Individual Learning in the Workplace
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Individual Learning in the Workplace

  Charles J. Tawk | Partner

  31st May, 2017


A successful organisation has three major characteristics: individuals contributing to its success, practices influencing the individuals’ learning, and a structure regulating the learning process. Learning offers many benefits for both the individual and the organisation, however learning needs a proper and tidy platter to hold it (a structure) and an obliging waiter to serve it (practices). Unfortunately, not all organisations have structures and practices that are conducive to learning. In fact, some organisational structures and practices can freeze, shrink and even destroy individual learning. There are countless examples of organisational structures and especially practices which have snuffed their employees’ desire to learn.

This article will address the impact of organisational structure and practices on individual learning. It will not tackle learning in its general context, but it will focus on the learning that occurs in the workplace.

The organisational workplace is where individuals spend most of their waking time and where they are exposed to a continuous flow of information, knowledge and inputs. It is through specific and intentional practices that organisations can influence, facilitate, speed-up and transform this variety of inputs into a learning experience. These practices can take the form of training, communities of practice, delegation, assessments, knowledge management, and other practices which will, in the end, create a win-win sharing learning circle.

In this article we will explore the two factors that have the most impact on individual learning in organizations, and they are the organizational structure and organizational practices.

Organisational structure supporting individual learning

To be effective, individual learning activities in the workplace require information, of course, but also the proper synchronization of this information. Good synchronization will achieve a flow of information capable of delivering exactly what an individual wants to learn, precisely at the time and place where it is needed. The organisation’s structure is the mechanism used to achieve such synchronization because it coordinates individual activities across all levels of the hierarchy through approved internal communication lines, defined responsibilities, and clear internal policies, processes and procedures. In fact, the whole organisation can be considered a synchronizing body, and learning and the flow of information are two activities that need synchronizing through the appropriate structure.

Information can be defined as ‘facts about a situation, person, event, etc.’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2015). There are three objectives an organization structure should aim for in order to promote learning in the workplace. First the information should be able to flow from the frontlines to the managerial levels and vice versa. Second, there should be mechanisms to collect and record this information in order to gain learning and use it for decision making or to improve the outlook of individuals. And third, the flow of information should be open, allowing everyone to understand the way things work. An organisational structure that can achieve these objectives is a key component in the development of individual learning.

Organisational practices that enhance individual learning

The second factor that affects learning in organisations is organizational practices. Each organisation develops its own pattern of learning practices which should provide individuals with the learning necessary to get their job done in an efficient manner. Organisational practices can even go a step further and transform individual learning into shared learning by encouraging co-participation and collaboration among individuals working in the same organization. Some of the best practices to develop learning and encourage collaboration are:

  • Problem solving: Problem solving involves generating hypotheses, gathering data to test these hypotheses and using statistical tools to organise data in order to draw conclusions. Problem solving requires people participation in each and every step. It is individuals who will generate hypotheses, gather data, test hypotheses, use statistical tools to organise data and draw conclusions. Eventually, by working through these practical steps the individuals involved will learn, grow and benefit.
  • Experimenting: Once a solution to a problem is found, or any piece of new learning is acquired, it has to be tested. Small experiments can produce incremental gains of knowledge. Experimenting includes many learning elements such as examining, monitoring and spotting defects. Mastering theses will definitely have a positive effect on individual learning.
  • Past experiences: Every organisation should review past successes as well as failures in order to learn from them. The organization should also make sure to record the lessons learned from these reviews in a form accessible to all. In addition, experienced individuals should be given the opportunity to transfer previous experiences and practices to other employees.
  • Learning from others: Organisations should always look outside their own boundaries and into the external environment to gain new perspectives. Best practices are often found in other companies. Learning from others will lead to the improvement of organisational current practices and foster individual learning and the sharing of information.
  • Transferring knowledge: One way of transferring knowledge is through job rotation. When an individual is moved to a new department or division, knowledge transfer occurs between that individual and the new department. Each one learns from the other.
  • Other best practices: Other ways of facilitating individual learning in organizations are through management commitment, training and development, rewards, knowledge management and communities of practice.

Individual learning’s best practices vary from one workplace to another. These practices do not occur by chance; they represent a long path of continuous improvement that can reach a customized secret formula that creates a clear understanding of individual and organizational learning requirements.

Maximizing individual learning is critical to an organisation’s success since this learning includes acquisition of knowledge, skills, behaviours, and competencies needed to perform the job. Knowledgeable and skilled Individuals are difficult to find and difficult for competitors to imitate, giving their organisations a clear competitive edge. In the fast changing world of today, organisations realize that continuous learning is vital to success and many initiatives are being developed to facilitate such learning.