Navigating the Interactive Workplace

By Marty Rosenheck

Using Web 2.0 and social media technologies, cognitive apprenticeship offers a map to help chart a course toward faster proficiency, innovation and results.

Workplace learning is in tumult. The economic recession, the changing of the generational guard and the accelerated pace of both technological and market change have created a perfect storm, leaving many CLOs to wonder: “How can we possibly navigate this?”

The map these learning leaders need is a research-based understanding of how people learn and develop expertise. This is known as cognitive apprenticeship.

Cognitive Apprenticeship

More than 20 years ago, cognitive scientists Alan Collins and John Seely Brown and their colleagues developed the concept of cognitive apprenticeship as a framework for designing learning environments for complex mental tasks. They originally focused their model on improving school learning, but over the years the main principles have been validated by cognitive research studies and extended to multiple contexts. Cognitive apprenticeship has great applicability for the complex tasks that need to be performed by today’s knowledge workers—whether they are leaders, salespeople, customer service representatives, technicians, scientists or engineers.

So what is cognitive apprenticeship? Before the industrial revolution, apprenticeship was the major form of workplace learning. A novice would learn a trade, such as blacksmithing, by becoming an apprentice to an expert. When the apprentice demonstrated proficiency at his trade, he would go off to work for other masters as a “journeyman”—so named because he would travel to other towns. Eventually the novices would become masters themselves, open up their own shops and the apprenticeship process would repeat.

This model worked well for artisans, but the process is very time and labor intensive. After the industrial revolution, it was deemed too expensive and ultimately unnecessary for workplaces in which assembly-line workers performed relatively simple, repetitive tasks.

Now, in the information age, when the majority of value is created by knowledge workers, the apprenticeship model is making a comeback. The original apprenticeship model was good for physical, observable tasks but not well suited to cognitive tasks. Based on research on how people develop expertise, Collins and Brown laid out four categories for designing cognitive apprenticeship learning environments: social characteristics, knowledge, learning methods and sequencing.

Social Characteristics

The term “social characteristics” describes the organizational and cultural environment in which cognitive apprenticeship takes place. It involves the following aspects: intrinsic motivation, situated learning, communities of practice and cooperation.

First, let’s define intrinsic motivation. CLOs know that any learning initiative must align with the goals and objectives of the organization. However, the piece that’s often neglected is alignment with the goals and motivations of the individual.

In the past, training departments have identified what people need to learn, created courses for these topics and made them mandatory. For talent development initiatives to be successful, they must align with the real goals and needs of the learners as well of those of the organization.

In his recent book Drive, Daniel Pink distilled the research on motivation and came up with three core motivators for most people: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Let’s look at an example.

Cricket Communications, a rapidly growing telecommunications company, created an online learning map and tracking tool that provides a detailed checklist of the key information that each employee in each job role should have. To fulfill the first requirement for intrinsic motivation—autonomy—Cricket allowed employees to choose how and when they would learn each item while on the job. Some chose to
take a brief e-learning course, others asked a colleague or manager for help, and some used text messaging to get tips from friends as they were performing the task. The tracking technology gave both the employees and the organization the assurance that people were learning what they needed to learn, thereby fulfilling the second requirement: mastery. The learning map made it clear how what they were doing and learning would help them achieve not only their own goals but the larger goals of the organization. This helped satisfy the final requirement for intrinsic motivation: purpose.

Next, there’s situated learning. People learn best by doing. The more a learning activity is situated in the job context, the more it is retained and applied in future situations.

For example, the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) needed to increase the
speed to proficiency of new customer service representatives. This complex. job role combined computer system usage, customer service skills and policy knowledge. To accomplish this, the SSA replaced formal, presentation-style training with a learning-by-doing curriculum. It used an online learning map to guide people through simulations and practice using realistic cases; it then moved them to a structured, on-the-job training component where they worked on actual cases with the support of mentors and colleagues in a virtual learning community via Web
meetings, forums and instant messaging. The third social characteristic is communities of practice. A community of practice provides a context for people to reflect, reinforce and extend their knowledge by discussing it with each other.

“The community creates the social fabric of learning,” said Etienne Wenger, one of the originators of the concept of a community of practice.

Technology is not necessary for communities of practice to exist; they form when people with common interests and goals talk informally in the hallway, ask each other questions and share insights. However, technology—especially Web 2.0 technologies, such as forums, wikis, virtual meetings, blogs and microblogs—can extend the reach, increase the number of possible connections, enable finding the right person or information and track the effectiveness of communities of practice.

The fourth and final social characteristic involved in a cognitive apprenticeship model is collaboration. The concepts of cooperation and collaboration lead to a change in the mindset regarding responsibility for learning. Organizations need to share responsibility for learning between the individual, the community of practice and the learning and development group. In the cooperative model, the learning and development group can shift from being the sole producer of content to being the guide, initiator, facilitator and coach. For example, Motorola engineers take responsibility for their own learning. They do this in alignment with agreed-upon organizational and learning goals and with the support and guidance of the learning and development group.


The cognitive apprenticeship model identifies four types of knowledge: domain knowledge, learning strategies, heuristic strategies and control strategies. Let’s focus on the first two.

Domain knowledge refers to the concepts, facts and procedures needed to perform in particular areas. The key is providing an easy way for people to get the domain knowledge they need at the point of need-the teachable moment. For instance, IBM provides an extensive online repository of knowledge, procedures, policies and examples. The company also uses social networking tools to create a directory called Blue Pages that lets people fmd others in the global organization with particular sets of knowledge or experience.

Then there’s the issue of learning strategies. One often overlooked way that organizations can support self-directed and cooperative learning is to provide training on “learning to learn,” including how to use social media tools and other available resources. Employees not accustomed to working in an environment where learning via communities of practice is the norm need both new knowledge and a new learning mindset. Provide training and guidance on how to be a self-directed learner, how to use the technology tools available and how to participate productively in a community of practice.

Learning Methods

The cognitive apprenticeship model includes six learning methods that research has shown to be effective techniques for learning complex tasks.

  1. Modeling: This provides opportunities for learners to observe how a task is done. Make sure the person demonstrating the task talks through his or her thought process while doing it. This can be done in person or via quick-and-dirty Y ouTube videos or short screen-capture movies. The videos can be stored in a searchable repository to be used as needed.
  2. Coaching: This involves an experienced practitioner observing, facilitating and giving feedback while learners perform a task. Make coaching part of the job of both managers and master practitioners and provide training on how to coach effectively. Use virtual technologies such as Web meetings or online forums to provide distance coaching. IBM uses social networking tools to connect ad hoc coaches with a learner expressing a particular need.
  3. Scaffolding: This is the support that helps learners perform tasks. Provide more structure and formal learning experiences for novices—such as in an on-boarding process—and gradually remove supports as they become more proficient at their jobs. For example, the SSA started workers off with highly structured online simulations, then moved them to facilitated practice exercises using real systems with dummy data, and then finally shifted them to on-the-job training with real systems and cases—all with gradually decreasing levels of support from mentors and virtual learning communities.
  4. Articulation: This provides the opportunity for learners to verbalize their knowledge, which solidifies and reinforces it. The SSA provided opportunities for learners to discuss and share what they had learned through weekly Web
    meetings. To provide opportunities for articulation, organizations can use forums, discussion groups and virtual meetings.
  5. Reflection: This is the process of thinking about what one has done or learned. The act of pausing to observe and think turns experience into learning that can be applied to new situations. Organizations can provide opportunities to reflect though discussion forums, virtual communities and blogs, as well as through the act ofteaching or coaching others.
  6. Exploration: This is the process of learners identifying and solving new problems. As learners gain proficiency, allow them to expand their horizons and try new things. Within communities of practice, people can explore new ideas, generate knowledge and innovate.


There are three principles for sequencing learning in the cognitive apprenticeship framework.

  • Global before local skills: Focus on conceptualizing the whole task before working on the parts. By starting with the big picture, learners have a better sense of how the smaller parts fit in.
  • Increasing complexity: Start with simple but meaningful tasks and then gradually increase in difficulty.
  • Increasing diversity: Make sure the learner encounters and practices a wide variety of experiences. This enables broad application of what is learned to new situations.

With the cognitive apprenticeship map in hand, CLOs can navigate the Web 2.0 ship through the storm toward the islands of proficiency, innovation and results.

This article first appeared in May 2010 edition of Chief Learning Officer.