Project 3: The workplace as a site for learning: opportunities and barriers in small and medium sized enterprises

Contact address:
Professor Lorna Unwin, Centre for Labour Market Studies, University of Leicester, 7-9 Salisbury Road, Leicester, LE1 7QR
Tel: 0116 252 5950
Dr Alison Fuller, Centre for Labour Market Studies, University of Leicester, 7-9 Salisbury Road, Leicester, LE1 7QR
Tel: 0116 252 5950

This project set out to examine the opportunities for and barriers to learning in small and medium-sized enterprises, building on the researchers' existing studies of young people's experiences on the Modern Apprenticeship programme, the project set out to articulate more clearly the ways in which workplace competence is attained through a combination of formal and informal learning. The setting for the project was the steel industry in England and Wales.The overarching aim was to identify the factors influencing how inexperienced (apprentices) and experienced employees attain competence in the workplace. This was pursued through three objectives: examining the extent to which employees' skills, knowledge and competence map on to formal qualifications; problematising the concept of 'key skills' (mandatory for apprentices) in the workplace; and examining broader organisational structures, job design, and workplace cultures within which learning environments are created and managed.

Project Methods
A multi-level and case study methodology was developed to include: tape-recorded individual and group interviews; observation of employees' workplace activity and of apprentices being assessed for competence-based qualifications; surveys of employee attitudes to learning at work; analysis of organisational documentation; and employee learning logs. The learning log proved to be an innovative and effective method to help people reflect on and record their teaching and learning activities, both systematically and longitudinally. De-briefing interviews were held with those who had completed logs to further explore their selection of incidents and to overcome any misinterpretations by the researchers.

Project Results
Examination of the data led to the development of an expansive-restrictive framework for characterising learning environments (Fuller and Unwin 2004a; Nominated Outputs 4 and 7). Expansive features include the opportunity for employees to: engage with multiple communities of practice; gain broad experience across the organisation; pursue knowledge-based as well as competence-based qualifications; learn off-the-job as well as on-the-job; have a recognised status as a learner; and have access to career progression and extended job roles. Restrictive features represent the flip side of these attributes. In companies that have adopted a restrictive approach, apprentices struggle to make progress in terms of achieving formal qualifications and have limited opportunities available for progression and development. An expansive learning environment develops a broad range of 'key skills', by encouraging employees to cross boundaries and experience different work-related contexts. The framework illuminates those organisational dimensions which impact on the creation of workplace learning environments.

The research challenges the assumption behind situated learning theory that all novices proceed on a linear journey from 'newcomer' to competent employee or even 'expert', with their progress dependent on the extent to which their participation is facilitated by 'experts' (Fuller and Unwin 2004b). The concept of expert can mean different things in different organisational contexts. In addition, learning log data revealed that apprentices were actively engaged in helping older workers to learn by passing on skills and knowledge as they worked alongside each other: thus the 'novice' becomes the 'expert'.

An over-emphasis on the relationship between membership of a community of practice and learning in the workplace underplays the role of individual biography (Hodkinson and Hodkinson, 2003b). The project developed, therefore, the metaphor of 'learning territory' to encompass the range of learning opportunities to which an individual might be exposed, including off-the-job learning and qualifications, and learning at home. 'Expansive' apprenticeships draw on and take forward this disparate learning by facilitating and supporting transfer from one part of the learning territory to another.

Project Activities
The project has contributed to the research capacity of the case study organisations through advice on the development and analysis of surveys to capture employees' attitudes to learning at work. Research findings have been discussed with policymakers in the DfES, Learning and Skills Council (LSC), sector-based agencies, and other bodies responsible for the Modern Apprenticeship. The findings fed directly into the 2003 White Paper, 21st Century Skills, published in July, following a visit by a senior DfES official to two of the case study companies. The project informed a BBC Radio 4 series, The Apprentice, broadcast in February, 2003. The Oxford/Warwick ESRC Research Centre, SKOPE, drew on the expansive-restrictive framework at the 2003 national Skills Conference in New Zealand. The government's Task Force on Modern Apprenticeship is commissioning Fuller and Unwin to explore the applicability of the expansive-restrictive framework with employers and training providers throughout the UK.

The following papers by Fuller and Unwin illustrate the findings from project 3.

Unwin, L. and Fuller, A. (2003) Expanding Learning in the Workplace, NIACE Policy Discussion Paper, Leicester: NIACE
Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2003) Creating a 'modern' apprenticeship: a critique of the UK's multi-sector, social inclusion approach, Journal of Education and Work, 16, 1: 5-25.
Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2003) 'Learning as apprentices: creating and managing expansive learning environments', Journal of Education and Work, 16, 4: 407-426.
Fuller, A. and Unwin, L. (2004) 'Expansive Learning Environments: integrating personal and organisational development', in H. Rainbird, A. Fuller and A. Munro, Eds., Workplace Learning in Context, London: Routledge.
Fuller, A. and L. Unwin (2004) 'Young people as teachers and learners in the workplace: challenging the novice-expert dichotomy', International Journal of Training and Development, 8,1: 31-41.