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Working, Learning and Competence

March 20th, 2013 by Graham Attwell

As part of the Learning Layers project, I am working on a paper for the ECTEL Conference taking place in Cyprus in September. In the paper I want to look at the nature of different forms of knowledge and how competence is acquired through work based learning. I am also interested in the links between learning and innovation. That got me digging into papers and ideas about innovation. And by serendipity my colleague Jenny Hughes replied to a query from another partner working on the Layers project pointing to some work we did in 2001 on a project called DISC. I can’t quite remember what DISC stands for. Anyway DISC was looking at innovation but within one particular perspective – that of the development and evaluation of the innovation potential of organisations – and that from a viewpoint heavily influenced by Human Resource Development. However, we said, in order to develop a theoretical basis and underpinning for that work it is necessary to be able to locate project ideas and development within the wider framework of innovation theory. In other words in order to understand the work DISC is undertaking it is necessary to review the wider range of literature and project development at a national and European level.

There is some good stuff in that literature review (which I don’t think was ever published and I’ll post a few excerpts over the next few days. If you want a full copy just email me. The first excerpt is on Working, Learning and Innovation. I think I still agree with it. The most interesting point I think, is that whilst Communities of Practice have been criticised as inherently conservative bodies we say just the opposite: that they avoid the ossifying tendencies of large organisations.

“In a paper entitled “Organisational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of working, learning, and innovation”, Duguid and Brown (1991) explore in some depth the relationship between communities of practice and innovation.

Working, learning and innovating are closely related forms of human activity that are conventionally thought to conflict with each other. Work practice is generally viewed as conservative and resistant to change: learning is generally viewed as distinct from working and problematic in the face of change; and innovation is generally viewed as the disruptive but necessary imposition of change on the other two. To see that working, learning and innovation are interrelated and compatible and thus potentially complementary requires a distinct conceptual shift.

Within society, formal descriptions of work and learning are abstracted from practice and education, training and technology design generally focus on abstract representations to the detriment of actual practices. Without a clear understanding of the details of actual practice, the practice itself cannot be understood or engendered through training or enhanced through innovation.

This is seen in studies of the variance between organisation’s formal descriptions of work through training programmes and manuals and the actual work practices performed by its members. Reliance on espoused practice can blind an organisation’s core to the actual – and usually valuable practices of its members (including non canonical practices). It is the actual practices, however, that determine the success or failure of organisations.

This is congruent with Lave and Wenger’s practice based theory of learning as “legitimate peripheral participation” in “communities of practice”. Much conventional learning theory, including that implicit in most training courses, tends to endorse the valuation of abstract knowledge over actual practice and, as a result to separate learning from working and, more significantly, learners from workers. The work of Lave and Wenger, and the empirical investigations of the practices of photocopying technicians undertaken by Orr, indicate that this knowledge-practice separation is unsound, both in theory and in practice. Learning takes place in practice through narration, collaboration and social construction. Communities of work and learning are often non-canonical and not recognised by organisations. Significantly, communities are emergent. Their shape and membership emerges in the process of activity as, as opposed to being creating to carry out a task. Therefore the central task in promoting innovation is not the design or creation of groups but more the detection and support of emergent or existing communities. The recognition of and legitimation of community practices is central to the process of learning in communities. This involves issues of legitimacy and peripherality which are intertwined in a complex way. If either is denied then learning will be significantly more difficult.

The composite concept of “learning in working” best represents the fluid evolution of learning through practice. From this practice-based standpoint, learning is the bridge between working and innovating. The periphery is an important site for learning and for innovation.

Small self-constituting communities evade the ossifying tendencies of large organisations. Communities of practice are constantly changing both as newcomers replace old timers and as the demands of practice force the community to revise its relationship to its environment. Communities of practice develop a rich, fluid, non-canonical world view to bridge the gap between their organisations static canonical view and the challenge of changing practice. This process of development in inherently innovative “maverick” communities of this sort allow organisations means and models to examine alternative views of activity, to experiment based on practice and to step outside their limited core world view and try something new.”

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