WHAT ARE THE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF THE CONCEPT LEARNING AS PARTICIPATION (LAVE AND WENGER 1991) FOR UNDERSTANDING WORKPLACE LEARNING? HOW CAN IT INFORM INTERVENTIONS TO ENHANCE WORKPLACE LEARNING.
The world economy as we know it today is knowledge based (Wenger E., and Snyder W.: 2000). Because of the daily advancement in world technology and globalisation, workplace learning is now considered very important (Ashton and Sung 2002) although the main aim of the workplace is the production of goods and services (Fuller and Unwin, 2004). According to Lave and Wenger, learning is seen as a process of co-participatory and not individualistic in nature. They see individuals as not bodies of knowledge but as people that get skills and talents in an environment by engaging in processes. According to Fuller and Unwin (2004), individuals can chose how they learn through their backgrounds, previous education and personal goals. Lave and Wenger (1991) looks at learning as a form of "legitimate peripheral participation". This implies that learning is not observation through situation or by carrying out a given task but rather, learning can be viewed a knowledge gained through active involvement or full participation in a given situation in a particular environment or society.
This paper focuses on "learning as participation" as described by Lave and Wenger in order to see what active participation can do in an organisational setting. This paper draws from the works of different scholars in the field of learning. They include Lave and Wenger's (1991) Situated Learning Legitimate Peripheral Participation, as well as its main text. The paper looks at participation as a form of informal learning and also considers other forms of informal learning in the workplace. The paper will look at the empirical evidence of discussed in Lave and Wenger (1991) concerning participatory learning in order to see the strengths and weaknesses of learning as participation. The discussion on how learning by participation in the workplace will lead to enhanced organisational learning will also be discussed.
Legitimate peripheral participation stems out of situated learning which got its roots from apprenticeship. The use of the term 'apprenticeship' in Lave and Wenger (1991) is metaphorical which implies that people look at the superiors to see what they do in order to be able to carry out what they see. This system is majorly seen in the crafts based industry where students watch their mentors in order to gain knowledge and practice what they see. Under the apprentice system, there is an imbalance of power between the apprenticeship and the masters (Lave and Wenger, 1991). This method of informal learning was what originated in situated learning. Situated learning is an advancement of apprenticeship according to Lave and Wenger which involves complete understanding. It is not fully informal but it has an idea of the theoretical framework of the phenomenon occurring in the society. It seeks to bridge the gap between knowing, learning and understanding and how they take place in the environment. It involves the complete individual rather than the act of just gaining knowledge. According to Lave and Wenger (1991), learning as a form of legitimate peripheral participation is inherent in communities of practice and seeks to know how new comers can gain knowledge through these communities of practice (Fuller et al 2002). Communities of practice according to Wenger and Snyder 2000 involve the coming together of people to share ideas, experience and knowledge. In ancient times, people of the same crafts came together for business as well as social reasons. They shared ideas about innovation and how skills could be improved. They include goldsmiths, carpenters among others. However nowadays, they can be seen within and outside an organisation. They take different forms including senior executives in different or the same organisation coming together to share ideas and knowledge as well as discuss how government policies affect their businesses (Wenger and Snyder 2000). They may be formal or informal. When formal, people are put together by organisations in teams in order to achieve a particular task assigned to them. Informally on the other hand, people interact themselves in order to assign tasks to themselves without top directives. They choose their goals, their leaders and how the goals can be achieved. Legitimate peripheral participation is not just about the new entrant observing the way work is done in an organisation but rather, it helps the new comer to take part in the work process which will lead to both absorbing and being absorbed in the culture of practice. In addition, legitimate peripheral participation leads to the increase of practicable skills till it can be reproduced and transformed in the communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991).
Lave and Wenger (1991) looked at five case studies to see how legitimate peripheral participation is taking place. The case studies include the Yucatec midwives, Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia, the naval quartermasters, meat cutters and the nondrinking alcoholics. Looking at the case of Yucatec midwives (women), majority of them had family lineages in the same profession (mothers, grandmothers). Formal forms of education were not seen as the practice for them but rather, they moved from observing as children, to running errands that relate to the profession like delivering messages to patients, to assisting when required to actually participating by doing what she saw as a growing child as well as what was done to her in her time of labour. This form to learning began unconsciously. On the other hand, the Liberian tailors consisting of men are taken through a ceremony at the beginning and at the end of the apprenticeship scheme. This formality according to Goody (1989) cited in Lave and Wenger (1991: 69) was due to the specialisation of the occupation as production lines were fast increasing from the family production to production for others in that community. The stages for the tailoring training were from child labour to apprenticeship to socialisation. The learners start training from when they are young newcomers into the household of the leaders, before they are introduced into the work environment.
Looking at the case of the naval quartermasters, they begin work with the easier tasks before advancing to the more complex tasks as their experience increases. On the job training is what is practiced for these people. To increase their skills, new entrants into the navy will have to work with experienced colleagues. Close monitoring of the new entrant is seen by the superiors who are there to correct rebuke or advice the new entrant. Defragmentation of the tasks leads to disadvantages in the working environment. Team working is seen as the focus of work in this system of learning. The meat cutters also like the naval learning focuses on training the new entrants on the job. The meat cutters union gave certificates after six months training. The training forms that were used were teaching which had exams at the end of the period with practical classes as well by the union. In the shops however, on the job training for the apprentice in meat cutting is done by the apprentice watching the journeymen. For the nondrinking alcoholics, they hold a number of meetings on a weekly basis. Old entrants discuss past drinking experiences and ways in which their habits have been improving. When the new comers join at first, they are shown the goals that will help them become full participants although they are not thought how to discuss about their drinking issues. Participants may not do anything when they join at first, but at the end of the day, they become old timers by encouraging new entrants to join (Lave and Wenger 1991: 80). The change they undergo gives them a new identity ant this affects their new perception of the world. Learning here takes place by interacting with other members of the group and maintains friendship among members.
INFORMAL FORMS OF LEARNING
Different forms of informal learning have been seen to enhance working as participation. They include but are not limited to induction, job rotation, employee mentoring, apprenticeship, job shadowing, employee involvement schemes and the joining of professional association (Eraut et al, 1999). Induction is done to new entrants in the organisation or the unit in order to see how the individual's role fits into the major goal organisation or unit. Induction could vary from structured formal events to informal ones where colleagues put the new entrant through the organisational process. Looking and listening are major characteristics of the induction process. Employee mentoring is another form of informal learning. In this situation, senior workers in the organisation meet with the junior employees in order to discuss the issues and solve problems that affect the junior workers. It is not part of anyone's job but rather, senior workers volunteer to take up such posts. It has no formal time or location allocated to the meeting. Job rotation, unit visits and shadowing are also forms of informal learning. In job rotation and workplace visits sees that the worker is moved from one department or unit to another in other to see how the organisation functions as a whole and how his function affects that of other workers in the organisation. Job shadowing on the other hand involves a worker standing in for another worker in order to see how job description of the worker and how he can fit into the job. Team working is also another part of informal learning where employees are brought together in order to achieve certain tasks for the organisation as a group. It could be in form of sales targets. Employee involvement schemes help to improve the employee's participation in a workplace because it helps to gain employee commitment for the organisation which helps to improve employee participation in the organisation (Ashton and Sung 2002). Members of professional associations meet with each other from time to time in order to discuss the issues that occur in the profession or occupation. In this networks, different people come together as colleagues from different organisation to develop friendship and they interact independently or the group from time to time to discuss issues or ideas. An example of this is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development where members can come together to discuss ideas, and networks (smaller groups).
STRENGTHS OF THE CONCEPT "LEARNING AS PARTICIPATION"
The theory of learning as participation provides insights to the transfer of knowledge in apprenticeship as well as organisational learning (Fuller et al, 2005). Knowledge that cannot be expressed in formally in writing are transferred in legitimate peripheral participation (tacit learning). This learning is usually the ways tasks are handled from experience. Furthermore, organisational units are considered areas of communities of practice. The organisational structure as well as its ability to relate well with its internal environment affects the way learning occurs. Lave and Wenger (1991) expressed that innovation can be gotten in the workplace as each generation gains efficiency and effectiveness while moving from the level of new entrant into full participant then passes the skill acquired to the next generation (Fuller et al, 2005). Social practice learning can make the new participants to gain from the new entrant because the new entrant is bringing from his old environment skills that can help improve work in the organisation. High emphasis is place on social relations in learning as participation as we are aware that human beings interact with each other in their everyday life. Lave and Wenger took into consideration the idea of language as important and part of the common practices itself (Lave and Wenger 1991: 85).
WEAKNESSES OF THE CONCEPT "LEARNING AS PARTICIPATION"
Lave and Wenger's learning as participation has been criticised by quite a number of people because of its various limitations. A significant limitation of Lave and Wenger 1991 was that they did not take account changing environment of work organisation (Fuller et al, 2005). They did not consider that new practices could develop over time thereby making the old practices obsolete. Change is a constant phenomenon in the society we live in. Looking at the case of the meat cutters in Lave and Wenger (1991), we can see that meat cutting technology has tremendously changed in recent times. Nowadays, machines have taken the place of meat cutting so individual skills are no longer required. They focused on the ideas and innovations gained from the communities of practice and not the ideas the individual brought into the learning (Fuller et al, 2005). Another limitation of is that it does not put into account old participants that are changing to new environments. Furthermore, Lave and Wenger did not discuss the significance of conflict or unequal power relations. They do not consider that the employee might not have the full power to choose what to learn because the organisation (environment) plays a very vital role to the learning of the employee. In addition, communities of practice because of its abstract nature may not be able to be monitored and supervised (Wenger and Snyder, 2000). It is therefore difficult to differentiate between learning and knowing. Furthermore, they downplayed the role of formal education as an avenue for which learning takes place and only focused on the informal forms of learning although in reality, formal education such as academic qualifications play key role in individual learning as well as informal learning. It also did not see learning as a continuous process, but rather, it saw learning as a process that end s when the worker becomes a full participant in the organisation.
THE QUALITY OF THE WORKING ENVIRONMENT
The environment of the organisation is seen to be very significant to learning with it (Fuller and Unwin, 2004). According to Fuller and Unwin (2004), the job design plays a significant role in the knowledge that is to be gained by the employee. Learning as participation can inform interventions to enhance learning in the workplace setting through the working environment. According to Fuller and Unwin (2004), the working environment can be the expansive and the restrictive. It is the qualities of these environments that influence learning in the organisation either positively or negatively. The expansive scale sees that learning can take place within and outside the organisation. They could make use of courses outside of the working environment, job rotation, multi-tasking to ensure that the participant has a full picture of the content of the work being carried out. The individual is given planned time off to focus on training and development, other human resource functions like the reward system, performance appraisal among other things encourage the learning individual to improve his skills. Managers in expansive learning environment help to motivate the learners. Teamwork is also considered very important under the expansive environment. According to Ashton D., and Sung J (2002), team working is a major way of encouraging learning at the workplace. Restrictive learning on the other hand does not focus on any form of apprenticeship. It does not take into recognition the various forms of learning. It looks at learning as it focuses on a specific assignment in a particular location and not how learning can be gained by multitasking. Managers exert control over the workforce and the development of individuals in the organisation. However, according to Fuller and Unwin (2004), research findings show that the expansive approach to the employee development will help increase the opportunities for participation, and thereby the worker's learning.
In conclusion, we can see that workplace learning is considered very important. Participative learning can help to improve the logical, problem solving and interpersonal/communication skills (Ashton and Sung 2002). Learning as participation should not be treated in vacuum, but rather it should be combined with other Human Resource Management practices. For maximum result, good communities of practice should be motivated and rewarded. This will help to improve workers loyalty and productivity in the organisation. Senior managers must also ensure that adequate infrastructure as set in place. This can be done through interventions when management believes that the groups are not attaining the desired result. Financial sponsor can be one of the infrastructures to improve the communities of practice. Non traditional ways should be sought in order to be able to measure the outcomes of learning (Wenger and Snyder, 2000). The environment of the organisation is seen to be very key to learning with it (Fuller and Unwin, 2004).
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