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ECER 2001 Developing a model of factors influencing work-related learning: Findings from two research projects, S Sambrook

ECER Conference, Lille, 2001
Vocational Education and Training Network (VETNET)

Developing a model of factors influencing work-related learning:

Findings from two research projects


Dr Sally Sambrook

Lecturer in Human Resource Management

School for Business and Regional Development

University of Wales, Bangor

Yr Hen Goleg, Bangor, Gwynedd, LL57 2DG

United Kingdom

Email: sally.sambrook@bangor.ac.uk

Telephone: 00 44 (0) 1248 382167

Abstract


This paper presents a model of factors influencing work-related learning – that is learning in and at work. The model synthesises findings from two research studies, one British and the other European, both previously reported at ECER conferences. The European project investigated the role of HRD practitioners in learning-oriented organisations. This paper develops one aspect of that project – factors inhibiting and enhancing learning in and at work. The UK project focused on computer based learning, and this paper further examines learners’ perceptions of the quality of computer based learning materials. Drawing upon the two research studies, the paper identifies the various factors influencing learning in and at work, at organisational, functional (HRD) and individual levels, and then focuses upon three levels of factors influencing computer based learning. It is argued that identifying these, often contradictory and subjective, factors is an important step enabling managers and HRD practitioners to recognise how learning might be hindered or helped within the organisational, and particularly ICT, context.

Developing a model of factors influencing work-related learning:

Findings from two research projects

Sally Sambrook

Introduction
This paper has three aims. First, to briefly review the concepts of lifelong learning, work-related learning and electronic learning. Second, to further explore findings from two research projects – one British, the other European – both previously reported at ECER conferences (Sambrook & Stewart 1999, Sambrook 2000). And, third, to present a model of factors influencing work-related learning. The model synthesises findings from two research studies that investigated work-related learning from two different perspectives.
The European project investigated the role of HRD practitioners in learning-oriented organisations, and particularly how they supported opportunities for lifelong learning. Findings from this project suggest a continuing shift from training to learning, where the role of HRD practitioners is changing, where managers are increasingly responsible for developing their employees, and where employees themselves have more responsibility for their own development (Tjepkema et al 2001). This paper further develops one aspect of that project – factors inhibiting and enhancing learning in learning-oriented organisations. However, a review of recent literature suggests learning in the work context can be conceptualised in, at least, two ways: learning that occurs at the place of work, and learning that is embedded in work processes. Thus, the term work-related learning encompasses all forms of learning in the work context. An emerging element of work-related learning is the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the form of computer based learning.
The UK project focused on computer based learning in the context of small and medium sized organisations (SMEs), and this paper further examines learners’ perceptions of factors influencing their experiences of this newer form of work-related learning. Drawing upon the two research studies, the paper identifies the various factors influencing learning in and at work, at organisational, functional (HRD) and individual levels, and then focuses upon three levels of factors influencing computer based learning. It is argued that identifying these, often contradictory and subjective, factors is an important step enabling managers and HRD practitioners to recognise how work related learning might be hindered or helped within the organisational, and particularly ICT, context.
Before presenting the findings from these two projects, it is useful to briefly review the concepts of lifelong, work-related and electronic learning.

Learning – lifelong, work-related and electronic

‘Learning’ – whether lifelong, work-based, or computer-based - is attracting much attention. Exploring learning in its broadest sense, whether within or without work, the ‘Declaration on Learning’ (Learning Declaration Group 1998, 2000) attempts to raise awareness of the various purposes, processes and problems associated with this complex phenomenon. At the European level, we have witnessed the official ‘year of lifelong learning,’ (OECD 1996, Gass 1996) and more recently, the publication of a ‘memorandum of lifelong learning’ (EU 2001). ‘Lifelong learning’ is defined by Brandsma (1997:10) as a continuous process of personal development for everyone, whether in work or not, encompassing formal and informal activities, and making demands upon the social structures in which learning takes place. However, the OECD (1996:15) suggests lifelong learning has broader objectives, including strengthening democratic values, cultivating community life, maintaining social cohesion, and promoting innovation, productivity and economic growth, and these are re-iterated in the latest EU Memorandum. At a national level, the UK government has encouraged lifelong learning (DfEE 1998), for similar reasons as cited above, and has, for example, created Individual Learning Accounts and re-structured the provision of post-compulsory training, education and learning opportunities under the Learning and Skills Council (DfEE 2001). Similarly, the focus of educational policy in other European countries, such as Finland, is to prepare young people for more learning-intensive work and promote more efficient workplace learning (Lasonen 1999). However, such conceptions of lifelong learning tend to focus on formal opportunities and associated structural provision of resources. Yet, ‘implicit learning’ (Chao 1997), ‘incidental learning’ (Marsick & Watkins 1997) and ‘informal/accidental learning’ (Mumford 1997) can be significant processes within the work context. Work organisations are important partners in providing not only formal opportunities for training but also more informal opportunities for lifelong learning.


At the organisational level, there is an increasing emphasis on individual and collective learning to enhance competitive advantage (Moingeon & Edmondson 1996), to achieve innovation, productivity and growth. This can involve constructing ‘learning environments,’ which offer new opportunities for learning, focus on real-life problems, use feedback, encourage employees, and share learning (Lasonen 1999). However, this tends to occur in large organisations, which are able to provide opportunities for learning through significant work-redesign and team-working, for example, supported by sophisticated internal HRD infrastructures and knowledge management processes. The European Commission recognises that many (rural and peripheral) areas rely on SMEs for employment and learning opportunities (EC 1998). This increasing pressure to enhance learning to achieve competitive advantage is particularly problematic in small organisations. Although SMEs could be described as ‘ideal’ learning organisations, learning in small organisations tends to focus on external, formal training provision, given the lack of internal HRD infrastructure (Hill & Stewart 2000, Hyland & Matlay 1997). There may also be limited opportunities to swap jobs or work on other projects, activities associated with informal learning.
At all levels, there are pressures to find new ways of providing learning opportunities within the work context. It is interesting to note the subtle differences between conceptions of learning at work and learning in work (Sambrook & Betts 2001). At the Second UFHRD Conference on Human Resource Development Research and Practice across Europe, the sub-title was ‘perspectives on learning at the workplace,’ (http://www.ufhrd.com). Several papers focused on (more formal) learning activities conducted at the place of work (rather than off-site). Others explored how (more informal) learning could be integrated with the actual process of working, thus helping to remove the barrier of workplace learning being viewed as solely ‘going on courses’ and helping to recognise the value of ‘finding things out on-the-job.’ With the emergence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) providing new opportunities for learning (and working), the ICT context provides another research area in which to investigate work-related learning, that is learning in and at work. As with other forms of learning, electronic learning can occur simply at work or become actually embedded in work processes. For example, employees might be ‘sent’ to an open learning centre to complete an electronic course on health and safety, or they might sit at their own desk-top terminals and be involved in computer mediated conversations about some problematic aspect of their work.
The emergence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) provides new opportunities for learning and training. Indeed, there appears to have been a shift to e-learning, rather than e-training (Honey 2000). Currently, the bulk of computer based learning focuses on IT training (Training Zone 2000a). However, the increasing use of e-learning has widespread effects. For example, it appears that e-learning is used in larger organisations to provide individualised training, although a recent survey suggested that whilst 43% of employers stated they provided tailored learning, only 7% of employees stated they received tailored training (Honey 2000). This highlights how perceptions of learning vary. However, 90% of users claimed e-learning was useful, and 81% of providers and 66% of employers agreed it would bring huge advances in their organisation’s capacity to learn (Honey 2000). In addition, e-learning transforms the trainer’s role, a factor both feared and embraced by HRD professionals (Training Zone 2000a). The growing supply of computer based learning materials might provide accessible, flexible and affordable solutions, addressing organisational, functional and individual factors that appear to inhibit learning. Thus, it is important for managers, HRD practitioners and learners to be able to judge the quality of ICT based learning resources to assure effective learning. Yet, this is often a difficult task (Carr 1999) and a potential barrier to the use of computer based learning. However, the main barrier to e-learning seems to be cost, and such an investment requires significant senior management support (Training Zone 2000a), but the results of another survey suggest that is isn’t clear whether e-learning is more cost-effective than other forms of learning (Training Zone 2000b). Following this brief review of lifelong, work-related and electronic learning, the next section focuses on the two research projects.
The research question
Having briefly introduced the two distinct research projects, with broad and varied aims, it is possible to synthesis these and identify one common theme. This provides the specific research question for this paper: ‘What are the factors influencing work-related learning?’ The European project provides some answers to this question, examining (i) sociological aspects such as the organisation of work and changing functional (HRD and managerial) roles, and (ii) psychological issues concerned with motivation to learn, fear and confidence. The British project provides some answers to the question in the specific context of computer based learning. In exploring learning in the ICT context, the project focused more on pedagogical issues related to the quality of computer based learning, investigating such concepts as instructional design, accessibility, learner-centredness and transfer of learning, but also captured psychological aspects such as motivation and confidence to learn.

Factors influencing learning - in learning-oriented organisations

The European Union-funded research has been reported elsewhere (Sambrook & Stewart 2000), thus only a short overview will be provided here. This two-year project (1998-1999) investigated: reasons for seeking to become learning oriented organisations; how practitioners envisioned the role of HRD in stimulating and supporting employee learning; the nature of HRD strategies to enact this vision; and how practitioners cope with the factors inhibiting and facilitating the realisation of these strategies.


Research design

The research was conducted in two stages. The first stage employed qualitative methods to explore these questions in 28 case studies, with four organisations chosen from each of the seven European participating countries. During this stage, researchers analysed internal documents and conducted semi-structured interviews with senior managers, managers, HRD professionals, and other employees (learners). The second stage, ‘testing’ the findings from the case studies, involved a questionnaire survey of 165 organisations across Europe, targeted at senior HRD professionals.


Analysis

Researchers explored learning within the organisational context, and identified key factors at three levels: organisational, functional and personal. These included the organisation of work, the culture of the organisation, resources available for HRD activities, and the skills, attitudes and motivations of managers and learners. It is on this last point – at the personal level - that there are further similarities between the two projects. The UK project identified factors such as learners’ IT skills, confidence, fear and motivation as important issues influencing computer based learning specifically. These factors were also evident when interviewing learners across 28 European organisations about learning in and at work generally. The key factors identified in all twenty-eight case studies can be categorised into four main themes: motivation, HRD, culture and pragmatics. Each of these themes had factors which both inhibited and enhanced learning. These factors are summarised in Figure 1 below.


Inhibiting Enhancing
Lack of motivation (1) Motivation Motivation, enthusiasm, involvement

Extra work, unclear role Managers & Clarity and understanding of own role

Lack of self-confidence Employees Increased responsibility
Role ambiguity (2) HRD Role clarity

Perceived as support function Perceived as strategic partner


Insufficient learning culture (3) Culture Develop learning culture

Difficult to change existing situation Senior manager support


Lack of time (4) Pragmatics Organisation re-structure, job redesign

Lack of resources Investment in HRD & learning environment


Figure 1: Factors influencing learning in learning oriented organisations (Sambrook & Stewart 2000)

1. Motivation

The first category of inhibiting factors was the lack of motivation for learning. A distinction can be made between a lack of motivation on the part of managers for supporting employee learning, and a lack of motivation for learning or sense of responsibility for their own development from employees. This lack of motivation can be partly explained by various organisational, functional and personal factors, such as:



  • the lack of time (due to the organisation of work and work pressures)

  • the lack of reward for learning (at the organisational and HR functional level)

  • the lack of enthusiasm in the concept of the learning organisation or training and development in general, and

  • the lack of confidence to learn and/or take responsibility for learning (at a personal level).

The limited involvement of managers and employees in learning issues was linked to their lack of motivation for learning. Lack of self-confidence was also a factor. Findings from the case studies suggest that motivation on the part of managers was balanced. Around a half of the comments suggested managers were supportive of and actively involved in learning. The other half suggested negative attitudes towards learning, perhaps caused by the perceived extra work involved and unclear roles. At the employee level, comments were more negative, with the lack of employee motivation as an inhibiting factor mentioned four times as often as the supportive factors, such as the active participation of employees in their own development and their enthusiasm to learn.



2. HRD

The second category of inhibiting factors concerns HRD, at organisational, functional and personal levels. A key factor was the clarity (or lack of clarity) concerning both the new/changing role of HRD professionals, and new approaches to learning and working. One reason is the limited understanding of HRD’s role. In some organisations, participants talked about the lack of understanding regarding HRD goals, tasks, responsibilities and objectives, and even the distance between managers and the HRD function. Another reason is the lack of practical information regarding the need for learning, on learning processes and on learning opportunities. These two factors might contribute to the lack of motivation of both managers and employees, described earlier, if they are unsure of what is expected of them and what support HRD professionals will provide. However, HRD role clarity was also mentioned as a supporting factor. Other factors were clear communication, clear training systems, procedures or policy and a widely shared understanding of the importance of learning and personal development.


3. Learning culture

The third category relates to culture, an organisational factor that influences the activities of (and attitudes towards) the HRD function and individual attitudes to learning. In many cases, the lack of a learning culture was cited as an inhibiting factor. Participants talked about the difficulty in developing a learning culture and insufficient knowledge sharing. This would suggest that it is very difficult to motivate employees to share knowledge or engage in learning processes if they are not used to this, or perhaps even reluctant to do so. This is supported by Jones and Hendry (1992) who found that a learning-oriented culture enhances successful learning, whereas it is very difficult to create learning situations in companies with cultures characterised by bureaucracy and inter-functional rivalries and politics. Several cases reported the difficulty in changing existing cultures, with fear of and resistance to change as a barrier to developing a learning orientation. Other factors included inappropriate organisational structures, work pressures and an emphasis on meeting targets, and entrenched attitudes to training.


However, if an organisation has a culture open to learning, this makes it easier to change HRD practices, such as devolving responsibility to managers and employees, and creating opportunities for learning within work activities. Yet, there were fewer positive references to a learning culture than negative comments. Related to culture is organisational structure. Changes in organisational structure, or in job design, can also support the development of a learning culture. New structures can provide employees with more opportunities for learning within work activities, allowing HRD professionals to support work-related learning. Another conducive factor is a flexible organisational structure, which enables jobs to be designed (and re-designed) to facilitate work-based learning and allow time for sharing and reflection upon learning.
4. Pragmatics

The fourth category encompasses pragmatic factors that inhibit learning. These occur at organisational, functional and personal levels. Of these, the most frequently cited issue was the lack of time for learning on the part of employees. Work pressure is so great that it is difficult for employees to find time for learning in their daily work routine. In addition, other opportunities for learning at work (such as courses) are cancelled/postponed to ensure the workload is completed. This compounds the problem of lack of motivation to learn and impedes the development of a learning culture. Other practical problems include a lack of HRD resources, and a lack of time to develop new HRD initiatives. The lack of HRD resources refers both to financial and human resources - that is money in the form of investment in the central HRD function and departmental budgets, and an adequate number of HRD professionals. However, there was no significant relationship between the organisations that mentioned a lack of HRD resources and the size of the HRD department.


Whilst the lack of time and resources were mentioned as inhibiting learning, similar issues, such as sufficient HRD resources (both financial and human), were mentioned as supporting learning in many cases. Another factor that helped to stimulate a change in HRD practices was the identification and communication of positive results of new HRD initiatives. The increasing use of ICTs might also help address the problems associated with lack of time and HRD expertise. Computer based learning can help overcome problems of access to learning associated with shift work, for example, and off-the-shelf learning resources can help overcome a lack of internal subject expertise. However, investing in computer based learning requires substantial financial resources and the ability to select appropriate hardware and software. (This latter issue is addressed in the British project, discussed below.)

Discussion


These findings suggest that lifelong learning in and at work is influenced by many factors, and the same factors can be expressed in both a positive and negative manner. Significant similarities were found between the twenty-eight case studies selected from seven European countries. Factors influencing learning were categorised at organisational, functional and individual levels. These included the organisation of work, resources for learning and motivation to learn. Figure 2, below, identifies the three levels of factors and the four main categories of influencing factors – motivation, HRD, culture and pragmatics.


Organisational Functional
Culture, structure, pragmatics HRD role clarity,

senior manager support, eg attitudes to understanding of HRD

organisation of work, training tasks & new initiatives,

work pressures, targets, number of staff, expertise,

task vs learning Work- amount of information

orientation Related use of ICTs,



pragmatics learning pragmatics strategic

eg managerial skills, eg lack of

lack of time & reward time & resources

Individual

Managers Employees

Responsibility for learning,

motivation to learn,

time, IT skills,

confidence

Figure 2: Summary of factors influencing work-related learning

Significant inhibiting factors were talked about as: insufficient HRD resources; a traditional culture and entrenched attitudes towards training; business pressures; and poor managerial skills. Key supporting factors included: sufficient HRD resources (human resources such as facilitation skills, learning expertise and flexible solutions, as well as financial resources); management support for learning; and the increasing willingness to learn on the part of employees. These factors impact on the various stakeholders in learning (managers, employees and HRD professionals), and impact on organisational culture, the structure of work, and resources. A key finding is the changing role of the stakeholders, the attempt to develop a (new) learning culture, and the restructuring of work.


However, despite being able to identify positive and negative factors, it is possible that some of the supporting factors are necessary but insufficient conditions for organisations to become learning oriented. For example, despite increasing HRD resources and senior management commitment, until workload pressures and the organisation of work are addressed, and work time is devoted to learning issues, employees will continue to see learning as extra to their daily work practices, perhaps even unnecessary and worthless. The need to meet targets and a task orientation impedes the development of a learning environment. Conversely, inhibiting factors might not necessarily preclude the achievement of becoming learning oriented. For example, in the Royal Mail and Rolls-Royce, despite shift work and daily targets, time is being found to enable learning events to be scheduled in work time and in the work environment. It is useful to summarise the European research findings in a figure, presented below, that later contributes to the development of a model of factors influencing learning in and at work.
Having identified some of the factors influencing learning in and at work, the next section presents the findings from the British project, focusing on factors influencing computer based learning.
Factors influencing learning - in computer based learning
The British research project, funded by the National Assembly for Wales and conducted during 1999-2000, has also been reported elsewhere (Sambrook 2000). In summary, the overall aim was to develop a quality assurance system for computer based learning materials, relevant to the SME context. Two key objectives were to:

  • investigate and compare the quality judgements of computer based learning materials made by trainers and learners, and

  • investigate the relationship between quality judgements and learning outcomes, the hypothesis being that high correlations would enhance the predictive nature of the evaluation tools.

Thus, the research design incorporated both quantitative and qualitative methods. The research included a critical review of literature on pedagogical and quality issues associated with computer based learning, and three empirical studies.
Research design

The aim of the third study was to further test evaluation tools developed from previous studies, examine the perceptions of learners regarding their quality judgements of a range of computer based learning materials and compare these with their measured learning outcomes. The study involved 159 participants, recruited from the North Wales area, with a wide spread of age and experience, including employees of SMEs, recent graduates engaged in work experience within SMEs and those not in work but engaged in vocational training. Participants selected one from five different computer based learning materials, which offered a range of subjects and IT skill levels. After working on the material in their own time, they were then asked to complete the Learner Evaluation Tool (online or paper version). In addition to a series of 91 statements against which participants were asked to rate specific aspects of the learning material, learners were also asked to comment upon both positive and negative features of the learning material. This paper focuses on these comments.


Analysis

Content analysis was used to categorise and count the qualitative responses. This quantitative approach provides an overview of the emerging factors influencing learners’ judgements of quality. Further analysis examined the rich detail provided in learners’ comments and explored potential links between the various themes (Sambrook 2000). Overall, from the 762 comments, 33 different factors were identified. However, it is useful to consolidate the factors into more coherent categories. The consolidated categories mirror Bryman’s (1988) model of the stages associated with getting in, getting on and getting out of research sites. This has been adapted to identify and capture key issues associated with computer based learning. How to get into, and about, electronic learning sites includes access issues such as hardware and software specifications, IT skills, confidence, userfriendliness, and navigation. How to get on at these sites includes both content issues such as presentation, information, level, and language, and process issues such as interest, type of learning and opportunities to practise. The final stage, getting out, focuses on what to get out of electronic sites, that is learning outcomes, such as increased confidence, increased understanding, and relevant (or transferable) knowledge and skills, for example. The 33 distinct factors are re-presented in these new categories, as illustrated in Figure 3 below.




Getting in & about

Getting on

Getting out

Content issues

Process issues

USERFRIENDLY - ease of use, instructions

PRESENTATION - eg clear, accurate, no mistakes

INTEREST - eg interesting and engaging or boring

KNOWLEDGE – knowledge gained

NAVIGATION - eg moving about package and other sites

GRAPHICS – eg pictures, diagrams,

TYPE OF LEARNING - eg rote, memory, discussion

UNDERSTANDING - eg easy or difficult to understand

IT SKILLS - eg appropriate for beginner

INFORMATION – eg amount, too little or overload

PRACTICE - eg opportunity to practice, experiment, use

USEFULNESS - eg relevance, transferability

SCROLLING - eg moving about text within pages



LENGTH - eg too short or too long

ENJOYMENT - eg fun

FEEDBACK - eg on tests, wrong answers




EXAMPLES – use of examples







Figure 3: Getting in and about, getting on and getting out of computer based learning materials

These aggregated comments identify the various factors at each of the key stages of (computer based) learning. They are presented in descending order of importance, according to frequency of mention. Some factors appear more than once. For example, confidence is a significant factor in terms of access, influencing how (or whether) a learner engages with computer based learning in the first place. Once engaged in the course, confidence will influence how the learner progresses through the material, for example, whether they feel able to experiment, interact and navigate to new sites. Finally, increased confidence could be an outcome of computer based learning, in that the experience helps to reduce any initial fears of ICTs. Other factors categorised more than once include enjoyment and feedback, again appearing both in process issues (getting on) and outcomes (getting out).


Overall, the most significant factor was the extent to which the computer based learning material was perceived as being userfriendly and this was reported as a positive factor in 93% of these comments. It is interesting to note that the top eleven factors (which are indicated by the shaded boxes in the figure) account for two thirds (66%) of the total number of comments. This would suggest that the most important factors influencing learners’ judgements of quality are:

  1. Userfriendly - the extent to which the material is easy to use, with clear instructions

  2. Presentation - clear and accurate, with no mistakes such as spelling errors

  3. Graphics - the number and quality of pictures and diagrams

  4. Interest - whether the material generates interest or is found to be boring

  • Information - the amount and quality of the content, whether there is too

little or overload

  1. Knowledge - the extent to which new knowledge is gained

  2. Understanding - whether the material is easy or difficult to understand

  3. Level - whether the material is considered too basic or too deep for the learner’s current knowledge and skills

  • Type of learning - for example, whether deep learning or rote learning, memorising facts

  • Language - whether the language was difficult to read, using jargons or lacking definitions

  1. Text - the amount of text and the balance with graphics

However, this is not to suggest that these factors are exclusive to learners using computer based learning materials relevant to the SME context. For example, similar findings were found in recent action research conducted with business and management undergraduate students (Sambrook 2001).



Discussion

It is important that managers and HRD professionals responsible for selecting computer based learning materials are aware of factors influencing learners’ perceptions of the quality of the resources. Findings from the British project are similar to the European project in that the same factors influencing learning can be perceived by different learners as being positive or negative. The UK study also confirms results from the earlier European project that factors influencing learning are both complex and subjective. However, it is possible to construct findings from the British research into three hierarchical themes. These are (i) learning, (ii) learning materials, and (iii) computer based learning materials, illustrated in Figure 4 below. At each level, the factors are presented according to the previously-suggested stages of learning - getting in and about, getting on and getting out. Factors identified at the overarching (or generic) level – learning – implicitly influence the two lower (or more specific) levels. Similarly, factors specific to learning materials in general also influence computer based learning materials in particular. At the lowest, or most specific, level the factors are those more significant to ICT forms of learning.


Learning
Getting in Confidence

Getting on Level, Interest, Type of learning, Practice, Pace, Enjoyment, Learner control

Getting out Knowledge, Understanding, Usefulness, Progression

Learning materials
Getting in & about Userfriendly

Getting on Presentation, Information, Language, Length, Structure Explanation, Examples

Getting out Assessment


Computer based learning materials
Getting in & about Userfriendly, Navigation, IT skills, Hardware specifications, Links, Scrolling, Interface, Help

Getting on Graphics, Text, Interaction, Feedback, Colour

Getting out Increased confidence

Figure 4: Factors influencing learning: hierarchical themes

As with earlier attempts to classify factors influencing learning, it is problematic assigning certain factors to a particular category. For example, at the generic level of learning, this category includes factors relevant to all forms of learning, and this may not necessarily include formal courses. Therefore, assessment has not been included at this top level, but at the level of learning materials, suggestive of more formalised learning, which is, in turn, more likely to incorporate assessment. Another problem is the changing significance of factors between the different types of learning. Distinct aspects of some of the factors become more significant depending on the method of learning. For example, learning materials used through face-to-face contact may not require the same degree of userfriendliness (when a trainer can explain details) as those designed to support distance learning, where the learner could be alone and isolated. In addition, userfriendliness takes on further significance in the context of ICT based learning materials, where the potentially isolated learner is faced with the added complexity of new technologies. Thus, whilst all forms of learning are ideally userfriendly, this factor becomes most significant at the level of computer based learning. Similarly, issues of the balance between text and graphics, and the use of colour, are important in paper-based learning materials, but take on an additional significance in the ICT context.


Developing this further, and acknowledging the problems identified above, the three themes can form an onion-type model, where generic factors represent the outer skin, or the broadest factors influencing all types of learning. Then as the outer layer is un-peeled, more specific factors are uncovered, first at the level of learning materials, and then focusing in on computer based learning materials. This is illustrated in Figure 5 below.
Access

Learning


Confidence, level, interest, type of learning, practise, pace,

enjoyment, learner control, progression, knowledge,

understanding, usefulness (relevance/transferability)

Learning materials

Presentation, information (content), language,

length, structure, explanation, examples,

assessment,



ICT learning materials


Userfriendly, graphics, text, navigation,

interaction, IT skills, colour, links,

hardware specifications, scrolling,

interface, help facilities

feedback,
Figure 5: A model of factors influencing different layers of learning:

Drawing upon learners’ own comments, figures four and five provide useful tools to raise awareness of the whole range of factors learners consider when evaluating the quality of ICT resources. They may provide practical assistance to managers, HRD practitioners and material producers during their decision making processes – whether designing, evaluating or selecting computer based learning materials. They highlight that when learners were asked to judge the quality of the learning materials, they did not only focus on specific features of ICT resources. Instead, they made reference to the much broader issues related to learning in general. However, neither of these figures suggests that learners first consider learning in general, and move down the hierarchy to the specific learning materials themselves. Empirical evidence suggests that the most significant factor influencing learning and the quality of online learning materials was userfriendliness.



A holistic model of factors influencing work-related learning
The analysis so far has concentrated on identifying


  • organisational, functional and individual factors influencing learning in and at work, as stated by HRD practitioners, managers and learners, and

  • factors influencing (the quality of) computer based learning, as identified by learners.

However, it is useful to synthesise these findings into a holistic model of factors influencing work-related learning. The model, presented in Figure 6 below, provides a systematic way of raising awareness of, and thus being able to cope with, the many factors influencing learning in and at work. The utility of the model is to assist HRD professionals, managers and learners analyse factors both inhibiting and enhancing learning – to help them address the problems and promote the successes.


The model is not intended to represent a hierarchy, and does not position organisational and functional factors above individual factors. The model is intended to illustrate some of factors at organisational, functional and individual levels that can inhibit or enhance learning. One is no more important than another, although organisational factors can, and do, influence other factors such as HRD resources and individual time for learning. Similarly, although they are distinct factors, one can interact with another, as illustrated by the interrelationships. Whilst organisational factors can influence how work is scheduled and monitored, causing a lack of time and facilities for learning, individuals, managers and HRD practitioners could act to influence the culture of the organisation, and thus shift the focus from a task to a learning orientation.
There are also connections between the top half of the model, illustrating factors inherent in the work context, and the bottom half, featuring factors influencing learning. For example, an individual’s motivation to learn will influence whether they decide to engage in any form of work-related learning, whether traditional class-room, and trainer based or electronic. The European research study found that learning could occur at the workplace, in formal classrooms, or in dedicated (quiet and clean) learning rooms located just off the shop-floor. Learning could also occur in work processes, through secondments, projects, coaching and mentoring, for example. Pressures of work, lack of time or difficulties due to shift patterns may all inhibit (or dissuade) an individual from engaging in learning. Yet, the availability of ICT learning materials, perhaps in Open Learning Centres, might help overcome some of these organisational problems. An example from the European research was the use of an electronic induction programme for postal workers in isolated locations in the United Kingdom. Conversely, computer based learning can cause other problems, such as isolation (paradoxically) for the learner when sat at a lonely terminal rather than in a training room full of colleagues. An increasingly significant problem is mistrust of the learner by the manager who fails to appreciate the possibility and value of learning by sitting at a personal computer. SME owner/managers who participated in the UK study expressed their concern over employees merely surfing the internet for personal reasons rather than work-related learning. Managers in SMEs also identified the difficulty in assessing the cost of such learning, noting the apparent ease of calculating how much it costs to send an employee off to college for a day. Yet, problems of how to transfer knowledge and skills from traditional, off-the-job learning to the workplace could be addressed by using electronic learning embedded in work processes.


Organisational Functional
Culture, structure, pragmatics HRD role clarity,

senior manager support, eg attitudes to understanding of HRD

organisation of work, training tasks & new initiatives,

work pressures, targets, number of staff, expertise,

task vs learning Work- amount of information

orientation Related use of ICTs,



pragmatics learning pragmatics strategic

eg managerial skills, eg lack of

lack of time & reward time & resources

Individual

Managers Employees

Responsibility for learning,

motivation to learn,

time, IT skills,

confidence


Learning


Confidence, level, interest, type of learning, practise, pace,

enjoyment, learner control, progression, knowledge,

understanding, usefulness (relevance/transferability)

Learning materials

Presentation, information (content), language,

length, structure, explanation, examples,

assessment,



ICT learning materials


Userfriendly, graphics, text, navigation,

interaction, IT skills, colour, links,

hardware specifications, scrolling,

interface, help facilities



feedback,

Figure 6: A holistic model of factors influencing work-related learning
The model synthesises the findings from particular aspects of two different research projects, and illustrates how factors influencing work-based and computer-based learning can be linked. For example, focusing on the individual level, motivation to learn on the part of managers and other employees was mentioned as both an inhibiting and enhancing factor in the European research. In the UK project, motivation was mentioned in terms of individuals’ confidence to engage in learning (particularly computer based), whether learning materials were interesting, whether the type of learning was appropriate (memorising facts versus discussions), the perceived utility of the learning experience and the degree of learner control. In the European research, at the organisational level, the way work was organised, including shift patterns, performance targets and sheer work load, created barriers to learning and developing learning environments. Yet, many aspects of computer based learning, and identified in the UK project, such as accessibility and flexibility, could help overcome such inhibiting factors and help create virtual learning environments. At a functional level, findings from the European project suggest a changing role for HRD practitioners, where specialists become internal consultants, advisers to managers and learners, and facilitators of learning rather than trainers. With the increase in ICT forms of learning, the role of the HRD practitioner might become ICT instructional designer, or purchaser, broker, adviser and facilitator of electronic learning.
Some conclusions and implications
Lifelong learning is an important concept if national and European governments are to achieve learning societies that are inclusive, cohesive, innovative and economically productive (EU 2001). Across the European Community, organisations are important partners in encouraging learning through the development of human resources. Learning, and re-engaging employees as learners, is a significant element in achieving competitive advantage. Learning in and at work are important issues in small and large organisations. Empirical evidence from 200 large organisations across seven European countries suggests that lifelong and work-related learning can be greatly enhanced by developing organisations as learning cultures, by increasing motivation to learn, by clarifying responsibilities for learning and providing resources, and by the re-organisation of work. However, as Oxtoby (2001) reveals, ‘to create a learning culture requires much more than fine words.’ For example, it requires significant commitment from the senior management team, in the form of championing the concept of learning and approving investment (Training Zone 2000a).
Learning can also be enhanced by information and communication technologies (ICT), including new educational and training technologies. A recent survey of employers highlighted the generally positive attitudes to electronic learning as it was convenient and manageable (Training Zone 2000b). Benefits include greater access, reduced contact time between trainer and learner, and reduced time spent off the job (as learning occurs outside working hours). Findings from the British project highlight that, from the learners’ perspective, the most significant factor influencing attitudes to electronic learning is userfriendliness. This is especially important with the increase in self-managed learning, where the learner could be alone and isolated. However, negative aspects of electronic learning include the impersonality, frustration and loneliness, as well as problems associated with computers crashing and how easy it is to waste time (perhaps confirming what SME managers expressed during the UK study). Within the e-learning context, there is also the assumption that learners know how to learn effectively (Honey 2000). Recent research highlights the need to have learner support for those participating in electronic learning to enhance learning rather than deal with technological problems (Training Zone 2000b). Motivation to learn was a factor identified in both research projects. However, motivation, confidence and learning skills are particularly problematic in the ICT context (Honey 2000).
It would seem that factors influencing work-related electronic learning vary greatly according to who is learning what, where, how and why. Research findings presented here suggest that the same factors could be both positive and negative features, highlighting the complexity and subjectivity of investigating learners’ perceptions of computer based learning. Thus, it is important for managers and HRD practitioners to be able to judge the quality of ICT based learning resources – taking into account learners’ perceptions - to assure effective learning. This is particularly pertinent in SMEs where - despite the lack of formal HRD infrastructure - computer based learning can offer accessible and flexible learning opportunities. An awareness of these factors is also useful for producers to enable them to design learner-centred materials, by taking into account learners’ perceptions of quality. For example, a recent survey highlighted some of the negative aspects of electronic learning, including the difficulty in finding learning programmes and software, and materials that were poor in quality, too gimmicky, and not sufficiently developed (Training Zone 2000b).
It is argued that identifying influencing factors is an important step enabling managers and HRD practitioners to recognise how learning might be hindered or helped within work – whether in traditional classroom-based training or through ICT-based learning resources. Whilst e-learning can be as effective as other methods, the future of learning does not lie solely through electronic means. However, having the ability to accurately evaluate the quality of e-learning resources could enhance the credibility of HRD practitioners, particularly as their role becomes more uncertain.
Many of the factors identified in this paper would seem intuitively obvious. However, the empirical findings of two separate research studies would suggest that these factors are indeed evidence-based. Thus, it is both possible and useful to present this evidence in a model, highlighting for HRD practitioners, managers and learners the range of contextual (organisational), material (HRD and ICT resources) and personal factors influencing work related learning. It is only by raising awareness of these factors that it is then possible to deal with them, to encourage and harness all forms of learning in the context of work. Highlighting key issues raised by learners enables managers and HRD practitioners to first acknowledge, understand and then address such factors. This is especially important as responsibilities for training and work-related learning shift. HRD practitioners are increasingly taking the role of internal consultant, facilitating learning rather than providing training (Garavan 1991, Tjepkema & Wognum 1996, Watkins & Ellinger 1998). Managers are increasingly assuming the role of role model and developer (Ellinger 1997, Sambrook & Stewart 2000, Tjepkema et al 2001). As work becomes more learning intensive, learners and facilitators of learning need to understand factors influencing all forms of learning in and at work.

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