Better workplaces mean better learning

Learning occurs in all workplaces as part of everyday activity. So why do some workplaces create more learning opportunities than others? How do they maximise the learning potential of all their employees?

These questions matter. First, the UK needs to improve its productivity. Second, as people live longer, they need to develop, adapt and use their skills for longer.

However, skills policy has been restricted by its reliance on a one-dimensional view of learning. In it skills are developed through formal training, usually off-the-job, and are measured against prescribed competences.

Survey data shows that around 13% of workers have received formal training in the last four weeks, with those in higher status jobs receiving more. But training times have shortened over the last twenty years with half now lasting less than one week.

The graph shows that there was an increase in the percentage of training lasting less than one week from 1995 to 2012.
Training Length in the UK, 1995 to 2012. There was an increase in the percentage of training lasting less than one week from 1995 to 2012. Source: adapted from Green et al (2015). Data originally extracted from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey.

This focus on formal training ignores the rich learning potential of the workplace where employees learn through their participation in work tasks, their interaction with colleagues and, increasingly, with customers.

A third of employees report that learning on-the-job is now seen as part-and-parcel of their jobs. They regard doing the job, learning with colleagues, and having time to reflect as more important more than attending courses.

How can workplaces improve learning?

Every workplace is unique and is shaped by external and internal forces such as ownership, regulation, and product market competition. This affects the freedom that managers and workforces have to use their skills to improve performance. Within workplaces that create better learning environments, we find strategies and processes for monitoring and understanding the pressure points that can restrict or enable skill development and use. These workplaces involve employees in decision-making and trust employees to make judgements. Their managers provide regular constructive feedback and organise work to maximise collaboration.

Yet, individuals also need to have their skills formally recognised through qualifications.  Accrediting workplace learning is problematic due to its largely collective and dynamic nature. What counts as ‘learning’ differs across workplaces. The Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) is used in a number of countries to certify workers’ existing skills. This has an important role to play, but in a fast-changing world workers also need to develop new skills.

The most effective workplaces combine internal and external sources of knowledge, experience and inspiration. To meet the UK’s productivity and skills challenges, we need to build on the experiences of these workplaces, and develop a greater appreciation that better workplaces mean better learning.

Read our Foresight Future of skills and lifelong learning evidence review to find out more about learning that happens in work places.