ETHOS Issue 23, October 2021
WHAT IS WORKPLACE LEARNING?
Understandings about workplace
learning (WpL) vary. In addressing
some basic but critically important
questions about WpL—what is it, what
does it ‘look’ like, how do we know
learning is taking place—we need to
examine commonly held assumptions
Some 11 years ago, when I first started
asking policymakers, industry people
and adult educators in Singapore
what they understood WpL to be, a
common response was that it is mainly
on-the-job training. While the general
understanding of WpL has become
much more sophisticated since then, it
is still quite common to hear many say
WpL is about training in the workplace.
However, training is but one small aspect
of WpL: there can be a great deal of
WpL taking place with no trainer or
training in sight.
Human resource (HR) development
perspectives on WpL tend to focus on
outcomes for the individual, their career
development, and outcomes for the
organisation. Matthews, for example,
captures this in the following definition:
[WpL] involves the process
of reasoned learning towards
desirable outcomes for the
individual and the organisation.
These outcomes should foster the
sustained development of both the
individual and the organisation,
within the present and future
context of organisational goals and
individual career development.1
This definition seems entirely reasonable,
but it has its limitations. Outcomes
to what end is a question that needs
asking. “Desirable” for who, and for
what? Matthews’ definition suggests
that employees are puppets, to be
moulded and manipulated according
to the ethics and value propositions of
A more holistic approach is taken by
Billett, who notes that “as we think and
act, we learn”; learning is inevitable, as
we work.2 Sandberg also positions WpL
holistically, emphasising the need for the
development of collective competence in
the workplace, suggesting that “without
a shared understanding of their work,
no cooperative interaction will emerge,
and by then, no collective competence
will appear in the work performance”.3
Collective competence, he postulates,
is cultural; members are enculturated
into the work and workplace. Sandberg
uses the term “competence”, not as
in competency-based training where
skills and knowledge are broken into
small tasks and separated, but as holistic
performance within the relevant context.
Training is but one small aspect of WpL: there can be a great deal of WpL taking place with no trainer or training in sight.
Another way to understand WpL is to
break it down into the three key words:
work, place and learning. This helps
make explicit some of the assumptions
inherent in a holistic understanding
Work: the activities of the work being
done. This could refer to where in the
production or service chain an individual,
team or division’s work falls, the purpose
of the work, the design of the work,
and the relations between different
activities of the work. Understanding
the nature of the ‘work’ is important,
as how particular kinds of work are
valued and rewarded impact the need
and motivation of individuals, teams
and divisions to learn. If an individual
has little discretionary power and the
job is quickly learnt, there is no need
to keep learning.
Place: the sites or spaces of work.
Notions of space evoke not only physical
space and arrangements, but also
cultural norms, the tools and knowledge
workers use and have access to (or not),
and the problems they need to identify,
frame and solve. Physical arrangements
can encourage or discourage dialogue
and sharing, an important basis of WpL.
Cultural norms such as the extent to
which a workplace is supportive and
accepting, for example of risk-taking or
trial and error (or not), set up or deny
affordances for learning.
Learning: definitions of WpL that are
outcomes-based often regard learning
as achieving desired behaviours. When
learning is considered as training, there
is usually a focus on individual cognition,
with the assumption being that learning
takes place inside an individual’s brain.
This ignores the reality that learning
is embodied: we sense, we feel, we
respond emotionally. It also ignores
that learning requires relations with
people and objects in context. Learning
is a highly social activity. When WpL is
considered as training, both cognitive
and behaviourist ideas of learning
predominate.4 These approaches do
little to help individuals and teams to
apply their learning, or what Evans, Guile
and Harris call putting knowledge to
work.5 Developing understanding and
making meaning begins with the active
use of the relevant language. Social
relations and exchange are necessary
for individuals and teams to reconstruct
their thinking through a process of higher
levels of cognition, through doing the
work. The extent to which this is possible
is deeply influenced by the nature of the
‘place’ of the workplace, as discussed
above. We also need to keep in mind that
expertise is not stable: it is an “ongoing
collaborative and discursive [dialogic]
construction of tasks, solutions, visions,
breakdowns and innovations”.6
‘Work’, ‘place’ and ‘learning’, and how
each is understood, come together to
create or limit possibilities for WpL.
We can support learning by broadening
understandings of learning beyond
cognition, memorising and behavioural
outcomes. WpL is about the relations
between people, artefacts (e.g.,
tools used), the language used, the
environment, being valued, or not, and
much more. Ways of thinking about
WpL will determine how WpL is used
and enacted in workplace(s).
This brings us to considering the framing
of issues to which WpL may be a, or a
partial, solution. Rarely is WpL a total
solution; for example, job redesign,
hierarchical structures, reward systems
and so on may also need attention.
WpL is about the relations between people, artefacts (e.g., tools used), the language used, the environment, being valued, or not, and much more.
How David Reframed a WpL Issue
In a workplace involving heavy machinery, there are workers from many nationalities
and cultures, where Singaporeans work closely with other migrant workers from
the neighbouring countries: India, mainland China and Malaysia. The local on-site
supervisors would often be frustrated with foreign team members for not wearing
steel-capped boots, helmets and other personal protective equipment, and with
those who speed across workspaces when operating forklifts.
To address these concerns, David, a member of the human resource team, focused
on addressing the performance gaps in the competencies foreign equipment
operators appeared to be lacking in. However, with the help of some reading
and peers, David realised that the deficit approach of assuming that the foreign
operators lacked skills had to be challenged. He commented in an assignment1
I was…influenced by preconceived stereotypical ideas of the foreign
operators’ work practice. These had blindsided me from their strengths
and competence, which were equally important, as these are personal
factors that would also influence and shape their learning interventions.
I realised that the stereotypical perception that they were novices had
to be challenged, as their behaviours were not due to their lack of skills,
but due to the culture and the work environment they had back home.
This subsequently led me to reframe my perspective and improve the
roadmap [the learning intervention to establish a culture of safe practices]
by looking at strategies that capitalise on the strengths of the learners
and supervisors who are their mentors.2
Even though the operators might have years of experience in their home country,
David realised that there was a lack of understanding of each nationality’s working
culture, and a lack of trust in the competence of the group of foreign operators
by the local supervisors and operators. He noted that it did not help that there
were limited face-to-face interactions between the different groups, and limited
time for coaching and reflection sessions with mentors and supervisors.
- Data from an Institute for Adult Learning and CRADLE, Nanyang Technological University project on Dialogical Teaching by Bound et al., 2019.
- Permission to use this material was sought and gained from “David” (a pseudonym). See Bound et al.,
2019 for details of this project.
WPL FOR WHAT PURPOSE?
The resolution of problems lies not
within an individual, but is embedded
in ways of thinking, artefacts, relations,
power dynamics and so on. Outcomes-based HR approaches may use frames
of thinking such as the one David (see
box story) initially began with, in which
he regarded the foreign workers as
being deficient, having gaps in their
knowledge and skills. However, if training
the workers in wearing personal protective
equipment (PPE) and to drive safely
was seen to be the solution, then the
underlying problems of understanding
the cultural, institutional requirements
of safe working practices, and the lack
of trust and communication between
the different groups of workers would
not only remain unaddressed, but keep
surfacing in various ways, over time.
So, what changed David’s perspective?
Instead of considering the individual
workers as having gaps in knowledge
and skills and their behaviours needing
to be changed to achieve safe workplace
practices as an outcome, he looked at
the issue from different angles, seeking
to understand the connectedness, the
relations between them. He considered
the individual, the culture of the
workplace, the systems, and objects
in the workplace, and came to see, for
example, that the culture and systems
in place were not supportive of safe
In this example, I focused on the cultural
issues which were present at two levels:
1) the workplace norms, the lack of
trust between supervisors and foreign
workers, and between Singaporeans
and foreign workers, and 2) national
cultural understandings of safe working
practices. Institutional practices differ
across countries. Workers who come
from a country where it is accepted on
many sites to wear flipflop sandals when
working with heavy machinery may
give less thought to wearing PPE, for
instance. David’s eventual solution was
to set up sessions with different groups
coming together to share stories of their
working cultures. This enculturated trust
and support between the groups, and
at the same time enculturated workers
into different practices appropriate to
their worksite. In an environment where
there is trust, questions and feedback
become a norm (keeping in mind that
norms constantly change as incidents
and people change).
Present in David’s story is an understanding
of WpL shifting from an outcomes-based
behaviourist, cognitive approach to
learning, to a holistic enactment of WpL.
Specifically, David considered relations
between many aspects: individuals,
the unit/department, cultural norms
in the workplace, institutional and
national understandings of safe working
practices. To develop safe working
practices, David implicitly understood
that “cognitive action” involves using
and interacting with artefacts (e.g., PPE,
yellow lines marking out different uses
of space, etc.), as well as of language
and its situational meanings.7 David
was using a relational understanding
of WpL, putting together the different
aspects of work, place and learning.
David’s practice changed from seeing
a problem as a set of gaps in learner’s
competence (and organising training
to address these), to digging deeper
to understand what was going on. He
asked questions of different groups of
workers, to make decisions based on
data. In using the data, he was able to
deliberately put behind him the usual
stereotypes and ways of thinking, and
come up with different understandings of
the problem and novel learning solutions.
How a problem is framed, how it is
named, determines the shape of the
solution(s). Getting this right is critical
in designing WpL.
IS YOUR WORKPLACE SUPPORTING POSSIBILITIES FOR WPL?
Possibilities for WpL are embedded
in the work, although the learning
may turn out to be negative (e.g., I
am not trusted, so why bother) or
positive (e.g., leading to wanting to
The importance of support, openness,
trust and strong communication channels
are nothing new to readers: they are
basic foundations for WpL. Often
classified as being part of culture, they
are more than engineered conditions
and a set of attitudes embodied
by workers.8 Cultures are dynamic,
they constitute an organisation's
structures, day-to-day practices of
sayings, doings and ways of relating.9 Therefore, it is necessary to constantly work at adjusting structures, means of recognition, opportunities for workers
to share and work together, and much more.
How Su Chin Developed a Supportive WpL Culture
Su Chin, a new team head within a service organisation, quickly realised her team
was demoralised. There was high attrition, practices were inconsistent, workloads
were uneven, and other teams in the organisation that her team serviced were
frustrated at not getting what they needed.
Determined to address these issues, Su Chin began with gathering data: she
designed a set of questions, talked with team members and other teams, and
found out what support was available within the organisation.
On analysing this data, she was pleasantly surprised to realise that her team
members had developed resilience through self-learning to address the constant
changes the team experienced as a part of their work. Despite high attrition
rates, she discovered two experts within the team with domain and know-how
knowledge on procedures, processes and networks. New members were very
willing to help, with some offering to participate in new projects, and finally, she
found that feedback and knowledge exchange with the team’s organisational
stakeholders was strong.
Against this positive context were a number of constraints: the team experts felt
unrecognised and undervalued; team members were protective of their domain
knowledge, contributing to limited trust and issues with coverage during absences;
internal stakeholders complained their requests were not handled on time and
the quality of the work was poor; there were no regular feedback channels in
place and no guides on how to undertake standard tasks.
Armed with this knowledge, Su Chin began gaining her team’s trust by finding
out, one-on-one, each team member’s learning needs and reasons for their low
morale. Using this knowledge, she organised training on common learning needs.
But first, she shared (generically) her findings from her one-on-one sessions
with the message, “I hear you and these are the next steps”. She introduced a
buddy system to ensure coverage and support for each member, clearly laying
out responsibilities, such as reviewing each other’s work and covering each
other’s absences. She officially appointed the two experts as mentors to guide
and support newer team members, giving them recognition and showing she
valued their contributions.
Su Chin then established a number of project teams to develop frameworks for
the writing of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and process guides, and
to actually write these. This process started off in small achievable steps with a
pilot, with team members providing feedback and support, prior to widening this
work. Su Chin also established a structured Community of Practice,1, 2 as a space
to provide feedback and support and identify improvement. All of this work was
based on modelling and expecting open, honest, constructive feedback among
- J. Lave and E. Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1991).
- H. Hodkinson and P. Hodkinson, “Rethinking the Concept of Community of Practice in Relation to
Schoolteachers’ Workplace Learning”, International Journal of Training and Development 8, no. 1
Su Chin (see box story) paid attention
to this need, by providing not just
a trustworthy ear but also tangible
strategies to address her team’s low
morale and poor quality of work.
Importantly, she did not assume
she knew what the issues were; like
David, she sought to find out, from
the ground. She talked with people,
holding an open mind and open heart.
Rather than judging team members
as inept, she began from a position
that they had strengths and sought
to uncover and grow these strengths.
She used a combination of approaches:
ongoing dialogue; clearly conveying
her strategy and plans; listening to
suggestions for improving on her ideas;
bringing in external trainers; recognising
expertise; giving those who sought it,
responsibility; and gradually building
this trait in other team members.
She also opened up communication
channels, constantly building on the
dynamic possibilities, nurturing a
sense of pride and accomplishment.
The focus should always be on the
relations between people, things and
structures. Learning can be highly
effective when learning through doing
the work. The point is that it is necessary
to provide opportunities for dialogue,
to learn the language with which to
improve thinking about the work, and
opportunities to put ideas to work. All
of which needs to be underpinned by
a belief in your people.
It is necessary to provide opportunities for dialogue, to learn the language with which to improve thinking about the work, and opportunities to put ideas to work.
REALISTIC AND MEANINGFUL
EVALUATION OF WPL
Evaluating WpL is not about assessing
the knowledge and skills of individuals
and teams. Rather, like any project
such as David’s and Su Chin’s, the
evaluation of WpL is anchored on how
the problem is named and framed, the
objectives set, and the processes and
tools used. WpL is relational, complex
and dynamic; using a simple metrics
approach cannot capture the nature
of WpL or its multi-faceted outcomes.
The evaluation of WpL must appraise
the impact of activity.
Project approaches to WpL can be a
useful approach to evaluating WpL.
Table 1 provides a simple, specific
example of what this might look like,
using Su Chin’s example.
Table 1. Structuring Evaluation of WpL
AIM: To address xx team’s low morale and improve quality of the work
Table 1 provides a range of types of
evidence. Much of it is qualitative, but
nevertheless tangible. Implicit in this
evidence is the development of a team
identity that members are proud to
belong to. Also inherent in this approach
is that decision-making for identifying,
framing and solutioning of problems is
delegated to those doing the work. The
relationship between job-design and
WpL is important to keep in mind. In
work settings, learning is richest when
workers are identifying, framing, and
In work settings, learning is richest when workers are identifying, framing, and meeting challenges.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
WpL is not about teaching, nor is it about
just one way of doing and thinking about
a task. There is considerable research
to show that the natural sensemaking
ability of humans means that workers
come up with a myriad of ways to achieve
needed outcomes (be it consistent,
high-speed accuracy or highly complex
solutions). This appears to be, in part,
a means to minimise mental and/or
physical effort, leaving more energy
for other contributions.10
As a study of learning and innovation
in Singapore small and medium-sized
enterprises (SMEs) indicates, WpL is
part of the identity of an organisation,
of the way it is, and constantly evolves:
Work complexity and variety are
shaped not only by roles and
expectations, but also by the
perceptions of staff and their
managers. Crucially, how managers
and leaders perceive their staff
and their work significantly
influences an individual’s self-perception and inclination towards
learning and innovation. As such,
an organisation’s leadership is
closely related to the learning
opportunities provided for the
WpL is not about teaching, nor is it about just one way of doing and thinking about a task.
- P. Matthews, “Workplace Learning: Developing An Holistic Model”, The Learning Organization 6, no. 1 (1999): 19–20
- S. Billett, Learning in the Workplace: Strategies for Effective Practice (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2001), 21.
- J. Sandberg, “Understanding Human Competency at Work: An Interpretive
Approach”, Academy of Management Journal 43, no. 1 (2000): 9–25.
- H. Bound and K. Yap, “Reconceptualising ‘Developing Competence at Work’ to a
Journey of Being and Becoming”, in Safety and Health Competence. A Guide for Cultures of Prevention, eds. U. Bollmann and G. Boustras (CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, 2020).
- K. Evans, D. Guile, and J. Harris, “Rethinking Work-Based Learning for Education
Professionals and Professionals Who Educate”, in The SAGE Handbook of Workplace Learning,
eds. M. Malloch, L. Cairns, K. Evans, and B. O’Connor (London: Sage Publications, 2011),
- Y. Engeström and D. Middleton, “Introduction: Studying Work as Mindful Practice”, in Cognition and Communication at Work, eds. Y. Engeström and D. Middelton (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4.
- Y. Engeström and D. Middleton, “Introduction: Studying Work as Mindful Practice”, 1–14.
- A. Chia, S. Yang, A. Alhadad, and M. Lee, Innovative Learning Cultures in SMEs
(Singapore: Institute for Adult Learning, 2019).
- T. R. Schatzki, “A Primer on Practices: Theory and Research”, in Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, eds. J. Higgs, R. Barnett, S. Billett, M. Hutchings, and F. Trede
(Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012): 13–26.
- S. Scribner, “Mind in Action: A Functional Approach to Thinking”, in Mind, Culture, and Activity, eds. M. Cole, Y. Engeström, and O. Vasquez (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1997): 354–368.
- See Note 8, 40.