Situated Learning Analysis of an Army Headquarters

Situated Learning Analysis of an Army Headquarters By Peter Jones Introduction Many commentators now argue that workplace learning has become increasingly crucial to the on-going success of an organisation responding to external rapid change (Coetzer 2006, p. 1). However, workplace learning is not in the current vernacular of the Australian Army.

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In theory, adult learning, normally as expressed by the Army in terms of training, is generally seen as a deliberate, structured, and formal process through which individuals and groups acquire the skills, knowledge, and attitudes, necessary for individuals, small and large groups to carry-out their functions. However, in practice the learning environment within the Army is somewhat different. Not surprisingly, like their civilian counterparts, Army men and women acquire much of their professional understanding while in their normal place of work: in offices, workshops, the field training, on operational deployments and other workplaces.

Whether the Army acknowledges it or not, workplace learning is becoming an increasingly more desirable and necessary component of learning and education in the 21st Century. A number of approaches to creating a taxonomy of forms of learning and knowledge have emerged within the discipline of androgogy. This paper will focus on following forms of work-place learning: experiential learning; collaborative inquiry, and work-based improvement initiative. Each of these approaches are used increasingly within the Army; but; as yet are under-utilised.

These forms of learning will be discussed; through using the experiences of the writer; and in each case the forms of knowledge as outcomes of these forms of workplace learning will be identified. The situations in which the learning occurs will be examined to highlight positive and negative aspects from a human resource development (HRD) perspective and more detailed comments on HRD issues will be discussed later in the paper. Outcomes of learning—knowledge—will be expressed in the conceptual, procedural, and dispositional forms (Billett 2001, p. 0-51); that draw on a cognitive structure that “represents a form of organisation in memory, and accessing memory. ” (Smith 2001a, p. 2) Experiential Based Learning In recent years the Australian Army has followed the lead of the US and several dozen Western armies in establishing a Combat Training Centre for the conduct of instrumented, force-on-force, realistic experiential-based training. Experiential-based learning has become increasing popular as an approach to field and command-post based training and is now seen as a crucial part of workplace learning for the operational forces.

The writer’s colleagues were exposed to this approach to workplace learning in June 2006 during a decision-making workshop conducted for a Headquarters. The activity was run over a seven day period and was designed to provide hands-on experience for 30 officers in order to improve their leadership and decision making skills. The forms of knowledge the writer sees as outcomes of this experiential-based learning activity as an understanding of procedures, roles, and the ability to apply specific knowledge and processes (Heldberg Et Al, 2002, p. ) or in summary procedural knowledge. Indeed, the writer sees the aggregated outcomes as significantly improving intuitive decision making through the ability of those who participated in this workshop to undertake like tasks in a more capable and timely manner. The five steps involved in experiential learning: experiencing, publishing, processing, generalising, and applying (Long 1990 p. 54); are well suited to way Army conducts activities and, with a little fine-tuning, these steps can be readily applied to many workplace learning situations.

Indeed, the experiential learning approach that sees that “…knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb 1984, p. 41). Without question the use of the experiential approach to acquiring the procedural knowledge draws on the understanding that the learning must be relevant to the learner and uses an inquiry-based approach (Chappell and Hawke, 2005, p. 3). Associated with the broader subject of experiential learning is the associated concept of reflective learning. This proposal underscores the term meta-cognition (Cullen 1999 p. 8) where learning takes place through the active reflection of a learning experience. As an adjunct to experiential learning the concept of life experience is a way individuals create personal constructs to give meaning to their world of experiences (Henry Et. Al. p. 2) has always been important to the military and is associated with experiential learning. The Army has always placed an emphasis on operational service as being the best teacher; and the oral tradition of war stories has grown around this theme. However, despite the almost religious reverence for war heroes the formal role of experiential learning has been slow in gaining acceptance with the military hierarchy. A decision making workshop discussed above was conducted off-site in a relatively sterile building.

The advantages of the situation included the cool, well-lit environment to provide a distraction free and comfortable environment for the participants; and access to information technology to assist with the recoding of data and access to data bases. The scenarios developed for the activity were produced by a small production staff who crafted realistic and relevant situations that were well-supported by the typical maps and written products that would normally be received by personnel about to be involved in real-time decision making activity of this type.

The workshop was conducted off-site the full attention of the participants was achieved; even mobile phone had to be left in a secured locker. However, on the negative side the environment did not closely replicate the environment in which they would work under normal circumstances and failed to inculcate the sense of urgency that would normally be in place. Work-based Improvement Initiatives

The ability of the Army Headquarters to pass to the next higher headquarters and an appropriate number of finely crafted, well-researched and credible nominations for Honours and Awards, has been a significant point of contention for the Commander Over the last two series of Honours and Awards submissions, of which the writer was an observer, the nominations failed to reach the standard required by the Divisional Commander and they were not well received by the higher headquarters.

As such, the Personnel Section assigned the task of producing these submissions were under the microscope. Given the deficiencies in the recent submissions significant imperative for improving the quality of these documents; using an improvement initiatives approach to learning within the Personnel Section. The learning design focused on improving the quality of the inputs—the submissions from the subordinate brigades—and on the HQ Personnel Staff learning how to transform these submissions into the well crafted documents required to achieve results.

The learning outcomes in both cases focused on the capacity of the writers to meaningfully and reflectively apply procedural knowledge to encourage a capacity to apply knowledge with time and performance constraints (Hedberg Et Al 2002). The situation under which this learning occurred was interesting. The task had been given to a novice team in the Personnel Section who were explained the outcomes required and provided assistance in locating the appropriate procedures and policies to follow.

They were also assisted with the provision of examples of successful nominations that had been submitted to the higher Headquarters in the past. However, little guided learning was taking place. The novice team were given little one-on-one assistance and were expected to accomplish other work non-related Personnel Section while undertaking the Honours and Awards nominations. Not surprisingly, the Personnel Staff failed to achieve the task set (having not achieved the learning outcomes necessary to accomplish the task).

The Formal Learning Process and the Army Workplace John Garrick suggests there are two common themes emerge from discourse on workplace learning: a positive and supportive learning environment is critical to the success of learning and training endeavours; and that workplace learning is a planned and structure process which extends beyond the individuals current endeavours (Boud and Garrick, 1999, p. 216). These themes provide significant clarity to the workplace the writer has observed over the last three months; especially once Human Capital Theory is uper-imposed over the current Army training and learning approach. Certainly, unlike many 21st Century capitalist organisation the Army is yet to demonstrate mature tendencies towards the post-modern conditions of work (arguably, the Army should be last of organisation to be characterised by restructuring, dispersal and fragmentation in a stable society). However, in the longer term the writer’s workplace is unlikely to escape the super-complexity (Boud and Garrick, 1999 p. 31) of the post-modern working environment.

So, at least in the present, the Army has the benefit of creating a learning environment where the workers and the organisation enjoy a relatively stable environment and where Human Capital Theory—or at least a version of it—has a place. The Army has a very formal HRD process referred-to earlier in the paper; where informal learning does not enjoy the same status as formal instruction. The current model is based on formal training as part of a soldier’s or officer’s career path in employment specific and other more general competencies.

The attendances on formal courses to acquire these competencies are important milestones in one’s career. The Army’s approach to learning does not take due regard for the cognitive-gestalt approaches (Burns, 2002 p. 124) where the focus is on the role of experience and cognition provide the learning outcome. Army training remains firmly set in the paradigm of developing and conducting set training regimes in a one-size-fits-all approach. A version of Human Capital Theory (HCT) is at play in the Army and is a dynamic at play at the Headquarters.

However, rather than the being focused on cost to the organisation and the price individuals command, within the writer’s perspective the version of HCT demonstrated in the Headquarters demonstrates a link between investing in individuals over the span of that employee’s career on the basis that the individual will be rewarded through promotion. The cost to the organisation is believed to be returned through creating a sense of loyalty and expectation for interesting jobs, challenges, and better conditions of service.

As such the employer expects more loyalty and trust in the organisation; whereas the employee expects to progress on merit in a fair system of checks and balances. As a corollary, the role of Performativity, that follows the principle of optimal performance, has a place in the Headquarters workplace and is related to the growing role of competency-based training in the Army with the technical-rationalists colluding with training zealots.

Taking much, but not all, of the issue of financial benefit out of the equation has the effect of creating a more level playing field where Billett’s concept of contested terrain is less pronounced (Billett 2001, p. 7). From a HRD perspective the Army and the Headquarters is significantly lacking is in the area of Learning-Network Theory (LTN) and learning communities of practice. The dominance of the functionalist approach to workplace learning (Poell Et. Al. 2000, pp. 6-8) within Army is rampant; and is based on the top-down approach to the development of the Army Training Model.

As such much of Army escapes the typical “cost-reduction strategy [that] involves enhancing competitiveness by lowering the prices of product or services” (Huang 2001, p2). As such, Army tends to be in a better position of affording workplace learning; but many of Billett’s (undated) observations still apply; such as training priority going to the managements perception of the workers with worth and status. Communities of practice are not well established, or at least formally encouraged, with in Army and currently within the Headquarters. The participation of individuals in Social Learning Systems (Wegner 2000, p. 9) has not been investigated but given the benefits of this approach could be of significant benefit to the Headquarters. At present, the Headquarters does not demonstrate many of the qualities of the Senge’s Learning Organisation. The socio-cultural climate is as best lukewarm in its facilitation of learning. The development of the workers problem solving skills are a focus for learning; but little learner-led assistance is provided outside formal training. Individual empowerment is encouraged but the cultural issues of rank, gender, and race do have varying influences.

The Headquarters by nature is not well disposed towards flexibility, innovation, adaptability; and organisational goals are not well presented or understood. Workplace learning is not given as high a priority as the requirement for individuals attending their necessary career courses of instruction. The Headquarters is undergoing change, but under an umbrella of ‘less change is better’, and a deep-seated suspicion of change and change-managers. When profound changes to workplace learning in the Army will occur is unclear but what is clear is that McElroy (2000) three disparate communities are far from converging in the military.

Conclusion On the surface workplace learning is not well-entrenched within the Army culture of today; though there are indications that on-the-job training and experience have always been highly regarded by the military; given their propensity for regard of oral tradition. In this paper three forms of learning have been explored in the writer’s workplace: experiential learning; collaborative inquiry, and work-based improvement initiative. Experiential-based learning is growing in favour in the Army and has much to offer those who are especially seeking procedural knowledge.

The example of collaborative inquiry relating the imparting of knowledge related to cultural understanding demonstrated the utility of this form of learning. Finally, in a more conventional workplace setting the writer offered an example of learning through an improvement initiative relating to the drafting of well-crafted nominations for Military Honours and Awards. In this case the results were poor, not surprisingly given the lack of direction, assistance, and resources provided to the novice Personnel Section.

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