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WorkPlace Learning Study 2

The goal of the second WPLS was to obtain more insight into the relation between work-learn situations and the knowledge sources and communication media people use to acquire the knowledge needed to perform tasks at hand better and gain knowledge about the related topics. This context is central to the APOSDLE solution, as it intends to combine the three spaces people at work can be seen as operating in: the Work Space, the Knowledge Space and the Learning Space, with are connected through communication.

To theoretically underpin this research, the main theoretical perspective chosen was the Media Richness Theory. This theory links properties of tasks, uncertainty (about how to perform a task) and equivocality (what should be the results of a task), to knowledge sources and communication media that can be used to exchange knowledge about tasks at hand. In particular it states that when the uncertainty and equivocality of tasks increase, richer knowledge sources and communication media, media that can convey more cues, are needed to guarantee an effective transfer of knowledge. Based on predictions from this theory, support for selecting the best fitting knowledge sources and communication media in APOSDLE can be derived.

In addition two other theoretical perspectives were briefly touched upon: Knowledge Space Theory and the Social Influence Model of Technology Use. The first states that during work, people will access each of the three spaces mentioned above to solve problems. The second claims that the Media Richness Theory is incomplete as organizational norms and habits can inhibit or promote the use of communication media, even if these don’t fit the task at hand well.

In total a sample of 125 workers survey from a wider range of European organizations filled in the online survey. However, due to an unexplained problem with the online survey tool, only 84 persons could fill in the questions about their background.

In the study, two different situations a person can be in were addressed: a situation where the person plays the role of the knowledge seeker or learner (learner situation) and a situation where the person plays the role of the knowledge provider or knowledgeable person sharing knowledge with someone else (knowledge sharing situation). People participating in the research could ‘construct’ a specific combination of a work situation and a knowledge need (from a predefined list) and report about the knowledge source(s) and communication medium (or media) they used in that situation.

A learning situation and a knowledge sharing situation each consists of two elements: the selected work situation and the selected knowledge need (of the other person).

Two work situations selected most frequently in the learner situation were ‘acquiring new knowledge when starting a new assignment’, and ‘finding out how things are done in the company when you are new’. In the knowledge sharing situation, the most frequently selected work situations are ‘being contacted by someone else who asks for advice in the area of expertise’ and ‘comprehensively inform a colleague or a customer in the area of expertise by giving a presentation or writing a report’. The results show that the knowledge need in most learning and knowledge sharing situation can be best described as ‘trying to get a good understanding’. The results confirm to a large extent the major finding from the first workplace learning study that personal contacts are very important in learner and knowledge sharing situations, but must be combined with documented sources in a support environment.

It is less easy to derive, at the moment of writing, specific design guidelines in this respect from the data that differ from the design of the second APOSDLE Prototype. In this sense, the outcomes are more confirmatory for the course the project has taken until now.

The second set of results is relevant for the theoretical (and as a corollary) practical point of view. Only a limited subset of the hypotheses derived from the Media Richness Theory could be confirmed. When learning tasks become less complex (in terms of uncertainty and equivocality) there is a tendency to access less rich (‘lean’, documented) knowledge sources in the knowledge sharing situation. If learning tasks become more complex (again in terms of uncertainty and equivocality), there is a tendency for using rich knowledge sources (personal ones) and rich communication media in the learning situation. Based on these results, the usefulness of the Media Richness Theory to provide the basis for designing communication support in APOSDLE must be questioned. At least additional analyses are needed to explore in more detail the relation between experience in the job and the results, as the majority of the respondents were experienced. It could be that results are different for less experienced people.

For the two alternative theoretical perspectives, it can be said that access to the different spaces of the Knowledge Space Theory differs for different work-learn situations, with the work space dominating when people are in the situation when they are new in the company and have to find things out. However, these differences could not be confirmed statistically.

As for the Social Influence Model of Technology Use, there are only minor effects of organizational norms and communication media behavior of colleagues on the selection of media.

APOSDLE Glossary: Workplace, Work Environment

Workplace is the physical location where a knowledge worker performs her work. This may be on-site (e.g. in an office) or off-site (e.g. at a customer or at home). The work environment is the set of all tools, artefacts, people, communication channels, etc. which are available to the knowledge worker in her workplace. In the context of APOSDLE it is important to differentiate between computational (i.e. computer tools are available) and non-computational work environments. Computer support may be provided through a desktop computer or through a mobile device. Thus, a knowledge worker using a desktop computer on the one hand works within her computational work environment in order to e.g. write a report but at the same time might use aspects of her non-computational work environment (e.g. read a book from her bookcase) as well.

Example: In the context of the first APOSDLE prototypes within the domain Requirements Engineering the workplace will be the office of the requirements engineer. Her desktop computer and all the available (and possibly specialized) software tools (such as MS Word, or RequisitePro) constitute her computational work environment. Her non-computational work environment includes the books in her office, the telephone, the people around her, etc.

It is the goal of APOSDLE to design methods and tools which can be integrated into the computational work environment and allow for virtual informal learning and knowledge transfer. This is why, within APOSDLE we focus exclusively on the possibilities of enhancing the computational work environment. Activities taking place in a non-computational work environment will be considered as far as they can be related to or reflected in the computational environment. For example, it might be the case that minutes of a meeting are made available in the IT environment, or a reference to a book or an event may be stored in the IT environment. However, if the IT environment does not reflect an event or activity in any way APOSDLE will not be able to process it.

Considering that what is a non-computational work environment today maybe a computational work environment in the future (e.g. through the use of mobile devices), the analysis of requirements for the APOSDLE system and the analysis of the status quo of workplace learning activities takes into account aspects of non-computational work environments as well. However, this is always done with the goal of enhancing the computational work environment in order to arrive at a rich environment which allows people to transfer knowledge and learn from each other virtually.

The underlying assumption is that in distributed organizations it is essential to provide knowledge transfer and learning support virtually so that all people can benefit from it.

This definition is taken from the APOSDLE Project Glossary. At time of publication the latest version appeared in Deliverable D6.02 Use Scenarios & Application Requirements (First prototype; domain RE) available from APOSDLE Results. In this document, all mentioned external and cross references can be found.

APOSDLE Glossary: Workplace Learning, Work-integrated Learning

Learning refers to an advancement of knowledge and skills of the knowledge worker. Our understanding of workplace learning is such that it is truly integrated in current work processes and practices and makes use of existing resources. It is relatively short unstructured (in terms of learning objectives, learning time or learning support) learning at the workplace where the main aim of the activities is to enhance task performance. From the learner’s perspective, workplace learning is spontaneous and/or unintentional. Learning in this case is a by-product of the time spent at the workplace (Colley, Hodkinson & Malcolm, 2002).

While traditional eLearning might also happen at the workplace in terms of time and place, our understanding of workplace learning would additionally require that

  • Learning needs and goals are derived directly from the tasks the knowledge worker currently performs
  • Learning activities happen in close interaction with available Knowledge Artefacts which are stored in the 3spaces. Either learning activities make use of available Knowledge Artefacts, or they result in creation of new artefacts (e.g. communication artefacts).
  • Results of the learning activities, i.e. acquired knowledge and skills, can be more or less directly transferred to the worker’s working situation (6.2.39)

Example: A requirements engineer needs to design a use case model about the system to be built (learning goal). Using existing use case models (available Knowledge Artefacts) from previous projects she gets a good understanding about the activities to be modelled. After studying the diagrams she is able to create her own use case model (learning transfer).

This definition is taken from the APOSDLE Project Glossary. At time of publication the latest version appeared in Deliverable D6.02 Use Scenarios & Application Requirements (First prototype; domain RE) available from APOSDLE Results. In this document, all mentioned external and cross references can be found.

APOSDLE Glossary: Three roles of the knowledge worker


Worker refers to the “default” role of a knowledge worker, besides Learner (6.2.31) and Expert (6.2.20). Within this role she applies her knowledge, creates documents, designs artefacts, and communicates to others with the intention to perform the tasks at hand. Today much of this knowledge work is conducted within and mediated through computational environments (see6.2.30).

Example: a requirements engineer


Learner refers to one role of the knowledge worker which she may spontaneously take at various times in the context of her work. In this role, her primary goal is to advance her knowledge in a certain domain in order to more successfully meet current or future requirements of her work. At times, this goal may not be fully explicit. Especially, the learning goals may not be clearly defined. We refer to the activities in this role as learning activities (e.g. looking for information, seeking help) and the situation as a learning situation.

Example: the requirements engineer above learning about use case models


Expert refers to another role of the knowledge worker. In this role, she performs activities with the primary goal to help others advance their knowledge in a certain domain. This may be through collaborating with others or through producing or changing Knowledge Artefacts which later on are shared with others. In the role of expert, the knowledge worker is considered by others to be a valuable source of knowledge in a certain domain; they feel that his view is less likely to be incorrect.

This definition is taken from the APOSDLE Project Glossary. At time of publication the latest version appeared in Deliverable D6.02 Use Scenarios & Application Requirements (First prototype; domain RE) available from APOSDLE Results. In this document, all mentioned external and cross references can be found.

APOSDLE Glossary: Knowledge-intensive Work

With the term knowledge worker we refer to an employee of an organisation whose essential operational and value creating tasks consists in the production and distribution of knowledge (Machlup, 1962). Rudolph et al. (1987) distinguish between routine knowledge work and knowledge work with a dominant creative part. Studies have revealed that truly creative activities only account for about 20% of knowledge workers’ tasks. Other models of knowledge-intensive work (Schreiber et al., 1999) distinguish between synthetic tasks (design, modelling, planning, scheduling, assignment) and analytic tasks (classification, assessment, diagnosis, monitoring, and prediction).

Knowledge Workers are predominantly controlled by overall goals and expected results instead of defined procedures. Thus, they have significant autonomy in structuring their activities (such as timing and procedures) (Pyöriä, 2003; Davenport, 2005). This means they may dynamically switch to different tasks or domains in the process of their work. This is also reflected by dynamic changes in their user context (see 6.2.49). Knowledge Workers may dynamically switch to different roles in the context of their work, e.g. to that of the learner (6.2.31) or the expert (6.2.20). Learning goals (6.2.35), as well as learning strategies (6.2.38), are usually set by knowledge workers themselves.

Example: Requirements Engineering is a very complex activity. In order to enable people to handle this complexity, RESCUE defines a task structure which determines when and where which activity has to take place. Within the single activities however are parts which require experience and substantial creative powers in order to execute them well. APOSDLE here can introduce the structure, provide guidance for the individual activities and help experts to communicate their experiences etc. In order to support the creative parts APOSDLE might be able to point the user to relevant information.

A first goal of APOSDLE is to research learning aspects of knowledge-intensive work. Within the workplace learning study (Deliverable II.1, Month 9) we will analyze relevant aspects and distinctions of knowledge-intensive work in respect to learning and arrive at a better understanding of work-integrated/workplace learning itself. Based on this study APOSDLE will then choose a focus for the support tools.

This definition is taken from the APOSDLE Project Glossary. At time of publication the latest version appeared in Deliverable D6.02 Use Scenarios & Application Requirements (First prototype; domain RE) available from APOSDLE Results. In this document, all mentioned external and cross references can be found.

APOSDLE Glossary: The concept of the 3spaces

The concept of 3spaces serves as an abstraction of the different environments a knowledge worker typically interacts with: learning space, knowledge space, and work space. The 3spaces are one component of the knowledge worker’s work environment, namely the one concerned with the search and use of information and acquisition and use of knowledge. Although the 3spaces could be understood to encompass the non-computational elements of the work environment, the focus of APOSDLE is to enhance the computational work environment.

The 3spaces reflect the structure of the knowledge sources that knowledge workers interact with when working and learning. However, we suggest that the spaces also mirror the mental models of the people using them and shape the decisions about information and knowledge sources they seek. Accordingly these sources are structured in a specific way and accessed accordingly.

The motivation of APOSDLE arises from a disconnection between the three spaces, a cognitive/structural as well as technical disconnection, which can usually be observed in organizations. One goal of APOSDLE is to transcend this disconnection and allow the knowledge worker to interact with the 3spaces as a unity.

The following sections give details on the three different spaces, and the way they are currently structured.

Learning Space: The learning space stands for conscious learning situations, e.g. attending seminars and taking courses. In the learning space, activities are usually structured according to very clear and explicit learning goals and their dependencies. Also the learning space usually addresses different levels of expertise: different learning situations are planned for beginners than are for intermediates or experts. The learning space is either completely outside any technical system or represented by an e-learning platform. The structure of the learning space mirrors the structure of the learning topics as it is seen by course providers. It follows the didactical abstraction of the topic, and very often, it does not provide information about the relationship of work tasks to courses. In addition, the available course material is fairly general and has to be adapted to the worker’s work context.

Example: RESCUE tutorial documents and face-to-face seminars

Knowledge space: The knowledge space encompasses the expertise that has been developed by the organisation. It represents unconscious learning, application of past experiences (own and from others) to new situations, spontaneous search for information, and use of examples in order to better understand how to apply knowledge. Also groups of experts or communities of practice often operate in the knowledge space to exchange relevant knowledge and learn from each other. In technical terms, the knowledge space corresponds to the organisational memory. It is often distributed over different systems such as the Intranet, the Internet, a common file server, etc. The structure again is different: organisational knowledge often does not have one clear structure, but mirrors the internal cognitive map of each person providing the knowledge. Often a mix of the topics or a domain structure and the organisational department structures is found here.

Example: RESCUE experts available over chat connections, lessons learned documents describing how RESCUE was employed in other projects, example RESCUE documents from other projects

Work space: Work Spaces are used in the process of work. Accordingly, they are structured in terms of the work processes, i.e. in terms of the tasks and their dependencies. The work space represents the user’s desktop PC and shared document storage devices such as a common file structure or a document management system. It contains the work documents which are needed by a knowledge worker on a day-to-day basis, such as project related documents. The work space is typically structured according to a company’s organization and task structures (e.g. project structures).

Example: a chat discussion between the requirements engineer and a potential user about the activity model

This definition is taken from the APOSDLE Project Glossary. At time of publication the latest version appeared in Deliverable D6.02 Use Scenarios & Application Requirements (First prototype; domain RE) available from APOSDLE Results. In this document, all mentioned external and cross references can be found.

Learning at the workplace: what does actually happen?

There are many different ways for investigating workplace learning. If the focus is on supporting workplace learning with computer based tools, insight into how workplace learning currently takes place is indispensable. Ignoring it, greatly increases the risk of finding a nice solution for the wrong problem.

In the context of the APOSDLE project this was recognized and a workplace learning study was included in the work plan. The study consists of two phases. In the first phase detailed data are collected about workplace learning as it actually occurs in the organisations participating in the project. In the second phase, these findings will be validated by using a questionnaire distributed to a larger sample of people in organisations.

In the first phase a variety of data collection methods were used: interviews with workers, observations at the workplace and workplace learning diaries. As “learning” must be identified by being different from other human activities, a pragmatic definition was adopted: learning is acquiring new information that has a high likelihood of being re-used in the future. This definition enabled the researchers to distinguish between using new information for solving here and now problems and information that will be used for other problems.

In the period between the end of March and the end of July 2006 146 learning events (a moment during daily work when a learning need occurs) were registered. Learning is triggered mainly by the task(s) a person is working at, serendipity learning also occurs. The majority occurred at a computational workplace, which is not surprising as this was the focus of the data collection. Of these, 72% were successful. Persons (colleagues) and digital sources are used most frequently. Learned are facts (27%), procedures (31%) and concepts (42%). In 48% of the events bottlenecks occurred that made learning more difficult.

The initial results are summarized below:

  • There is quite some workplace learning
  • About ¾ of the efforts succeed, so there is room for improvement
  • Even if successful, bottlenecks delaying or obstructing learning are frequent
  • At least acquiring three types of knowledge (facts, procedures and concepts) should be supported
  • Striking a balance between personal and digital support is necessary
  • Learning material should be as close as possible to the learning need

The results of the first phase show that a system like APOSDLE can contribute to more effective and efficient workplace learning. However, the design and fielding of the system should be neatly tailored to the way people are working. For this purpose, the data of the first phase of the workplace learning study provides very valuable insights.

We are looking forward to the result from the second phase, to see whether the findings of the first phase are corroborated or need some adjustments.

The final results of the Study have been published in the Workplace Learning Study (Deliverable 2.1) as well as in a EC-TEL 2007 proceedings volume with Springer.

Introducing the APOSDLE project site's Weblog

It is time to open up the APOSDLE weblog.

To link to this webblog use: http://www.aposdle.org/weblog