A well-designed working environment can contribute to experiential learning to the extent that it makes it easier to both observe expert performance and to engage in reflective discussions. While peace and quiet is beneficial to those who need to engage in sustained periods of concentration, an environment in which there is little peer-to-peer engagement would not provide sufficient opportunities for reflection. Similarly, if all the beginners are in one place and the more experienced employees in another, there will be inadequate opportunities to learn through observation.
According to Seely Brown and Duquid : “Good office design can produce powerful learning environments. But much of that power comes from experiential learning. People often find what they need to know by virtue of where they sit and who they see rather than by direct communication.”
Paul Fairhurst , from the Institute for Employment Studies, provides this view of learning and development in 2020:
“The multi-disciplinary give-and-take that characterises innovative problem solving has become accepted practice in the development of high-performance teams. In these communities, learning through active participation, rather than passive knowledge acquisition, is the primary way people master skills and knowledge to become competent team members.
In terms of the built environment, new office spaces, research facilities and production environments are being designed with many small informal meeting areas, often incorporating a mini-street with coffee bars. This trend follows the example set by British Airways and others in the late 1990s.”
Paul goes on to explain how five design factors are fostering informal learning:
- “Eco-diversity: more varied work settings inside and outside the ‘office’.
- Spatial transparency: more opportunities for employees to observe the behaviour of each other at work.
- Neutral zones: more deliberate planning, design, and use of spaces not owned by any particular discipline or unit.
- Human scale: smaller scale work areas with less separation from related functional areas.
- Functional inconvenience: designing space to increase the opportunity for chance encounters.”
He concludes: “Learning has shifted from training workers to facilitating knowledge acquisition, while an ‘always-on’ informal learning environment is more responsive to the rapidly changing needs of a networked world.”
The working environment is:
- most conducive for learning when it facilitates chance encounters, it allows novices to observe experts, it provides neutral spaces in which peers can interact.
- not conducive for learning when functional specialists are ghettoised, when experts are separated from novices, when there are no neutral meeting places.
The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duquid, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.
Learning and Development 2020 by Paul Fairhurst, Institute for Employment Studies, September 2008