May 252011

Workplace Learning: 6 Proven Principles of Workplace Learning

These principles can serve as guideposts for designing workplace learning and can accelerate the cultivation of experience.

Workplace Learning: Article | Fri, 04/22/2011| By Elizabeth Griep, Vice President, Advanced Workplace Learning, The Forum Corp.

Business’ rapid pace and the workforce’s changing face increasingly are altering the way in which we learn on the job, raising new organizational challenges best met by development opportunities based on proven principles of workplace learning.

The stakes are high, with implications for organizations’ strategic speed and potential sales and profit growth. Two-thirds of faster, more successful companies have leaders who learn and improve from experience continuously. Only one-third of slower companies exhibit that trait, according to research by The Forum Corp.

For learning and development (L&D) professionals, these trends pose important and difficult challenges: to provide learning at the moment of need, link the individual to the work and to others doing similar work, and build a collective pool of knowledge that the organization can leverage to bring value to the business. L&D leaders increasingly are being asked to enable knowledge-sharing and access, to distribute expertise, to catalog valuable learning experiences, and to look for opportunities to make sense of the wealth of institutional knowledge in their organizations.

It’s a tall order, but it can be done by following tried-and-true principles of workplace learning.

New Times, New Challenges

Smart, skilled, experienced employees and teams are critical to an organization’s success. Learning organizations that provide the necessary tools and support to employees and teams likely will help their companies become faster. And research has shown that companies that are faster at executing their strategies have an average of 40 percent higher sales growth and 52 percent higher growth in operating profit than slower companies.

The need to integrate work and learning so that learning and work happen simultaneously is one of four major emerging challenges facing learning organizations, according to research undertaken by my colleagues and I at The Forum Corp. The other three include:

  • Managing new leaders and new workplace dynamics. The emergence of next-generation workers as managers with different skills and expectations, particularly their intuitive relationship with technology, is challenging L&D professionals to creatively develop tools that appeal to all employees while appropriately addressing evolving learning behaviors and work patterns.
  • Making sense of the growing number of available learning tools. The most successful companies realize that continuous learning is key to their success and that new Web-based tools, smart mobile devices, and increased connectivity enable their employees to learn more effectively.
  • Becoming cultivators of learning. L&D professionals are taking on an expanded role as cultivators of learning who manage the corporate culture by capturing everyday learning and making that experienced-based knowledge available through databases.

Proven Principles of Workplace Learning

To help guide L&D professionals, we have identified a set of six principles of workplace learning based on research, interviews with thought leaders and leading practitioners, and surveys. The principles, examined in detail in a research paper entitled Forum’s Principles of Learning: Research and available free at, can serve as guideposts for designing workplace learning, and, if followed closely, will accelerate the cultivation of experience.

These six foundational principles are mission-critical L&D levers for any business struggling to make heads or tails of the current learning climate. They are ground rules that can be built upon as business scenarios shift. They are:

  1. Link learning to value for the individual and the organization. This principle has generational, technological, and design implications, among others. Particularly among younger workers, the ability to appeal to the individual while serving the needs of the organization will be critical.
  2. Connect action and reflection in a continuous cycle. Reflection, or sense-making, is the adhesive that makes learning stick—without it, learning leaves no mark and slips away. Reflective actions tend to have a positive impact on corporate productivity, strategic speed, and business results. In fact, research shows that faster companies often adopt structures that support the concept of “slowing down to move faster”; speediness, at these companies, resulted when business leaders encouraged teams to take time and review the work being done.
  3. Address learners’ attitudes and beliefs in addition to their behaviors. To know whether a person truly has internalized something, you have to look deeper, measuring changes to the attitudes and beliefs, often referred to as “mental models.” Mental models drive behaviors long term, and are influenced to various degrees by generational differences, technology, culture, and corporate culture. Using specific strategies—for example, the action and reflection cycle—it is possible to influence mental models and address attitudes and beliefs.
  4. Provide learners with a balance of challenge and support. The best learning situations are those that provide a realistic level of challenge and enough support so the learner feels comfortable asking for help when needed; understands mistakes are an acceptable part of the learning curve, and is willing to keep pushing forward even when faced with uncertainty. This principle, perhaps more than any of the others, depends on leadership and first-line manager commitment to put it into practice. Effective managers marshal various kinds of learning opportunities to achieve the right balance of challenge and support for each employee.
  5. Create opportunities for participants to teach, as well as learn. L&D professionals know that teaching is a particularly potent form of learning because it gives knowledge and learning more “stickiness,” meaning that the more knowledge is shared with others, the more deeply reinforced it is into an individual’s experience. You need to carefully select opportunities, prepare the “teachers,” provide a scaffolding structure, and carefully consider the context and people who will be “taught.”
  6. Design and cultivate learning communities along with learning media. Community environments offer a particularly effective way to learn, and they illustrate the concept that “learning is the work.”Learning communities often become frameworks through which organizations can capture, cultivate, and build on the broader, collective experience. Whether you call them learning communities or communities of practice, forming them is a winning strategy to discover, aggregate, and share knowledge within your organization.

Elizabeth Griep is vice president of Advanced Workplace Learning with The Forum Corp., a global professional services firm that mobilizes people to embrace the critical strategies of their organizations and accelerate results. To learn more, visit


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