ERIC Identifier: ED383858
Publication Date: 1995-00-00
Author: Imel, Susan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Workplace Literacy: Its Role in High Performance Organizations.
ERIC Digest No. 158.
During the past decade a number of issues have been raised about the goals
and purposes of workplace literacy; chief among these has been the debate
surrounding the conceptualization of workplace literacy as a functional context
program with its focus on analyzing the gaps between a workplace's literacy
requirements and the abilities of its work force. Critics have felt that, too
often, the job context approach was interpreted too narrowly and failed to
involve workers. Frequently, the result was a curriculum designed to "fill in
the gaps," usually through a top-down process with decisions made primarily by
company management, human resources development specialists, and higher-level
educational experts (Pritz and Imel 1993). At the same time, workplace educators
were discussing how workplace literacy programs should be created, the concept
of high performance organizations was emerging. Conversations began about how
workplace literacy could be conceived of as a means of changing not just "the
behavior of individual employees but of the larger work organization as well"
(Imel and Kerka 1992, p. 4) by reinforcing critical thinking and teamwork
required to transform workplaces into high performance, continuous improvement
organizations. Sometimes referred to as the "collaborative" approach, the
perspective that links workplace literacy to collaborative ways of organizing
work--and that broadens the functional context approach--is gaining support
(Jurmo 1994b). This ERIC Digest describes the relationship between collaborative
approaches to workplace literacy and high performance work organizations,
reviews some principles underlying the collaborative approach, and presents
results of research on literacy development in high performance work
HIGH PERFORMANCE WORK ORGANIZATIONS AND THE COLLABORATIVE APPROACH
In a high performance work organization
(HPWO), employee basic skills are just one of many components (Jurmo et al.
1994). HPWOs feature flatter organizational structures, work done by teams of
highly skilled workers, and a focus on quality, customer service, and continuous
improvement (Kerka 1995). In addition to producing high-quality products and
services, an HPWO also "provides a high quality of work life for all employees" (Jurmo et al. 1994, p. 4).
HPWOs need workers who can take initiative, identify and solve problems, make
decisions, and engage in a wide range of tasks. Traditional basic skills such as
reading, writing, math, and communication are important primarily within the
context of these higher-level skills (ibid.). Although many organizations have
not achieved high performance status, they are moving in that direction and are
seeking to develop a work force with a broader range of skills (Kerka 1995).
In HPWOs, education and training are part of a strategic plan for continuous
improvement, and goals for education are both long and short term. Also,
"workplace education is more than remedial; [it] focuses on building skills for
continuous improvement and flexibility (cross-training) as well as job specific
skills (education model)" (Stein and Sperazi 1991, p. 7).
The collaborative approach to workplace literacy is one that involves a
variety of stakeholders in planning and carrying out the program. Sometimes
called an organizational approach, it recognizes that "workplace literacy and
basic skills upgrading programs, alone, will not ensure that both worker and
organizational goals around basic skills and communication are met" (Waugh 1992,
p. 2). This approach supports the goals of HPWOs in which workers are expected
to be involved in decision making related to their jobs. Part of this decision
making involves management, workers, the union (if appropriate), and educators
in a participatory process for planning, implementing, and evaluating workplace
literacy programs (Jurmo 1994b; Stein and Sperazi 1991; Waugh 1992).
USING A COLLABORATIVE APPROACH
The collaborative approach
to workplace literacy that supports a high performance learning model is based
on the following principles of good practice (adapted from Waugh 1992, pp. 6-7):
There is no "quick fix." Basic skills are addressed as a part of the
organization's overall training and education strategy.
All stakeholders are involved. A collaborative partnership with all workplace
players is the key to establishing a successful workplace basic skills
Process and practice are based on an empowerment model of literacy. Programs
build on the experience, knowledge, and skills that workers and organizations
Workplace literacy initiatives accommodate and respect cultural, linguistic, and
racial diversity. The needs of the work force may need to be met in different
ways to achieve the same outcome.
Literacy is analyzed within the context of other workplace issues. Basic skills
are examined in a way that shows their relationship to other factors such as
communication channels, work processes, equipment, existing training strategies,
and management style. Such an approach avoids "blaming the worker" by addressing
other factors that may detract from worker performance.
Upgrading programs are only one component of managing change. Because basic
skills programs alone will not meet all the needs of a particular workplace,
other activities are undertaken as well.
Workplace basic skills programs are tailored to each workplace and its workers.
The scope and variety of skills needed by workers varies from organization to
organization and no one strategy or curriculum will fit all workplaces.
Clear language is essential. All key workplace documents should be written
clearly so that they can be understood by everyone.
Workplace upgrading programs should be voluntary. Learning can take place only
in a context where participants feel comfortable and have the motivation to
An organization that is not moving in the direction of high performance may
not be ready to support a collaborative approach to workplace literacy. A
program developer could conduct a workplace needs assessment to determine the
company's present stage of development and discuss these findings with
stakeholders as a means of clarifying their goals and values in relationship to
the program. If the company is unable or unwilling to begin the collaborative
process of moving toward a high performance approach, perhaps another type of
workplace education program can be implemented (Jurmo 1994a).
LITERACY DEVELOPMENT IN HPWOS: WHAT DO WE KNOW?
number of resources (e.g., Waugh 1992, Young 1994) are available that can be
used to guide the development of the collaborative approach, little research
exists on how literacy skills are actually developed in HPWOs. Young's (1994)
study of workplace skill development among New York State's civil service
employees supported the assumption that the move toward participatory management
required more sophisticated literacy and interpersonal skills. According to
Young, if the focus was only "on the specific skills embedded in these jobs we
would be focusing on peripheral job requirements: filling out burdensome
reports, studying cleaning directions, or time cards" (p. 41). However, the
changes toward more participatory management "created some interesting new
needs" (ibid.), including more sophisticated reading and writing skills, and
skills to resolve conflicts resulting from participatory, team activities.
Another study (Hart-Landsberg and Reder 1993) examined the roles of literacy
and teamwork in an automotive parts manufacturing company that was restructuring
to implement a high performance model of team organization, worker
responsibility for quality control, and a pay-for-knowledge compensation system.
The study examined the formal and informal educational practices from which 480
workers, organized into 19 production teams (ranging in size from 3-88 members),
learned and taught literacy skills. Its focus was on the literacy learning
environment of workers with lower literacy levels or fewer educational
credentials than most of the plant's employees.
Termed "skills-poor" workers by the company, these employees had distinctive
sets of needs and motivations and "the workplace presented them with limits and
opportunities that were different, often in subtle and unplanned ways, from
those available to workers with more skills or schooling" (p. v). In the company
studied, the skills-poor workers were at a disadvantage because (1) they faced
two sets of educational goals--literacy and upgrading applied skills, (2) they
were not apt to be selected for work in settings that structured practice in
literacy and other skills, and (3) although sometimes promising, the teaching
and learning strategies they experienced were not tailored for their educational
needs. The researchers determined that "the skills-poor may have constructed
literacy lessons in settings they encountered, but these settings were not
designed for optimal skills development. Instead, they were tied to the needs of
production, the exigencies of the moment, and the ingenuity and good will of
coworkers for whom the teacher role was not always a priority" (p. 30).
Conclusions from the study include the following (ibid., pp. 31-32):
Teamwork substantially increases the demand for literacy skills.
Workers appear to develop diverse literacy skills in response to the demands for
new proficiencies affiliated with teamwork.
Team organization in the workplace opens rich possibilities for literacy
The educational opportunities in a team environment can be both a benefit and a
burden to skills-poor workers.
The company that enhances its workforce capability by restructuring work and
incentives for learning takes on many functions of an educational institution.
The limited research on literacy development and
HPWOs supports the use of a collaborative approach to workplace literacy in a
work environment that is moving toward a high performance model. However, a
collaborative approach is not a sufficient condition for a company to be a HPWO,
and neither must a company be a HPWO to use the collaborative approach. Rather,
they are seen as mutually supportive. Also, as revealed by Hart-Landsberg and
Reder (1993), a HPWO environment can still put "skills-poor" workers at a
disadvantage. To understand the nuances and subtleties of how literacy
development occurs, program developers must have a thorough knowledge of any
workplace context in which they are working.
Hart-Landsberg, S., and Reder, S. TEAMWORK AND
LITERACY: LEARNING FROM A SKILLS-POOR POSITION. Philadelphia, PA: National
Center on Adult Literacy, November 1993. (ED 364 747)
Imel, S., and Kerka, S. WORKPLACE LITERACY: A GUIDE TO THE LITERATURE AND
RESOURCES. IN 352. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational
Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, The Ohio State
University, 1992. (ED 354 388)
Jurmo, P. "Report on December 1994 Meeting of the Workplace Education
Collaborative." East Brunswick, NJ: Literacy Partnerships, December 1994a.
Jurmo, P. WORKPLACE EDUCATION: STAKEHOLDERS' EXPECTATIONS, PRACTITIONERS' RESPONSES, AND THE ROLE EVALUATION MIGHT PLAY. East Brunswick, NJ: Literacy Partnerships, June 1994b. (ED 372 282)
Jurmo, P. et al. "'Reinventing the NWLP.' Recommendations for the National
Workplace Literacy Program." A position paper submitted to the U.S. Department
of Education in conjunction with the Reauthorization of the Adult Education Act,
Kerka, S. HIGH PERFORMANCE WORK ORGANIZATIONS: MYTHS AND REALITIES. Columbus:
ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on
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Pritz, S. G., and Imel, S. "Involving Workers in Workplace Literacy." In
PROCEEDINGS OF THE TWELFTH ANNUAL MIDWEST RESEARCH-TO-PRACTICE CONFERENCE,
edited by K. Freer and G. Dean. Columbus: Ohio State University, October 1993.
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Stein, S., and Sperazi, L. "Workplace Education in Context: A Chart Comparing
Traditional and High Performance Work Organizations." In "Tradition and Change:
The Role of Workplace Education and the Transformation of the Workplace," by S.
Stein. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for
Adult and Continuing Education, Toronto, Ontario, 1991. (ED 345 103)
Waugh, S. AN ORGANIZATIONAL APPROACH TO WORKPLACE BASIC SKILLS. Ottawa,
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Young, C. D. ASSESSMENT OF WORKPLACE LITERACY. ASKING NEW QUESTIONS. PROJECT
REACH. Albany, NY: Civil Service Employees Association, Inc; and New York
Governor's Office of Employee Relations, March 1994. (ED 372 286)