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Learning in the workplace: The case of air traffic control

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Owen, C (1999) Learning in the workplace: The case of air traffic control. PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

This Thesis is intended to make a contribution to the growing literature concerned with learning in the workplace. It presents a detailed analysis of learning in one type of work activity - air traffic control. This particular work activity was chosen because it embodies features that represent the future of work for many other industries (e.g., information service provision mediated by information technologies; a high reliance on communication skills and collaborative work; increasing complexity and intensity of the work activity), within an organisational context undergoing considerable change. The organisation chosen and the type of work selected provides an example of the kind of national policy reform that has been occurring in Australia over the past decade. It also provides an example of how change is strongly influencing the nature of the work. Within this organisation, technological and organisational reform is leading to changes in work practice and to changes in relationships between workers within the organisation and these have consequences for workplace learning. This Thesis addresses the question: In what ways do organisational structures and cultures enable and constrain learning in the workplace? The basic premise of the Thesis is that the lived experiences of people at work are significantly influenced by their contexts (in organisations most commonly conceptualised as structures and cultures) and that these contexts are in turn reproduced or transformed by people. At the heart of this Thesis is a concern to understand how these processes interact so that we may create educative work environments in workplace organisations. It is argued in the Thesis that learning occurs in a range of ways in the workplace, most notably, as formal and informal learning. Formal learning occurs as part of formalised and workplace accredited programs, embedded within the organisation's authority and accountability structure. This kind of learning (often referred to as training) has a finite end point, and results in a qualification or licence to undertake specific work activity. Learning also occurs informally, as part of everyday work and it too is influenced by organisational contexts. This study explores how changing organisational cultures and structures influence formal and informal workplace learning. By investing in certain cultural beliefs and values, for example, individuals within the workplace both enable and constrain their own opportunities for learning and those of workplace colleagues. Moreover, organisational structures (e.g., the design of work, including processes of authority and accountability) also enhance and inhibit learning opportunities. It is argued that as the pace of organisational and technological change continues to accelerate, greater attention needs to be given to the factors that enable and constrain both formal and . informal learning so that learning becomes a continuous process embedded within everyday work practice. Continuous learning occurs, then, when individuals engage in learning processes continuously and where these processes are embedded within work activity and contexts (within structures and cultures). Continuous learning is important in industries undergoing change and particularly in those workplaces characterised by high performance work (such as air traffic control). The Thesis is based on a qualitative study of learning in the air traffic control workplace. The data set is based on 100 semi-structured interviews conducted in three air traffic control workplaces, observations of air traffic control work practices, and the author's active participation as a training provider and process facilitator within a range of organisational change events. The study used an interpretive methodological approach including interviews and observations to attend to the features of social interaction. The data were examined also for the presence of structural and cultural phenomena. In this way, the study provides an explanation of the way in which social structure, culture and history interweave with the activity of learning at work and helps shape the nature and organisation of learning in work activity. The study seeks to extend existing literature and understanding by attempting to integrate concepts from psychological approaches to learning with situated understandings of the importance of contextual influences found in cultures and communities of practice, together with organisational theories of work organisation. Thus, the study offers a bridge between learning and organisational theory in a way that can assist both organisational designers and facilitators of workplace learning. The research concludes that the ways in which organisational structures and cultures enable and constrain learning can be identified. Furthermore, it" demonstrates that organisational change processes of recent years have fundamentally altered the ways in which people learn about the complex organisations and systems within which they work with both positive and negative results for learning. A model is presented that identifies and defines elements in the learning process and the ways in which structural and cultural contexts are implicated in those processes within the workplace. The model identifies structural and cultural elements that need to be present to achieve a goal of continuous learning and to thereby to make possible the creation of educative work environments.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: © the Author
Date Deposited: 07 Jul 2011 23:10
Last Modified: 06 May 2013 02:55
URI: http://eprints.utas.edu.au/id/eprint/11378
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