A Systems Approach to Workplace Learning

Welcome to A Systems Approach to Workplace Learning. It may be helpful to first define what we mean by learning generally. I believe the most useful synopsis or description of adult education was provided by the late Alan M. Thomas, Professor Emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, and a pioneer in adult education in Canada:

”From Abelard in the twelfth century to the virtual classrooms of the twenty-first, the thousand years has reflected a relentless extension of formal education, from a privileged few young people and adults, to nearly a fifth of the population of the present world, including adults. While the education of the young has grown steadily more organized and institutionalized, the education of adults has spread through every activity of the society. Terms to identify it are numerous and frequently used interchangeably: definitions are elusive and ambiguous. Participation is irregular, frequently intermittent and only partially publicly visible. Almost without exception, it is voluntary. Statistical reporting is irregular, and results are frequently incompatible. Sponsorship is usually voluntary, varied, frequently intermittent and delegated, and usually invisible. Financial sources are multiple, often indirect and fugitive. It is doubtful that any society, anywhere in the world has an accurate accounting of the money and time expended on adult education. Methods vary from setting to setting, sponsor to sponsor, and are subject to dispute and fashion. Ideologies flourish, but are rarely clearly articulated, often not even discerned. Each of the foregoing generalizations is itself arguable. However, taken as a whole, they are a reasonably accurate description of the field of enterprise to which this course is devoted.”

Before we go any further, it may be useful to pause for a moment and reflect on how learning has progressed over the last century:

Learning Progression 1930s-2012


In developing our model, we first begin with the individual – the Learner Profile. In our humanity, we bring a lot with us when we arrive at the workplace (or anywhere for that matter). The background to our model provides a sampling of the diversity and multiplicity of what we bring.SA-0

Here is another Learner Profile perspective:The Learner Profile-Final

Learning is an individual activity, which is temporal, irreversible, and non-coercible. It uses energy, releases energy, and may occur:

(a) through entry, either by birth (and, we provide significant support to the family for learning) or by immigration. We spend an enormous amount of time and invisible energy coping with these adult ‘strangers’, and those strangers who come have to learn how to cope. Yet, as O’Donohue suggests, “The stranger does not come accidentally; he brings a particular gift and illumination” (p. 18).

(b) through life’s passages. You learn to be a boy or a girl, a student, a worker, a husband, a wife or a partner, a lover, a friend, a father or a mother, and to get old…The passages are never seen unless a reasonable expectation of a role is obstructed and then confronted, as for example, the feminist movement, by such writers as Virginia Wolfe in the Three Guineas.

(c) through social change, which involves the “stuff” of history, (e.g., The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse [1]), affecting society as a whole and experienced by everyone. Learning associated with social change is usually considered as an emergency (e.g., World War I, polio epidemic of 1936, the high percentage of women dying in childbirth prior to the 1870s, etc.), and always seen as a temporary condition from which we will always be able to go back to the way we were. But, we never do. For some who served in World War I for example, they never recovered and never made the adjustment back to civilian life.

(d) through the exceptions of those who can’t or won’t conform. Prior to the 1950s and 1960s in Ontario, public policy was to exile those who did not conform, that is, old people, the mentally challenged, the blind, the deaf, and orphans. Since then, we have invited a larger number of these people into the community (e.g., disabled people). How we treat our criminals is also a contentious issue; we put them in jails and then have a terrible time getting them back into society. As a result, we all have to learn how to cope and there is an enormous amount of invisible learning that goes on in our society.

[1]The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Conquest, Slaughter, Famine and Death, who appear in the Apocalypse (Revelation) on white, red, black and pale horses respectively. They typify the evils of war. The Spanish novelist Vicente Blasco Ibáñez wrote a novel of World War One, entitled The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Los cuatro jinetes del apocalipsis, 1916). It was made into a successful American motion picture (Benét 399).

At the centre of a Systems Approach to Workplace Learning are the five primary areas that learning can have an influence upon: awareness, knowledge, skill, judgment and behaviour.  There are six processes that are essential to learning, which form a satellite around the core of our model: think, converse, observe, practice, perform, and reflect.


Through these processes, we create, apply and retain the learning, within the context it is given, the resources that are available to us, and culture of the environment in which we learn. Thus , we arrive at what we call A Systems Approach to Workplace Learning.


There have been several key contributors to the field of adult education that are worth a mention here. Knowles (1975, p. 19) defines two terms important to the study of adult education, namely “pedagogy” and “andragogy”:

The body of theory and practice on which teacher-directed learning is based is often given the label ‘pedagogy’. This had come to be defined as the art and science of teaching, but its tradition is in the teaching of children. The body of theory and practice on which self-directed learning is based has come to be labeled ‘andragogy’… Andragogy is defined, therefore, as the art and science of helping adults (or, even better, maturing human beings) learn.

There are assumptions based on Knowles theory of andragogy, as outlined by Cantor (1992, p. 37), which suggest the focus of instruction should be more on the process and less on the content of that which is being taught. These are:

  •  adults are autonomous and self-directed
  • adults are goal oriented
  • adults are relevancy-oriented and problem-centered; they need to know why they are learning something
  • adults are practical and problem-solvers
  • adults have accumulated life experiences.

Cantor (38) goes on to suggest that adults typically have different motivations for learning than those of children. These include:

  • to make or maintain social relationships
  • to meet external expectations (by say an employer)
  • learn to better serve others (say, learning first aid to be of assistance in the workplace)
  • professional development
  • escape or stimulation
  • pure interest.

Cantor (39) then discusses that adults have different barriers to learning than children, some of which include:

  • other responsibilities (families, careers)
  • lack of time
  • lack of money
  • lack of child care
  • scheduling problems
  • transportation problems
  • insufficient confidence
  • having to learn (say, told by the boss, but not yet ready or not interested).

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (Brandt et al, 1992) reviewed the important findings from cognitive research that teachers need to know and assembled them into four themes or principles, which in my view, have an important influence on how we manage and lead workplaces, as well as formulate learning today:

  • New learning is shaped by the learner’s prior knowledge.
  • Much learning occurs through social interaction.
  • Learning is closely tied to particular situations.
  • Successful learning involves the use of numerous strategies.

The last dimension we have included in our model is that of formal and informal learning, and place the model against the Learner Profile background. We have also added at the bottom of the model diagram, the progression we see in workplace learning, from Conventional to Transactional to Generative to Transformational.


Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007), state: “Formal education is highly institutionalized, bureaucratic, curriculum driven, and formally recognized with grades, diplomas, or certificates” (p. 29). Merriam and others (2007), also state: “The term non-formal has been used most often to describe organized learning outside of the formal education system. These offerings tend to be short-term, voluntary, and have few if any prerequisites. However they typically have a curriculum and often a facilitator” (p. 30). Non-formal learning can also include learning in the formal arena when concepts are adapted to the unique needs of individual students (Burlin, 2009).

Schugurensky (2000) suggests, has its own internal forms that are important to distinguish in studying the phenomenon. He proposes three forms: self-directed learning, incidental learning, and socialization, or tacit learning. These differ among themselves in terms of intentionality and awareness at the time of the learning experience. Self-directed learning, for example, is intentional and conscious; incidental learning, which Marsick and Watkins (1990) describe as an accidental by-product of doing something else, is unintentional but after the experience she or he becomes aware that some learning has taken place; and finally, socialization or tacit learning is neither intentional nor conscious (although we can become aware of this learning later through ‘retrospective recognition’) (Marsick & Watkins, 1990, p. 6)” (p. 36). More recently, Bennett (2012) extended Schugurenksky’s (2000) conceptualization of informal by recommending four modes of informal learning: a) self-directed, which is conscious and intentional, b) incidental, which is conscious and unintentional, c) tacit, which replaces socialization and is both non-conscious and unintentional, and d) integrative, which is non-conscious and intentional. Drawing upon implicit processing literature, she further defined integrative learning as “a learning process that combines intentional non-conscious processing of tacit knowledge with conscious access to learning products and mental images” (Bennett, 2012, p. 4) and she theorized two possible sub-processes: knowledge shifting and knowledge sublimation, which describe limited access learners have to tacit knowledge.

A study of time-to-performance done by Sally Anne Moore at Digital Equipment Corporation in the early 1990s, (Moore, Sally-Ann, “Time-to-Learning”, Digital Equipment Corporation, 1998) graphically shows this disparity between formal and informal learning.

Ttp samoore.gif

Kolb offers an interesting approach with his Learning Styles. Kolb states that “learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (38). He believes that if we see experience as something that is gained gradually over time, learning is therefore due to a transformation of experience, both objective and subjective. This link between the learner and the learning process integrates experience, perception, cognition and behaviour. In 2002, with the assistance of the then OISE Professor Diane Abbey-Livingston, we expanded the explanations of the Kolb Learning Styles diagram to reflect the cyclical nature of the four styles and to better explain these styles. The four learning style types are:

  • Accommodating combines learning by experience (Concrete Experience) with learning by doing, (Active Experimentation). With Accommodators, the best results come from giving them a goal and leaving them alone to get the job done. Usually, it is best not to ask Accommodators for a detailed plan or how they are going to accomplish the goal, as much of what they do is intuitive and sometimes spontaneous. An Accommodator likes to get it done and wants the authority and autonomy to lead and initiate. They rely on experts for technical information in solving problems and are prepared to take calculated risks in achieving their objectives. The Accommodator has great people skills and is able to nicely balance the people piece with the task piece. Accommodators usually do not step back and think through elements of the situation analytically.
  • Converging, which combines the learning of abstract conceptualization and active experimentation, is best at finding practical sues for ideas and theories. Convergers have the ability to solve problems and make decisions based on finding solutions to questions or problems, demonstrating a preference to deal with technical tasks and problems rather than with social and interpersonal issues.
  • Assimilating combines the learning steps of reflective observation and abstract conceptualization. Assimilators are best at understanding a wide range of information and putting it into concise, logical form. They are less focused on people and more interested in abstract ideas and concepts, and find it more important that an idea has logical soundness than practical value.
  •  Diverging combines the learning steps of concrete experience and reflective observation. Divergers view concrete situations from many different points of view, and their approach is to observe rather than take action. They enjoy brainstorming sessions, generating ideas and have broad cultural interests.

Kolb Learning Model