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Journal of Workplace Learning 2010

The Journal of Workplace Learning
Vol 22, No 7, 2010
Employees’ and managers’ accounts of interactive workplace learning
A grounded theory of “complex integrative learning”
by Dr Genevieve Armson and Professor Alma Whiteley
Graduate School of Business, Curtin University, Perth, Australia

Employees’ and managers’ accounts of interactive workplace learning: a grounded theory of ‘complex integrative learning’. Abstract Purpose - To investigate employees’ and managers’ accounts of interactive learning and what might encourage or inhibit emergent learning. Design – A constructivist/social constructivist ontology, interpretive epistemology and qualitative methodology, using grounded theory method. Data collection included semi-structured interview, ‘complete this sentence’ and ‘scenarios’ from 51 respondents: 22 managers and 29 employees in four private sector organisations. As respondents’ theories emerged, these informed the next round of data collection, this process named ‘theoretical sampling’. Managers and employees were asked about perceptions of their own role and the other’s roles in learning. Findings Reciprocity and participative learning involving managers and employees emerged. There was dynamism to the data and evidence of both Billett’s (2001) notion of affordances and Stacey’s (2005) patterns of local interactions. Employees encouraged learning through peer discussions, and motivation/personal initiative. Managers encouraged learning through have a go coaching, formal training opportunities and working with company structure and resources. The data support the idea of complex and integrated learning. Practical implications The data informed both managers and employees in such a way as to highlight the dynamic and complex interactions around learning processes. One practical implication is employee and manager training in emergence and complexity as learning environments. Ideas of complex responses and patterns of local interaction (Stacey, 1998, 2005; Colbert, 2004) resonated with the data more than particular typologies of learning. Originality/value This study captured insights, especially from employees, into the dialogue and dynamism of their learning opportunities, whilst supporting existing theories. The need for managers to ‘learn’ employees’ local interaction patterns emerged as a future research agenda, alongside the need to penetrate the social space of employee learning more deeply. Key words Workplace learning, Emergent learning, Reciprocal learning Paper Type Research paper

  1. Introduction

This paper contributes to the current discourse on workplace learning by reporting on a study carried out with four private sector organisations. We targeted individuals as agents and also in social interaction (managers/employees, employees/peers). Organisational structure and resources were identified by respondents as possible inhibitors to workplace learning. We went into the study with no firm stance although emergent learning and informal learning practices were linked in our minds. We were aware going in to the study of the insightful theories workplace learning literature that characterise (sometimes critically) workplace learning as formal, informal or a mix of the two (Malcolm, Hodkinson et al, 2003; Marsick and Watkins, 1990; Marsick and Volpe, 1999). The topic with which managers and employees were asked to engage was emergent learning in the workplace. We conceptualized the idea of emergent learning as the capacity to act such that emergence, spontaneity and serendipity might occur. The research was conducted under the auspices of a business school and the interest was captured by the increasing complexity in organisations (Griffin, Shaw and Stacey, 1998; Griffin and Stacey, 2005; Stacey and Griffin, 2005) and the need for adaptive learning processes to meet complexity (Holbrook, 2003). We came to the research with some assumptions. First was the idea of the workplace as a learning environment. Secondly, we assumed that learning was both constructivist (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005) with the individual as an agent of his own learning and social constructionist, with learning as a process and product of social interaction (Berger and Luckmann, 1967; Gergen, 1994; Schwandt, 2000). We also, and on reflection incorrectly according to the data, tended to think of workplace learning as either formal or informal in readily identifiable ways. We came to the realization that, as Marsick (2009, p265) proposed “In practice, informal and formal learning are often inextricably intertwined”.

  1. Development and Importance of workplace learning

There have been varied perspectives on workplace learning (Thomas and Allen, 2006), in some ways impeding the development of a unified theory. de Geus (1988) devised the now famous scenario planning method of organisational learning, enrolling senior managers in learning simulations and ‘what-if’ thinking (van de Ven and Polley, 1992; Van Der Heijden 1996; Van Der Heidjen and Whiteley, 2000). Information technology introduced computer assisted learning methods (Eden, 1993), including group methods (Lewis and Whiteley, 1992; Lewis 1995) and interactive problem solving (Klass and Whiteley, 2003). Technology was used in workplace learning and insightful work on how people learn with technology was presented by Poole, Siebold and McPhee (1985) and continued by DeSanctis and Gallupe (1985) as ‘adaptive structuration’ building on Giddens’ (1984) theory of structuration. Such learning methods though, concentrated on strategic or senior level individuals and groups in the workplace and did not necessarily embrace a more holistic idea of the learning organisation, a concept associated with Senge (1992; 2006; Senge, Ross et al, 1994). There are different perspectives on the concept of a learning organisation and Thomas and Allen (2006) describe some of the various interpretations of the learning organisation concept. From a vocational education perspective, the work of Marsick and Watkins (1990) and Marsick and Volpe (1999) focused on the nature of learning activities inside of organisations. Their theme is that of informal learning and the quest for a unifying framework within which to discuss it (Marsick, 2009). Billett’s continuing work (2001; 2002a; 2002b; 2004; Billett, Barker and Hernon-Tinning, 2004) on reciprocal and co-participatory learning resonates with the research reported here which involved respondents from manager and employee groups talking about participatory learning. Billett (2004) advances the notion of pedagogy surrounding participative workplace conditions with his focus on ‘affordances’. These are the “...kinds of activities and interactions workplaces afford learners, on one hand, and how individuals elect to participate in workplace activities and interactions on the other” (Billett, 2004, p312). Both participatory practices and affordances are supported to some extent by the data in this study.

A need to know more about workplace learning comes from competing perspectives. Malcolm, Hodkinson et al (2003, p318) identified ... a recent trend whereby current audit cultures have significantly increased certain, more formalising attributes of learning in a wide range of settings [and] by increasing such formalising attributes, the nature of the learning is significantly altered, sometimes in ways that run counter to the intention of those introducing the approaches. Outcomes-based learning may result in ‘routine-oriented’ learning where learning is repetitive and habituated and not amenable to organisational unlearning (Tsang and Zhara, 2008). Arguably, the audit cultures of outcomes-based learning may inhibit unlearning and in particular, inhibit spontaneous and serendipitous learning. A second perspective comes from changes in business in the 21st century. Forms of organisation such as ‘new wave’ of organisational forms are captured by Miles, Miles et al, (2009) as the (innovative) ‘I-form’ organisation. Of particular interest to us are theories of the organisation as complex adaptive systems (Holland, 1995; Holbrook, 2003; Griffin, Shaw and Stacey, 1998). In particular, from a workplace learning standpoint, we were interested in Stacey’s (2005) concept of local, self-organising patterns of interactions and also the notion of complex responses. Paradox plays a part here in the sense that (thinking workplace learning) formal and informal, predictable and unpredictable patterns of interaction may emerge at the same time. Workplace learning has a history associated with social theories of organising. These range from influences of the ‘enlightenment project’ where life and learning were seen through the scientific lens, to influences of rational thinkers (Durkheim, 1938; Parsons, 1949; Simon, 1960) who were interested in the structure and functions of industrial organisation. Institutional theory (Selznick, 1948; Scott, 1987; Zucker, 1987) and new institutional theory (DiMaggio and Powell, 1991; Selznick, 1996) provided a backdrop for the focus on competence and task related training (Handy, 1984). Marsick (2009, p265) proposes “Industrialization privileged science and expertise, reason and objectivity; and gave rise to systematic approaches to ferreting out and transmitting the “right” or “best” or “most efficient way to work”. Such earlier influences explain the concern with instructional learning, especially in the trade areas. Miles, Miles et al (2009) characterised this as the ‘standardization era’ with goals of achieving scale economies, maintaining vertical and integrated functional structures and optimising tangible assets. In terms of learning, knowledge that was standardised and routinised (and later data-based) suited the workplace environment and ‘knowledge management’ became an industry in itself (Mertins, Heisig, and Vorbeck, 2001; Easterby-Smith and Lyles, 2003).

  1. Research method and trustworthiness

This study utilised a grounded theory method which, as Suddaby (2006, p633) states “challenged prevailing assumptions of “grand theory”... such that “reality” is seen as the ongoing interpretation of meaning produced by individuals...” Grounded theory is a particular instance of qualitative research, a defining feature of which is that it is conducted in the natural environments people inhabit.

The research question, about how managers and employees experienced and attributed meaning to learning activities fulfilled Suddaby’s (2006, p634) criterion of being “most suited to understand the process by which actors construct meaning out of intersubjective experience”.

Grounded theory explored in 1965, (Glaser & Strauss) and then presented in Glaser & Strauss (1967), has continued to be defended by Glaser (1992; 1998) and has distinctive features. It is emergent, systematic, resists forcing data into readymade categories of meaning and follows respondents as they identify others who can and should be sampled for data collection. In pure grounded theory, emergence should be preserved as the researcher learns to ‘trust the data’. Assumptions going into a grounded theory study include that: the researcher seeks understanding around the research question and is prepared for data to emerge more issues; respondents can impart tacit knowledge in the form of their stories and narratives; the posture is tentative so that constant comparison of codes and categories can take place, and the outcomes of a grounded theory can be insights or material to support a small, contextual piece of ‘grounded theory’. The principles of grounded theory are: emergence; non-forcing of data and adherence to an integrated set of systematic procedures; identifying the unit of analysis; selecting in vivo or open coding, and identifying categories of meaning into which codes are (tentatively) placed. The procedure goes on to constantly compare categories of meaning as respondents’ theories emerge. As this is continuing, emerging data are matched with the literature identified going in to the study but also with new literature indicated by findings (theoretical sensitivity). These are used to emerge insights and possibly construct a small, context based grounded theory. Of importance in grounded theory are the systematic procedures followed, as these lend credence to the robustness of results. These principles, assumptions and postures guided the study, together with a useful analysis by Suddaby (2006) who wrote cogently on ‘what grounded theory is not’. By linking his analysis of grounded theory to our research activities for this study, we aim to justify the results and conclusions as having come from respondents and linked to appropriate theory by the researchers.

Trustworthiness activities

• To depict to the reader the actual production of meanings by the social actors in the study (Gephart, 2004). This was achieved by first using respondents’ own words as codes of meaning, and secondly by triangulating data sources to allow different ways of expressing meaning. Information was sought by asking phenomenological questions and also symbolic interactionist questions to elicit both learning experiences and the meaning the respondents attributed to their interactions with each other.

• To engage in constant comparison (Glaser and Strauss, 1967; Suddaby, 2006). This process was central to the study and necessitated visiting and revisiting codes and categories of meaning. In other words, we collected and analysed and constantly compared data simultaneously. This activity prevented us from forcing data into end results and it was one of the most testing activities as the desire for premature closure must be resisted.

• To use theoretical sampling is counter-intuitive in research as traditional research requires the selection of a sample from which to gather data. Grounded theory grounds research activities in the ‘theories of respondents’ and therefore we approached other organisations and respondents after the first batch of interviews.

• To conduct two literature activities, one before the study and a second during the data collection and analysis stages supporting Suddaby (2006) stance that literature is not to be ignored and at the same time is not to be so exhaustive that forcing the data into existing theory would be a threat. We collected literature on learning theories, organised learning, organisational learning and, broadly, the business environment. As the data emerged and categories sustained themselves, we were directed to theories such as complex adaptive systems and emergence in leadership.

• To make sure that interviews would not be the sole form of data collection as would be the case in phenomenological study. We used a ‘complete this sentence’ data collection, scenarios and traditional interview questions to support each other.

This study was exploratory, utilising grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) and it was participatory in the sense discussed by Charmaz (2000) as she talks about a ‘mutuality’ between the researcher and respondents. At the same time, we were conscious of Glaser’s (1998) caution about letting data emerge from respondents and Tsoukas (1998) on problems of re-representation in research.

The study set out to investigate whether a ‘space’ for emergent learning existed in which an individual’s creativity and innovation could occur. Data were collected in four private sector organisations from 51 respondents: 22 managers and 29 employees. The study was interested in the theories of respondents about their learning experiences and so followed grounded theory protocols. A constructivist ontology (including social constructionism) (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005), interpretive epistemology (Guba and Lincoln, 2005) and qualitative methodology were adopted. The research was designed in eight stages: 1. defining the theoretical perspective; 2. preliminary literature review; 3. developing a formative idea; 4. data collection and theoretical sampling (including a familiarisation study to test the instrument for content and procedure, especially interviewer style); 5. preliminary analysis and confirmation of the formative idea; 6. final analysis; 7. theoretical sensitivity to new literature, and 8. discussion of the findings (see figure 1).

Figure 1 - Stages of the study

  1. 1 Instrument

Within the interview context, several kinds of instrument were used (see figure 2). Open ended questions were, we thought, self-evidently addressed to learning and its encouragement. To support the questions and in a creative way, scenarios were presented to respondents. The data from the familiarisation study were useful in their design. To encourage a judgement element to the interview a ‘complete this sentence’ activity was included (Cassell and Symon, 1994). These devices were considered to be different ways of collecting data on what we thought of as ‘learning in practice’.

Figure 2. Data collection instruments

  1. 2 Data analysis

Data analysis from all instruments followed grounded theory protocols. The first activity was coding. The unit of analysis was an utterance relevant to the study. Such utterances were allocated to codes of meaning. As a new idea or concept developed codes that belonged together were allocated into categories of meaning. The posture here was tentative, remembering the need for constant comparison between and within categories. As this was happening, the literature was scanned for theories emerging from the data to go alongside the first literature review. The process of data analysis was aided by the use of software. The software was used primarily in data analysis to allow the researcher to work with a large amount of data according to her judgements about coding and categorising.

Figure 3 - Stages of data analysis

  1. 3 Data management

Although the researcher was continually striving to employ computer software wherever practicable, it was felt that, in this case, the ‘flipchart paper and pen’ method provided superior visual access to the data, aiding in interpretation (as these papers hung on the researcher’s walls during the entire course of the research). Reminding ourselves, before the data collection started, that technology does not substitute for researcher interpretive capabilities, the data management software (QSR International, 2007) was used. This software “ promises[s] only to provide you with a set of tools that will assist you in undertaking an analysis of qualitative data...the use of a computer is not intended to supplant time-honoured ways of learning from data, but to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of such learning” (Bazelay, 2007, p2). We used the software to organise and keep track of the records surrounding the study. The most important was a record of transcripts which were designed around the two data sets, managers and employees. The software was used alongside manual records to make memos and notes about the research at all stages of the study. The cascade function of NVivo allowed construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of codes into categories. Ideas as they emerged from the data were extracted as the analysis proceeded. One very valuable function was the ability to query the data, looking for strings of text or contextual information.

Rigour activities included employing a systematic approach to the research design and implementation (Whiteley, 2002); utilising theoretical sampling (Glaser, 1992) maintaining meticulous records of interviews and recording, in detail, all assumptions and reasons for decisions made during the study (we called this our audit trail).

  1. 4 Framework for Managers’ responses

The framework in figure 4 was used to depict employees’ perceptions of theirs and their managers’ roles. The same framework for analysis was used to depict managers’ perceptions of their own and employees’ roles.

Figure 4.  Employees’ (and managers’) perceptions of roles

  1. Results

There were some central workplace activities generated from both employees and managers and table 1 is indicative of the topics linked to emergent learning. It shows the similarity of employees’ and managers’ concerns with both groups identifying communication, management coaching, and the constraint of company structure and (lack of) resources (see table 2). Employees identified peer discussions and individual motivation and initiative as encouragers. Sometimes, management style, not being kept informed of objectives, including ‘the big picture’, acted as inhibitors. Managers identified coaching, working with company structure and resources, and offering training programs as encouragers to emergent learning. Both groups mentioned resistance to change and organisational elements such as ‘silo-ing’, company structure and resources, and especially managers’ available time as inhibitors.

Table 1. Categories generated on emergent learning

Experience Feedback on ideas/requests Management communications (questioning/listening/ being open/being available) Company-designed training programs Management ‘have a go’ approach/ encouraging challenges Management coaching Recognition/ acknowledgement Management feeling annoyed Resources Tertiary institutions training programs Training literature/materials People resistant to change/risk Industry/professional bodies training programs Training providers training programs Rules/regulations/ policies/ procedures Silo-ing Sharing in discussions with peers Sharing in discussions with managers Company structure/hierarchy Need to inform Clients Own initiative/motivation/ confidence Time Company structure/hierarchy

Table 2. Employees’ and managers’ perceptions of their own and others’ roles

Employee’s own roles (as seen by employee)

Encourage emergent learning Employee’s role (as seen by manager)

Encourage emergent learning Manager’s own role (as seen by manager)

Encourage emergent Learning Manager’s role (as seen by employee)

Encourage emergent learning General comments

Discourage Emergent learning Peer discussions Management communications (questioning/listening/ being open/being available) Management Communications Brainstorm/being open/encourage to be creative/know what the big picture is/more regular Management feeling annoyed Individual initiative Management coaching ‘have a go’ coaching Feel we are making a difference People resistant to change/risk Individual motivation /confidence Company Structure-resources CSR Company Structure-resources Recognition/ acknowledgement Silo-ing Sharing in discussions with peers Training Programs Training Programs Training from a senior person/going on site/induction/more training seminars Need to inform Being kept informed External rewards Time Belief in the abilities of employees Company structure/hierarchy/ budget restraints

A most interesting aspect of the results, especially concerning the literature on participatory learning and informal learning, is the dialogic way employees and managers talked about themselves and each other. The study generated rich data and this is where the dynamism of workplace interactions was most visible. A selection of comments about the same construct from employees and managers gives some idea of their perceptions about their own interactions and participatory practices. Extracts from quotations are presented below and separated by //. These are shown in tables 3-6 and then discussed in relation to selected literature. Two major constructs were generated by employees: peer discussions (see table 3) and personal initiative/motivation (see table 4). Learning through social interaction is very evident in the peer discussions construct. One aspect that comes across strongly throughout the data is that employees see themselves as active agents in the learning process: // trying to do little group things and just, just try and make things more interesting. Yeah, just making it more colourful and just talking to the other staff on how we should make it run better for us // a company get together // camaraderie // relationships with people.

Table 3. Employees on what they do to encourage learning: peer discussions

From one employee: ‘ I mean, if it was a great idea, I’m sure everybody would be on board. I can’t say I have any negativity around me. Nobody that’s really negative’

and from another employee: ‘I think that they would be open to it which is good. Yeah, and I think they’d put their two bobs worth in on how it would run better. I think they’d see it as anything that could help, they’d be open to listen to’

and another employee: ‘They’d probably go ‘oh yeah, that’s good’. But again, none of them are afraid to go ‘no’’

We asked this question, holding the assumption that employees were free to engage with and manage their own learning (see table 4). The responses indicated that this was very much the case and discovery, reflection, an awareness of personal responsibility as well as recognition that management needed to give approval were part of the employee conversation. Interestingly individual learning and discovery were joined with formal learning provision such as training courses. From the standpoint of this study, emergence was actively sought and it seemed that the employees were given and were willing to take workplace opportunities for learning.

Table 4. Employees on what they do to encourage learning: individual motivation and initiative From one employee: ‘Sometimes you can try and implement little things in little areas, to see whether things work, instead of trying to change the whole map of Australia’

and from another employee: ‘You’re looking outside the square because there is different parts to where it all comes together as well’

An unexpected construct emerged and we named it ‘have a go’ coaching (see table 5). Both groups appeared to welcome experimentation and ‘having a go’. The notion of challenge, freedom to make mistakes and learn, which are indicative of emergent learning, were identified. The willingness to let employees take risks and explore things as long as they were explained was evident in the manager data.

Table 5. Managers ‘have a go’ coaching

// throws you in the deep end. Maybe opportunistic learning here. It’s not structured learning // learning as the challenges arise // the autonomy to do that is very much there; the resources are very much there // they’re very open // he lets people do things that are innovative. He lets them use their mind // putting them in positions where they’re challenged // I always say to the team members...you can always challenge what we’ d do // they offer you a few more challenges // the freedom to go and make a mistake if they have to, but to learn from that mistake // it’s more ‘well, here you go, you’ve got this space to work in. Take it where you want and then pitch your ideas to us, if you need to change’ // support from the senior management group // if I wanted to do something ‘yeah, have a go’ // look, that’s your responsibility, now chase it // encourage them to try new things and just keep them challenged in the workplace and keep them busy // I think encouraging risk taking to a certain level...in business also encourages people to learn // give them an opportunity to explore it further, set down some parameters // and he said ‘no, brilliant. Do it’ And that’s how quick it was // well, let’s give it a try. We’ll do a little experiment //

The data were very close to each other in terms of allowing independence, willingness to try things, having a champion, being able to ask for resources and ‘no idea is rubbish’ acknowledging attempts to try things (see table 6). Being given challenges and thinking of different ways to do things were rewarded and the relationships indicated partnerships rather than hierarchical relationships.

Table 6 Employees ‘have a go’ coaching

//I would think and maybe fast track it even // and they’re my immediate bosses. That’s who I work for so, you know, that can...everybody’s so jealous! // try in a test environment // ‘This is great. Yeah, this should help the company. What do you need to get this done?’ or ‘what can I help you with to make it happen?’ // ‘yeah, that sounds good. It sounds different. Go with it, but we’ve got the other one to worry about. So, go past the other management’ // ‘try it out, see how you go’ // particularly discuss it with the managing director // if it works for you, do it // tries to get me involved with other things // he is excellent. And they did a really good thing putting him in charge of us, so...He’s a go to...He gets things done // like ‘no idea is rubbish’ // opportunity to think of different ways to do things // you’ve always got the option to go and just take the initiative and tell them // we’ll let you have a shot at it // so you give it a go // I get motivated // you are the best person to do this // they’re always throwing problems at us //

  1. Discussion

Given the focus of the study, the data suggested that there were many spaces within which emergent learning could and did take place. However, there was less evidence that managers were aware of them in such a way as to further develop opportunities for learning. Co-participatory practices (Billett, 2002a) were evident in the way respondents talked about their own and others’ learning. However, and this could have been due to the research design where actual dialogue between employees and managers was not recorded, there was more a sense of reciprocity than cooperative learning. Having said this, members of both employee and manager groups supported the idea that affordances were offered. There was a strong sense of engagement in learning activities. Also, from both the employee and manager data, the willingness to guide and be guided in both structured and unstructured activities showed two sides of the affordance coin. What managers think they could do more of included aspects such as giving more developmental opportunities, bringing employees into the picture and explaining ‘why’. Talking, encouraging and giving some freedom emerged. These reflections align with Kyndt, Dochy et al’s (2008, p369) learning conditions “feedback and knowledge acquisition, new learning approach and communication tools, being coached and coaching others”. In terms of informal learning, (Malcolm, Hodkinson et al, 2003) there is strong sense of social interaction. This comes out in ‘have a go’ coaching which was strongly supported. From the managers’ perspective, informal learning and the need for employee autonomy in the have a go coaching construct seems to be challenging. There is less structure, but still some control. “I like people trying to find new ways to improve the way a certain procedure or something works, but, as a manager, I like to know what they’re up to”. The strongest sense of affordances of opportunity comes from the employee data “he’d run with it. Yeah, he’d be okay // independence to do or try a few things out // he was impressed // ‘let’s go for it’ // give it to me to trial // nothing would stop us unless it’s a directive // give it a go // he’d probably champion it. I would think and maybe fast track it even // and they’re my immediate bosses. That’s who I work for so, you know, that can”. However, there is also the sense of contestation that Billett (2004) and Billett, Barker and Hernon (2004) talk about “we’re not good at having one-on-one meetings // if I had some clear deadlines // there is only one way of doing it and that’s his way and he’s not prepared to listen to alternatives” Managers in particular were aware of the learning opportunities in informal encounters “I could probably interact more with them // make them feel like they are an individual and not a number // do more of having informal discussions, chats with people, and saying ‘what can we do better?’ // I suppose just talking to them and being....encourage them // positive feedback // sometimes sitting back and listening”. This data are mirrored in employees’ responses too “They’re quite happy for you to walk in the door and say ‘I need to sit down and talk to you’ // he’d be quite enthusiastic // he’d listen // the company is fully open to new ideas // he listens to it // like I can communicate with him // tell me straight up // he’s a good manager, and we have very good discussions// it actually goes into an equal discussion. And that I do appreciate”. As the examples of respondents’ voices show, individuals are active agents of their learning. Huysman (1999) talks about ‘environmental adaptation’ bias. She is talking about organisations but as the data from this study suggest, it also applies to individuals in their learning. Self-efficacy (Dweck, 1975, 1999; Bandura, 1978), describing the sense of self discovery that individuals have when they are self motivated, emerged from employees. Self motivation and initiative played a big part in employees’ perceptions about how they could encourage emergent learning. There is a sense of initiating activities, and experimentation. Importantly, the mix of individual initiative, management support and organisational resources such as training programs emerge in employees’ conversations about how they encourage their own learning. The employees felt very strongly that they saw in themselves and their colleagues a strong sense of initiative; that this initiative and self-motivation were important factors in them ‘having a go’ at new ideas in the workplace. It was also an important factor in encouraging them to learn more within and external to their companies. Of equal importance to employees was the collegial approach that many of them experienced in their workplaces. They enthusiastically expressed how they had ample opportunity to speak with their peers, were able to ‘toss around ideas’ and to feel that their peers genuinely listened to them. They described how this practice, and environment, gave them a real sense of being taken seriously and enhanced their confidence to try out new ideas, to be creative and innovative in the workplace. They also commented positively on how their formal weekly or monthly team meetings were an opportunity to discuss problems with their peers and to learn from each other.

Communication was a central theme in the data, supporting Gergen, Gergen et al.’s (2004, p39) notion that “it is through relational processes that discourse acquires its significance”. There is a dialogic sense to the data. This applies when employees are talking about themselves and their managers and also when managers are talking about themselves and employees. It is clear that each has the other in his or her mind when talking about learning. It was also clear that the data resembled that of the ‘empowered employee’ (Scholes and Clutterbuck, 1998) which included taking more responsibility and in turn having a say. This comment was reflective of mutual responsibility for communicating ideas // ‘oh okay’ // probably want to know your reasons why you’ve done something // she’s very open minded // what are you trying to achieve // so we can just sit down and go through it // he’d go ‘oh, that’s a great idea’ or ‘no, that won’t work’. If he thinks it’s a good idea, he would discuss it with managing director and then discuss it with all of us. He would discuss with us what we thought as a group. Almost every item of Scholes and Clutterbuck’s (1998) effective communication strategy (listening, informing/educating, influencing/involving, learning together, setting priorities, and managing disagreement) was reflected in the data in terms of communication. Beck and Beck (1986, p16), writing about an effective communication environment talked about supportive exchanges and say that “employees who are comfortable with their jobs are willing to ask questions when they do not understand a procedure or order. They are also willing to make innovative suggestions (needing) a climate in which all employees feel comfortable asking questions”.

The data did not support the ‘job myopia’ construct described by Parker (2007), as a narrow and passive role orientation. Peer discussion was a way to encourage learning and this was the case in both the employee and management data. Dialogic efficacy (Gergen, Gergen et al., 2004, p43) was evident in the data, not in the controlling way of what the authors call “the boss’s orders” but in a more democratic and diverse sense. The variety of items in the communication data, from both managers and employees lends itself well to Stacey’s (2005) notion of complex responses. The work of Alvesson and Sveningsson (2003) resonated with the data in the sense that both employees and managers intimated that communication had a positive effect. Respondents in the study identified being prepared to listen, the need for (more) interaction, having chats, asking what we can do better, being supportive and open minded. Llwellyn and Harrison (2006, p567) addressed the notion of contestation (Billett 2002a; 2002b) but in a linguistic sense. They talk about the “privileging of inclusive pronouns” and language that might be patronising, especially in management authored text for which we read discourse. The linguistic nuance in the data resembled that suggested by Alvesson and Willmott (2002) in the dynamism and variety of language and topics discussed within the learning context. Linguistic categories in the data veered towards inclusivity rather than exclusivity.

  1. Conclusion and future research

To conclude, we go outside of the parameters of the study to link with learning theories and theorists interested in organisational learning. Bartel and Garud’s (2003) concept of narrative knowledge in action was supported by the respondents in this study. What the respondents gave us were narratives in action as they recounted in rich and intersubjective detail. To use Bartel and Garud’s (2003, p330) terminology, we were seeing adaptive abduction: “...abduction is a process whereby actors infer and apply implications from narrative to their particular context”. Although the data have been presented here in the format of semi-structured interviews, we intended and managed to include learning narratives. It is not possible for us to do more than signal this process but we see benefits for a research agenda. In this study, there was a constellation of issues and themes that surrounded accounts of learning activities in the organisations studied. The grounded theory that emerged is presented as “complex and integrative learning: opportunities and barriers”. The complex notion was characterised by the constant adaptability of employees and managers to each others’ needs. A key concept in complexity thinking is that of spontaneity, serendipity and emergence. In traditional organisations, opportunities for learning are often envisaged as happening in organised learning situations, such as training programs and job-related training. However, the data showed many opportunities given and taken for opportunistic learning and the fielding of ideas, illustrating the reciprocal nature of the manager/employee relationship. The ‘have a go’ coaching category indicated the willingness to take risks and attempt learning ‘outside of the box’, and the employees in this study appeared to seek out learning opportunities. The complexity element resonated with Stacey’s (2005) ‘experiencing emergence in organisations and his (2005) work on a complexity perspective on researching organisations. The integrative element emerged from the categories and was reflected in Marsick’s (2009) notion of integrating formal and informal learning methods in the workplace. The last part of the grounded theory linked to Billett’s (2001) theory of workplace affordances although the concomitant issue of contestation did not emerge. We concluded that the workplace is rich in learning activities and, within the limits of the research design, we could detect self-organising patterns of local interaction and the data strongly supported the notion of complex responses. These may not always be known or acknowledged by managers until they reflect on them but we propose that the information would be useful for reconsidering some of the traditional, linear content and process of training programs. Employees also have their own ‘theories of learning’ and are well able to work out what they could do more of or less of to encourage workplace learning. In terms of what Miles, Miles et al. (2009) call the ‘I-Form organisation’, if managers conducted their own workplace learning research, they would have one key to innovation and organisational growth. We propose that qualitative research such as this small study would be beneficial as part of management development activities in the workplace. We suggest as a future research agenda, focused studies on complex adaptive systems (which resonated with the data in this study) and local patterns of interaction as developed as part of employees’ complex responses.

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