Research appears to indicate that there are three significant issues which impact on whether workplace learning is likely to be worthwhile or not:
how the learning takes place
what factors impact on individuals’ efficacy as learners and
how the behaviour of line managers and supervisors affects employee learning.
How on-the-job learning typically happens can be described in terms of both learning methods and learning behaviours.
Six main methods of on-the-job learning are recognised. These are:
transmission (direct instruction to pass on knowledge and skills)
coaching and mentoring
guided learning (the structuring of workplace experiences to facilitate learning)
action learning (through reflection and action on workplace problems)
job rotation/work allocation (learning from new tasks and work settings); and
participation (unplanned learning arising through participation in workplace activity and communities of practice; this is also described as peripheral participation and sometimes as informal or incidental/accidental learning).
A degree of overlap is observed between some of these methods and in practice, several are often used in combination.
1. Learning behaviours observed in individuals in the workplace include:
listening and observation
accessing help from others
giving and receiving feedback
using documents, equipment, materials
These behaviours are observed in work tasks as well as performance management and personal development activities more directly associated with learning (such as supervision, shadowing, coaching and mentoring).
2. Research on factors affecting individuals’ efficacy as learners, highlights:
commitment and motivation
alignment with values and objectives of work activity
a level of difficulty that challenges, but does not overwhelm
support from managers and colleagues
and their reciprocal relationship.
Impacting on these factors are work organisation, individual capability and personal objectives, interactions and relationships afforded by the workplace.
3. The impact of line managers on learning is widely recognised to be considerable, particularly as organisations devolve the implementation of people management processes to line managers. In relation to learning, research suggests that the importance of managers is not so much as agents of delivery, so to speak, as creators of a climate favourable to learning.
That climate depends on the quality of the workplace interactions (through which learning largely occurs).
Managerial behaviours that are key to this include:
allocation and structuring of work activity to provide
appropriate levels of challenge for individuals
opportunities for interaction and joint working
giving of support and constructive feedback
conflict resolution and relationship-building
informal coaching and mentoring
proactive support (including advice and guidance) for subordinates’ career development.
The degree to which managers do these things depends partly on the context they work in and partly on their own understanding of both people management and (workplace) learning.