In today’s world organizations of all types are faced with increased global competition and the concomitant need to provide the highest quality product or service at the lowest cost. This situation has created a difficult paradox for training and human resource professionals who must develop flexible workers capable of adapting to constant change, while at the same time dealing with reduced budgets as their organizations look to cut costs.
Organizations around the world devote significant effort and resources each year to formal and informal training activities to develop their human capital. Much of the research in the area of workplace learning, however, has focused on formal classroom-based training. One problem that deserves much more attention, therefore, by both training professionals and adult educators is – how to increase and improve learning on-the-job in today’s highly mobile and dynamic workplace. One answer lies in better knowledge of how workers actually learn on the job. The study of adult self-directed workplace learning offers great potential for this phenomenon.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
This article briefly discusses the results of a study of the characteristics of the self-directed workplace learning projects of a group of highly mobile workers (DeSalvo, 1999). The study defined these projects as, “a purposive learning activity, conducted by the learner, which involved a series of learning episodes, adding up to at least seven hours, that was designed to answer a question, solve a problem, retain information, develop new understanding or awareness, or perform a new motor skill, related to the learner’s work (Adapted from Long, H.B., 1992).
The group studied consisted of 13 federal law enforcement agents, all of whom were college graduates and had been employed by their agency for more than 24 months. Each of the 13 study participants were interviewed using a 13-page interview protocol that examined their workplace learning activities over the previous 12 months. The participants were all employees of a federal agency that employs a distinct personnel system based on frequent geographic changes of assignment and frequent changes in job opportunities. The participants’ agency operated on the principal of developing a “generalist” employee and required a change of work assignment approximately every 2-3 years. During any 2-3 year assignment, participants were frequently rotated within different jobs within the assigned work unit. Every five years the subjects were required to serve, at a minimum, one tour of duty outside of the U.S. for approximately 2-3 years. This may be followed by a second consecutive overseas assignment or by rotation to another assignment within the United States . This pattern of overseas tours, followed by domestic tours, continued throughout the participants’ careers.
KEY RESULTS OF THE STUDY
The 13 study participants had a combined total of 112 years of experience with the agency and had changed assignments 7.6 times during their combined careers. The participants had changed geographic assignment locations an average of 5.9 times with the agency. Participants had cumulatively served in five different cities within the United States and 15 countries outside of the United States .
Participant Self-Directed Learning Projects
– The participant interviews revealed that they had completed a total of 82 self-directed learning projects that met the study definition.
– The 82 projects accounted for a minimum of 5, 572 hours over the 12-month period studied. The average number of projects undertaken by the 13 participants was 6.3 and the average number of hours devoted to each project was approximately 68 hours/project. The average number of hours each participant devoted to all of their projects in a 12-month period was 428.6 hours.
– Analysis of the study data revealed that 77% of the participants were involved in projects related to attempts to acquire knowledge or skills in computer operations; 62% were involved in projects involving the main focus of their current jobs (criminal investigative procedures and techniques); and 46% were involved in projects involving legal and judicial procedures.
– Additional analysis revealed that approximately 89% of the projects were training oriented, that is, they were focused on learning skills or knowledge for the participants current job; approximately 10% were education oriented as they focused on learning skills or knowledge for a future job; and approximately 1% of the projects were concerned with non-specific development of knowledge and skills.
– The study results illustrated the importance of self-directed workplace learning for similar populations of highly mobile workers.
– The study reflected that the participants tended to choose co-workers as their primary learning resource for their projects. Co-workers and supervisors were the most important sources of learning as they appeared to fill the critical role as purveyors of the contextual and work group culture, that is, they are the persons who teach a fellow worker “how things are really done around here”.
– The study reflected that the participants primarily followed a non-structured, non-linear, individualized process in their learning projects.
– The study participants used themselves as the principal planners in the majority of their projects.
– In approximately 79.3% of the participants learning projects – job necessity and personal interest were the motivating factors.
– The study participants reported that they were very satisfied with the results of the majority of their projects.
– The study participants reported that the majority of individual project barriers experienced were organizational.
Recommendations For Organizations
– Organizations should publicly acknowledge the importance and value of self-directed workplace learning and devise systems of incentives and rewards to encourage these endeavors by their workers.
– When possible, organizations should develop career development systems that support and encourage continuous workplace learning. At a minimum, organizations should develop and publish for their employees a comprehensive list of skills and knowledge requirements needed for success in each position.
– Human resource and training professionals should develop programs and materials that, (a) address the individual needs of workplace learners, and (b) attempt to improve their motivation and ability to continuously learn on-the-job. The use of contract learning; structured on-the-job learning programs via learning centers or distributed packages; and the development of readily available distance learning type resources should be considered by organizations.
– Training supervisors in methods for providing effective coaching and feedback to their subordinates might have significant benefits for self-directed workplace learners as might team based approaches to work, where team members were encouraged to assist each other in their workplace learning activities.
– Teaching self-directed learners how to learn and better plan their workplace related learning projects might offer a significant benefit to them.
– Organizations should explore the use of learning programs that combine periodic short term residential seminars with guided independent study and self-directed learning components.
This article briefly discussed the key results and recommendations of a study of the characteristics of the self-directed workplace learning projects of one group of highly mobile workers. Hopefully, it will assist organizations with similar work groups to improve the results of their workers attempts at self-directed, on-the-job learning.
DeSalvo, G.L. (1999). A study of the characteristics of the self-directed workplace learning projects of highly-mobile workers. Unpublished master’s thesis. Graduate College , University of Oklahoma , Norman .
Long, H.B. (1992). Philosophical, psychological and practical justifications for studying self-direction in learning. In H.B. Long & Associates (eds.) Self-directed learning: Application & research. (pgs. 9-24). Norman : Oklahoma Research Center For Continuing & Higher Education.