This article explores the strengths and weaknesses of Lave and Wenger's concept of 'legitimate peripheral participation' as a means of understanding workplace learning. It draws on recent ESRC-funded research by the authors in contemporary workplace settings in the UK (manufacturing industry and secondary schools) to establish the extent to which Lave and Wenger's theories can adequately illuminate the nature and process of learning at work. The new research presented here, which was located in complex institutional settings, highlights the diverse nature of patterns and forms of participation. Case study evidence is used to identify individual and contextual factors which underpin and illuminate the ways in which employees learn. The paper argues that whilst Lave and Wenger's work continues to provide an important source of theoretical insight and inspiration for research in to learning at work, it has significant limitations. These limitations relate to the application of their perspective to contemporary workplaces in advanced industrial societies and to the institutional environments in which people work. These complex settings play a crucial role in the configuration of opportunities and barriers to learning that employees encounter.
Conventionally, apprenticeship is understood as a linear journey from novice to expert in which ‘old‐timers’ mould their successors. This paper challenges the assumptions that expertise is equated solely with status and experience in the workplace, and that all novices and experts, regardless of context, are seen as the same.
This paper argues that contemporary workplaces give rise to many different forms of knowledge creation and use, and, as a consequence to different forms of learning and pedagogical approaches. Some of these are utilised to the benefit of the organisation and employees (though not, necessarily, in a reciprocal manner), but others are buried within everyday workplace activity. The discussion builds on earlier work where it was argued that organisations differ in the way they create and manage themselves as learning environments, with some conceptualised as 'expansive' in the sense that their employees experience diverse forms of participation and, hence, are more likely to foster learning at work. By studying the way in which work is organised (including the organisation of physical and virtual spaces), this research is suggesting that it is possible to expose some of this learning activity as well as to identify examples where new (or refined) knowledge has been created. In this regard, it is argued that it is important to break down conceptual hierarchies that presuppose that learning is restricted to certain types of employee and/or parts of an organisation and to re-examine knowledge as applied to the workplace. The conclusion focuses on how such an approach, and in particular the use of a productive system analysis, is strengthening the concept of expansive and restrictive learning environments.
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