During our Symposium event in May, we took the opportunity to run a session on workplace learning. It’s interesting that this seems to be a term which provokes different interpretations across the L&D spectrum. To some, it’s an all encompassing term that applies to everything that happens within learning and development. To others, it means more of a performance support approach and focuses on learning that occurs on the job, perhaps supported by a manager or coach. Definitions included that it’s on-the-job, hands-on, and peer to peer and something you don’t need to leave your desk for. The final interpretation was that it refers to the informal learning that people will do during their day to day role, which has nothing to do with the L&D department at all. Just goes to show the importance of clarifying a phrase before entering a discussion!

Of course, learning is something that’s always taken place and doesn’t necessarily need formal L&D interventions. This particular session wasn’t focused on informal vs formal learning per se. It was about how technology can help deliver learning in the workplace, and there were lots of interesting contributions. So with that in mind, how do learning technologies actually fit in?

Tapping into business as usual
Many of the technologies being utilised for workplace learning aren’t necessarily learning technologies. They are instead existing solutions being harnessed for learning. One L&D team referenced how their organisation’s intranet is being used to create communities of practice and wikis for example. In these scenarios, learners can reflect on their experiences and this provides a resource to share with others and hopefully improve future performance. Learners are accessing posts and comments from their peers, without feeling that they are officially ‘learning’ at all. Another organisation talked about how Yammer has been adopted across their organisation and is used on a daily basis to answer questions and find out information. Again, this is an example of learning embedded within workflow, a part that learners are essentially unaware of. There were learning systems that could be used to support learning in the workflow, especially when it referred to IT systems and several companies had used employee performance support systems (EPSS) to embedd learning within systems so that help was available at the point of need. Other companies used searchable online libraries to support just in time access to information. Within certain industries there was also a formal need to log learning, due to CPD/CPE schemes, so technology was being used to support this process.

Blue skies thinking
There were however, ideas from attendees about how some current and new technologies that have their roots in learning can be better utilised in the workplace. Incorporating work based exercises and assignments into elearning for example, where the aim is for learners to apply their knowledge in their day to day role, so the experience becomes more contextual, and has relevance outsideof a standard ‘course’.

But other more radical ideas arose, including the possibility in the future of using Google Glasses. Could these be used to help workplace learning, and provide on-the-spot information when it was most neeeded? It’s certainly an interesting idea! Also the concept of using Mozilla’s Open Badges to encourage people to share their workplace learning achievements was mooted. There was though, surprisingly little awareness of the Open Badge initiative in the room. Being able to show achievements through sites like LinkedIn was also a very popular idea.

One of the recurring themes of the session, and something we hear all the time in our work as industry analysts, is that the IT department’s involvement and buy-in can make or break learning initiatives.

Beyond the technology lay a more existential question about L&D’s involvement with the attendees’ definition of workplace learning. It is often said that learning will happen with or without L&D and this session demonstrates the truth in that. So that begs the questions, where does accountability sit for workplace learning? If it happens anyway, why should L&D get involved? Does it become the responsibility of line managers to shape experiences and provide resources in this area?

The overwhelming answer has to be that L&D needs to be part of the workplace learning mix. Some learning – such as checking Google or watching a YouTube video – is bound to happen without any input from the L&D department. But if it’s to remain relevant as a function then some of the work being done around blended solutions and learning technologies has to become a part of what is termed ‘workplace learning’. To regard it as a separate discipline or as an activity that has nothing to do with L&D is potentially dangerous and detrimental to the future of the profession.