Brigitte Jordan, Ph.D.

Consulting Corporate Anthropologist

email: [email protected]

phone: 650 747-0155; fax: 650 747-0196

web site:


1. The Situation in Training

  "We spend a billion dollars globally on training  ....  and what we get is worth shit."

The VP for Global Training of a Fortune-50 company who said that to me recently reflects a sentiment that is widely shared among corporate strategists and managers at all levels. In every company we talk to, the training organizations are under mounting pressure to indicate how, where and in what way they intend to prepare workers for the new economy -- a world characterized by knowledge work, global connectedness and continuous learning and change. At the same time, employees increasingly hear the message that they can no longer count on lifelong employment, that they need to prepare themselves for employability elsewhere in the new economy. This adds to the profound malaise about training.


Why have these problems emerged just now? And what can we do to deal with them in a constructive fashion? At the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) and in the Work Practice and Technology Group at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) we have been concerned with precisely these questions. Here I want to consider why tried-and-true training methods don't work anymore; discuss results from our work that suggest the conventional training paradigm needs to be shifted to a learning paradigm; and propose some ideas about designing work places as learning environments in line with the new learning paradigm.


2. Why Conventional Training Doesn't Work Anymore


What is abundantly clear to anybody working in the training arena is that the established, conventional Training Paradigm is no longer effective. Based on the idea that training consists of the transfer of authoritative knowledge from expert instructor to novice learner, it capitalized on the notion that knowledge can be packaged into units, modules and lectures, and delivered in standardized fashion to "the work force".


Several trends and developments are challenging this view, bringing the situation to a head and making change unavoidable:


On the ideological level,  ideas centering around the Learning Organization and an empowered workforce often are in direct (but unacknowledged) conflict with the modus operandi of training departments who regularly constitute some of the most rigid, most bureaucratic and most process-bound parts of the companies we work with. (Mind you, there ARE exceptions!)


This problem is exacerbated by geographic and cultural distance between the designers of learning technologies and training programs and their users. Furthermore, the process for the development of training materials itself has congealed to such an extent that curriculum developers in many cases follow a rigid sequential process of requirements analysis --> design --> module development --> delivery --> evaluation, but have lost track of what people at the frontline need. Legitimated by the trend to push decision-making power and resources lower down in the hierarchy, local organizations, not surprisingly, take on responsibility for providing training themselves, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the official training organizations even further.


In addition, as the social contract that provided job security and life-time employment is being loosened in the new economy, employees are increasingly looking for individualized learning trajectories that allow them to upgrade and expand their skills, increasing their chances for continuous employment if they should have to, or want to, leave their present company. Conventional training departments are set up to "cascade" training modules throughout the company but are, by and large, not prepared to assist large numbers of employees with the highly individualized career preparation many forward-looking employees now desire.


On the theoretical level , the conventional cognitive paradigm for “transferring knowledge” is being challenged by constructivist theories and by notions of distributed cognition and intelligence. The old tried-and-true methods of pulling employees out of their work situation into off-the-job training programs, often at specialized company-owned "universities" with stand-up, lecture-style teaching and regurgitation of facts, are being challenged by a variety of experiments that emphasize group-based learning, lateral communication, and tailored computer-based technologies for teaching and learning.


On the practical level, training has come under the gun because conventional training organizations regularly can't deliver the goods. Whatever learning needs to happen for getting work done at the front line -- on production floors, in sales, or in customer service --  often is not generated, or even recognized as needed, by the training organizations.


With shorter development cycles for new products and programs, training organizations can't keep up with supplying training modules. It simply takes too long to design, develop, validate and deliver them. By the time they get to the people who would have needed them, they are hopelessly out of date.


Given that conventional training programs tend to get rolled out according to a predetermined schedule, their timing is not likely to be in sync with learners' needs. Delivered too early, employees will not "retain the training" (i.e. they forget for lack of opportunity to apply and practice). If delivered too late, time, resources and customer good will are lost. In addition, off-the-job training takes people away from their work. They often complain about how frustrating it is to attend training at an off-site learning center while they are helplessly watching  how the work piles up back home. Where employees are no longer easily replaceable cogs in the business machine but fulfill multiple functions as multi-skilled workers, time away from the workplace is increasingly difficult to manage and tends to engender high cost for the worker as well as his or her manager.


Considering these dynamics, the question is not how to make training more efficient but how to make learning more effective. We are not talking about making incremental improvements here but about a fundamental paradigm shift. We need to shift from an emphasis on training and all that implies, to an emphasis on learning (and all that implies). Those who can translate this new perspective into their organization, are likely to chart the future -- not only for their companies but for their employees as well.


3. Shifting the Paradigm from Training to Learning


The fundamental change in attitude and world view that must happen to enable the necessary paradigm shift can be captured in a series of principles. These principles may sound self-evident, but they present a serious challenge to the usual, comfortable view of learning that dominates our institutions.


3.1 Learning is inherent in human nature


One of the contributions of anthropological investigations that inspired our work at IRL and PARC has been the recognition that learning is inherent in all human activities. All of us are learning all of the time. We can't help it. It is part of our evolutionary heritage. And it is precisely this capacity to learn from other members of the species at every waking moment (rather than relying on preprogrammed instinct) that is at the basis of our species' success in colonizing the globe.


Little of our learning actually occurs in schools and other formal educational settings. Most of it happens without teachers. A baby needs no one to teach it to walk. When the time comes, that little creature will pull itself up to a shaky stand and lurch forward into its first halting steps. That will happen whether the parents are ready or not. It will help if there is some thing or some body around for the baby to hold on to. Encouragement and cheering by other walkers will also help, but essentially that baby will learn to walk no matter what. We have seen similar things happening in companies where employees have bought their own pc's, have brought in their own software, have gotten onto the Internet without the company's blessings, in order to learn what they needed to learn. The urge to explore is powerful, in adults as well as babies. Much corporate energy is expended to stifle it.


It is actually easy to see that informal, activity-based learning is a natural part of all human endeavors. It occurs all over the place, all of the time, without fanfare and ado, easily, and effectively. Just think: nearly all children learn to speak and act more or less appropriately for their culture; nearly all painters learn to paint in the style their artistic community favors; nearly all apprentices go on to master the required skills. This is as true at work as in other life settings. Workplaces are full of learning opportunities and every successful newcomer eventually gets socialized into the locally appropriate attitudes and practices.


In spite of much public debate, the basic question is not so much whether kids or workers learn, but what they learn. It is simply not the case that "kids don't learn in school", rather they learn something other than what their parents and teachers would like them to learn. Instead of the official curriculum, they may acquire effective ways of opting out, of engaging in alternative economies, or of becoming part of a street network. And in certain work environments, employees may figure out what are effective ways of appearance management, how to use computers for their own purposes, how to be uninvolved with their work -- none of which, incidentally, is to their advantage when they seek employment elsewhere. With the uncertainties of the as yet unwritten "new contract", employees will be motivated to engage in whatever kinds of learning they perceive as useful for their own future. But the fact is, some kind of learning always occurs. It is part of human nature!


3.2 Learning is fundamentally social


Conventional wisdom treats knowledge as if it were a kind of substance that can be poured into people's heads. Teaching is seen as the process by which knowledge is "transferred" into the learner’s mind, as from one pitcher into another, and learning is seen as the acquisition of individual "knowledge packets".  Notice that in that view, knowledge exists as a discrete entity, and teaching/learning is just a matter of transferring knowledge packets, like the contents of so many three-ring binders, from one head to another. We sometimes call this "the cranial view of learning." Notice also that, in that view, the focus of learning is on the individual. Although there may be a teacher present to do teaching, in this view learning is ultimately up to the learner, and if the learner “fails” to learn, it must be because he or she is lazy, or is incapable of learning -- not to say stupid.


Our perspective opens up less restrictive possibilities.  Rather than viewing learning as an individual act, when we look at the world around us what we see is that learning most typically happens in engagements between people. This is true for a toddler learning to speak, to eat at the table, to dress herself  --  as a matter of fact, once we think about it, it is true for most of what we know, be that how to drive a car, write a report, give a presentation, or run Lotus Notes. In all these learnings we depend fundamentally upon others as role models, trouble shooters, hand holders, brokers, appreciative audience, vicious critics, and the like.


In work life, socially-based learning is going on all the time in interaction between peers and across hierarchies, genders, functional groups and ages, but it often happens in modes that are not officially recognized as learning.  For example, there is learning when employees discuss a new HR initiative during lunch, when Account Associates exchange customer information in the bowling alley, when service technicians exchange war stories at the morning coffee break, when managers linger after a meeting to talk, or when an operator drops by a co-worker's cubicle and notices a new screen configuration.


Apprenticeship works by formalizing such social participation. Whenever high levels of skills are required -- whether we are to become a fluent speaker of a language, a surgeon, an X-ray technician, or a master mechanic -- essential learning happens in embodied experience, through participation in expert practice in family life, laboratory settings, internships and on the shop floor, all of which introduce the novice to the lived-in world of work in an apprenticeship-like fashion. Here the social world is not a distraction but a rich resource essential to learning.


This is not to say that people never learn anything when they are by themselves.  When we say that most learning is social, we don’t necessarily mean that people are always in each other's presence. But even for the solitary learner engaged in reading, investigating and experimenting, what s/he will take as an explanation or a finding is socially determined, that is to say, depends on a community of people engaged with the same issues to make sense. Much of what might look like individuals learning alone, we would argue is, in fact, socially based.


If we, then, look at learning as a social rather than an individual cognitive process, we realize that many of the problems we encounter have to do with seeing the individual as the locus of learning. This leads to an emphasis on individual effort and responsibility for acquiring particular kinds of knowledge and expertise, a view that is at best partial. To complement it, a social view of learning asks: what does the social group (be that an informal community of practice or a formally constituted team) need to learn in order to do its work, what resources does it need, how does it divide up its work, and what levels and divisions of expertise make sense for it?  This view turns the process around, focusing not on knowledge transferred, but rather on organizational support for people’s learning needs.[2] In the social model, learning is driven by the community of people who actually do the daily work. It is generated by the requirements of the work, rather than determined by abstract standards of what people ought to know.


For companies, the implications of this view are rather clear: support peer-based learning and empower groups to determine their own learning requirements. But what does this mean for the employee of the "new organization"? for the worker who is likely to (have to) switch to a new work environment, a new work group, several times during his or her career? We would argue that the recognition that learning is fundamentally social is equally significant and productive from the individual worker's point of view. What it will do for employees is to free them from the school bench requirements of individualized learning. At the same time, they will build interpersonal relationships and learn to recognize their importance in learning, in personal and professional development, and in building their career trajectories.


3.3 Learning shapes identity


Our research has convinced us that learning is not just a matter of acquiring a set of discrete new skills but a way of seeing oneself in a different context, understanding oneself in a new light. The desire to "be somebody", to contribute, to be acknowledged, to participate in a meaningful way drives people to learn things that are relevant to their environment. This is what motivates scholars to participate in the activities of a professional community or university students to spend years of their lives "studying". It is also similar in kind to what drives and enables a child to learn to speak, namely the totally enticing possibility of participating in the activities of people who speak.


What seems to make work meaningful beyond earning a paycheck is participation in a joint enterprise. We have been struck again and again by the fact that in companies where the Learning Organization is becoming a reality, employees often say that the ability to bring something useful back to their team mates is their most important goal in a learning event. For them, the new insights and practices they acquire become part of a newly meaningful way of participating in their own communities of practice.


In a company that reinvented itself around teams, cross-functional project work, and advanced communication technologies, the former clerical staff became expert at setting up the remote communication technologies such as LiveBoard and PictureTel that the new work style demanded. When that happened, they and the managers they were working with began to see and treat them differently. We observed a transformation from clerical worker or secretary to technically skilled support person, more akin to an engineer who understands network connections and file structures.


In the new economy, identity transformations through learning will be particularly important. We now need to understand the learning motivation of employees as a function of a projected future identity -- be that as a lifelong company employee (in which case they will value learning experiences that maximize contributions to company strategic intent) or as an itinerant professional specialist, who moves from project to project and company to company as opportunities arise -- in which case they will be looking for learning that increases their expertise in areas with developing markets and opportunities. In many ways, the New Economy is forging novel career paths even as it makes conventional career ladders less compelling and less attractive.


Lately we have observed interesting shifts in self-image among a small number of workers, primarily professional knowledge workers, for whom this potential reshaping of their identity becomes at the same time a tremendous threat and a potential liberation. These are the people who, years ago when asked to introduce themselves at a meeting, would say something like: "I've been at IBM for 27 years and I work for John Carter on the X Project." Now they might say something like “I am a design engineer in charge of the Y Project.” Workers’ identity used to be wrapped up with their company in deep ways, and with their advancement in the company hierarchy through which they measured their worth. For them to rethink themselves, to reinvent themselves as ego-centric agents with their own networks and relevancies rather than as company-dependent and -supported operators requires a fundamental rethinking of who they are. For many of them, wrenching changes are ahead. These are issues that HR departments would be well advised to pay attention to.


One particular kind of identity formation that we sometimes see in workplaces is an identity of non-participation -- itself a form of participation. The (learned) activities associated with this identity include such things as shirking responsibility, malingering, absenteeism, passive resistance, and the whole litany of complaints that managers have about workers. What this looks like from the workers’ side is vividly portrayed in Dilbert cartoons. The question to ask here is: why do workers feel they need to engage in those activities rather than the ones the company wants them to do? What is it in the environment that leads an employee to adopt this kind of subversive participation in the work scene? An approach that proves largely unproductive in such situations is to psychologize the problem by assigning it to the individual rather than the situation. Labeling employees as "have-nots", "will-nots", "can-nots" and the like makes the lack of performance the employee's problem. What the manager misses by ascribing it to a defect in the worker is the possibility that the problem lies in the organization, the workplace. What happens when this worker is fired and his or her successor also turns "lazy" and "stupid" after a while? Is that necessarily a "sourcing" problem  (hiring the wrong kind of employee) or may there be workplace design issues?


3.4   Informal learning is crucial in the workplace


While training organizations (and indeed, general thinking) keep emphasizing training and the design of training programs, our work has shown that most effective learning takes place informally, often invisibly, and usually without much official support. This is definitely not to say that formal instruction is without value. The point here is that certain kinds of knowledge are unlikely to be acquired that way. Companies and employees alike need to be aware of the expertise that is acquired outside of formal training opportunities.[3]


Because of its complex, situated nature, informal workplace knowledge is not something that can be taught at the Company University or during New Employee Orientations. It is nevertheless crucial for productivity and employee motivation and satisfaction. The primary route to workplace knowledge is through participation. Easy access to old timers, reasonable pacing of the work, space configurations that make informal peer-learning possible, are all ways to make workplace learning occur more rapidly and easily. Some of the innovative learning environments that we have designed are based on these notions.


Informal workplace knowledge is rarely codified. It comprises precisely all that "stuff" employees need to know and do in order to function as competent members of their workgroups. This includes ways of talking as much as ways of doing, ways of dressing as much as ways of interacting appropriately with others in the workplace. The way most people get to become accepted members of their groups is by capitalizing on apprenticeship-type situations where experts of various degrees provide role models and scaffolding for newcomers. People then become "legitimate peripheral participants" in the activities of established members of the group.


Workplace knowledge, acquired informally, comprises such “vague” things as:

  • understanding "how the business works"

  • learning about the various roles and responsibilities within the company

  • understanding the expectations attached to one's position beyond the job

  • having "a feel" for impending market changes

  • keeping up-to-date on relevant technologies

  • understanding how what one does relates to local and organizational strategies

  • learning effective and productive work-arounds

  • knowing who to contact and how, and for what reasons and resources

  • knowing who the local experts are and developing productive relationships with them

  • knowing how to manage resource distribution in order to have access to what you need to do your job when you need it

  • gaining a sense of when something is going to work or not

  • knowing the “rules” sufficiently to know when to follow them, when to go around them, and when to break them

  • knowing the basics well enough to know when and how to generate innovations

  • developing good intuitions about customer needs.

Any working person, of course, can add to this list.


It is interesting that the benefits of informal learning pervade even official instructional activities and may sometimes constitute their greatest value. In a typical example, Sam, an account manager in a Fortune-50 company, described his training class as very strong in non-curricular activities, with lots of talking and sharing of ideas and tips. It was attended by several peers who proved a valuable resource. The collective experience and knowledge of the participants, he thought, was considerable. As he left, he felt he had added value by contributing his ideas to  the communal store of knowledge but he was also taking away valuable insights and relationships that would help him in his future work.


There seems to be a consensus coming from people in all sorts of positions that one of the most rewarding aspects of attending training at company university is not what instructors impart, but the opportunity to meet and interact with others who are doing the same kind of work, to build networks with people who are experiencing the same problems and frustrations, and, on occasion, even jointly uncovering creative solutions to common problems.


Another example of non-formal learning comes from a workplace where operators run highly complex printing and copying machines.  Josh and one of his co-workers had developed a hypothesis that on one particular machine, copy speed is affected by the number of pages in a job. They suspected that, contrary to the information they had received from the company, constant copy speed regardless of job size did not hold true for this particular machine. So, on their own, they carefully planned an experiment: one day they ran a large job in small sections;  the next day they ran the exact same job in much larger sections. This gave them the data for comparing the two copy speeds.  Here, two employees took the initiative to find out something that was not part of any official knowledge set and for which they neither expected nor got any official reward. They did it for their own personal satisfaction and to increase their and their co-workers' efficiency. They did receive grateful acknowledgment from their peers for it.


In situations of this sort, knowledge useful for the practitioner community is generated by carefully monitoring and reflecting on practice. Learning by doing is clearly among the most effective ways of learning in the workplace, just as learning to use a computer is easier when we sit at the keyboard and actually make the computer do things than when we sit and watch someone else explaining what they are doing while they sit at the keyboard. And even that is better than reading about it in a manual.


By and large, what we think of as informal workplace knowledge is generated as supported practice, in actual situations of use, not through removed, abstract instruction. The question is what is it about those particular occasions that makes them so easy and natural, and in what ways can we capitalize on those natural abilities in order to make our workplaces more effective learning environments for the benefit of individuals as well as companies.


4. Designing Workplaces as  Learning Environments


In a fundamental way, all work is about learning: it is about learning to fit in and to collaborate, about learning to take initiative when appropriate, it is about really understanding customers, about acquiring intimate knowledge of the products and services the company sells and how they can fit into customers' lives. Acknowledged as such or not, learning has to be an integral part of work. But, somehow, integrated [work+learning] activities have become split into the separate spheres of [work] and  [training] which have come to be dominated by quite different interests.


If it is true that we need to erase the distinction between learning and work, if it is true that learning is work and work is learning, then our most challenging question becomes: how can we construct and organize work environments in such a way that they support the kinds of learning that are useful and productive for employees, for work groups and for companies. We need an environment where workers are treated as competent to determine, or at least participate in determining, their own learning requirements, based on what they see necessary for carrying out their responsibilities. This changes the conventional requirements gathering to collaborative work practice analysis as the appropriate basis for curriculum design.


For most of this, no "teacher person" is necessary. What is necessary is an environment that supports, recognizes, respects and encourages the new skills, an environment that provides models for competent performance and rewards for achievement -- and by that I don't mean monetary rewards necessarily. "What is needed in organizations" says my colleague Etienne Wenger "is not to create learning, but rather to create circumstances that make learning empowering and productive."


In our workplace redesign projects we attempt to do justice to all parties involved: the company that needs to make a profit while building internal flexibility and expertise; the work groups that need to get a job done while providing a sense of belonging, appreciation and support for their members; and the individuals who want to do a good job while at the same time needing to look out for their future employability. We have found no easy recipe, no universal set of prescriptions for doing that. What we have collected is a motley set of insights, of pragmatic maxims and design recommendations that serve as reminders of what the important issues and pitfalls are in this kind of endeavor. Here is a sample collection:

  • View learning as work and work as learning.

  • Foster a view of knowledge as socially constructed rather than “transferred”. (This means identifying, paying attention to, and possibly nurturing the communities of practice that hold particular kinds of knowledge).

  • Recognize and value informal communities of practice - that is where real work gets done and where crucial learning takes place.

  • Keep learning as close to communities of practice as possible - be suspicious of attempts to "extract" knowledge from practice, distill it into a curriculum, and then deliver it.

  • Foster peer-to-peer learning and co-construction of knowledge.

  • Put individuals and communities of practice in charge of their own learning. They need access to other individuals and other communities for that purpose.

  • See individual learning as increasingly competent participation in a community of practice.

  • Count on the informal - this is where most learning gets done.

  • If there is a learning problem, look for patterns of social participation and exclusion.

  • Consider boundary objects (medical charts, blue prints, workflow diagrams) as learning opportunities, not statements of fact. They should spark conversations between communities that lead to mutual alignment, cooperation and collaboration.

  • Consider where person-to-person modeling and peer-learning are more powerful and cost-effective than the new learning technologies (CBT, CD-ROM).

  • Investigate local production of learning materials based on actual work situations.

  • Involve workers and workgroups in identifying skills deficits and in developing materials for overcoming them.

  • Support learner-centered learning .

  • Consider buddy systems or any other way of ensuring ongoing contact within or across functions. Pair experienced people with less experienced ones to support the exchange and sharing of knowledge between experts and novices.

  • Identify and advertise local experts so help is more easily found when needed.

  • Co-design technologies with real users to make them responsive to their learning needs and work practices.

  • Design the physical space so that dropping in and hanging out is possible.

  • Do not get seduced by fancy technologies. Adopt only those that actually support work practice.

  • Do not abandon classroom and CBT training. But structure it so it is a resource for the work group.

  • Reward people for analyzing their mistakes for the benefit of the workgroup.

  • Foster lateral communication between individuals and peer groups. Provide occasions, physical spaces and, if needed, appropriate technologies to make it easy.

This latter point is important.  In most hierarchical organizations channels for passing information down and up the hierarchical ladder are well established. What is usually weak and atrophied are the lateral communication channels through which people and groups occupying a similar level in the hierarchy can communicate about common issues. As employees participate more and more actively in building the business, helping employees gain comprehensive workplace knowledge will become essential to the well-being of the organization.  Supporting the acquisition of workplace knowledge is supporting engaged and productive employees.


5. Changing Mental Models and the Way We Think about Training and Learning


Changing mental models and paradigms from a focus on training to a focus on learning involves a series of moves:


from individual learner

to learners in social settings

from individual skills

 to the practices of a team or COP

from process orientation

 to practice orientation

from didactic teaching

to activity-based learning

from linear thinking

to systems thinking

from school-based learning

to learning as a life activity

from one-shot learning

 to continuous adaptation

from curriculum

to total learning environment

from top-down information dissemination

to lateral networks + peer communication

from product focus

to customer focus

from design from fantasy

to design from work practice

from requirements analysis

to work practice analysis

from implementation as delivery

to implementation as growing the practice

from providing training

to providing learning resources

from what employers want

to what frontline practitioners need


These moves are not easy for established training organizations. Many refuse to see the handwriting on the wall that says that unless they take leadership in transforming their companies into true Learning Organizations, unless they are ready to serve the needs of empowered employees who realize they have to be competitive in the global markets of 21st century societies, they will atrophy into irrelevance. Even as we speak, major companies are cutting their training budgets in half. What is not yet clear is to what extent they are willing to put equivalent resources into a learning budget.


[1]   An early version of these ideas was prepared for discussion at the Rhodia Seminar on Education and Employability in Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 8 and 9, 1996. Various versions have circulated widely in manuscript form under the authorship of “Gitti Jordan and Friends.” Though I take responsibility for what is said here, I want to make very clear that the ideas proposed here have come out of a common discourse, carried on for the last several years at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) and the Institute for Research on Learning (IRL). The conference version of this paper was published (in Portuguese) as:


 Jordan, Brigitte & Amigos

1997           Do treinamento a aprendizagem na nova economia. Pp. 241-259 in: Empregabilidade e Educacao: Novos Caminhos no Mundo do Trabalho. Alipio Casali et al. eds. Sao Paulo, Brazil: EDUC.


[2]  An astute trainer once phrased this to me as "Change the maze, not the rat."


[3]   I do want to make it very clear that I am not advocating abolishing all formal learning; rather, we need to be concerned with the imbalance. In many cases it may be better to consider classroom learning an adjunct and complement to experiential, informal learning rather than the other way around. The question is one of emphasis.