The term workplace learning generally refers to the process of acquiring, integrating, distributing and creating information and knowledge among members of an organization. This process comprises various components that support the knowledge production process and involves searching for information, assimilation, development, and creation of new knowledge on processes, products and services, (Wang & Ellinger, 2011, p. 512). The essence of workplace learning in generating organizational knowledge helps in sustenance of competitive advantage and leads to the creation of new markets and niches. Globally, the diverse workforce environment and the use of information technology have made organizations to increasingly become aware of the competitive environment in which they are thriving in and hence, pursue the competitive advantage that lies in learning and knowledge. Organizational knowledge is an asset that can be managed to contribute to a firm’s innovation performance. According to As Wang & Ellinger (2011, p. 512), workplace training is a key process that contributes to successful innovation in an organization and hence, it determines and supports and organization’s performance. In view of this, this paper gives a detailed account of how the concept of ‘workplace learning’ can help in improving an organization’s performance, drawing examples from Mad About Plants Company. To understand this better, it will be worthy to give a brief account of the concept of workplace learning and its relationship with innovation performance.
The Concept of Workplace Learning
Panagiotakopoulos (2011, p. 351) notes that there are a variety of definitions to the ‘concept of workplace learning’, which are not always consistent with each other. In this context, the focus is on the acquisition of knowledge or skills by formal or informal means that occurs at the workplace. This includes both informal workplace learning and formal on-the-job training. As Panagiotakopoulos points out, workplace learning is a practical approach to developing relevant knowledge and skills for the benefits of individuals and organizations. It has the merit of being a corroborative model in which employers and employees can jointly address skills development through the process of social dialogue.
Ideally, as Panagiotakopoulos notes, workplace learning links industry, employer and individual learning in ways that encourage and support lifelong learning. In its fully development form, workplace learning implies carrying out training needs analysis and development of individual development plans from the training needs analysis. Then, the employee development can meaningfully be aligned with organizational development. This explains the reason for adopting Wang and Ellinger’s definition of the concept of workplace learning in this context. Wang and Ellinger’s note that the concept of workplace learning refers to the process of acquiring, integrating, distributing and creating information and knowledge among members of an organization. This implies that workplace learning is ideally not the correction of short-term job-performance problems. Instead, as Malloch (2010, p. 348) asserts the real benefits of workplace learning come aligning workers’ skills development with organizational goals and helps to achieve a sustainable learning organization and a continuous improvement culture. According to Malloch (2010, p. 348), this leads to significant improvement in an organization’s performance.
Workplace learning and innovation performance
According to Kuo (2011, p. 581), effective workplace learning requires efficient Strategic human resource management (HRM) practices. This involves optimizing learning, development and performance improvement at individual, group and organizational levels. As Kuo, explains, this enables an organization to keep pace with changing the environment. Generally, for an organization’s performance to improve, it requires competent people to learn and interpret new information and technology changes from the external environment so as to create new knowledge faster than the competitors. In other words, workplace learning has to be coherent with the organization’s design, strategy, strategic HRM practices, structures, and context. According to Kuo, the most efficient way of improving organizational performance is through innovation.
The term innovation has been broadly defined as “an idea, a product, or process, system or device that is perceived to be new to an individual, a group of people or firms, an individual sector or society as a whole” (Kuo, 2011, p. 582). Innovation has also been understood as a method that leads to the sustenance of competitive advantage through an exploration of new products or services or through exploitation of the existing ones. Thus, innovation if generally focused on learning, acquisition of new knowledge and recognition. According to Kuo an organization’s innovations performance is rooted in human capital and cannot be replicated or transferred. Better put, an organization that has the most advanced technology but which is lacking talented employees still cannot perform or conduct innovative projects. Thus, the concept of workplace learning maintains that for organizations to be successful, they should have systems that support learning and improvement in performance at all levels. With an individual focus towards innovative information new opportunities, it becomes easier for an organization to initiate and achieve entrepreneurial opportunities. Though individuals’ sum of innovative behavior might not be equal to organizational-level innovation performance, organizational-level performance is usually based on its members’ innovative behaviors (Kuo, 2011, p. 582). This means that organizational performance takes place under conditions that organizational members’ innovation can be transferred to an organizational level.
How workplace learning can help to improve organizational performance
There are various human resource issues related to workplace learning, which help in improving organizational performance. First, workplace learning helps to improve the quality of skills of the workforce, (Eraut, 2010, p. 8). This further leads to an improvement in service delivery performance. According to Eraut, learning leads to an increased sense of professionalism in the workforce and a greater likelihood of an employee’s career progression. This increases efficiency in service delivery which leads to more effective use of resources. On top of this, learning enhances workplace relationships which lead to improved team corporation, co-ordination, and performance. This can well be illustrated by the performance of the Mad About Plants Company, based in Australia (The Conference Board of Canada, 2009). Mad About Plants is a 15 person horticultural company which supplies a variety of materials and plants such as palms, trees, indoor plants, shrubs and ground cover to local councils, landscapers retail nurseries and large department stores. When the company started in 1998, a lack of skills made it impossible for the company to grow quality plants and to run a profitable business. The two leaders of the company, Darryl and Katherine Madder, recognized the critical shortfall in skills and took the responsibility to introduce the relevant training.
As a result, this company has performed tremendously in the improvement of sales, increasing customer satisfaction and in lowering of operational costs. In fact, According to The Conference Board of Canada (2009), Mad About Plants was crowned the Prime Minister’s Small Business of the Year at the Australian Training Awards in 2004. A study conducted by the Conference Board of Canada in 2009 found that, since training of workers of Mad About Plants had been put in place, incident reporting had increased, providing greater safety for both employees and clients. Further, there was considerable improvement in the quality assurance system in the company as well as increased focus on root causes in incident investigations due to greater amount of data available. On top of that, training contributed significantly to employees’ self-esteem resulting in them being treated with greater respect and contributing to an improved since of morale amongst the workers and the clients, (The Conference Board of Canada, 2009)
Generally, employees gain a more in-depth understanding of their role as well as a greater level of awareness of client needs and what they should or should not do in relation to these needs. For example, in Mad About Plants, managers reported that employees who had participated in training were more likely to identify issues that may need attending to such as deterioration in client’s ability to maintain independence and environmental conditions that may threaten the client or the worker. In addition, it was reported that service delivery of employees who had undergone training was higher and they had a greater sense of professionalism, which raised their expectations of their own behaviour, (The Conference Board of Canada, 2009).
Ryan (2009, p. 34) further asserts that workplace training leads to better matching of employee’s skills to client needs. This is due to the fact that employees gain a wider range of skills which enhances their ability to work with clients with more challenging or complex service needs. Further, learning results in a better understanding of the rights of clients as consumers and thus, gives a higher level of protection for them. Also, training helps to reduce the gap between expectations of the workers and the reality of the job. This leads the workers to have a better appreciation of their duties and better preparedness to perform the required tasks. At Mad About Plants Company, a willingness to participate in training is now a basic requirements for new employees leading to perception of the job as one career progression is possible, (The Conference Board of Canada, 2009). Cavaleri (2004, p. 159) adds that, workplace training helps to improve indirect service delivery of an organization. For instance, workplace training leads to improved community sustainability, as it gives individuals opportunity to work and achieve qualification in communities which do not have formal training establishments.
Another benefit of workplace learning is that, it helps to increase the quantity of skilled workers in an organization, (Rothwell et al, 1999, p. 215). According to The Conference Board of Canada (2009), the need for a positive working environment for the workers was the driving force for Mad About Plants’ interest and investment in workplace training. During establishment of the company, communications and problem-solving among employees was limited and absenteeism was a concern in this company. As a result, there was general lack of self-esteem throughout the organization, which impacted negatively of productivity and performance of the organization. To address this problem, Mad About Plants came up with training programs to improve employee numeracy, language, literacy, information technology and communication skills. Majority of the employees of this company received these private tutoring, which was customized to meet their specific needs in relation to service delivery to the company.
The benefits of the training have been significant for both Mad About Plants Company and its employees. Currently, the organization has a much greater capacity to achieve its business objectives of safety, improved compliance outcomes, improvement in quality and productivity gains. Significantly, there is a drop in absenteeism and workplace accidents (The Conference Board of Canada, 2009). Further, there is greater understanding and more positive attitudes towards the current working environment of the company. Most remarkable, there has been a considerable improvement in staff retention in the company. Generally, the training helped Mad About Plants to solve various associated problems such shortage of skilled workers, staff turnover and issues related to ageing of workforce. Burrow & Berardinelli, (2003, p. 7), adds that workplace learning also increases the capacity to attract higher capacity applicants for advertised positions.
According to Burrow & Berardinelli, (2003, p. 7), workplace learning helps to improve management and leadership skills. Specifically, it helps to leadership competencies and delegation of duties at management level. At Mad About Plants Company the introduced training mainly focussed on management of people, addressing recruitment and staff retention issues and increasing productivity (The Conference Board of Canada, 2009). Specifically the company focused on building its leadership and management capacity, improving the extent to which people corroborated, communicate and networked with one another, increasing focus and commitment on investments on people and skills and creating a workplace culture that recognized and valued good work. Training for the staff of Mad About Plants Company was provided for a couple of hours per week. Training involved informal learning and skill development activities such as having the management and staff review all projects that exceeded budget so as to learn from them and hence identify areas where future improvements can be made. Within one and half years, Mad about Plants had doubled the size of its workforce, doubled its staff retention rate and most significantly, doubled its profits. Further, this company enhanced its reputation for delivering cost effective, effective and high quality work. Also, the company reduced the extent of material wastage and improved the quality of workmanship (The Conference Board of Canada, 2009).
Another point is that workplace learning improves efficiency in an organization’s operational performance. In particular, it helps to improve competitiveness and building capacity for growth, improve culture and attitudes, manage global competition, address shifting market preferences, control costs and use new technology and machinery and adapt to new legislation. At Mad about Plants Company, training is used to improve skills of the staff so as to achieve high level of efficiencies and to have safer working environments. The Conference Board of Canada (2009) learnt that the training helps the staff of this company to understand and apply fatigue management strategies, apply basic first aid, coordinate breakdown and emergencies, shift the products safely using manual handling methods and work effectively with others. The managers ensure that the quality of training delivered meets the needs of the company and that proper delivery and assessment mechanisms are used. As a result of the training, employees are able to put the new skills into practice very quickly as the learning is designed around the daily activities of the workers. By 2004, Mad about Plants Company had recorded a 25% decrease in damaged freight due to better loading practices used by the employees. This was due to the fact that employees had become more aware of their responsibility to follow safe working practices. Accidents in the company have reduced by approximately 30%. Also, the number of customer complaint has reduced significantly.
Workplace Learning also enhances a team-based culture in an organization, (Bratton et al, 2003, p. 35). This brings a range of benefits to an organization, including the flexibility to be able to maintain quality service delivery even in the face of unplanned absences. Also, it leads to better and faster response to clients when service needs change. On top of that, team working incorporating high level of trust within team and between team and management reduces the feelings of isolation and increases the sense of solidarity within the organization. It also results in a change in service coordination role away from focus on fire fighting and roistering to increased emphasis on quality assurance against individual service plans.
As Ryan (2009, p. 34) notes, workplace learning enhances the sense of self esteem and leads to greater job satisfaction among the staff. Also, employees gain confidence in recognizing the skills that they already have. Ryan (2009, p. 34) notes that workplace learning is associated with efficiency gains and promotes better use of limited resources. Workers with improved skills are able to perform some tasks that they could not afford before, particularly around service coordination and mentoring of junior staff. All these benefits resulting from workplace training contributes to organizational performance through enhanced service delivery. Generally, they enhance the ability of an organization to compete successfully in competitive tendering processes and delivery of services in line with contractual obligations, (Biech, 2008, p. 117). However, Cavaleri (2004, p. 159) argues that, offering greater job responsibilities is vital in protecting organizational training investment by reducing the likelihood that employees may look for other job opportunities to utilize their new skills.
In conclusion, the concept of workplace learning generally refers to the process of acquiring, integrating, distributing and creating information and knowledge among members of an organization. As noted, the essence of workplace learning in an organizational helps in generating knowledge which in turn, helps in sustenance of competitive advantage and leads to creation of new markets and niches. Further, workplace learning is crucial in supporting innovation among the staff, which enhances better performance of an organization in general. As demonstrated using Mad about Plants Company, the essence of workplace learning in an organization helps to improve the quality of skills of the workforce. Also, it helps to increase the quantity of skilled workers in an organization. Third, workplace learning helps to improve management and leadership skills. Further, it helps to improve efficiency in an organization’s operational performance. Finally, it enhances the sense of self esteem and leads to greater job satisfaction among the staff. Generally, all these benefits resulting contributes to organizational performance through enhanced service delivery.
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