Situated Learning

It is now commonly accepted that learning is situated in the context that it takes place. This acknowledges the challenge that L&D professionals face in terms of transferring learning for one location to another.

Lave and Wenger’s (1991) work on ‘Communities of Practice’ (COP), proposes that learning resides in social situations as “an incidental and inevitable occurrence, when individuals participate in social practice: that is, when they belong to a community” (Warhurst 2008: 456). Providing learners with a clear pathway of participation, involving the genuine work of that community, legitimises the learners within the community; this is termed Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LLP) (CLMS). LPP enables members of the community to navigate from participation on the periphery of the community (novice status), through to central practitioners (experts). COPs are great for harnessing the skills and focus of groups for the benefit of the group (community) and the Organisation, however there is the glaring admission that even the most zealous followers of the participation metaphor can’t deny, the fact that “something does keep repeating itself as we move from situation to situation and from context to context” (Sfard 1998: 9). We continually learn from all situations not just from a single one, and bring these experiences to bear on how we see and interact with the world; this then moves our thinking to an acceptance that all learning is valuable and both formal and informal learning are inseparable.

In an ideal world people would be afforded learning opportunities that provide adequate stretch relative to developing their current experience, whilst at the same time enhancing their membership within their community of practice. However there are a number of factors that hinder the completeness of such an approach. Businesses operate in such rapidly evolving climates that ‘business as usual’ activities are often so immediate and responsive, that they override the ability to offer such structured development. Conflicting values and priorities, along with ‘needs must’ resourcing challenges also often supersede or negatively impact on a smooth learning trajectory. Drawing on Handley et al. (2006) which focuses on acquiring skills immediately valued by the community, it raises the concern for organisations of multiple community values that may not be aligned to the business aims. Informal learning places a great onus on those facilitating the learning of others to act as role models, coaches and mentors, providing learning conducive to the business’ needs. How can any organisation expect this to be done consistently without any formal development of the skills required to deliver such roles? This is of course just a minute example, but it highlights one outcome of value misalignment and lack of adequate development when it comes to facilitating the learning and development of others.

Lave & Wenger’s (1991) ‘Communities of Practice’ model allows for people to be members of multiple communities; even for multiple communities to exist within and outside an organisation. If we are to accept this, then any given person will be, at any point in time, influenced by a variety of different communities, with some of these communities being in conflict with the next. At what level can the organisation be said to be aware of how an individual is influencing another’s learning for the benefit, or to the detriment of the organisation? Unfortunately it can’t unless those community leaders are afforded development opportunities that inform and align them to the Firm.

Lave and Wenger’s (1991) suggestion that learning is an inevitable life occurrence is mirrored by Rogers (1983). Although focussed on moving education away from the notion of teachers imparting knowledge on learners, the essence of developing ‘facilitators of learning’ has obvious applicability to all formal learning environments. The point being made here is that there is a requirement to move interpretational thinking on formal learning scenarios, away from the notion that knowledge is being imparted on individuals, and more towards, in our experience, the reality that coaches are facilitating the development of learners who are confident, at ease with change and self-directed in their own development. Indeed the attitudinal qualities that Rogers (1983) focusses on (authenticity, trust and empathy) have value for organisations looking to develop informal learning environments.

The balance between formal and informal learning is an intriguing one, and one that we encourage all our clients to seek. In our experience, Organisations can only become true ‘learning organisations’ when they acknowledge and promote the benefits of both forms of learning…this is when we move away from being bogged down in the ‘how’ and start to focus more intently on the ‘what’.


CLMS (2012) MSc in Human Resource Management and Development, Module 1. Leicester: Centre for Labour Market Studies.

Handley, K., Sturdy, A., Fincham, R. and Clark, T. (2006) ‘Within and Beyond Communities of Practice: Making Sense of Learning Through Participation, Identity and Practice’, Journal of Management Studies 43(3): 641-653.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation: ‘Legitimate Peripheral Participation in Communities of Practice’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rogers, C. R. (1983) Freedom to Learn for the 80s: ‘The Interpersonal Relationship in the Facilitation of Learning’. New York: Macmillan.

Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One’, Educational Researcher 27(2): 4-13.

Warhurst, R. P. (2008) ‘’Cigars on the Flight-deck’: New Lecturers’ Participatory Learning within Workplace Communities of Practice’, Studies in Higher Education 33(4): 453-467.