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Case Study Workplace Learning Analysis Education Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Education
Wordcount: 5502 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In recent years workplace learning has gone from being largely unnoticed to attracting unprecedented interest among employers, researchers and policy makers. This interest can be attributed to globalisation, technological and social changes, economic shifts and organisational developments. The ideas of learning linked to work roles and learning occurring at work are not new yet ‘concepts such as lifelong learning, the learning society and the knowledge economy have contributed to the development of ‘workplace learning’ as a distinctive field of enquiry’ (Lee et al., 2004:2). The recognition of workplace learning as a source of sustainable competitive advantage for individuals and organizations alike have also attracted a great deal of interest to ensure that workplace learning is effective. David Boud (1999:5) goes on to assert that in this context:

“Workplace learning is concerned not only with immediate work competencies, but about future competencies. It is about investment in the general capabilities of employees as well as the specific and technical. And it is about the utilisation of their

knowledge and capabilities wherever they might be needed in place and time.”

Many scholars agree that the workplace provides a rich environment for learning (Hager, 2004; Billet, 2001, Boud, 1999). In the changing context of work and new competence demands there is widespread consensus about the importance of workplaces as significant sites for learning new skills and knowledge. Indeed, the workplace is now even named by some as the ‘Learning Organisation’ which is defined by Pedler et al (1998) as ‘an organisation which facilitates the learning of all its members and continually transforms itself’ (Thompson, 2006:2). Workplace learning includes a variety of models like formal, non-formal, informal and incidental. On the contrary to the wide availability of different types of learning, relatively little is known about its effects at individual and/or organisational level (Felstead et al, 2009). The lack of such information may involve a low degree of intentional influence at individual and organisational level to optimise take up and effectiveness of workplace learning (Felstead et al, 2009).

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Literature substantiates the claim that workplaces differ in terms of the opportunities they provide for employees to engage in learning activities and personal development (Billett, 2001). Workplaces also differ in terms of their complexity, their culture, their power and the nature of their boundaries with contexts of learning and knowledge production (Clarke, 2005). Research shows that workplace learning is a socially situated process where the context, in terms of its structures, activities and relationships shape the learning environment and learning opportunities in the workplace (Lee et al, 2004). As Marsick and Watkins comment, ‘the creation of a learning environment goes far beyond the design of learning itself. It involves the design of work, work environments, technology, reward systems, structures and policies’ (1990:44). Awareness and understanding of these factors is a pre-condition to foster an effective workplace learning at organisational level as well as at policy level. In fact, Felstead (2009:193) has suggested that “there is some evidence in the larger field of human resource development that a focus on the learning of individuals is less significant than a focus on the organisation as a context for learning” Increasingly, the importance of developing an appropriate learning environment in order to foster workplace learning is dominating organisational agendas (Clarke, 2005).

Such realisation are in evidence in the UK, where the British government through the HM Treasury report – Prosperity for all in the global economy -world class skills (2006), has set workplace learning in the wider context of government policy and emphasised the importance of developing effective workplace environments to support workplace learning in particular (HM Treasury 2006, The Leitch Review of skills). Despite ongoing government support for learning in the workplace, findings showed that there remains a significant gap between policy and practice (National guidance research forum). Employers complain that despite the available government funding the costs of involvement outweigh the benefits. Further many UK workplaces are still considered as being ‘low-skill’ and offering poor opportunities for learning and there are worries that significant shortages of skilled workers will start to appear, unless workplace learning is enhanced (CIPD, survey report 2008). Addressing the issue, findings from The Teacher and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) revealed that for workplace learning to be effective in the UK, various aspects of workplace context need to be considered than merely providing learning opportunities at work.

Since learning is influenced by the workplace context, exploring the contextual factors that may influence employees’ learning is critical to advancing our understanding of how different aspects of the workplace environment are likely to be important in fostering an effective learning climate (Clarke, 2005). It has been acknowledged that workplace provides an environment for learning that either facilitates or inhibits learning, yet few research studies have examined the extent to which the environment serves to enhance learning. A few commentators, notably Billett (2001), Fuller and Unwin (2003), and Ashton (2004), have sought to extend this view and have pointed to workplace structure and context as significant factors within the processes of learning at work (Lee et al, 2004). In particular, Skule (2004) has acknowledged that ‘research on assessing and measuring the contextual factors that promote or impede learning at work is underdeveloped’ (Skule, 2004).

Therefore this study sought to investigate and discuss the influence of contextual factors that have been posited in the literature as influencing workplace learning specifically. This paper shows that by locating workplace learning in context, clearer understandings of the factors influencing the learning environment and processes can be gained. It also shows how the workplace context can provide both barriers to and opportunities for learning.

Firstly, different forms of workplace learning are identified. Two opposite paradigms or approaches to understanding the phenomenon of learning at work are discussed. However, the focus of the paper is not on formal programs but on informal/incidental learning which occurs in the workplace. Then the report aims to discuss appropriate context conditions for learning at the workplace.

Workplace learning

Workplace learning is attracting attention for a number of different reasons. It is often characterised and conceptualised as advantageous to all those involved: there are benefits to employers in raising productivity and profitability, there are benefits to employees in raising employability and earnings and there are benefits to the economy in raising competitiveness and growth. Apparently, workplace learning is a term applied to various contexts and surrounded by different points of view. Thereby generating a myriad of different lenses through which workplace learning is viewed and understood. David Boud (1999:11) argues that, ‘workplace learning is a site of intersecting interests, contested ideas, multiple forms of writing and rapidly evolving practice’.

There is no consistent and generally accepted definition of workplace learning (Lee et al., 2004). One definition of workplace learning was provided by Marsick and Watkins during the 1990s. Their definition focused on the way individuals learn and respond to changes in the organisational environment that in turn influences the way in which people construct meaning in their personal and shared organisational lives. Fuller and Unwin described workplace learning as learning in, for, and through the workplace (2006:23), suggesting that learning can be embedded in social relations. Beckett (1999), in relation to workplace learning, tends to focus on key HR policy choices and agues that organisations should provide mentoring and coaching and dedicated time to engage in policies for individual strategies such as appraisal, career planning, incentives to learn etc and link workplace learning strategy to evidence of learning (cited in workplace learning: main themes and perspectives).

Not only workplace learning is represented by a variety of meanings, the literature is also informed by different views. The literature on workplace learning is rather confusing as it has been viewed from the perspective of a variety of disciplines such as sociology, cognitive psychology, policy studies, management theory, learning theory etc, each reflecting different assumptions and perspectives (Hager, 2004). However, in the field of management theory (HRM), approaches to classifying types of workplace learning demonstrate two main dimensions or approaches to discussions.

The dominant perspective has been the traditional perspective of learning. Many researchers work within what Beckett and Hager (2002) have called the ‘standard paradigm of learning’ which assets that ‘the best learning consists of abstract ideas that are context independent and transparent’. Here learning is a process of individual acquisition of knowledge. Hence he goes on to argue that in this paradigm ‘non-transparent learning is a second-rate kind of learning’ (Hager 2004:244). This is important for studies of workplace learning because it takes us beyond the simplistic and restricted traditions of cognitive and behaviourist psychology and embraces the role of tacit knowledge. This learning opposes the ’emerging paradigm of learning’ which emphasise the importance of how people make sense of their experiences at work. Hager (2004:246) argues that ‘rather then being simply a change in the properties of the learner…the main outcome of learning is the creation of a new set of relations in an environment’. This is why learning is inherently contextual, since what it does is to continually alter the context in which it occurs.

Similarly, Sfard (1998) has used the notion of ‘metaphors of learning’. The first metaphor -‘learning as acquisition’ is based on the premise that knowledge exists independently of the knower but can be acquired and acted upon. The second metaphor -‘learning as participation’ emphasises learning happening in relation to others before it is internalised by the individual. Sfard (1998) emphasized that neither metaphor was adequate on its own (Sfard, 1998:44).

A different perspective to workplace learning emerged in academic writings in the early nineties, greatly influenced by the work of Lave and Wenger (1991). Situated learning theories draw on concepts such as ‘communities of practice’ to explore workplace learning. This new perspective emphasises the construction of knowledge within the social and cultural circumstances in which learning occur, namely the social context. Lave and Wenger (1991) who in stressing that learning is at its most meaningful when it is ‘situated’ showed how researchers should focus on the community of practice rather than on the individual as the unit of analysis. It is argued that workplace learning depends on the extent to which organisations afford employees opportunities to participate and interact with colleagues (Billet, 2001). Even though Lave and Wenger’s concepts of ‘communities of practice’ have enjoyed widespread popularity within workplace learning theory, it has been criticised for failing to take account of the role of formal education and not discussing that employees in a workplace may or may not have opportunities to be part of a community of practice (Fuller and Unwin, 2003).

The second main dimension of learning relates to the distinctions between formal and informal learning. Formal workplace learning is typically associated with training and education. It is also conceptualised as a ‘standard paradigm’ of learning or ‘learning by acquisition’. According to Marsick and Watkins (1990), formal learning occurs as part of an organised workplace-accredited programme and is embedded within the organisation’s structure. They argue that formal learning has a finite end point that results in a qualification to undertake specific work activity.

In contrast, informal workplace learning can be thought of as a process of learning that takes place in everyday work experience (Marsick and Watkins, 1990). Informal learning involves action and reflection and includes self-directed learning, mentoring, coaching and social interaction. Informal learning is seen to be integrated into daily routines (i.e. experience-based learning), not highly conscious (i.e. implicit learning), influenced by chance and linked to learning of others (learning by communicating) (Lee et al., 2004; Marsick and Watkins, 1990). Indeed research shows that learning by doing is the most effective method of learning.

The term informal learning sometimes is used interchangeably with incidental learning. Marsick and Watkins drew distinction between informal and incidental learning. They described informal learning as focusing on experiential forms of learning and incidental learning as focusing on unintentional or unplanned learning (cited in affordances and constraints on informal learning in the workplace). In this context, learning is assumed to be an action arising from experience that may enable the learner to develop and acquire new skills. Incidental learning can be described as a social process and can be conceptualised using Lave and Wenger (1991) notion of a ‘community of practice’.

Research indicates that about two-thirds of workplace learning may be informal or incidental (Marsick and Watkins, 1990; Skule, 2004). There is also apparent consensus that informal learning is becoming increasingly the preferred option for developing employees. One of the most important issues here is the realisation that much of the knowledge that individuals need and use in organisations is based upon their experience and often can’t easily be found in any written form. For example, Billett (2001) conducted several studies of coal miners and workers in industries, concluding that in the informal learning setting of the workplace, effective learning resulted from learner’s engagement in authentic activities, guided by experts and by interacting with other co-workers. Although learning was unique to each co-worker, it was also shaped by the workplace culture. His study revealed that the quality of learning depended on the kind of activities engaged in, access to support, guidance, and how co-workers constructed their knowledge of different situations. According to Billett (2001:21)

..these factors influence the process of learning and what is learnt. In doing so, they reflect the interdependence between work and learning, providing a basis to consider not only the contributions of the workplace as a learning environment, but also how the workplace might be organised to improve learning”

Informal learning suggests that the social and cultural environment has the potential to influence how learning occurs. Furthermore few studies have investigated how the sociocultural context has facilitated and constrained informal learning at work. This is a critical area of investigation because of the growing reliance on informal learning as a means of developing the knowledge and skills required in the workplace (Felstead, et al, 2009). Although informal workplace learning is the most prevalent form of learning in organisation, it is also the least well supported (Eraut, 2004).

A central argument of this paper is that the workplace can be understood to foster or hinder particular types of learning environment. Drawing on Lave and Wenger’s (1991) situated learning theory, Fuller and Unwin (2003) developed an expansive-restrictive framework that provides a conceptual and analytical tool for evaluating the quality of learning environments and for analysing an organisation’s approach to workforce development (Lee et al, 2004). Expansive learning environments include opportunities to engage with multiple communities of practice, gain broad experience across the organisation, learn off and on-the-job and extend job roles. Restrictive environments on the other end are characterised by workplaces with limited opportunities to acquire formal qualifications and much narrower approach to work design (Fuller and Unwin 2003; 2004a). In their study, they identified three participatory dimensions. Firstly opportunities for engaging in multiple communities of practice at and beyond the workplace. Secondly, access to a multidimensional approach to the acquisition of expertise through the organisation of work and job design and finally the opportunity to pursue knowledge-based courses related to work (Clarke, 2005). The findings further revealed that organisations with expansive approach foster a wide range of formal, non-formal and informal approaches to and opportunities for learning whereas a restrictive approach impose many limitations on learning. Within organisations adopting an expansive approach, learning is likely to take place horizontally as well as vertically, and the culture is likely to be less hierarchical. Individual employees are also likely to vary as to whether their approach to learning is expansive or restrictive, and their attitudes may be in harmony with or in opposition to the culture of the organisation in which they work. Fuller and Unwin (2003) and Billett (2001) stress the importance of person’s dispositions towards workplace learning. Those personal dispositions influence what and how an individual learn at work. Fuller and Unwin research was contested by some authors, notably Young (2001) ‘who pointed out that not all workplace learning will take place across teams or in social circumstances. Young further argues that ‘the emphasis that expansive learning places upon transformation could potentially lead to the creation a new learning binary mirroring that of formal/informal learning’ (Lee et al, 2004, cited in workplace learning main themes and perspectives).

This brief introduction has highlighted that learning in the workplace can be formal, informal and incidental and that workplace can foster or hinder particular types of learning environment. ‘The various definitions of workplace learning explain that the all encompassing nature of the term makes it difficult to establish how far there has been a shift in human resource management towards making more effective use of the workplace as a source of learning’ (Stern & Sommerland 1999 cited in workplace learning main themes and perspectives). Arguably the differing dimensions of workplace learning within these literatures examine the influence of the workplace context at different levels of analysis and more importantly influence learning differently (Clarke, 2005). Organisations can play a major role in facilitating their employees learning by providing an environment that is conducive to a positive attitude to learning.

Conditions for effective Workplace Learning

The effectiveness of learning activities at the workplace is dependant on a variety of factors. Scholars such as Fuller and Unwin (2003), Billett (2001), and Skule (2004) have identified various factors that affect workplace learning, either directly or indirectly in a large number of contexts. Research shows that organisational structure, workplace context and social-cultural conditions at work shape the learning environment and learning opportunities in the workplace (Ashton, 2004). Besides, there are also individual factors such as individual dispositions, psychological learning potential, employment status and educational background which affects individuals learning at work. This section focuses on analysing briefly the workplace context and social-cultural conditions influencing workplace learning. Based upon a review of the literature, a range of factors were identified that were considered aspects of workplace environment for facilitating or constraining workplace learning outcomes: (Clarke, 2005:8).

Environmental factors

The rapid changes in the economic and social conditions means organisations have to constantly adapt in order to survive. This adaption involves the acquisition of new skills and competences at the workplace and job level, thus inevitably influencing the degree and quality of learning in the work context (Skule, 2004). This relationship is empirically confirmed by Skule (2004) who identify a positive correlation between exposure to competition of the organisation and ‘learning-intensity’ of jobs. Moreover diversification of technologies and advanced information are becoming increasingly pivotal to the success of organisations and professional practices, irrespective of their size or industry sector. This is because ‘information technology not only automates, it also “informates” … information technology can create an environment for thinking and problem solving’ (Schuck 1996:1999). Thus the successful integration of technology into the organisation’s functioning can have dramatic impact on the learning opportunities.

Organisation structure and culture

How motivated individuals are to learn and how encouraged they feel in learning all depend in large part on the organisation, its culture and how it is managed. In short, when it comes to learning, an organisation can facilitate or hinder workplace learning.

Ashton (2004) through his empirical studies identifies the following workplace practices that have major influence on workplace learning: (1) Tasks variation in the job. Placing employees into different functions or departments so that they gain skills and knowledge in different contexts and able to shadow other employees. Secondments and job rotation constitutes an appropriate instrument in this respect. (2) Autonomy vs Standardisation of tasks and work processes. Task with a high degree of autonomy facilitates developmental learning, whereas a task with a high degree of standardization facilitates reproductive learning. (3) Cross-functional teams. Many organisations are starting to see the potential of cross-functional teams as an effective means of supporting workplace learning. One benefit of employee working in cross functional team is that knowledge and skills from other team members is transferred directly and formally. (4) Organisational decisions about learning and its importance. This underpinned the support available for learner from all levels (Lee at al, 2004). Whilst Ashton empirical study reveals that workplace practices can and do influence learning and access to learning, it also draws attention to the significance of learning culture. It follows that a very effective way of improving workplace learning is to improve the learning culture. This entails making changes to existing working conditions and day-to-day practice of management (Skule, 2004). Skule (2004) identifies, in a quantitative study that managerial beliefs, attitudes and behaviours together with leadership issues (like feedback, support and reward) were the most conducive factors to learning at work. While approaches to management development normally emphasise motivation, productivity and appraisal, relatively little attention is given to creating a climate which promotes learning (Thompson, 2006). More specifically managing should be comparable to ‘coaching’, education and skills of managers have to be adapted towards pedagogy and teaching methods to support and structure learning processed in workplaces. To appoint managers and develop them for this new role of facilitating learning would be a highly significant move. According to Schuck (1996:207)

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The beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of the manager are at the heart of the environment of inquiry. Within pedagogy for meaning, a manager creates opportunities for learning and becomes an active participant in it. The manager of inquiry encourages people to ask questions and creates an environment in which intellectual play and socially mediated learning are necessary and legitimate components of work’.

Research shows that the most effective learning cultures are best when a learning culture is expansive (Fuller and Unwin, 2003). Fuller and Unwin study on apprenticeships revealed that quality of learning varied significantly between expansive and restricted firms despite the fact that all were part of the same government scheme. Furthermore, they state that expansive learning environments, which encourage access to diverse forms of participation, were more likely to facilitate integration of personal and organizational development. Billett (2001) shares Fuller and Unwin (2003) view on co-participation but adds that learning is more likely to be effective if there is synergy between the factors and forces that contribute to the learning -e.g workplace affordances (race, gender, personal relations etc), supportive management and learn part of the culture (Clarke, 2005)

Socio-cultural context

While the organisational context of learning is clearly important, we should also note the significance of the socio-cultural context of learning. Socio-cultural perspective on learning can be traced back to the work of Vygotsky (1978) who suggested that learning cannot be understood without considering the social and cultural context in which learning takes place. Echoing Vygotsky, Lave and Wenger (1991) have conceptualised learning in the workplace as participation in social practice. From this perspective, workplace learning is seen as arising as a result of a complex interaction between knowledge acquisition based within the work and social activities or practices of groups within organisations (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Workplace leaning is not isolated from social practice. This is clearly an important consideration in understanding the consequences of learning in workplaces (Billett, 2001). This can be seen to apply in a number of ways: The social circumstances in the learning situation can play a significant part in how learning experiences proceed for example a disable learner may be held back in his or her learning because of disadvantages within the organisations concerned. Moreover, factors such as race, gender can have a significant influence on learning. For example gender stereotyping can shape peoples attitudes and approach to learning (Felstead et al, 2009). Billett (2001) highlighted that workplace learning is social and cultural in nature. In his research on skill formation in coal mines, Billett argued that workplace activities are structured by historical, cultural and situational factors that influence the kind of learning that occurs through work (Clarke, 2005).

From the sociocultural perspective, learning is recognised as a social practice where it is highly dependent upon the social situation and cultural context in which it takes place. In order for workplace learning to be effective then, such insights recognise learning not as an isolated individual activity but deeply rooted with networks of social relationships (Clarke, 2005).

The point was made earlier that workplace conditions can either foster or hinder workplace learning, but it is not just these factors that can play such pivotal role. There are other barriers within the workplace that hinder workplace learning, these will be discussed next.

Workplace learning is not only dependent on workplace conditions but also on personal factors. ‘Smith (2000) has criticised the literature on workplace learning for assuming that all learners in the workplace are generally self-directed and motivated’ (Clarke, 2005:15). However many employees do no have these skills. Learning readiness should be apparent in individual. Willingness to learn can also be limited if the specific needs and potential benefits are not apparent such as time made available during working hours. Moreover an understanding of the different types of learning strategies used by individuals within organisations is crucial to foster an effective workplace learning.

It is often claimed that employee learning is essential to the success of a firm, but the evidence in UK says otherwise. It is important to note that not all employees are provided with the same opportunities for learning in the workplace. Survey from CIPD shows that unskilled workers are the least to receive opportunities for learning, mostly female part time employee. Further findings revealed that three-quarters of organisations reported that their manual staff had no formally appointed mentor and half admitted that they had no structured on the job training. The lack of awareness of learning needs for organisations and the reluctance by managers to guide and provide support to learners may inhibit the outcome of workplace learning. Managers may be reluctant about sharing knowledge for fear of loss of status and power (Lave & Wenger 1991). For example in ‘Japanese corporations, where workplace learning is widely accepted, managers roles include training subordinates. Yet these managers are secure because promotion is based on seniority, therefore, they will not be displaced’. In Australia however industrial affiliation results in particular jobs being undertaken by particular groups of workers (Owen 1995, cited in current issues and agendas in workplace learning). Lack of awareness of learning needs is also connected to uncertainty regarding the incentives to employees. In many UK organisations pay and status are rarely linked to the attainment of qualification and thus provide little incentive to see further training (Owen 1995, cited in current issues and agendas in workplace learning).


This paper explores and discusses the influence of workplace context on workplace learning specifically. Attempts to characterise workplace learning have generated a myriad of terms and hence, seen as a complex and multifarious concept within the literature (Lee et al, 2004). One of the reasons for the apparent ambiguity is because the term is applied to many different contexts and activities.

This paper has also provided an overview of the two dominant perspectives of learning with the emphasis on the ‘participation’ as an important learning process. To summarise the two perspectives: the standard paradigm of learning and learning as acquisition perspectives are rooted in traditional understandings of learning inspired by cognitive psychology and behaviourism. These perspectives tend to focus primarily on how individuals acquire knowledge within and across different psychological processes and levels. In contrast, the emerging paradigm and learning as participation perspectives understand the ‘process’ of learning to be collectively generated. These perspectives are rooted in social understandings of learning where this is seen to occur through the social relations and participatory practices of individuals within communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 2001). The second main dimension in discussion is the distinctions between formal and informal learning. Formal learning is planned and provided by the organisation in an effort to increase employees’ effectiveness. Workplace learning can also be informal learning that is unintentional and result from interaction with other employees.

Workplace learning is embedded within, takes its shape from and can be impeded or facilitated by the workplace context (Fuller et al, 2003:47). As mentioned in the paper workplace learning is a socially situated process where the context, in terms of its structures, activities and relationships shape the learning environment and learning opportunities in the workplace (Fuller and Unwin, 2003). All learning in the workplace is influenced by a range of factors and is shaped by external as well as internal imperatives. Factors namely environmental factor, organisational structure, workplace culture and social context were discussed. This paper e


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