Workplace literacy and the influences of technology between implicitness and definition challenges – recruiting as a bridging position

This text was originally handed in as my final assignment of course PDG676 H14 Literacies in a digital world within the International Master’s programme Information Technology & Learning at Gothenburg University on January 12st 2015. 

The struggle for finding a superordinate definition of literacy can be retrieved regarding workplace literacy discussions (Mikulecky, 1988; Perin, 1997; Hull 2000; Belfiore, Defoe, Folinsbee, Hunter, and Jackson, 2004) and the influences of technology, being of interest for the workplace as a transforming key factor (Reinking, 1998). When literacy is seen as an age-independent continuum, distinguishing sharply between young and adult learners becomes hindering (UNESCO, 2009). In addition, the traditional dichotomy between literate-illiterate slows down the acknowledgement of lifelong learning (UNESCO, 2013). Rather, literacy is synonymous with “fundamental components of a complex set of foundational skills (or basic competencies), which require sustained learning and updating” (UNESCO, 2013, p. 17) to function as an empowering tool enriched by literate environments (UIL, 2010). The workplace connects various age groups with an enriched literate environment, where a social practice view of literacy is appropriate. When literacy is perceived as context-specific (UNESCO, 2005), a context definition backs the detection of skills and competencies for successful participation. Recruiting as a potential interface bridging literacy and context contributes by specifying required competencies to apply functional literacy in the work context. However, the expansion of literacy concepts complicates analysing it and distinguishing from “expressions such as knowledge, competence and learning” (Säljö, 2012, p. 6).

Literacy discussions incorporate technological influences slowly (UNESCO, 2013). The relation of literacy and technology can be described by the three frameworks learning, change and power (Warschauer and Ware, 2008). These frameworks can be relocated in the context of adult education, linking the fields of literacy, adult education and workplace environments. Warschauer and Ware (2008) see “literacies as plural, consisting of multiple competencies and practises, each shaped by different contexts, purposes and uses” (p. 215). They argue that a more narrow definition is limiting in a world with emerging digital media. In regard to their three-category framework, McCaffery, Merrifield and Millican (2007) focus on adult education and regard literacy as having several layers with its roots in reading and writing skills and as being contextualised in a social environment. The framework of Warschauer and Ware is related to McCaffery et al. (2007) and UNESCO (2013) to support the statement, that the change framework suits well to the workplace environment. The learning framework (competency approach; literacy as skills) focuses on how technology is used for learning and how it has an impact on learning outcomes. The change framework (social practice approach) considers technology as embodied in literacy, society and culture. ICT (information and communications technology) is compared to other means of communication, challenging traditional schooling due to its incapacity to keep up with rapid changes. Literacy represents how people use texts and make meaning out of it. However, the mere exposure to new literacies is not equated with benefitting from or engaging with them. Tightly connected with this framework are the results of the New London Group (1996) and the field of “new literacy studies” (Warschauer & Ware, 2008, p. 227). The power framework (radical approach; literacy as a tool for critical reflection and action for social change) has in common with the change framework the rapid flux of literacies whereas literacy practises are more closly connected to achieving social, economical and/or educational power. With the learning framework it shares the acknowledgement of educational achievement while the focus is on how students’ context shape access.

Focusing on the change framework seems particularly supporting in the workplace context where the general idea of reading and writing has to be applied to specific contexts. Furthermore, the research interest of describing the relation between home and school literacy practises can be extended by workplace practises. New literacy studies might be able to answer the call for a social practice view of literacy which „shows not just how people use texts socially, but how the meanings they give to texts […] are socially shaped“ (Belfiore et al, 2004). They focus on reading and writing in the social context and are grounded on social, psychological and historical aspects (Lankshear & Knobel, 2007; Barton & Lee, 2010). When it comes to literacy and new technology, it’s the “literate activities associated with new technologies” (Barton & Lee, 2010, p. 607) not the mere acquisition of computer skills. Bawden, D. (2008) coins the term “digital literacy” as a broader concepts which links ICT skills to soft-skills such as evaluating and understanding information (p. 28).

Recruiting fulfils a company’s personnel requirement, closing the capacity gap by allocating personnel (Wöhe, 2010) after screening (or assessing) potential employees. Thereby it operates as the interface between ‘literacy supply and demand’, redefining and shaping workplace requirements continuously by adjusting to labour market and personnel planning factors. One controversy in relation to literacy is the implicitness of functional literacy when defining competencies and the split between expertise (directly related to the job position) and interdisciplinary competencies (Rump, 2005). Johnson & Kress (2003) acknowledge this interwoven nature of theory, implementation and examination of new literacy studies. They distinguish between different environments (e.g. the workplace) where literacy applies but at the same time recognize the limitation of strict borders between these environments. The challenge is to define the workplace as a common environment reaching across organizations, where this can be demanding in one single organization (with diverse local cultures facing specific economical, societal and cultural influences within one corporate culture). The economical effects of globalisation are enriched by cultural effects, resulting out of (besides others) technology and automatisation (Kelly, Montigny, O’Neill & Sharpe, 1992; Reinking, 1998).

Benseman, J. (2014) describes Literacy, language and numeracy (LLN) as relatively new due to the fact that these skills are important as a prerequisite for all other forms of training. He contributes to the belief of the workplace as an enriching literate environment requiring a certain level of functional literacy. However, motivational aspects of learning to become literate are disregarded, when the context of application is unknown (D’Amico, 1997; Corus & Ozanne, 2011). In literacy conceptions, where diverse instances are contributing, the challenge of implicitness and definition can be solved by collaboration across artificially created borders between institutions, companies and others – recruiting in companies as one potential bridging position being able to support the communication process.

To improve productivity in organizations increasing skills are needed but Bensemann identifies a lack of defining these skills. The concept of employability investigate interdisciplinary qualification competencies (such as professional competence, initiative, entrepreneurial thinking) to define the ability to participate in work live (Rump, 2005) . These competencies shall be seen as a reference frame for lifelong learning and continuous personal reflection. However, they do not include critical technological awareness. Emerging technologies are perceived as tools for the workplace, implications on cognition (Säljö, 2012) and social bonds (Bazerman, 2011) are left aside. Simply using tools at home does not imply the same rules as at work (Säljö, 2012). Critical thinking is not necessarily linked to technological artifacts, where employees fail to recognise simple processes operating in personal computers. This is not a question of expertise but of how much we have to white-box the black-boxing effects emerging with technology (Säljö, 2012). Recruiting processes seem to incorporate technological components – again – implicitly without being able to define them.

To solve the “LLN-skills-demand / supply” mismatch Benseman proposes screening in the recruiting process (admitting the importance of an orderly labour market). However, there are two major limitations to be mentioned. First of all, to identify direct implication for LLN skills during the recruiting process, defining them explicitly during the selection process would be necessary. Certainly, the understanding of literacy is implicitly interwoven in required skills and competencies. For example, the request for a secondary school degree implicitly includes the ability to read and write. Secondly, to analyse the selection process, other influencing factors have to be considered to detect a correlation between companies’ skill needs and recruiting requirements. Due to the dependency on the labour market, recruiters have to adjust skills that do not necessarily meet the needs.

Recruiting is about finding the motivated; but in a broader perspective of literacy learning the question is rather what motivates people to become literate in a particular context. In fact, the focus should be on workplace literacy as expanding functional literacy by offering an enriched literate environment, which per se has the potential to motivate people to learn reading and writing. To support this motivation and to succeed in the workplace environment, identifying competencies to link literacy learning with context is necessary. Technological critical awareness is a potential interdisciplinary competency. The relation between workplace literacy and employability raises the question of who needs to read and who is motivated to engage in new literacy practises (Martin, 1998;, Scholtz & Prinsloo, 2001), how existing collaboration projects between industry and education are evaluated systematically (Leach & Zepke, 2005) and how to deal with the contradiction between the “inability to recruit employees with […] adequate skills” (Townsend & Waterhouse, 2008, p. 7) and “an increasing share of university-educated workers […] taking jobs where the average educational level has been much lower” (Brown, Hesketh, & Williams, 2004). Defining workplace literacy raises the question of responsibility for developing it (Townsend & Waterhouse, 2008). Collaboration between education, training providers and employers is seen as the key, arguing that educational and training systems are not able to stuff employers with job-ready applicants. Literacy learning thus becomes a continuum, where literacy supply are reflected by the schooling system; literacy demand by recruiting specialists. If functional literacy is seen as a foundational skill set, can we assume a transfer of knowledge to specific job training skills? How can workplace literacy be defined in a world where most of the future jobs are unknown today and position descriptions (the ‘borders’ between jobs) become more flexible?



Barton, D., Lee, C. (2010). Literacy Studies, In Wodak, R., Johnstone, B. & Kerswill, P. (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (pp. 598-611), Los Angeles: Sage Publications Ltd.

Bawden, D. (2008). Origins and concepts of Digital Literacy, In Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (Eds.), Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices (pp. 17-32), New York: Peter Lang.

Bazerman, C. (2011). Electrons Are Cheap; Society Is Dear, In Starke-Meyerring, D., Paré, A., Artemeva, N., Horne, M., & Yousoubova, L. (Eds.), Writing in Knowledge Societies. Perspectives on Writing (pp. 75-84), Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press.

Belfiore, M.; Defoe, T. A.; Folinsbee, S.; Hunter, J. & Jackson, N. S. (2004). Reading Work: Literacies in the New Workplace, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brown, P., Hesketh, A., & Williams, S. (2004), What Knowledge Economy?. In Brown, P., Hesketh, A., & Williams, S. The Mismanagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy,  Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Corus, C. & L. Ozanne, J. L. (2011). Critical Literacy Programs: Can Business Literacy be a Catalyst for Economic and Social Change?, Journal of macromarketing, 31, 184 – 198.

D’Amico, D. (1997). Adult education and welfare to work initiatives: a review of research, practice, and policy, Washington, DC: National Institute for Literacy.

Hull, G. (2000). Critical literacy at work. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 43(7), 648.

Johnson, D., & Kress, G. (2003). Globalisation, Literacy and Society: Redesigning pedagogy and assessment, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 10(1), 5-14.

Kelly, K., Montigny, G., O’Neill, T. & Sharpe, A. (1992). Literacy in the workplace, Perspectives on Labour and Income,  4(1).

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2007). Sampling ‘The New’ in New Literacies, In Knobel, M. & Lankshear, C. (Eds.), A New Literacies Sampler (pp. 1-24). New York: Peter Lang.

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2008). Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices, New York: Peter Lang.

Leach, L., & Zepke, N. (2005). Literacy in the workplace: An example of industry-university collaboration, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 57(2), 203-217.

Martin, J. (1998). As a blue-collar worker, does Johnny need to read?, Adult Basic Education, 8(3), 139.

McCaffery, J., Merrifield, J. & Millican, J. (2007). Developing adult literacy: Approaches to planning, implementing, and delivering literacy initiates, Oxford : Oxfam GB.

Mikulecky, L. (1988), Literacy for the Workplace.

New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: designing social futures, Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Perin, D. (1997). Workplace literacy assessment, Dyslexia, 3, 190–200.

Reinking, D. (1998). Changing Workplaces, Changing Classes: The New Role of Technology, In Mahwah, N. J., Handbook of Literacy and Technology. Transformations in a Post-typographic World.  L. Erlbaum Associates.

Rump, J. (2005): Employability Management, Abschlussbericht, Ludwigshafen 2005.

Scholtz, S., & Prinsloo, M. (2001). New workplaces, new literacies, new identities, Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 44(8), 710.

Säljö, R. (2012). Literacy, digital literacy and epistemic practices: The co-evaluation of hybrid minds and external memory systems, Nordic Journal of Digital Literacies, 7(1), 5-19.

Townsend, R. & Waterhouse, P. (2008). Whose responsibility? Employers‘ views on developing their workers‘ literacy, numeracy and employability skills.

UIL (2010). CONFINTEA VI: Belém Framework for Action: Harnessing the power and potential of adult learning and education for a viable future, Hamburg, UIL.

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Warschauer, M., & Ware, P.D. (2008). Learning, change and power: Competing frames of technology and literacy. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear, & D.J. Leu. (Eds.), Handbook of research on new literacies (pp.215-240). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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A critical perspective on competence-based assessment approaches in relation to HR policies: The potential of social network analysis to reveal authentic learning experience

This text was originally handed in as my final assignment of course TIA130 V15 Applied Research Methods and Design for Information Technologies and Learning within the International Master’s programme Information Technology & Learning at Gothenburg University on March 25st 2015. 


Human Resource (HR) policies are powerful instruments to define continuous professional learning strategies in workplace environments. They constitute definitions of central concepts such as knowledge, learning and competence for a specific organization and thus contribute to distinguish between these terms instead of using them synonymously (Säljö, 2012). Consistency in underlying theories can strengthen the organisation’s capability by combining “human capital (people skills and knowledge), social capital (relationships between people) and organisational capital (the organisation’s processes), and aligning them such that each supports the others” (Harris & Short, 2014, p. 5). In a society where knowledge becomes the most valuable good; including consistent epistemological, pedagogical and assessment related theoretical concepts in HR policies to reveal and evaluate this knowledge becomes increasingly important. Additionally, rising complexity and uncertainty in the world around us demands a focus shift from training to learning, from instructors to learners and from training departments to workplaces as a whole (Harris & Short, 2014). By saying so, future policies must not only embrace management theories but theories of knowledge management and learning to fulfill this increasing demands.

Competence-based assessment enables, besides others, the acknowledgement of pre-defined competences in a systematic way. However, coining the term competence is a challenging undertaking. Most definitions can be attributed to a middle space between competence as collective/universal attribute and competence as individual capacity (Le Deist & Winterton, 2005). The same authors propose a “multi-dimensional holistic competence approach”, which they see as an “opportunity of better aligning educational and work-based provision as well as exploiting the synergy between formal education and experiential learning to develop professional competence” (Le Deist & Winterton, 2005, p. 40). In this approach, competence is illustrated as a tetrahedron, consisting of cognitive competence (knowledge and understanding), functional competence (skills, social competence) and social competence (behavioural and attitudinal competencies) with a meta-competence being the facilitator for acquiring the other competences. The difficulty lies in the demand for describing competence in a multi-dimensional way. Additionally, such approach affects assessment practise, which has to reflect underlying competence assumptions. Another challenge is the ambiguity of the cognitive competence being the only component covering knowledge, while at the same time being inseparable from the other components. This competence approach merely touches upon socio-cultural lenses of knowledge, where this can be created, stored and retrieved through the embedded context the individual finds him-/herself in. Hence, it only implicitly considers workplace networks conceptualizations, such as the workplace exchange network proposed by Cole, Schaninger and Harris (2002). However, making these networks explicit is necessary to reveal not only social networks per se, but another layer of an authentic professional learning experience.

If workplace environments are seen as best represented by socio-cultural learning theories, the future bottleneck will be competence-based assessment practices. This is because firstly, power will shift from employers to employees due to demographic developments and secondly, acknowledgement of competence will continue to be the driving force within labour markets. Constantly re-defining required competences for this assessment practices is a bottomless pit in the light of the demand for more flexible position descriptions and rising expectations of employees. However, expanding the competence approach by measures of social network analysis (SNA) to describe the positions of individual actors and groups as well as their relations (ties) to one another within a certain network can contribute to extenuate the bottleneck effects. In the course of this thesis it will be necessary to give an overview of components which SNA can reveal in relation to learning assessment practises and how they can be interpreted in a meaningful way considering the organizational context. Another perspective SNA offers is the intent to represent actual networks independently of pre-defined competences. As a result, categories such as formal/informal learning could be partially merged by evaluating employees’ networks as a whole. Generating explicit competences can promote misleading dichotomies, such as for example body/mind (is there a strict distinction between cognitive, social and functional competence?) and formal/informal (how does this approach embrace and promote spontaneous learning activities outside of formal schedules for learning activities?). If knowledge and learning is said to be embodied in the contextual environment of the actors in a network, using competence-based assessment approaches might be partly inconsistent.

In my research proposal, I suggest a shift in assessment approaches by exploring SNA as a method of the emerging field of learning analytics. As for the exact measures, I still have to decide on a network principle I would like explore. For this, I will need some more extended literature review on previous research efforts. As for now, I stick to the measure of centrality, being the most important tool for analysing the importance of social network actors (Carrington, Scott, & Wasserman, 2005). All in all, I claim that SNA provides potential to reveal, measure and evaluate employees’ learning networks and their learning experience based on diverse data sources readily available. In a competitive economic environment, advantages will lie within making use of data and having power over developing suitable algorithms for the good of the organization. Social networks represent knowledge to a certain extend and thus should be considered as assessment approach for employee suitability and the value of knowledge in organizational HR strategies.

The research question for my proposal is formulated by

Can centrality measures of social network analysis (SNA) complement competence-based assessment approaches in workplace environments to support the implementation of HR policies based on socio-cultural/embodied learning theories?

Measures of centrality in SNA have been discussed widely but can be narrowed down to the three most important concepts degree, betweenness and closeness (Freeman, 1978). Competency based assessment approaches refer to defining sets of competence as a basis for assessing concepts such as employee performance and potential. HR policies are seen as representations of the strategic perspective on all human resource related topics within a certain organization. Socio- cultural/embodied learning theories represent the branch of learning theories within which learning and knowledge is seen as inseparable from its context and the social networks in which it occurs.

As for prior research it becomes clear that the focus lies on formal school settings and includes mostly students, indicating a gap of researching learning in organizations in general. In addition, most research has been conducted in online environments, leaving aside the potential to use centrality measures for offline social networks as well. In relation to organizational educational settings, it has been proposed to focus more on uncovering the holistic (authentic) professional learning experience than the evaluation of specific learning programmes (Webster-Wright, 2009).

Dawson (2008) used social network analysis to determine the relation between a student’s position in the social network and their reported sense of community. She concluded, that the centrality measures closeness and degrees are positively correlated to the reported sense of community, while betweenness show the opposite correlation. In addition, pre-existing external social networks influence the sense of community experienced to a certain extend. Kovanović, Joksimović, Gašević, and Hatala (2014) investigated the concept of social presence and it’s positive correlation to network centrality measures by taking data from student discussion boards. The relationship between digital learning and network learning has been detected by the study of Ünlüsoy, De Haan, Leander, and Volker (2013). Levels of activism and their correlation to occupational ties for movement participants have been investigated by Tindall, Cormier, and Diani (2012). All of these studies can be valuable starting points for my research proposal to identify more explicit concepts.

The objectives of this study are to evaluate two perspectives on learning in current HR research, namely workforce development and continuous professional learning. Furthermore, it intends to identify the importance of terms such as competence, knowledge, learning and assessment in HR policies and demonstrate the limitations of competence-based assessment approaches from a socio-cultural stance on learning. By illustrating the potential of SNA, it depicts a contributor to an assessment approach which can reveal authentic learning experience in the workplace. To illustrate the potential of SNA, this research investigates the correlation between network position focusing on centrality measures and learning experience by analysing and comparing learner’s position in social networks within a formal online training course and in the internal social media platform in general.

The intended audience for this study are learning policy and strategy makers in workplace environments, particularly focusing on assessment practices and the notion of knowledge in organizational environments. The proposed study is particular useful as it takes a critical stance on competence management, assessment practices and their significance for future continuous professional learning strategies. Furthermore by intending to be even more specific in chosen terminology and methodology, it aims at closing the identified gaps in the literature. One important aspect that is still left open is the identification of specific concepts, which shall be researched. The way this proposal is formulated now is still too broad and bold in assumptions and to less focussed on actual underlying theories. Assessment is one concept which needs clarification, especially to support its importance in this proposal as a whole. The same applies for the importance of knowledge and the particular link to underlying theories such as knowledge management and management theories.

Literature review

Within HR policies wording and terminology are important factors. Rephrasing professional development by continuous professional learning could contribute to exploring the holistic learning experience of professionals. In addition to this shift in terminology to address authentic professional learning, Webster-Wright (2009) identifies a lack of research when it comes to exploring the latter holistic learning experience. Assessment is said to be a critical factor within the epistemology – pedagogy – assessment triangle and reflects assumptions about knowledge and learning. Methods of learning analytics shall be used only when these intersections are clearly understood and considered (Knight, Buckingham, & Littleton, 2014). By revealing social networks of employees, this approach could contribute to respond to future research suggestions investigating coherent models of learning within workplace environments which include formal and informal learning aspects (Kyndt & Baert, 2013).

The gap exists when it comes to relating measures of SNA to the value of an individual’s position within his/her social networks in an organizational context. This is because most studies using measures of SNA are mostly performed in educational settings and relate these measures to competency based assessment results.

Hence, there is a missing link between measures of SNA and their potential for economic network value estimation. Some research might guide directions, such as research into social networks and sense of community (Dawson, 2008) or social capital (Kovanović, Joksimović, Gašević, & Hatala, 2014). However, these studies are again connected to academic performance in formal education settings. Current research additionally attempts to create approaches where data is used to extract competencies and match them with the organizational recruiting requirements. But these approaches are based on defined competencies, an approach I am aiming to complement (or even substitute) by using measures of SNA and borrowing suitable terminology for this purpose. For the development of my proposal, it is necessary to identify those research papers using SNA to describe social networks for the sake of being networks and using appropriate complementary concepts to value them.



Carrington, P. J., Scott, J., Wasserman, S. (2005). Models and methods in social network analysis: Elektronisk resurs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, M. S., Schaninger, W. S., & Harris, S. G. (2002). The workplace social exchange network: A multilevel, conceptual examination. Group & Organization Management, 27(1), 142-167. doi:10.1177/1059601102027001008.

Dawson, S. (2008). A study of the relationship between student social networks and sense of community. Educational Technology & Society, 11(3), 224–238.

Freeman, L. C. (1978). Centrality in social networks conceptual clarification. Social Networks, 1(3), 215-239. doi:10.1016/0378-8733(78)90021-7.

Gonczi, A. (2004). The New Professional and Vocational Education. In Foley (Ed.) The Dimensions of Adult Education (pp. 19-34). Open University Press.

Harris, R., Short, T. (2014). Workforce development: Perspectives and issues. Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Haythornthwaite, C. (1996). Social network analysis: An approach and technique for the study of information exchange. Library and Information Science Research, 18(4), 323-342. doi:10.1016/S0740-8188(96)90003-1.

Hogan, B., Carrasco, J. A., & Wellman, B. (2007). Visualizing personal networks: Working with participant-aided sociograms. Field Methods, 19(2), 116-144. doi:10.1177/1525822X06298589.

Kovanović, V., Joksimović, S., Gašević, D., Hatala, M. (2014), “What is the source of social capital? The association between social network position and social presence in communities of inquiry,” In Proceedings of 7th International Conference on Educational Data Mining – Workshops, London, UK.

Knight, S., Buckingham Shum, S. & Littleton, K. (2014). Epistemology, assessment, pedagogy: where learning meets analytics in the middle space. Journal of Learning Analytics, 1(2) pp. 23–47.

Kyndt, E., & Baert, H. (2013). Antecedents of employees’ involvement in work-related learning: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 83(2), 273-313.

Le Deist, F. D., & Winterton, J. (2005). What is competence? Human Resource Development International, 8(1), 27-46. doi:10.1080/1367886042000338227.

Tan, E. (2014). Human capital theory: A holistic criticism. Review of Educational Research, 84(3), 411-445. doi:10.3102/0034654314532696.

Säljö, R. (2012). Literacy, digital literacy and epistemic practices: The co-evolution of hybrid minds and external memory systems. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 7(1), 5-20.

Tindall, D. B., Cormier, J., & Diani, M. (2012). Network social capital as an outcome of social movement mobilization: Using the position generator as an indicator of social network diversity. Social Networks, 34(4), 387-395. doi:10.1016/j.socnet.2011.12.007.

Tubaro, P., Casilli, A. A., & Mounier, L. (2014). Eliciting personal network data in web surveys through participant-generated sociograms. Field Methods, 26(2), 107-125.

Ünlüsoy, A., De Haan, M., Leander, K., & Volker, B. (2013). Learning potential in youth’s online networks: A multilevel approach. Computers & Education, 68, 522.

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 702-739. doi:10.3102/0034654308330970.

Success factors of e-learning in workplace environments

This text was originally handed in as my final assignment of course PDG083 V15 Contemporary Adult Education (Samtida vuxenutbildning) at Gothenburg University on March 30st 2015. 


E-learning has suffered from criticism, for example by Dreyfus (2002) stating that online environments do not support learning at all as they prohibit learning commitment or by Wang, Ran, Liao, & Yang (2010) denouncing the missing motivational component of e-learning. In workplace environments, however, e-learning is still implemented frequently as it fulfills specific needs such as cost-efficiency, on-demand supply of easily updatable workforce trainings, and flexible access independently of time and place (Reynolds, Becker, & Fleming, 2014). A range of scientific fields contributes to this discussion and disagreement exists on fundamental assumptions of knowledge, pedagogy and assessment (Knight, Buckingham Shum, & Littleton, 2014). Human Resource Development (HRD) tends to frame e-learning as a training method and by saying so to create a tension between both terms training and learning. There are two main resulting challenges: firstly, the conception of learning per se and secondly, the perception of learning as being mostly formal and programme success outperforming untapping the holistic learning experience of professionals (Webster-Wright, 2009). Besides these important conceptual debates, I believe that research on success factors of e-learning implementation can be highly fruitful when taking into account a well-structured and congruent continuous learning strategy in organizations. In this paper I outline selected research on success factors for e-learning in the workplace and how these factors have been empirically investigated. Taking a socio-cultural stance on learning, I am focussing on organizational support and learners’ interaction as success-factors.

E-learning in workplace environments contextualised in the field of adult education

Organizations are one important contributor to adult education and face the steady balancing of cost-efficiency and continuing learning for the greater good. They are an important actor when it comes to integrating conceptual and experimental knowledge reaching across organizations and institutions (Gonczi, 2004). Nevertheless, calls for openness of learning activities to external participants are mostly answered by insisting on business secrets and gaining advantages over competitors. In his fourth part on vocational education, Jarvis (2014) describes the trend from developing employees for the good of the organization through initiating internal training courses and regarding the employee as human capital. Yet, numerous trainings were conducted in corporation with external providers such as universities as centres of lifelong education. Jarvis describes modularisation as a trend due to the higher demand of short courses for knowledge and practise, as well as the shift from education to learning. Consequently, conclusions in this paper cover not only the investigation of organizational support and interaction as success factors for e-learning, but also how future research could contribute to an open learning approach within and across organizations and workplaces.

Theoretical perspectives on e-learning in workplace environments

Tynjälä and Häkkinen (2005) examine theoretical perspectives on e-learning in workplaces and identify three knowledge sources for successful e-learning solutions, namely theories of the learning organization (e-learning should go beyond presenting material and supporting individual learners), sociocultural theories (e-learning should create long-term cross-functional  and authentic communities of practise) and finally cognitive theories of learning and studies on the development of expertise (e-learning should enable participants to use experiential knowledge and integrate it with conceptual knowledge) (p. 323). The authors discuss problems related to workplace learning in general and learning in a virtual environment where they emphasize the importance of the overall learning culture of an organization, the challenge to maintain a sense of community in virtual environments and the importance of linking human resource development to learning activities (pp. 325). As three main reasons why e-learning in organizations fail they name “lack of personalization, lack of collaboration and interactivity, and that e-learning has not been learner oriented.” (p. 327). In their conclusion, they add the importance of including different forms of representations (reading, writing, audio, etc.) and face-to-face learning situations. Reynolds, Becker, & Fleming (2014) summarise their recent paper on contemporary challenges in e-learning by emphasizing a critical perspective on interaction, interaction and the connection to actual learning as well as the concept of social presence.

Empirical investigations on success factors of e-learning in workplace environments

In their empirical study, Sun, Tsai, Finger, Chen, & Yeh (2008) identified learner’s computer anxiety, instructor attitude towards e-learning, e-learning course flexibility, e-learning course quality, perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use and diversity in assessment as critical factors influencing e-learner’s satisfaction. Based on a questionnaire guided survey, they resumed that 66.1% of the variance in user satisfaction is connected to the mentioned factors. Interestingly, the independent variable ”learner perceived interaction with others” was not showing a significant correlation to learner’s satisfaction.

Minhong, Weijia, Jian, & Yang (2010) concluded that e-learning should associate learning needs of individuals and the organisation, relate work and learning performance and foster social interaction among learners. They proposed a key performance indicator (KPI) approach that takes into account pedagogical, organizational and technological components to enhance the learning process. In their theoretical framework they mentioned Tynjälä and Häkkinen, to support their claim that “[…] current e-learning development tends to focus on technical issues of design and ignores pedagogical and organizational issues that are necessary for effective e-learning programs to address” (p. 167). It becomes clear, that this paper conceptualised learning in the workplace as combining work, organization and other learners, thus considering a broader perspective on the e-learning environment. In comparison to the study of Sun et al. the authors tested a KPI-system based on their theoretical conceptualization. Their results suggest that this system improved the facilitation of social learning but diminishes benefits for the organization (mostly due to monetary aspects). This indicates a possible conflict being present in workplace learning strategies: the interplay of social learning and cost efficient argumentations in the frame of e-learning solutions.

Even more recently Cheng et al. (2011) conducted a study on the acceptance of competency-based workplace e-learning systems. In their study they used a model which supported “competency-oriented, self-directed, and socially constructed online learning in the workplace” (p. 1331). As a theoretical foundation they also used the paper of Tynjälä and Häkkinen to support the social process involved in adult learning (p.1330). As challenges for workplace e-learning they see the link between individual and organizational development. The result of their study was that “perceived usefulness of work-integrated pedagogical design in terms of improving self-directed learning processes and promoting collaboration among colleagues has positive influences on employees’ behavioral intention to use the e-learning system […]” (p. 1331). This means that again, designing e-learning to foster collaboration (in the study as enhancing social ties and perceived support for promoting a norm of cooperation) correlates positively with the perceived usefulness of the system. However, perceived support for enhancing social ties was negatively correlated to the intention to use, one likely explanation being the critical perspective on engaging in social networks in the workplace. They also concluded that practical value and relevancy for the job are important components influencing the perception of e-learning systems.

Michalski (2014) explored a work-based e-learning tool, which in addition to other tools supports everyday work. By doing so, she is expanding the frame of context-based learning from learning about real-life work situations to actually learning in real-life work situations. She referred to Tynjälä and Häkkinen within her theoretical foundation, when framing social interaction and the need to address context and tools for work-based e-learning and training processes in their own right with respect to practice and research (p. 161). Her focus lies on tensions in e-learning design and the organizational frame, where she points out that e-learning tools should be seen from a broader perspective within a social context because the concept of formal learning and certification is limiting its potential. Her article focusses in the instrumentality of symbolic interaction (SI), with a central conclusion being “E-learning artefacts are intentionally and unintentionally imbued with symbolic meanings generated in the practice of everyday work. A more complex understanding of the learning context must therefore take this into account, so that the planning, introduction and ongoing adaptation of formal training and e-learning programmes can indeed become context-sensitive” (p. 146).


All in all, this paper revealed the multifaceted nature of success factors of e-learnings in organizations. Organizational support and learners’ interaction are operationalised and contextualised differently by researchers and it is important to recognize theoretical underpinnings in their research papers. Throughout the four papers investigated, it seems as if social factors of e-learning are becoming more relevant and are thus included in theoretical conceptions and practical implications. E-learning in the workplace is seen as a context-bound learning experience, which is more than the pure training of contents. Fostering social interactions and drawing on organizational support to enhance the learner’s perception of e-learning comes to the fore. Besides tightly connecting theoretical pedagogical stances, organizational needs and context as well as social interaction, recent research trends indicate a shift from training to learning not only about the work-context but in the work-context, further tearing down the artificial borders between informal and formal learning activities. Thus, this research contributes to the claim for viewing the holistic learning experience, avoiding false dichotomies and acknowledging the potential of technology within this setting. Taking this perspective could also support enhancing borderless learning, where learning does not stop with the borders of a individual organization but where learning can take place across organizations, recognizing existing social networks of learners and acknowledging learning as being a complex and important aspect of continuous professional development.


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