Thinking Differently about Workplace Learning

Instead of topping up on-job skills with training, the focus should be on understanding, framing and improving the relations between people, assets and structures in an organisation.

Thinking Differently Wpl_banner-teaser

Date Posted

4 Nov 2021


Issue 23, 29 Oct 2021


Understandings about workplace learning (WpL) vary. In addressing some basic but critically important questions about WpL—what is it, what does it ‘look’ like, how do we know learning is taking place—we need to examine commonly held assumptions about WpL.

Some 11 years ago, when I first started asking policymakers, industry people and adult educators in Singapore what they understood WpL to be, a common response was that it is mainly on-the-job training. While the general understanding of WpL has become much more sophisticated since then, it is still quite common to hear many say WpL is about training in the workplace. However, training is but one small aspect of WpL: there can be a great deal of WpL taking place with no trainer or training in sight.

Human resource (HR) development perspectives on WpL tend to focus on outcomes for the individual, their career development, and outcomes for the organisation. Matthews, for example, captures this in the following definition:

[WpL] involves the process of reasoned learning towards desirable outcomes for the individual and the organisation. These outcomes should foster the sustained development of both the individual and the organisation, within the present and future context of organisational goals and individual career development.1

This definition seems entirely reasonable, but it has its limitations. Outcomes to what end is a question that needs asking. “Desirable” for who, and for what? Matthews’ definition suggests that employees are puppets, to be moulded and manipulated according to the ethics and value propositions of the organisation.

A more holistic approach is taken by Billett, who notes that “as we think and act, we learn”; learning is inevitable, as we work.2 Sandberg also positions WpL holistically, emphasising the need for the development of collective competence in the workplace, suggesting that “without a shared understanding of their work, no cooperative interaction will emerge, and by then, no collective competence will appear in the work performance”.3 Collective competence, he postulates, is cultural; members are enculturated into the work and workplace. Sandberg uses the term “competence”, not as in competency-based training where skills and knowledge are broken into small tasks and separated, but as holistic performance within the relevant context.

Training is but one small aspect of WpL: there can be a great deal of WpL taking place with no trainer or training in sight.

Another way to understand WpL is to break it down into the three key words: work, place and learning. This helps make explicit some of the assumptions inherent in a holistic understanding of WpL.

Work: the activities of the work being done. This could refer to where in the production or service chain an individual, team or division’s work falls, the purpose of the work, the design of the work, and the relations between different activities of the work. Understanding the nature of the ‘work’ is important, as how particular kinds of work are valued and rewarded impact the need and motivation of individuals, teams and divisions to learn. If an individual has little discretionary power and the job is quickly learnt, there is no need to keep learning.

Place: the sites or spaces of work. Notions of space evoke not only physical space and arrangements, but also cultural norms, the tools and knowledge workers use and have access to (or not), and the problems they need to identify, frame and solve. Physical arrangements can encourage or discourage dialogue and sharing, an important basis of WpL. Cultural norms such as the extent to which a workplace is supportive and accepting, for example of risk-taking or trial and error (or not), set up or deny affordances for learning.

Learning: definitions of WpL that are outcomes-based often regard learning as achieving desired behaviours. When learning is considered as training, there is usually a focus on individual cognition, with the assumption being that learning takes place inside an individual’s brain. This ignores the reality that learning is embodied: we sense, we feel, we respond emotionally. It also ignores that learning requires relations with people and objects in context. Learning is a highly social activity. When WpL is considered as training, both cognitive and behaviourist ideas of learning predominate.4 These approaches do little to help individuals and teams to apply their learning, or what Evans, Guile and Harris call putting knowledge to work.5 Developing understanding and making meaning begins with the active use of the relevant language. Social relations and exchange are necessary for individuals and teams to reconstruct their thinking through a process of higher levels of cognition, through doing the work. The extent to which this is possible is deeply influenced by the nature of the ‘place’ of the workplace, as discussed above. We also need to keep in mind that expertise is not stable: it is an “ongoing collaborative and discursive [dialogic] construction of tasks, solutions, visions, breakdowns and innovations”.6

‘Work’, ‘place’ and ‘learning’, and how each is understood, come together to create or limit possibilities for WpL. We can support learning by broadening understandings of learning beyond cognition, memorising and behavioural outcomes. WpL is about the relations between people, artefacts (e.g., tools used), the language used, the environment, being valued, or not, and much more. Ways of thinking about WpL will determine how WpL is used and enacted in workplace(s).

This brings us to considering the framing of issues to which WpL may be a, or a partial, solution. Rarely is WpL a total solution; for example, job redesign, hierarchical structures, reward systems and so on may also need attention.

WpL is about the relations between people, artefacts (e.g., tools used), the language used, the environment, being valued, or not, and much more.

How David Reframed a WpL Issue

In a workplace involving heavy machinery, there are workers from many nationalities and cultures, where Singaporeans work closely with other migrant workers from the neighbouring countries: India, mainland China and Malaysia.

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The resolution of problems lies not within an individual, but is embedded in ways of thinking, artefacts, relations, power dynamics and so on. Outcomes-based HR approaches may use frames of thinking such as the one David (see box story) initially began with, in which he regarded the foreign workers as being deficient, having gaps in their knowledge and skills. However, if training the workers in wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and to drive safely was seen to be the solution, then the underlying problems of understanding the cultural, institutional requirements of safe working practices, and the lack of trust and communication between the different groups of workers would not only remain unaddressed, but keep surfacing in various ways, over time.

So, what changed David’s perspective? Instead of considering the individual workers as having gaps in knowledge and skills and their behaviours needing to be changed to achieve safe workplace practices as an outcome, he looked at the issue from different angles, seeking to understand the connectedness, the relations between them. He considered the individual, the culture of the workplace, the systems, and objects in the workplace, and came to see, for example, that the culture and systems in place were not supportive of safe working practices.

In this example, I focused on the cultural issues which were present at two levels: 1) the workplace norms, the lack of trust between supervisors and foreign workers, and between Singaporeans and foreign workers, and 2) national cultural understandings of safe working practices. Institutional practices differ across countries. Workers who come from a country where it is accepted on many sites to wear flipflop sandals when working with heavy machinery may give less thought to wearing PPE, for instance. David’s eventual solution was to set up sessions with different groups coming together to share stories of their working cultures. This enculturated trust and support between the groups, and at the same time enculturated workers into different practices appropriate to their worksite. In an environment where there is trust, questions and feedback become a norm (keeping in mind that norms constantly change as incidents and people change).

Present in David’s story is an understanding of WpL shifting from an outcomes-based behaviourist, cognitive approach to learning, to a holistic enactment of WpL. Specifically, David considered relations between many aspects: individuals, the unit/department, cultural norms in the workplace, institutional and national understandings of safe working practices. To develop safe working practices, David implicitly understood that “cognitive action” involves using and interacting with artefacts (e.g., PPE, yellow lines marking out different uses of space, etc.), as well as of language and its situational meanings.7 David was using a relational understanding of WpL, putting together the different aspects of work, place and learning. David’s practice changed from seeing a problem as a set of gaps in learner’s competence (and organising training to address these), to digging deeper to understand what was going on. He asked questions of different groups of workers, to make decisions based on data. In using the data, he was able to deliberately put behind him the usual stereotypes and ways of thinking, and come up with different understandings of the problem and novel learning solutions.

How a problem is framed, how it is named, determines the shape of the solution(s). Getting this right is critical in designing WpL.


Possibilities for WpL are embedded in the work, although the learning may turn out to be negative (e.g., I am not trusted, so why bother) or positive (e.g., leading to wanting to contribute more).

The importance of support, openness, trust and strong communication channels are nothing new to readers: they are basic foundations for WpL. Often classified as being part of culture, they are more than engineered conditions and a set of attitudes embodied by workers.8 Cultures are dynamic, they constitute an organisation's structures, day-to-day practices of sayings, doings and ways of relating.9 Therefore, it is necessary to constantly work at adjusting structures, means of recognition, opportunities for workers to share and work together, and much more.

How Su Chin Developed a Supportive WpL Culture

Su Chin, a new team head within a service organisation, quickly realised her team was demoralised.

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Su Chin (see box story) paid attention to this need, by providing not just a trustworthy ear but also tangible strategies to address her team’s low morale and poor quality of work. Importantly, she did not assume she knew what the issues were; like David, she sought to find out, from the ground. She talked with people, holding an open mind and open heart. Rather than judging team members as inept, she began from a position that they had strengths and sought to uncover and grow these strengths. She used a combination of approaches: ongoing dialogue; clearly conveying her strategy and plans; listening to suggestions for improving on her ideas; bringing in external trainers; recognising expertise; giving those who sought it, responsibility; and gradually building this trait in other team members. She also opened up communication channels, constantly building on the dynamic possibilities, nurturing a sense of pride and accomplishment.

The focus should always be on the relations between people, things and structures. Learning can be highly effective when learning through doing the work. The point is that it is necessary to provide opportunities for dialogue, to learn the language with which to improve thinking about the work, and opportunities to put ideas to work. All of which needs to be underpinned by a belief in your people.

It is necessary to provide opportunities for dialogue, to learn the language with which to improve thinking about the work, and opportunities to put ideas to work.


Evaluating WpL is not about assessing the knowledge and skills of individuals and teams. Rather, like any project such as David’s and Su Chin’s, the evaluation of WpL is anchored on how the problem is named and framed, the objectives set, and the processes and tools used. WpL is relational, complex and dynamic; using a simple metrics approach cannot capture the nature of WpL or its multi-faceted outcomes. The evaluation of WpL must appraise the impact of activity.

Project approaches to WpL can be a useful approach to evaluating WpL. Table 1 provides a simple, specific example of what this might look like, using Su Chin’s example.

Thinking Differently Wpl_Table 1a

Thinking Differently Wpl_Table 1b

Table 1. Structuring Evaluation of WpL
AIM: To address xx team’s low morale and improve quality of the work

Table 1 provides a range of types of evidence. Much of it is qualitative, but nevertheless tangible. Implicit in this evidence is the development of a team identity that members are proud to belong to. Also inherent in this approach is that decision-making for identifying, framing and solutioning of problems is delegated to those doing the work. The relationship between job-design and WpL is important to keep in mind. In work settings, learning is richest when workers are identifying, framing, and meeting challenges.

In work settings, learning is richest when workers are identifying, framing, and meeting challenges.


WpL is not about teaching, nor is it about just one way of doing and thinking about a task. There is considerable research to show that the natural sensemaking ability of humans means that workers come up with a myriad of ways to achieve needed outcomes (be it consistent, high-speed accuracy or highly complex solutions). This appears to be, in part, a means to minimise mental and/or physical effort, leaving more energy for other contributions.10

As a study of learning and innovation in Singapore small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) indicates, WpL is part of the identity of an organisation, of the way it is, and constantly evolves:

Work complexity and variety are shaped not only by roles and expectations, but also by the perceptions of staff and their managers. Crucially, how managers and leaders perceive their staff and their work significantly influences an individual’s self-perception and inclination towards learning and innovation. As such, an organisation’s leadership is closely related to the learning opportunities provided for the worker.11

WpL is not about teaching, nor is it about just one way of doing and thinking about a task.


Dr Helen Bound is Deputy Director of the Research Division at the Institute for Adult Learning, Singapore University of Social Sciences. During her 12 years in Singapore, she has undertaken extensive research into workplace learning, pedagogy and learning in different learning spaces.


  1. P. Matthews, “Workplace Learning: Developing An Holistic Model”, The Learning Organization 6, no. 1 (1999): 19–20
  2. S. Billett, Learning in the Workplace: Strategies for Effective Practice (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2001), 21.
  3. J. Sandberg, “Understanding Human Competency at Work: An Interpretive Approach”, Academy of Management Journal 43, no. 1 (2000): 9–25.
  4. H. Bound and K. Yap, “Reconceptualising ‘Developing Competence at Work’ to a Journey of Being and Becoming”, in Safety and Health Competence. A Guide for Cultures of Prevention, eds. U. Bollmann and G. Boustras (CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group, 2020).
  5. K. Evans, D. Guile, and J. Harris, “Rethinking Work-Based Learning for Education Professionals and Professionals Who Educate”, in The SAGE Handbook of Workplace Learning, eds. M. Malloch, L. Cairns, K. Evans, and B. O’Connor (London: Sage Publications, 2011), 149–161
  6. Y. Engeström and D. Middleton, “Introduction: Studying Work as Mindful Practice”, in Cognition and Communication at Work, eds. Y. Engeström and D. Middelton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 4.
  7. Y. Engeström and D. Middleton, “Introduction: Studying Work as Mindful Practice”, 1–14.
  8. A. Chia, S. Yang, A. Alhadad, and M. Lee, Innovative Learning Cultures in SMEs (Singapore: Institute for Adult Learning, 2019).
  9. T. R. Schatzki, “A Primer on Practices: Theory and Research”, in Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, eds. J. Higgs, R. Barnett, S. Billett, M. Hutchings, and F. Trede (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012): 13–26.
  10. S. Scribner, “Mind in Action: A Functional Approach to Thinking”, in Mind, Culture, and Activity, eds. M. Cole, Y. Engeström, and O. Vasquez (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997): 354–368.
  11. See Note 8, 40.

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