Four essential dimensions of workplace learning

My latest paper is now out (in Emerald Early Cite; ful doi etc pending), in the Journal of Workplace Learning.

Hopwood N (2014) Four essential dimensions of workplace learning. Journal of Workplace Learning 26(6/7).

It’s in a Special Issue edited by renowned scholars Tara Fenwick and John Field, and has a great collection of papers using sociomaterial and other perspectives. I’ve published a (very simplified) podcast that tries to make the key ideas more accessible.

The abstract of my paper is below.

Basically, I argue that learning in professional practice can be understood, as Gherardi tells us, in terms of connectedness in action, or ‘texture’. The paper is conceptual but draws on evidence from my study of how child and family health professionals work in partnership with parents struggling with young children (through processes of reciprocal learning). I suggest that this texture has four essential dimensions: times, spaces, bodies, and things. (Each is discussed in greater length in my forthcoming book to be published by Springer Press).

I say they are essential because I cannot imagine learning or connectedness in action outside of any of them; but also essential in the sense ‘essence’ – they are what texture is made of.

I also explain that the four dimensions can never be fully separated analytically or empirically (they all overlap and leak into each other). But they are useful as distinctive analytical points of departure, that lead us to notice different things.

Please get in touch if you would like a copy, and please comment below if you have things to say about the paper! Can you think of a fifth essential dimension? Do you think the framework would be useful to you in other research contexts?

Here is the abstract:

Purpose – This conceptual paper argues that times, spaces, bodies and things constitute four essential dimensions of workplace learning. It examines how practices relate or hang together, taking Gherardi’s texture of practices or connectedness in action as the foundation for making visible essential but often overlooked dimensions workplace learning.

Design/methodology/approach – This framework is located within and adds to contemporary sociomaterial or practice-based approaches, in which learning is understood as an emergent requirement and product of ongoing practice that cannot be specified in advance.

Findings – The four dimensions are essential in two senses: they are the constitutive essence of textures of practices – what they are made of; and they are non-optional – it is not possible to conceive a texture of practices without all of these dimensions present. Although the conceptual terrains to which they point overlap considerably, they remain useful as analytic points of departure. Each reveals something that is less clear in the others.

Research limitations/implications – This innovative framework responds to calls to better understand how practices hang together, and offers a toolkit that reflects the multifaceted nature of practice. It presents a distinctive basis for making sense of connectedness in action, and thus for understanding learning in work.

Originality/value – The paper offers a novel conceptual framework, expanding the texture of practices through dimensions of times, spaces, bodies, and things, rendering visible aspects that might otherwise be ignored.


2 thoughts on “Four essential dimensions of workplace learning

  1. Elyssebeth Leigh

    I am wondering if ‘design’ aka ‘intent’ might not be a fifth dimension?
    This adds an internal dimension to your set, which seem to me to be external factors. Of at least to be externally observable, while ‘intent/design’ is inherently unobservable directly, yet will be strongly flavouring/shaping the exchanges among us all.
    I’d love a copy of the paper.

    1. nickhopwood Post author

      Hi Elyssebeth

      An interesting idea. On reflection I’m not convinced design/intent is yet a contender for the 5th dimension. Perhaps it is of a different order? That said, in the paper I suggest ‘affect’ might be a likely 5th dimension, thinking of contemporary affect theory approaches – something fundamental, primordial almost. But somehow this still doesn’t seem to me to qualify for the dual notions of ‘essentiality’ that I was proposing.

      The four dimensions I set up do have an appearance of external, observable qualities, but only in so far as temporality, spatiality etc are produced through what people do. They are both internal and external, and neither, in some ways. Spatiality, for example, reflects what materiality comes to hand as people engage in activities (often with intent of course); and materiality is a dimension not made of fixed properties of objects, but fluid assemblages, and again these can reflect and to an extent manifest what might be seen as ‘intent’ or ‘design’. So I think intent/design (and perhaps also affect) are of a different order. I’m also a little cautious of forgrounding a human-centred agency in something like design or intent. I’m with Schatzki (I think!) on preserving something of a residual humanism, through his ideas of and practical intelligibility (which shapes how materiality bundles with practices), but am not sure that the dimensions can remain faithful to the underlying ontology if something like design/intention becomes so significant as to be ever-present and the constitution of all texture (which is what the dimensions suggest).


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