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John Bratton, Jean Helms Mills, Timothy Pyrch and Peter Sawchuk, Workplace Learning: A Critical Introduction.

John Bratton, Jean Helms Mills, Timothy Pyrch and Peter Sawchuk, Workplace Learning: A Critical Introduction (Aurora, ON: Garamond Press 2004)

THIS IS the best Canadian text available on workplace learning but it's not without its frustrations including the omission of a number of references from the bibliography and poor textual editing. The book is intended as an introduction for students to the growing field of work and learning, theory and practice, and it achieves that purpose tolerably well. It also is intended as a critical introduction, one that takes account of power, authority, and control at work and it is more successful in doing so than comparable texts. D'Arcy Martin provides a forward and he highlights the tensions between a Human Resource Management (HRM) approach and a worker-centred perspective to understanding the issues at stake. The discomfort he hints at will be experienced by readers as they move through the various chapters.

The book is divided into seven chapters. A brief introduction is followed by a longer chapter on management strategies which in turn paves the way for a chapter discussion of groups and teams. Chapter 4 looks at the growth of the learning organization idea but the predictable pattern of chapters is then broken with an examination of unions and workplace learning and, in Chapter 6, a discussion of adult education's contribution to the field. The concluding chapter attempts to draw the strands together and project workplace learning forward.

The strengths of the book include a sense of history and an understanding of the importance of the critical eye. Its weaknesses are that at times these strengths give way to minutia and description and some chapters overlook key issues. The introductory chapter illustrates the first point very well and is a splendid introduction to the field. My only quibble would be with the depiction of management attitudes that leads to the assertion "that work-based learning is not always promoted solely to increase profitability or management hegemony." (8) Another sentence or two corralling that sentiment is needed lest it escape to be given free rein!

Chapter 2 discusses management strategies and workplace learning. It does so at length, explaining the development of management theory. This is a well-structured chapter but there is more information here than many readers will need, particularly given the chapter conclusions that "it appears that much of the 'progressive' learning-orientated HR strategy has been put back on the shelf." (38) Companies are adopting low-cost, market-driven strategies, the chapter author notes, with minimal investment in people. Readers are also warned to stay away from the ready acceptance that "knowledge work" is typical of new jobs and that companies are primarily in the "knowledge" business. These are useful caveats particularly in view of the dominant views expressed in management and mainstream adult education texts.

Chapter 3, "Groups, Work Teams and Learning," is useful enough although it meanders a little and includes unhelpful diagrams that are the subject of an errata sheet. At times the critical gets lost in the detail and readers may be better served by reading the critical CAMI study's treatise on teams. The fourth chapter on organizational learning is too reverential and readers could be forgiven for thinking that "learning organizations" are real and have replaced self-interested corporations. A number of critical studies are discussed and referenced but the chapter would benefit from differentiatiation among types of organizations (public, small private, corporations, not-for-profit, and worker cooperatives) and from a frontal assault on the idea that organizations learn!

Chapter 5 on "Unions and Workplace Learning" is excellent. It's so refreshing to find a well-informed and referenced discussion of what workers gain from union workplace learning and what they learn from union activity itself. It undoubtedly reflects Bratton and Sawchuk's interest in organized labour and the workplace. The section on paid educational leave (PEL) and prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) needs to be more nuanced. For example the distinction between the jointly controlled UAW PEL program and the union-controlled Canadian union PEL versions could have been made clearer. But this is a minor issue.

The adult education chapter serves as an important reminder that adult education has always been interested in issues of work and learning, sometimes intimately as in the Antigonish movement and sometimes more obtusely in the recognition that adult students were also workers. This chapter is expansive, covering unpaid and paid work; it has an essentially Canadian perspective and is loaded with Canadian examples and references. The chapter links concerns about learning at work to workplace democracy and active citizenship, recalling the liberatory traditions of adult education.

In the final chapter the authors do a good job of stitching the chapters together and make sense of the differing foci. Their enthusiastic embrace of the "great potential" of workplace learning (175) may be misplaced but it is understandable in the authors' own terms. At the very least, workplace learning has to be seen as contested terrain and the authors have illustrated with numerous examples why that must be so.

Although I see the book as being most useful for students of adult education, particularly those interested in work and learning, it should also be of interest to those considering working in the HRM/HRD field. As the authors point out, some organizations may well believe that the company's "competitive advantage" depends on a happy and committed workforce and may work towards that end (full-time employees, higher skills, job flexibility, workplace learning), but others may equally believe that tight control of labour costs combined with close supervision over employees is the road to success (low-paid, part-time employees, routine jobs). According to the authors, both approaches can work "equally well." (71) Being an HR professional in the first organization may well be more satisfying than in the second.

This book will be core reading for my students in work and learning courses.

Bruce Spencer

Athabasca University
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Author:Spencer, Bruce
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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