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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Introduction of the visible and invisible in work and learning
Article Type: Editorial From: Journal of Workplace Learning, Volume 26, Issue 6/7
This special issue of Journal of Work and Learning (JWL) features articles that were originally presented to the international conference “Researching Work and Learning” (RWL), hosted by the University of Stirling in Scotland from 19 to 21 June, 2013. Held every two years, RWL travels the globe and draws an impressively international group of delegates: the next scheduled meeting is in Singapore from 9 to 12 December. Typically, the conference invites papers in topical streams within the general field of work and learning research. These include specific areas such as professional practice and learning, leadership, labour studies, organizational change, unpaid work, vocational education, learning theory, identity, migration, policy, gender and difference and historical studies.
Presenters are invited to submit their papers for review to the corresponding JWL special issue, also a tradition of the RWL conference. This particular special issue, based on the 2013 conference, follows the conference theme of “visibility and invisibility” in work and learning. Conference papers addressed this theme in creative ways. Some examined the sorts of knowledge, actors and parts of the environment that become most visible in work practices or work education. Others addressed questions of marginalization. These tended to explore the people, practices and things that remain invisible, asking why this was so and what were the effects. Some focused on infrastructures or technologies that are normally invisible to workers and managers and analysed situations when actors become aware of these. Overall, of course, a major question emerged for researchers themselves, examining what research methods and analytical approaches can make the invisible visible – and what are the consequences, both desirable and undesirable, of doing so.
The papers presented here reflect not only this theme of visibility/invisibility, but also a sampling of research issues that have become prominent in diverse disciplinary locations (vocational training, sociology of work, organisation studies, education and lifelong learning) and theoretical perspectives relevant to work-learning studies. Further, the authors and their study sites reflect diverse international regions across Southeast Asia, Australia, South Africa and very different areas of Europe as well as the UK. This disciplinary and geographic diversity is important to note. One can see clearly throughout the papers a wide range of approaches, not only in doing research and presenting it but also in selecting which questions seem most pressing. As editors, we thought it more interesting to open this special issue to alternate ways of thinking and writing rather than to reject those that might not be considered “standard” by certain Anglo-American traditions that might consider themselves authoritative. Finally, we deliberately encouraged and are proud to include here articles authored by very early career researchers. Their enthusiastic voices and fresh, sometimes surprising questions and connections are worth listening to.
Nick Hopwood’s paper is centrally concerned with how we can theorise our understanding of workplace learning. He builds on the concept of texture of practices and connectedness in action, as originally proposed by Silvia Gherardi. He argues that the temporal spatial, bodily and material dimensions of texture and connectedness are often ignored in conventional accounts of work and learning accounts; using empirical data gathered from an ethnographic study, Nick sets out to explore what these four dimensions bring to our understanding, and analysing, of practice and learning.
Renée Tan, another early careers researcher, adopts an analytic approach that may strike some readers as radically different to those often available in academic journals, even those accustomed to the postcolonial perspectives and autoethnographic methods upon which she draws. However, as she explains, sometimes there is need to “speak back” to what she explains as Western models of thinking and representation, if post-colonial countries such as her native Singapore are to explore a “Singaporean way”. As she reflects on the changing system of continuing education and training in Singapore, in dialogue with a critical friend, Renee offers a useful glimpse of the issues, conflicting ideologies and potential alternatives confronting such countries amidst the stark forces of economic globalization.
One of these forces is the increasing drive for innovation in work organisations. “Innovation”, of course, is definitionally slippery, and is often seen as a governing discourse. Innovative processes occur not only in design but also in everyday practice, and work-learning researchers have become interested in “employee-driven” innovation. Lena Lippke and Charlotte Wegener develop a useful concept of “boundary pushing” to examine everyday innovation that bubbles up from the small and often overlooked arenas of workers’ activity. Their ethnographic studies unfolded in four Danish technical vocational training colleges, focusing on teachers’ strategies for working with students at risk. Working through a careful analysis using theories of boundary objects and worker innovation, Lena and Charlotte offer a rich discussion of the teachers’ innovative experimentation as various forms of boundary pushing.
Keiko Yasukawa, Tony Brown and Stephen Black ask how “expansive learning”, from Engeström’s conceptions, might occur in production companies undergoing “lean production” training. Employing Engeström’s version of cultural historical activity theory, where disturbance can lead to new forms of knowledge in an organisation, the authors posit that lean production reforms might act as such a generative disturbance. Their analysis compares results from two studies of very different Australian manufacturing plants. Readers will enjoy plenty of data excerpts illustrating not only the contradictions put in play by notions of “lean production” in such organisations but also challenging questions about the actual possibilities for and meanings of workplace learning.
Dominant ideas of what constitutes work may also serve to conceal as much as they reveal. Richard Edwards debates the concept of the amateur as a way of exploring the meanings and possibilities of work that is undertaken for love. The radical modernization processes of contemporary societies have tended to stress the values and practices of professionalism, often accompanied by regulatory frameworks and forms of management that evoke Weber’s metaphor of bureaucracy as an iron cage. In this context, the amateur is often presented as risky, even a threat to standards and expertise. Richard seeks to persuade us to understand professionalism and amateurism in a new and hybrid manner, as potentially complementary rather than threatening, and sketches out an agenda for researching the contribution of the amateur.
Practice-based learning theory is becoming increasingly important for researchers of organisations, work and learning. Ann Reich and Paul Hager provide a useful overview of practice-learning perspectives. They identify six distinct “threads” evident in recent practice-based research in work and learning, and pose some critical questions about these perspectives. Sarah Stewart, a recently graduated PhD student and the winner of the best student paper award at the 2013 RWL conference, uses one particular practice-based learning perspective to examine the professional learning involved in interagency work addressing violence. Her interest is in tracing how the multiple practices of such interagency work – each gathering together particular actors and material, and each embedding specific forms of knowing – shape what is learned and by whom.
Thomas Thijssen argues that a focus on workplace learning for all is prompted not only by human capital approaches to policy but is also encouraged conceptually by an understanding of learning as a socio-material practice. While more conventional views of human capital tend to be silent on questions of poverty and social inclusion, Thomas’s paper presents a way of measuring the social quality of public services and reports on an innovative initiative that was designed to tackle poverty and exclusion through workplace learning. Although it reports on the early stages of ongoing research, Thomas’ paper indicates that this study has considerable potential for influencing policy and practice.
Much research into workplace learning has involved workers in the public sector or highly educated managers and professionals. By addressing the area of workplace learning in small companies, Rebecca McPherson and Jia Wang provide insights on workplace learning from employer perspectives. Interestingly, their case studies also present evidence of the enduring influence of religious beliefs of these three small business owners in shaping their attitudes towards low-paid workers. This reminds us that understandings of workplace learning are inevitably bound up with wider sets of values and cultural preferences, which can include those of customers and suppliers as well as the employers themselves.
Linda Cooper’s paper was originally written as a keynote for the Stirling conference. She sets out to interrogate dominant perspectives on workplace learning from the standpoint of the Global South. Readers may well be aware of the lively debates in critical theory, postcolonial studies, cultural studies and other related disciplines over the complex effects of the asymmetrical power relations between nations. This wider debate has also influenced discussions of North–South knowledge production in education and science, but Linda is among the first to bring these insights and approaches to bear upon learning at work. Her paper presents an explicit challenge to researchers to better understand the diversity of work and learning internationally.
Tara Fenwick and John Field