Workplace learning: New thinking and practice

In recent years there has been increasing interest and focus on the application of informal and workplace learning. Organisations are exploring new approaches for employee development that are not tied to the formal structured methods around the classes, courses and curricula model. Equally, they are also reviving old approaches built around apprenticeship and workplace practices.

In part this interest has been driven by economic considerations. Pressures to lower training costs and reduce budgets for travel have been a major factor. But the focus on workplace learning is also being driven by the realisation that the majority of adult learning occurs not through formal learning but through experience, practice, conversations and reflection in the workplace. People learn mainly through doing rather than through knowing. Added to this there is an emerging appreciation of the important role that context plays in any learning.

The increased interest in workplace learning has not been aimed at simply replacing formal methods (although this is often the result), but at better exploiting the limited time and budgets available to organisations so they can realise increased performance improvement, greater employee development opportunities and improved flexibility in the provision of learning opportunities to the workforce.

Additionally the focus on workplace learning has not been confined to any particular business sector or to specific groups of employees (individual contributors, first line managers etc.), but is being adopted across a wide range of industries, agencies and government departments. Workplace learning has always been supported for craft and trade education – where people earn their livings primarily with their hands. However the recent surge of interest and activity has been in the knowledge industries – where people earn their livings with their heads. For knowledge workers this is a relatively new phenomenon.

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