WorkPlace Learning Study 2

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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.

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