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Organisational learning

'Organisational learning' in this section is being interpreted as learning that occurs in organisations seen primarily from the perspective of what it means for the organisation. The resources on 'organisational learning' presented here comprise three types:

  • key findings from TLRP projects
  • video case study material illustrating different approaches to organisational learning
  • links to other resources on organisational learning.

There are complex relationships between organisational learning, design of work, workplace learning and organisational performance: for example, issues could include how job and task design are orientated towards workplace learning, how organisations and systems accommodate new tools, how organisations are managed as environments for learning by enhancing productivity through knowledge development. Some key issues for organisational learning and work redesign are:

  • relationships/ culture
  • flows of people and work
  • experiences and engagement (of individuals and groups)
  • organisational policies and influences
  • couplings between learning and work
  • 360 degree learning
  • learning as an organisation
  • roles and influence of tools and technology.

One problem here may be that many of the key issues inter-relate, and we will exemplify these inter-relationships through the work of a number of TLRP projects.

Key findings on 'organisational learning' from TLRP projects:

One key issue for organisational learning concerns how this contributes to organisational performance. From this perspective a discussion of what constitutes high performance management may be apposite. The TLRP project on 'Learning as Work: Teaching and Learning Processes in the Contemporary Work Organisation' has made important contributions in this respect. First, near the start of the project Peter Butler and colleagues (2004) conducted a literature review of High Performance Management and how those ideas may influence learning at work. At a later stage, Jason Hughes (2008) provided a review and evaluation of the high-performance paradigm. This review placed the emergence of the paradigm in the context of the alleged 'crisis of Fordism' and explores key debates within the literature as to whether high-performance working delivers 'mutual gains' for both employers and employees, or constitutes more a vehicle for workintensification and union avoidance. The Learning as Work team also sought to highlight some of the ways in which organisational cultures and subcultures can support – or inhibit – workplace learning: 'Connecting Culture and Learning in Organisations: A Review of Current Themes'. The Learning as Work team have also produced working papers of learning in organisations in a number of sectors using an approach that considers the organisation as a productive system, see, for example, 'Continuity, Change and Conflict: The Role of Learning and Knowing in Different Productive Systems'. The full list of project outputs are available from the project website, but the working papers include:

A TLRP project on Learning in and for multi-agency working addresses the challenges faced by organisations and individual professionals, as new practices are developed and learned in multi-agency work settings. The study focuses primarily upon inter-professional learning across agencies but that necessarily has an organisational learning dimension too. Some key findings of the research are reported by Harry Daniels and colleagues (2007) in Learning in and for multi-agency working. The practices reported involve working responsively across professional boundaries with at-risk young people, involving on-going partnerships between professionals and service users to support young people’s pathways out of social exclusion. The project also utilised an intervention methodology that sought to help practitioners and organisations meet the learning challenges identified in a context of strategic and organisatyional change in the delivery of children’s services. Other relevant project publications on this topic from the project team and from their sister project Learning in and for Interagency Working: multiagency work in Northern Ireland include:

The TLRP Techno-mathematical Literacies in the Workplace project was another example of research that had implications for learning inorganisations. The researchers set out to characterise and develop the Techno-mathematical Literacies needed for effective practice in modern workplaces. The focus was upon how intermediate-level employees understand and communicate the mathematical aspects of workplace artefacts, such as computer input and output and paperbased documents that contain information expressed symbolically. The aim was to elaborate the the nature of the Techno-mathematical Literacies required by such employees, and to understand how these mathematical skills are needed to reason with symbolic data, and to integrate data into decision-making and communication. In this context, what is of particular interest are the meanings that employees in industry attribute to representations of data and how the context of the industrial process is constitutive of the meaning of graphs of data derived from this process. For example, one theme was how different groups of employees react to graphs used as part of statistical process control, focusing on the meanings they ascribe to mean, variation, target, specification, trend, and scale as depicted in the graphs. Using the notion of boundary crossing, the researchers tried to characterize a method that helps employees to communicate about graphs and come to data-informed decisions. From the full list of project publications available, the following may have particular relevance:

Another TLRP project working at the interface of individual and organisational learning is Enhancing 'Skills for Life': Adult Basic Skills and Workplace Learning, which aims to develop a theoretically-informed and evidence-based analysis of both immediate and longer-term outcomes of workplace-linked interventions designed to improve adults’ basic skills. In this context what is of particular interest is the focus on the potential for increasing the productivity of workplaces and enterprises which sponsor basic skills instruction through their impact on employee behaviour, attitudes and networks. From the full list of project publications available, the following may have particular relevance:

Alison Fuller and Lorna Unwin in an earlier TLRP project, which was part of a network on Improving Learning in the Workplace, had developed their ideas about expansive and restrictive learning environments and how these might influence approaches to workforce development. Expansive features include the opportunity for employees to: engage with multiple communities of practice; gain broad experience across the organisation; pursue knowledge-based as well as competence-based qualifications; learn off-the-job as well as on-the-job; have a recognised status as a learner; and have access to career progression and extended job roles. Restrictive features represent the flip side of these attributes. In companies that have adopted a restrictive approach, apprentices struggle to make progress in terms of achieving formal qualifications and have limited opportunities available for progression and development. An expansive learning environment develops a broad range of 'key skills', by encouraging employees to cross boundaries and experience different work-related contexts. The framework illuminates those organisational dimensions which impact on the creation of workplace learning environments. For more on these ideas, including how they have been further developed in the 'Learning as Work: Teaching and Learning Processes in the Contemporary Work Organisation' project, see:

One final TLRP project with major implications for organisational learning concerns the Early Career Learning at Work project. This longitudinal study observed the workplace learning of 92 professional accountants, engineers and nurses during their first three years of full-time employment. Its main focus was on informal learning and short semi-formal learning episodes. In the three professions studied by LiNEA, it turns out that formal training events and sessions are comparatively unimportant in early career development. Much more significant is the learning that people get from their managers and others around them. An overview of findings are given in Early career learning at work: Insights into professional development during the first job, but a number of other project and linked publications are relevant in any consideration of organisational learning:

Video case study material illustrating different approaches to organisational learning

One way we thought might be helpful for those using this site is to try to ground some of these issues by showing some organisational contexts in the video clips that appear in ths section so as give some insight into some maufacturing processes. The examples are mainly drawn from the ACORN project, a European EQUAL project, in which the University of Warwick Institute for Employment Research participated.