Learners explore information spaces relevant to a task at hand" (p. 265).
Workplace learning in response to an organizational need also just makes good business sense. As Gunasekara emphasizes, empirical observations and real-world experience suggest this is a viable approach to workplace learning today: "This approach has usually been applied in ad hoc problem solving, team development, leadership development, and professional or career development. This approach integrates work and learning and theory and practice in real projects, in real time" (2003, p. 38).
The key to successful project-based workplace learning initiatives is to integrate learning within organizational systems and processes where this is possible instead of regarding workplace learning as something that is done to an organization. In this regard, Gunasekara identifies five separate axes of integration as follows:
1. Work and learning-designing work organizations to allow for production and learning outcomes.
2. Organizational change and learning processes-building learning processes and outcomes into capital expenditure statements.
3. Projects and learning-establishing learning as a critical outcome of project management, beyond traditional time, cost, quality, and scope criteria.
4. Joint ventures/alliances/partnerships and learning-recognizing that shared learning processes help establish new relationships.
5. Value chains/value net connections and learning-leveraging shared learning with suppliers and outsourcers; that is, outsourcing for knowledge and skills that are not internally available (Gunasekara, 2003, p. 38).
The project-based workplace learning technique described above can be used by organizations of all types to develop workplace learning that is specifically tied to strategic goals, while still remaining relevant to individual employee development. This approach, though, requires collaboration between work teams, managers, and corporate specialists to achieve the best results and refine competencies in an iterative fashion to ensure that they remain relevant and timely (Gunasekara, 2003). According to Rothwell and Wellins, there are several ways that organizations of all types can use the competency-based model for workplace learning to improve employee performance to their advantage, including the following described in Table 2 below.
Approaches to applying the competency-based workplace learning model
Plan for future talent requirements
Start by using the competency model for workplace learning to determine which roles, areas of expertise, and competencies are likely to be the most critical for the organization three to five years out. By comparing the collective capabilities of current workplace learning and performance team against the competencies in the model, an organization can pinpoint the overall strengths and gaps. It is then possible to plan to fill the gaps through professional development or future hiring or promotion decisions as needed; in addition, it helps organizations become well positioned to leverage existing strengths.
Identify (or clarify) work expectations
Both the competencies and areas of expertise can be used as the basis for job descriptions and setting behavioral expectations as part of a sound performance management process. The most effective performance management process uses both quantitative goals (addresses "what" and "how many") and behavioral competencies (addresses "how").
Provide a common language for discussing individual performance and providing feedback on that performance. The model can be useful for coaching workplace learning and performance professionals on a day-to-day basis and assessing their performance as part of a formal mid-year and year-end appraisal process. Behavioral data around each of the competencies can, and should, be collected on an ongoing basis to enhance the specificity and effectiveness of feedback.
Source: Rothwell & Wellins, 2004, p. 95
Such a competency-based approach to workplace learning can also benefit from the incorporation of learning in institutions of higher education or technical schools where specialized knowledge can be acquired. In this regard, Fischer (2000) points out that the integration of formal education with workplace learning remains underutilized by many organizations today but can provide an enormous return on the investments involved both in terms of improved employee performance as well as for general employee development purposes.
Workplace learning, though, is not a static affair that can be applied one time and then forgotten. Indeed, effective workplace learning initiatives represent a commitment by an organization's leadership to help their employees become more productive and effective by providing them with the tools and training they need to get the job done. As Fischer (2000) emphasizes, applying knowledge and skills in the workplace should be founded on both descriptive and prescriptive goals including the following:
1. Learning should take place in the context of authentic, complex problems (because learners will refuse to quietly listen to someone else's answers to someone else's questions).
2. Learning should be embedded in the pursuit of intrinsically rewarding activities.
3. Learning on demand needs to be supported because change is inevitable, complete coverage is impossible, and obsolescence is unavoidable.
4. Organizational and collaborative learning must be supported because the individual human mind is limited.
5. Skills and processes that support learning as a lifetime habit must be developed (Fischer, 2000, p. 265).
The above delineation of descriptive and prescriptive goals also points to the need for workplace learning to be linked with specific desired outcomes in order to be most effective rather than providing employees with training opportunities just for the sake of giving them additional training.
The research showed that workplace learning is an extension of the lifelong learning that is an essential element in becoming a more productive and informed employee. The research also showed that it is important to tie workplace learning initiatives with specific organizational goals in order to obtain the most "bang for the training buck." In this regard, the a competency based approach to the provision of workplace learning was shown to be an effective approach for organizations of all types. Finally, while the argument can be made that more education will result in more efficient and effective workers, resources are by definition scarce and organizations must target their prominent needs at a given point in time in order to remain competitive. Some managers, though, may fear that by providing their workers with more and more workplace learning, they will eventually become more valuable and will seek better employment opportunities elsewhere. This is why it is important to ensure that workplace learning is tied to performance management initiatives that reward employees for their learning and that recognize when someone needs to be provided additional responsibilities that are commensurate with their newfound abilities.
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