of learning, which is not
supported or evaluated, is a process that occurs normally involuntarily and
continuously.
Continuous learning may include a group of employees working
together to identify how to improve certain processes, either formally or
informally. Accounts such as those above promote the view that continuous
learning occurs where the work environment is all the time focused on the
learning of new skills and knowledge and largely free of political conflict. In
this scenario employees are continuously encouraged and provided with
resources to learn for themselves from e.g. books, manuals, videos and
computer-based learning. In addition, the study of Fuller & Unwin (2003)
on expansive learning illustrates that organisations that offer an open
approach to apprenticeship are more expected to form learning opportunities
(2003: 412).
Informal/Unconscious Workplace Learning
According to Doornbos et al (2008) and Mallon et al (2005)
workplace learning is predominantly informal or unconscious and is a purely
situated, tacit, informal, and social process (2005: 4; 2008: 130). Likewise,
Yeo (2008) argues that informal learning is usually unintentional and it may
occur with or without the encouragement of the organisation (2008: 318).
Doornbos et al (2008) further argue that people can learn implicitly and are
able to distinguish the changes in their thoughts and behaviours at a later
stage (2008: 130).
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The notion ofSpontaneous learning’ is identified by Doornbos et al
(2008) wherein learning occurs when actions are executed with another
objective in mind other than learning (2008: 131). This occurs when the
related action is itself unintentional, or when an action is intended but not
with the precise objective of learning. Doornbos et al (2008) describe the
changes in knowledge and skills as a result of such actions asby-products,
discovery, coincidence, or sudden realization’ (2008: 131). In their study,
Rowold & Kauffeld (2009) identified that constant informal learning
activities assisted employees most in increasing their relevant work-related
competencies (2009: 97). Therefore, the results of their study highlight the
significance of informal workplace learning.
Lave & Wenger’s Situated Learning
Maybe the most common theory of the meaning of learning at work
stands with Lave & Wenger’s (1991) book on situated learning, which has
guided and helped researchers understand the meaning of workplace learning
and apprenticeships. In their book, Lave & Wenger emphasise two concepts,
namely ‘Communities of Practice’ andLegitimate Peripheral Participation’,
wherein they provide insights on the meaning of workplace learning, mostly
apprenticeships (Fuller et al, 2005). TheCommunities of Practice’ concept
relates to the action of participating in social practices that leads to a sense of
belonging within a community (Avis, 2010: 173; Clarke, 2005: 191; Fuller et
al, 2005: 4; Fuller & Unwin, 2003: 3; Lave & Wenger, 1991: 98; Yeo, 2008:
318). These communities may include some sort of uniformity or diversity in
their structure and may also be either organised or made up voluntarily
(Chang et al 2009: 409).
Employees are able to learn from their participation in the everyday
activities of a community (Fenwick, 2008b: 20) and it is argued that
communities of practice aid individuals to learn and consequently to perform
better at the workplace (Chang et al, 2009: 410-11). Several critiques were
presented regarding this concept such as the lack of analysis on the politics,
comradeship, and form of a community, the lack of attention on the
development of the knowledge within the community during periods of
change that are expeditive and, the lack of consideration on the innovation
offered by the community and the agency/structure actions within (Fenwick,
2008a: 235; Fenwick, 2008b: 21; Fuller et al, 2005: 15-16). Therefore,
communities of practice are regarded as very important since they create a
link between the individual and organisational learning (van Winkelen &
McKenzie, 2007: 531). In this regard Newman (1985) suggests that trust and
openness should be fostered between the different departments of an
organisation (1985: 208). Thus, if an organisation is to succeed, it is
important that communities of practice are fostered within, and that these
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share the knowledge by allowing these information flows to continue
(Coakes & Clarke, 2006: 75).
Obstacles to Workplace Learning
Organisations consist of individual agents of organisational learning,
of which behaviour is shaped by the social systems they are embedded in
(Easterby-Smith et al, 2000: 787). These social systems are also learning
systems that can inhibit learning due to the organisational politics, which
may result in lack of shared knowledge as illustrated by Newman (1985).
According to Collin et al (2011) social relations also include power issues to
some extent (2011: 303), which are also politically based. In his study,
Newman identified invisible walls between different units in organisations
that hindered the learning and sharing of information (1985: 208).
Collin et al (2011) argue that learning processes are central to the use
of power and control since workplace learning is seen as linking individual
and social realms (2011: 302). As such, learning and power become linked
during the tangential doing and shared custom through which workplace
culture become mutual, both in isolation and as a group (Collin et al, 2011:
303). Organisational politics can impede learning and as such, workplace
learning is not a neutral process for the organisation or the worker (Mallon et
al, 2005: 8).
An example illustrated by Silverman (2003) states that, in
organisations, managers are rewarded for the possession of a skill,
knowledge and understanding, and not for disseminating these important
resources to their subordinates (2003: 16). Therefore, organisational politics
may influence how these are accessed and controlled. Undoubtedly, this is
not only applicable to managers but also to lower level employees who may
feel the need to protect and control their skills due to the status and influence
that the same skills give them. Some other forms of barriers for workplace
learning, especially informal learning, may include lack of respect from the
new employee towards an experienced employee, individuals who hold back
information from their colleagues out of fear of being seen as a surplus and
passing erroneous information to new employees with the aim of harming
them (Billet, 1995: 24-25).
It is interesting to note that Lave & Wenger’s theory does not explore
in depth the issue of hindrance and politics and thus, this is a major
limitation of their theory in connection with the current research being
carried out (Fuller et al, 2005: 15). In this regard evidence shows that
learning situations may have considerable power inequalities (Collin et al,
2011; Malcolm et al, 2003: 5). In addition, if employees lack trust in the
organisation they work with, they would tend to keep the skills and
knowledge acquired to themselves in order to protect their job and position
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within the organisation (Ashton & Sung, 2002: 21; Fenwick, 2008a: 233;
Kirwan, 2009: 117).
Conclusion
As discussed in the above sections, workplace learning is
conventionally seen as a means of improving the skills of employees and
enhancing their knowledge, and the learning involved may be either formal
or informal. Formal learning, which consists of qualifications and certified
training, is no longer seen as the sole method of learning. Formally-acquired
qualifications are becoming viewed more in terms of a wider structure that
concerns workplaces and the employees, educational institutions and various
communities within organisations. At the same time, informal learning at the
workplace is becoming an increasingly important tool for training
employees. Both formal and informal learning may benefit either the
organisation or the individual or both (Crouse et al, 2011; Lancaster, 2009).
However, such benefits are not automatic. According to Silverman (2003)
organisations do not always benefit from workplace learning and the
progress features of workplace learning must be taken into consideration that
can be hindered by careerism, apprehension, pressure, obsequiousness and
unsolved divergences (2003: 15).
Bishop et al (2006) state that there are strong indications that cultures
put forth a great influence on the amount and kind of learning that takes
place (2006: 21). This is especially concerned with assumptions about what
comprisesvaluable knowledge, dealing with the latest knowledge, the
appropriatelocation of knowledge in an organisation or group, and the
shape and role of social interactions (Bishop et al, 2006: 21). All these
appear to have a deep effect on workplace learning. Additionally, in their
study, Fuller & Unwin (2003) identified that the expansive or restrictive
learning approaches of the organisations they studied are the result of an
innate chronological, socio-cultural, organisational and economic practices
that are hard to imitate (2003: 424).
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... De este modo, a diferencia de los aprendizajes formales que se adquieren en el salón de clases, el tipo de aprendizaje que se promueve en la estadía es considerado informal (Cacciattolo, 2015), no formal (Yeo, 2008), situado (Lave y Wenger, 1991), de conocimientos tácitos (Eraut, 2000) y otros calificativos como aprendizaje incidental (Garrick, 1998), espontáneo (Cacciattolo, 2015) o aprendizaje basado en la experiencia (Bould et al., 2011). ...
... De este modo, a diferencia de los aprendizajes formales que se adquieren en el salón de clases, el tipo de aprendizaje que se promueve en la estadía es considerado informal (Cacciattolo, 2015), no formal (Yeo, 2008), situado (Lave y Wenger, 1991), de conocimientos tácitos (Eraut, 2000) y otros calificativos como aprendizaje incidental (Garrick, 1998), espontáneo (Cacciattolo, 2015) o aprendizaje basado en la experiencia (Bould et al., 2011). ...
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