Learning and knowledge sharing in the workplace: Part 2, How people learn at work

The ideas in the post are based on a research study I am collaborating on with Colin Milligan and Allison Littlejohn.  Your feedback would be appreciated.

How are the knowledge, skills and dispositions discussed in the Part 1 being learned?

This is a challenging question, because in the workplace learning takes place continuously, even though it is not always explicit and hence not always recognised.  We asked our interviewees to think about their most significant learning experience in the past year (a project or a task from which they felt they learned the most), but this time we asked them to elaborate on how they learned and what of these learning methods they personally preferred.

We uncovered 9 ways in which the respondents learned. These conscious learning processes range from working processes during which learning occurs (eg vicarious learning or learning from experience) to processes in or near the workplace where learning was the prime purpose (formal learning, coaching and mentoring, self-study).  They are listed in Table 1 (note that all respondents learned in more than one way):

Table 1.  Modes of learning

Mode of learning

Total no of participants who adopted the mode

Novices

Experts

Mid-career

Formal learning (classroom and blended learning courses, self-paced elearning)

25/29

9/9

9/12

7/8

Learning by doing

20/29

9/9

6/12

5/8

Learning by discussing with others

9/29

4/9

3/12

3/8

Coaching and mentoring

7/29

4/9

1/12

2/8

Learning by teaching others

6/29

3/9

2/12

1/8

Vicarious learning[1]

6/29

4/9

2/12

0/8

Learning by trial and error

5/29

1/9

1/12

2/8

Self-study[2]

4/29

3/9

0/12

1/8

Some patterns can be observed:

  • Prevalence of formal learning for all levels of experience, although many interviewees indicated that they preferred to learn via a combination of formal and informal, rather than formal alone.  However our data points out clearly that formal courses are still very important in individuals’ conceptions of what constitutes learning
  • A relatively significant proportion of novices appear to view teaching others as a valuable form of learning
  • Vicarious learning appears to be most popular among novices
  • Experts did not mention engaging in self-study – this doesn’t necessarily mean that experts don’t engage in studying the relevant literature but that perhaps this activity is viewed by them as an inherent part of work rather than a way of learning

[1] Refers to learning by observing others.

[2] For example, reading relevant literature and project documentation




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