Knowledge Appropriation in Informal Workplace Learning

Scaling informal learning across individuals, groups, organisations and cross-organizational networks


Research Challenge

Nowadays firms need to continuously adapt their work processes and products to new developments in their field. To adopt those innovations more quickly and effectively, many firms draw on cross-organisational networks where reflections on innovations are shared amongst their members. However, successfully adopting and sustaining innovations in these cases requires firms to engage in a number of knowledge creation and learning practices. For example, if a new energy norm for low-energy houses is introduced and taken up in a regional network of construction companies, actually implementing the new norm “on the ground” requires that individuals learn, that teams and organisations adopt new practices and that networks find ways to effectively support these processes. As these types of learning processes cannot be planned very well, traditional training usually is not sufficient, and organisations need to ensure that feedback is much more quickly turned into productive knowledge that can be used at the workplace.

Here we use the term knowledge appropriation to describe these adaptation processes on individual, team, organisational and network levels. By means of interviews in several networks of the German building and construction industry, British healthcare networks as well as regional clusters in Austria, we first gathered evidence of how knowledge appropriation is currently taking place. We then introduced several information technology solutions for supporting informal learning at the workplace in the construction and in the healthcare domains, and observed changes in knowledge appropriation associated with these tools.

Theoretical Contribution

Our point of departure to tackle the challenge of firms adopting and sustaining innovation was to start with several models on knowledge creation and workplace learning, namely models on organisational knowledge maturation [1] [2], as well as models on scaffolding in workplace settings [3] [4]. From these we firstly identified maturation and scaffolding practices involved in adopting and sustaining innovations (see Figure 1). Both start with concrete experiences of problems or opportunities at the workplace (such as a question around how to implement the new norm in a particular construction project). In this situation, scaffolding practices (requesting help, guiding and fading) describe how more knowledgeable peers provide support so that the problem can be solved. Maturation practices describe the process of how through sharing, co-creation, formalization and standardization of problem solutions, mature knowledge is created over time that is applicable in a large number of situations.

In both, maturation and scaffolding, the practices connect individuals with learning in groups, organisations and networks. For example, while sharing and co-creation primarily happen in trusted smaller groups or work teams, formalization and standardization draw in a wider group of stakeholders in the organisation, a community of practice or a cross-organisational network.

On all these levels of analysis, knowledge appropriation practices can be observed by which people create awareness about particular knowledge (e.g. a new solution to a problem), build shared understanding in a group, validate the new solution and finally adapt the solution to new circumstances.



We conducted 91 Interviews in 16 cross-organisational networks in the German building construction industry and in the UK Healthcare Sector. The purpose of the interviews was to identify maturation, scaffolding and appropriation practices, and to examine how these facilitate learning across individuals, groups, organisations and cross-organisational networks.

Next, we conducted a number of field studies in which LAYERS tools were used in Healthcare and Construction for supporting informal learning. The field studies were followed up with 14 focus group interviews (N=40 in construction, N=26 in healthcare), structured interviews (N=6 in construction, N= 9 in healthcare) as well as a survey (N=42 in construction). The purpose of this data collection was to examine whether the use of the tools had any impact on maturation, scaffolding and appropriation.

The following LAYERS tools were involved in field testing, each of them focussing on different types of practices.


Through the interviews, we found evidence for a number of typical patterns of adopting and sustaining innovation in the networks that involved maturation, scaffolding and knowledge appropriation. The following table lists those patterns together with examples from the interviews conducted in the German building construction industry.

Patterns identified Examples from interviews (building construction industry)
request help to solve work problem Workers use mobile applications to request help from colleagues. Their request motivates their peers to share knowledge and raises awareness for new innovations. Part of the pattern is the adaptation of the received knowledge to the own workplace situation and the validation of their action. Finally, the result is shared with the group or the whole network.
share knowledge to initiate discussions One network member identifies relevant knowledge about a new innovation for the group and shares this knowledge. Interested network members start a discussion on how to apply the innovation in their own work contexts which frequently continues as they co-create knowledge to form novel solutions (practice "co-create solutions").
co-create solutions Most of the innovations in the construction sector are introduced by manufacturers of machinery and construction material. Hence, the companies have to assimilate these new innovations and find solutions for their application in the local context. As the innovations are relevant for many network members they often initiate physical meetings at construction sites of the early adopters to jointly experiment and co-create solutions. Thereby, they adapt the innovation to the local needs of their network by joint experimentation. Sometimes, they also write up and formalize these outcomes, and share them within their network (practice “formalize knowledge as a shared activity”).
adapt knowledge to local needs One of the major purposes for organizations to join networks is to bundle resources and to work together to localize innovations which affect all members. For such cases, all networks had appointed dedicated responsible persons. These persons raise the awareness of the network members and guide their attention towards new innovations in the field, before they jointly discuss the implications. Then, solutions are jointly developed or outsourced to experts with a specific description of the local needs. Finally, a formal document is created and shared with all network members.
formalize knowledge as a shared activity Knowledge and innovations are created in all our networks. However, at a certain point in time some knowledge or innovation needs to be formalized in order to be effectively applied and to provide some level of legal certainty. This formalization is a resource intensive procedure and hence the members of the network bundle their resources and involve external expertise to perform this task. They distribute the work and members explore the domain, they negotiate in meetings, and collaboratively create solutions to finally describe their knowledge in a formal and decontextualized way. Thereby, the external experts are particularly needed to decontextualize the knowledge and show compliance with external quality requirements.

In the field trials, we identified impact on learning practices. While in healthcare LAYERS tools were mainly used in collaborative work (both face to face as well as online), in construction they were used to generate guidance for solving tasks and problems at the workplace. Co-creation was a practice that was especially enhanced in both cases. In healthcare, practice staff was enabled to continue co-creation outside the face to face meeting. In construction, trainers were found to collaborate in creating learning materials for their apprentices.

Examples of Practices (Healthcare) Examples of Practices (Building Construction )
Knowledge Maturation Structured Captured Discussions: Members with a strong voice that always tend to go off tangents challenge a group to reach an agreement or identify solutions to their problems. With the Layers tools, the group focused on a specific project and while they were adding input in Confer, they discussed in a more formal, structured manner, so that the group succeeded in building a shared understanding, which allowed them to develop a collective way of thinking and thus to move their knowledge to the next maturation stage. "I think it’s kind of like what I was saying earlier, I think it just formalized the process […] by using Confer it sort of forced us to think about things in a certain pattern, and a certain way of thinking, to come up with solutions, if that makes sense?". (HC) Facilitated Discussions during face-to-face meetings: The healthcare professionals find face-to-face meetings as essential part of their work and a good opportunity to feel connected. By using the Layers tools during their face-to-face meetings they had the chance to document everything that is shared. Thus, the members can develop a shared understanding of the situation at hand and at the same time share their expertise and knowledge with their colleagues. “It facilitated the discussion so I know it’s for offline discussion but I can see that actually the best use is if when you’re having your meeting you have it on there and type some things in whilst you’re there and then it feels as though you’re adding it on afterwards rather than everybody just go away and do it.” (HC) Collaborative multi-disciplinary primary care teamwork and group task-based learning: The group members used to work in an isolated way. Each member took care of his own responsibilities and tasks without being aware of his colleagues work. With the Layers tools, the members started working in a more collaborative manner by allowing their colleagues to amplify their work. This co-creating process increased the quality and quantity of information since more individuals could bring their expertise in a task. Thus, the content was improved and the knowledge was extended through small bits and pieces added by each individual. “It’s good like you start off something, somebody contributes to it, and it’s grown into something very substantial. And you never expected it to reach that point”. (HC) Facilitated Experiencing: Apprentices of Bau ABC use AchSo to better capture experiences during a problem-situation through recording videos of the problem situation and annotate them with problem descriptions: “I really like AchSo in the moments where the digger overturned to annotate what triggers the overturn. You understand that situation much better”. Apprentices use LTB to look up solutions to a problem during a project task. Having solutions directly available during a problem, facilitates the experience in the sense of a understanding and solving a problem situation: “I would rather look in LTB than packing out my papers” and “the drawings help a lot and function as examples. For me the paper explanation we usually got is not enough”. (CO) Facilitated collection and sharing: Trainers use LTB as a means to collect all relevant information to a specific subject (e.g. a project, a task, or a course). LTB allowed better collection and structuring of the learning material. On the one hand, they can better share learning material: “When you put 3D graphics into LTB, so that apprentices do not have drawings of a construction on paper but on their mobile phones where they can rotate the drawing […] I can very well imagine that!” On the other hand, apprentices can better share the takeup and progress during project tasks: “When [apprentices] build a well they have to attach parts that I cannot see afterwards [as those are under the ground / not visible anymore] and I could never control them afterwards but they could for example take pictures and upload them, save them for documentation purposes”. (CO) Facilitated Co-Creation: Trainers build stacks together to provide a more structured information base: “we jointly improved [the stacks], refined the search options and better organized the structure [...] the outcome of collectively created stacks within the LTB to be much better”. Apprentices create videos for AchSo collectively for reasons of practicability: “one colleague takes a video while the other is screwing and asks how to proceed [...] only a headset or telephone is not very functional”. (CO)
Scaffolding Facilitating requesting help: Layers tools facilitate requesting help by enabling professionals to clearly direct their colleagues’ attention to the work they have done so far and to therefore highlight exactly where the help or advice is required. “I’ve dropped things into this circle here, and [asked] if anybody else felt there was something important that I’d missed, could they please just drop things in” “So I attached it to there and said, “Right, this is my initial thoughts on how we should manage change requests for [practice system], what do you guys think about it?” Facilitating guiding: Through supporting collaboration and the live sharing of work progress, the Layers tools allow healthcare professionals to easily view their colleagues (or mentee’s) work and identify places where they could help. “Yeah, I’ve quite interested in the training side, so I’ve been liaising with Nicola. [...] What I did was to go into her discussion part of Bits and Pieces, look at what she’d done and then give her other information” “because you know what somebody else is doing, you’re able then to say, ‘Oh, would this help?’” Healthcare professionals have commented on how this increased sharing (and therefore raised awareness of each other’s work) can also mean that they get support and guidance from unexpected sources: “it may be a person that you never thought to ask that question too, but if everybody has access and can add their bit, you might get some really good information that normally you wouldn’t get” Facilitating requesting help: Layers tools facilitate requesting help when facing a problem situation during a project task. Layers tools (a) help apprentices with their idleness: “You feel stupid if you always have to ask the trainer, and then you just do not proceed with your task. You lose time. AchSo! can reduce uncomfortable situations“. Layers tools (b) help apprentices with unavailable trainers:“The fastest and most easy way is to look it up in the AchSo!.[1] It is faster than asking the trainer. He is often not available, so you just look it up yourself.” Layers tools (c) help trainers with too many help requests: “If an apprentice asks you all the time and you give the answer to his problem, then he will think ‘nice, the trainer gives me the answer all the time so I just continue asking him’. You could use LTB and say ‘Look it up first, the information you need is there’” (CO) Facilitated guiding: There are two scenarios on how LAYERS tools facilitate guiding: (a) apprentices are guided by trainers, (b) apprentices are guided by apprentices, (c) trainers are guided by trainers. According to (a) apprentices reported “We get paper what has to do be done. But without information how it has to be done”, and “for the project tasks, AchSo could help you to understand how to pull the string best when digging the hole”, “You just can better imagine how the result of the project should look afterwards”. According to (b), AchSo can help to establish a mentoring model for new apprentices at Bau ABC: “We could show the first year plant operators basic stuff like how they get an engine started”, and “It would be a real zinger here when you would establish workshops where we show videos to the new apprentices.” According to (c), trainers seek guidance through stacks of other trainers which helps reflection upon providing learning material: “I looked at stacks from other trainers, it is quite different how they do it. Some only link apps there, others use photos […] sure you look there and think about whether you forgot something in your stack”. (CO)
Knowledge Appropriation Engagement of a wider group: The work of the group is not restricted to the group itself, but rather requires the involvement of a wider network as well. With the Layers tools the group had the opportunity to involve a wider network and provide an overview of the project progress. By sharing its work in progress, the group succeeded in raising awareness to a wider network with beneficial results. The involvement of additional ideas allowed the group to come up easier with a solution and move its project forward. “We let the people look and see where we got up to with our thoughts, so we were sharing that [...] they put in their thoughts so that helped a bit with co-creation”(HC) Awareness of individual/ collective patterns: Using LTB during the project tasks saves time and is more practical, apprentices do not have to pause their project tasks for a long time. The centralization of content helps to browse and find relevant information much faster, through easier filtering and retrieval of relevant information. LTB provides a better overview of what knowledge is there about a certain problem or topic in general. The availability of learning material supports autonomy of learning of the apprentices, and hence the awareness towards solutions, standards, or best practices: “Everything we needed was inside LTB, it was always present at the workplace […] I was able to look up measures while sawing and then assemble” (CO)

Finally, a survey amongst building construction apprentices revealed the main uses of the tools in finding relevant information and receiving guidance in performing tasks.



Cases and Impact:

Research Methods:

Further Reading

Ley, Maier, Thalmann, Waizenegger, Pata, Ruiz-Calleja (2016). Adopting and Sustaining Innovation in Distributed Innovation Networks: A Knowledge Appropriation Model to Connect Knowledge Creation and Workplace Learning, Paper submitted to the Journal of Knowledge Management [5]

Contributing Authors

Tobias Ley, Ronald Maier, Lena Waizenegger, Markus Manhart, Kai Pata, Tamsin Treasure-Jones, Christina Sargianni, Stefan Thalmann


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