Supervisors: Learning on the Job is Key, says Study

Shot of two surgeons analyzing a patient’s medical scans. (Getty Images)
Informal learning on the job plays a crucial role in many work environments, and is especially well suited to health care settings, but supervisors don’t always recognize the benefit, according to a new UConn study. (Getty Images)

Informal, on-the-job learning is a key component of workplace education, especially for promotion-focused employees who seek out opportunities that enable them to attain their goals.

However, the consequences of informal field-based learning are not uniformly positive, and in some circumstances appear to harm how an employee’s job performance is perceived.

Those are the finding of UConn management Ph.D. candidate Mikhail Wolfson, in a recently published article in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Organizations spend a lot of money on training and development, an upwards of $160 billion a year in the U.S. alone,” Wolfson says. “But an estimated 70 percent to more than 90 percent of training and professional development occurs outside these formal structures – what we call field-based learning.”

Organizations spend a lot of money on training and development … But an estimated 70 percent to more than 90 percent of training and professional development occurs outside these formal structures. — Mikhail Wolfson

Yet very little is known about how informal, field-based learning behaviors relate to changes in job performance, he notes.

Informal field-based learning can take three forms: experimentation/new experiences; feedback/reflection; and vicarious learning, which is intentional observation and talking with others about their work.

“Through our research, we discovered that informal field-based learning behaviors are not universally valued,” says Wolfson, who has accepted an appointment as assistant professor at American University’s Kogod School of Business. “Ultimately it would be ideal to focus on how to create a learning-rich environment that’s engaging and non-punitive.”

Hospitals Provide Ideal Climate to Study

Wolfson and his fellow researchers studied more than 1,700 healthcare employees from 49 hospital units at a large medical center in the Eastern United States. They focused on diverse work units, ranging from nurses to surgeons, technicians to executives to the hospital ministry.

They learned that vicarious learning, or observation, is welcome in some workplaces, particularly those that are non-punitive in nature, meaning that employees are free to question supervisors and to discuss medical mistakes.

However, in well-staffed units, and those with punitive climates, vicarious learning tended to be less well regarded.

“Vicarious learning may be perceived by some as ‘loafing,’ because it isn’t as active a learning process as say, learning to start an IV or how to position an arm prior to an X-ray in a hands-on manner during formal training,” says Wolfson.

The findings have opened the door for follow-up research.

The team did not do in-depth interviews with people at the hospital for this study, for reasons of confidentiality, but they interpreted their observations as denoting that some supervisors perceive instances of vicarious learning as an employee not engaging in work.

“Supervisors may have a bias toward equating ‘doing something’ with being productive,” Wolfson says. “But sometimes it is more important to pause and make sure that one knows how to best proceed before just jumping in and working. And this is where informal field-based learning can come in.”

Informal field-based learning is essential in a work environment such as a hospital, as the nature of the work requires employees to refine and enhance their skill sets throughout their careers, he says. Patient demands, technological advances, and financial pressures mandate continual improvement. But health care also has a great many policies and procedures designed to limit the actions taken by health care professionals, in order to reduce errors and increase patient safety. These pressures make health care contexts powerful and rich learning environments and, simultaneously, resistant to change.

“The health care context is characterized as requiring frequent communication within close physical proximity, regular work with groups or teams, and an emphasis on criticality and frequency of decision making,” Wolfson says.

The researchers believe that their results are relevant for other dynamic and complex environments in which individuals work in teams to make frequent decisions that may have serious consequences, such as police, firefighters, construction workers, manufacturers, pilots, flight attendants, air-traffic controllers, power plant managers, correctional officers, and others.

Sometimes Informal Field-Based Learning Is Discouraged

While most healthcare supervisors looked favorably upon experimental learning, there was a vast difference in the acceptance of employees’ vicarious learning, Wolfson says.

Supervisors may have a bias toward equating ‘doing something’ with being productive. — Mikhail Wolfson

The researchers found that employees who were hoping for promotion more readily engaged in vicarious learning and experimentation, and were more likely to do so in a well-staffed unit. Yet individuals working in well-staffed units who engaged in vicarious learning saw detrimental changes to their performance evaluations, whereas those engaging in experimentation saw positive changes.

“Well-staffed units have more stable staffing patterns that are, in many ways beneficial, but that may lead to maintenance of the status quo and limits on learning and innovation,” Wolfson says.

In short-staffed units, there was more acceptance of observation. “Ironically, when individuals are short on time, some employees may pause and seek out ways of doing things more efficiently, in hopes of working smarter rather than simply working harder,” he notes.

Wolfson says the research highlights the complexity of informal field-based learning. The onus is on managers to see what is advantageous in their individual workplace and what isn’t. Do behaviors get misconstrued as something else? “Perhaps the best approach is to direct people to key point people by saying, ‘If you’ve never cared for a kidney transplant patient before, go talk to this nurse, who can give you guidance.’”

Research Data Poses Challenges for Execs, Employees

Wolfson says informal field-based learning is an “untapped space.” He encourages business leaders to train people to be better informal learners and empower them to seek out learning opportunities on their own, examining the workplace culture and fostering a non-punitive climate where people can take risks and not be punished.

Wolfson co-authored the paper with UConn management professor John Mathieu, his dissertation advisor; M. Travis Maynard of Colorado State; and Scott Tannenbaum, from the Group for Organizational Effectiveness. The project was partially funded by the U.S. Army Research Institute.