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




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





Learning by doing





Learning by discussing with others





Coaching and mentoring





Learning by teaching others





Vicarious learning[1]





Learning by trial and error










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

Learning and knowledge sharing in the workplace: Part 1, What 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.

I have written earlier about a research study we are conducting within a major multinational company.  We are still analysing the data collected trhough 29 interviews and survey with 462 knowledge workers (engineers, scientists, commercial and business professionals) within the company. I wanted to blog the findings as they emerge, hoping that you might provide feedback, obersvations, comments, etc.

Semi-structured interviews were used to explore the ways in which experts and novices contribute, consume and connect knowledge and self-regulate their learning at work.  To this end we looked at learning and knolwedge sharing practices, indvidual and organisational motivating factors for learning and knolwedge sharing, barriers and enablers to knowledge sharing, the role of the collective (group, team, network, community) in learning and who people draw upon when faced with a need to learn to deal with a novel problem in the workplace (“significant others”). We have also explored what tools – personal and organisational – people use to support their learning and knowledge sharing, focusing in particular on social technologies.

I intend to post write ups of the key findings on  each of these themes as they become available.

Part 1. What people learn at work

What is being learned in the workplace?  Our methodology was designed to elicit categories of knowledge, skills and dispositions that interviewees acquired in the workplace.  We have 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) and to elaborate what they learned. This question generated a set of 22 categories of knowledge, skills and dispositions that interviewees believed they acquired through work.  We combined these using an existing typology of what is learned in the workplace (Eraut, 2004).  Our typology is outlined in Table 1.  The letters in the brackets indicate the number of interviewees who indicated that they had acquired the particular type of knowledge, skill or disposition and whether they were an expert (E), novice (N) or a mid-career professional (M).

Table 1. Typology of learning in the workplace

Awareness and Understanding

Understanding background of projects (NNNM)
Workplace politics (NM)
Stakeholder engagement (EM)
Contextualising knowledge (MMEE)

Personal Development
Assertiveness (M)
Learning about oneself (E)
Self-confidence (EE)
Stress management (M)

Core knowledge
Technical knowledge related to core tasks (NNNMMEE)
Using knowledge resources: developing personal networks (M), knowing who to ask (N)

Role Performance

Delegation skills (M)
People management skills (N)
Time management and prioritising (N)
Project management (EEM)

Collaboration skills (EEEMN)
Virtual team working (N)

Task Performance

Lab skills (N)
Using company-specific technology (NNE)

Enculturation in the company*
Developing visibility in the company (M)
Understanding the big picture (N)

Working in the organisation (NNNME**)

* While the types of skills and knowledge acquired through work that we uncovered generally match closely the categories outlined in Eraut’s typology, a new category emerged through our interviews – enculturation – which refers to individuals’ finding out about the company norms and values, understanding how work is conducted in the organisation and becoming known within the company.

** Although this person was an expert with 11-20 years in their discipline they were new to the organisation (1-3 yrs)

While the number of respondents is too small to ascertain generalities, some patterns can be observed in this typology:

  • No novices indicated acquisition of personal development-related dispositions and skills. This might be because their focus is on task performance and development of core knowledge in discipline
  • Development of deeper awareness and understanding of the context seems to be the focus mostly for experts and mid-career professionals. This might be due to the greater variety of experiences these individuals will have had within the company, which means they have to develop a more refined understanding of the variety of local conditions and other contextual aspects of their task and role performance.

This typology demonstrates the breadth and variety of knowledge and skills that individuals acquire in the workplace.   It encompasses both conceptual and procedural forms of knowledge (“know that” and “know how”) and the dispositions that underpin them (attitudes, behaviours that enable individuals to put their knowledge and skills into action).  The development of some of the skills and knowledge reflected in this typology is traditionally understood to be primarily the domain of formal educational settings, as for example in the case of conceptual knowledge. Of note is the fact that many of these skills and dispositions are being developed at all stages of career, regardless of experience and expertise level. These findings point to the variety of types of expertise and the holistic and continuous nature of learning at work.

This typology can be used as a heuristic that reminds people of possible aspects of learning in the context of their own work. The typology can also be used as an initial mapping tool for individuals, possibly in collaboration with their mentor/coach, to reflect upon the types of knowledge, skills and dispositions that they could acquire directly through their work. It can also serve as a starting point for individuals to develop a typology of their own workplace learning.

As in any typology, each category can fit more than one heading, but we have chosen to group them under the heading we found most suitable for the categories that emerged from the interview data.  It is also important to keep in mind that this is only an initial mapping – because the typology is based on a limited data set from only one organisation it doesn’t reflect the entire complex repertoire of knowledge, skills and dispositions that individuals can develop in the workplace.

References: Eraut, M. (2004). Informal learning in the workplace. Studies in Continuing Education, 26 (2), 247- 274.

Generalisable aspects of expertise

In introduction to Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, Anders Ericsson reviews several conceptualisations of generalisable aspects of expertise.

He also elaborates some definitions:

Expertise comprises a set of charactersitics/skills/knowledge that distinguish experts from novices and less experienced peers.

Expert performance denotes types of superior reproducible performance of representative tasks of a domain.

In some domains there are no objective measures of these two notions; subjective measures are then used.  These subjective criteria include:

  • recogntion by peers as a reliable source of knowledge/skill
  • authority and status accorded by public or peers
  • prolonged/intense  experience through practice and education

The subjective criteria are often problematic, for example experience, which could mean that difference from novices are a function of repetition rather than superior skill.

Ericsson outlines key issues in expertise development that are currently not well understood and require further research:

  • How experts organise their knowledge and performance?
  • How can efficiency of learning be improved to reach higher levels of expert performance?
  • Why indviduals improve their performance at different rates and why different people reach different levels of final achievement?
  • What are the mediating mechanisms of expertise development?

Source: Ericsson, A. (2006). An introduction to Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance: It’s developemnt, organisation and content.  In Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P., & Hoffman, R. (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (pp.3-19). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Expertise and self-regulated learning

Zimmerman outlines the key components of expertise.  Each of these components is a necessary but not sufficient condition for development of expertise.

He also elaborates on the differences in self-regulation practices of experts and novices.

Source: Zimmerman, B. (2006). Development and adaptation of expertise: The role of self-regulatory processes and beliefs. In Ericsson, K.A., Charness, N., Feltovich, P., & Hoffman, R. (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (pp.705-722). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.