Project-Based Workplace Learning: A Case Study

By Gunasekara, Chrys | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Project-Based Workplace Learning: A Case Study


Gunasekara, Chrys, SAM Advanced Management Journal


Notwithstanding the abundance of literature on organizational learning, learning organizations and capability development, a vital need remains to integrate managerial theory and practice (Denton 1998). Managers seeking practical guidance on developing organizational learning that is theoretically robust-beyond training and development ideas-must negotiate a maze of academic and professional literature that ranges from highly abstract pieces conceptualizing learning, to systems-oriented discussions of effective learning strategies, and finally, articles offering handy hints and tips and tools. The references following this article include several that illustrate one or more of these approaches, particularly Rylatt (1994), Waddell et al (2000), Dixon (1992), Easterby-Smith (1990), Stata (1989), Schein (1993), and Denton (1998).

Studies of organizational learning (a term often used interchangeably with 'learning organizations' in the literature) continue to observe that the concepts are poorly defined, poorly understood, and poorly applied. See the reference list for literature that addresses these problems, including Lang and Wittig-Berman (2000); Dunphy, Turner, and Crawford (1996); and Garvin (1993). No wonder managers become cynical about so-called transformational human resource management strategies that are suppose to contribute to competitive advantage in a knowledge era. For example, the HR professional seeking to implement an organizational learning strategy may find only frustration unless line managers can apply the underlying meanings and concepts to the business realities she or he faces. A model of organizational learning as a system of inputs, processes and outputs, where there are some dozen potential key processes (each of which is itself a sub-system, such as team-based learning) and a payoff that, at best, is in t he future and, at worst, is poorly articulated, is unlikely to command either attention or respect. It is also disappointing, though perhaps not surprising, that a survey of managers' sources of information on organizational learning found that academic sources were totally absent from the responses (Denton 1998).

This paper assists in bridging the gap by suggesting a practical approach to workplace learning that is linked with organizational objectives and integrated with project management. HRM practitioners, in partnership with line managers and senior managers, may apply this approach.

This paper has two parts. Part A suggests a model for project-based workplace learning that integrates work and learning with theory and practice within a project management frame. This approach draws on the literature relating to capability, organizational learning, and project management. Part B is a case study of the application of this approach in an Australian public sector agency. The lessons learned may be applied in other settings and also provide opportunities for focused research on organizational learning.

Part A: A Model of Project-Based Workplace Learning

To set the stage for this model, it is important to note that organizations in public and private sectors are increasingly aware of the need to adapt faster than their competitors in order to cope successfully with the rapidly changing and highly competitive environment of the global economy (Hamel and Prahalad 1994; Porter 1985; Stace and Dunphy 1994; Hase et al 1998). There is strong interest in what can be done to make organizations more flexible so that they can compete nationally and internationally. Wealth creation and knowledge are becoming linked inextricably. Chichilnisky (1998) has observed that, as we move into the 21st century, we are learning to use the tools of IT to mine our "knowledge about knowledge." IT has shown us that information is not knowledge, and that while digitization, IT networks and technological innovation are all key aspects of the new economy, the common DNA driving these changes is knowledge. …

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