Workplace learning in informal networks

Milligan, Colin; Littlejohn, Allison and Margaryan, Anoush (2014). Workplace learning in informal networks. In: Littlejohn, Allison and Pegler, Chris eds. Reusing Open Resources: Learning in Open Networks for Work, Life and Education. Routledge.


Traditional conceptions of learning focus on the formal learning that occurs in contexts such as school, college and university education. These however form only part of the learning experience for any individual. Indeed for adults, most learning will occur outside formal contexts either informally or incidentally (Marsick, Watkins, Callahan, & Volpe, 2009). Informal learning is typically unplanned, or highly embedded within other activities such as work. The workplace is increasingly recognised as a key locus for informal learning (Harteis & Billet, 2008), particularly in knowledge-intensive domains where classroom training approaches are unsuitable. In the workplace, an individual develops trusted networks of current and former colleagues that provide access to the knowledge and expertise necessary to perform their role. These networks may be internal to an organisation or can extend beyond organisational boundaries, and can be activated when new learning needs arise. However, to take advantage of the learning opportunities afforded by networks, individuals must be able to plan and structure their own learning, and to know how to interact effectively in order to learn.
This chapter explores workplace learning in informal networks. The chapter is structured into four main sections. First, we consider the context of informal learning in the workplace for knowledge workers (people who produce knowledge as an output through work) in knowledge-intensive environments (Davenport, 2005; Drucker, 1999). We explore how the changing nature of the workplace requires knowledge workers to be able to self-regulate their learning (Zimmerman, 2000). Second, we explore how people self-regulate their learning in practice. We outline people’s learning behaviours – activities we have observed in individuals as they managed, monitored and optimised their interaction with the people and resources within their network. This analysis draws on our previous research in knowledge intensive organisations in the petrochemical (Littlejohn, Milligan, & Margaryan, 2012) and financial services industries. Third, we consider how these behaviours are currently supported by the tools that make up an individual’s personal work and learning environment. Functions that are missing from existing tools are highlighted and we explore how they might be provided. Finally, we conclude by considering the nature of knowledge workers’ learning in an open, networked world.

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