Joao Jose Saraiva Da Fonseca Microtraining Microformação
Effective learning to support incremental innovations
M.G.F. Overschie*1, P. de Vries1, A. Espuna2, A. Meluni2, S. Brall3, K. Weingarts-Göttgens3
*TU Delft, firstname.lastname@example.org
EESD 2008 topic: Educational co-operation between universities and industry in the field of sustainable
Incremental and radical innovations are needed to realize sustainable development.
Transforming a promising idea into a successful innovation requires a process of continuous
breeding and incremental improvements that often take place on the work floor, which is why an
adequate knowledge transfer on the work floor is a key requirement in the promotion of
sustainable development. However, it would appear that increasing time pressure and lack of
expertise prevents companies from spending the necessary attention to the process of
Employees need to be encouraged to share their knowledge with others and to contribute to the
development of sustainable solutions that benefit their organization. Often, the transfer of ‘tacit’
knowledge, also known as implicit knowledge, consisting of mental models, skills, insights and
perspectives that are largely based on experiences (Verburg et al., 2006), is important. At least
eighty percent of job related learning takes place in informal settings: in casual conversations at
the coffee machine, when doing jobs together, in communities of practice and when using other
resources like Internet-based expertise.
A method that supports informal, unofficial, unplanned and ad hoc learning processes involving
the improvement of an efficient transfer of knowledge in the day-to-day working environment
has been developed within the framework of the European Leonardo da Vinci Life Long
Learning program, and it has been tested in the Netherlands and Spain4 (Overschie et al.,2006,
2007 and 2008; Pérez-Moya et al., 2008). The core of the method, which has been named
“Microtraining”, is a series of short sessions on relevant topics to cover a workplace-related
learning demand. A time limit of 15-30 minutes was chosen as a challenging goal for face-to-
face meetings. Each session starts in an active manner, followed by a demonstration or
exercise, feedback or short discussion, and ends with directions for further development and a
brief preview of future sessions (see Figure 1).
A sequel project5 is aimed especially at designing a support system that helps companies put
the training method into practice. The use of e-learning is considered a strategic component to
help the trainer or conductor organize, execute and evaluate the effectiveness of the learning
Figure 1: The Microtraining method: series of short sessions on sub-topics (Overschie et al., 2006)
The aims of the Microtraining method are:
• To supply companies with an organizational framework for the support of informal learning.
• To support the effective transfer of knowledge and experience in a time slot of about 15
minutes, so that it fits the participants’ attention span and the actual working schedule;
• To add flexibility to learning activities, to make it easy to determine the frequency, the time,
the place, the content and the participants;
• To use sound didactical principles for an interactive learning approach that stimulates self-
initiative, communication and collaboration among employees in order to improve the
preservation of knowledge;
• To encourage employees to share their own knowledge and reflect on solutions that benefits
• To supply companies with a cost-effective and time-effective methodology that can be part
of their learning strategy.
Based on learning theory, innovation theory and case studies on cleaner production and
sustainability, this paper addresses the following issues:
1. What are the learning needs of the companies, related to incremental innovations,
sustainable development and environmental and safety-related issues;
2. Why do classical training methods fail to support such needs;
3. Why does the Microtraining method appear to be successful and how can the learning
opportunities for the employees be increased.
1. What are the learning needs of the companies, related to incremental innovations,
sustainable development, and environmental and safety issues?
Companies are looking for ways to increase the efficiency of their production process and
achieve ‘genuine sustainability’. In this respect, the availability of knowledge and technological
innovations plays an important role both at the level of organizations/companies level and at the
level of societies/ institutions.
Incremental technological changes often lead to an optimization of conventional processes, and
have environmental benefits of a factor 1.5 to 4. It is certainly necessary to keep moving toward
incremental improvements, as they provide significant progress in the early stages by
capitalizing on ‘low-hanging fruit’ (the easy improvements) (Moors, 2000). It is important to
notice that, after the initial period of change, incremental changes become less beneficial, both
in ecological and economic terms (Arthur D. Little, 1996).
Taking into account the factor 20 challenge of sustainable development (Jansen, 1993), it
becomes clear that the adoption or improvement of existing technology via continuous
improvements will be insufficient in the long run. From a certain point, more far-reaching radical
technological changes begin to deliver a higher reduction in environmental impact (Cramer et.
Table 1 (based on Dieleman, 1999) shows seven features of innovation at company level. In six
of the seven features the roles of learning and knowledge-sharing have been emphasized.
Table 1: Features of innovation at the company level
Feature Explanation Based on
1. Fit to context Technology is almost never a ready to adopt a Schot, 1989
product. Usually, a complicated series of technical Lundvall, 1998
and organizational adaptations are needed.
2. Result of processes The innovation process is surrounded by Dosi, 1988
of trial and error uncertainties. Processes of trial and error are needed.
3. Cyclical nature It is only through continued applications and learning/ Rosenberg, 1983
adoption of feedback that innovations become
4. Result of the The capability to learn from the many search and Rosenberg, 1983
capability to learn adaptation processes seems decisive for the success.
5. Result of day-to-day Innovation is rooted in people’s tacit knowledge and Nelson/Winter, 1983
experiences arises through non-planned bottom-up initiatives. Dosi, 1988. Smith, 1947
6. Result of variety of General and specific skills and formal and implicit Nelson/Winter, 1983
types of knowledge knowledge are needed.
7. Arises out of the The informal organization has great influence on the Nelson/Winter, 1983
informal organization innovative performance of the formal organization or
Between 1970 and 1990, a well structured context developed in the period in many Western
European countries, in which environmental legislation, technology, standard practices and
formal organizational arrangements all fitted very well in the same problem definition. There was
great optimism, as many people supported change in industry towards cleaner production, away
from pollution control. The optimism was based on the existence of market opportunities for
cleaner production and the results of many demonstration projects.
With the introduction of the concept of sustainable development (SD) (Brundtland, 1987) the
problem definition in social discussions as well in strategic policy programs changed from
environmental issues to a broader social perspective. The cleaner approach to production of the
eighties fitted well within the concept of SD. External pressures, like taxes, penalties and
consumer preferences increasingly force enterprises to give environmental issues an important
place in all their decision-making processes. However, the necessary changes in the practice of
various relevant company stakeholders and the important institutional changes needed in the
conversion of existing contexts have still not yet been fully integrated.
Small and medium sized enterprises (SME’s) find it harder to react, because:
• they are less able to modify their focus. Other pressures are more evident/immediate in their
• they have a more reduced number of quot;degrees of freedomquot;. Resources are not committed
by these other quot;immediate pressuresquot;: they usually operate with a shorter decision-making
• they are not in the forefront of these quot;external pressuresquot; that force them to consider
According to the European Commission in collaboration with the Joint Research Centre,
institute for Prospective Technological Studies, factors that prevent environmental policies from
being adopted by SME’s are (Hoevenage, 2007 p15):
1. Most SME’s do not consider environmental issues to be important: basically this means that
they are not so interested, while but at the same time there is little external pressure to
improve in environmental terms.
2. Most SME’s rely heavily on the opinion of their immediate professional surrounding when it
comes to adopting environmental technologies. This barrier is related to the scepticism
among most SME’s about environmental applications of technology due to the lack of
information and mistrust about whatever lies beyond the interest of their core business.
Generally speaking, the enterprises think that moving from their core business puts their
competitive position at risk.
3. The basic perception of SME’s with respect to environmental technology has to do with
costs and risks. The SME’s are not ready to invest their money in something that is not sure
to benefit their development and competitive position. They perceive it as a risk and it is
because of a broader mistrust with regard to the use of technologies that are unknown most
of the times and that can be valuable in long term-use and strategy. Another problem with
regard to improving sustainable technology is the requirement of training people in using
new technologies, which entails additional costs.
Based on several cases involving the prevention of production-related waste and emissions in
the Netherlands, Dieleman (1999) has identified similar barriers. In the cases he examined,
environmental issues played only a minor role in day-to-day production. In cases where the
issue was framed in a pollution control framework, only a small number of employees had the
knowledge and skills or they were limited to the environmental engineer. Most of the companies
followed conventions within their industrial sector in terms of problem definition and the
technological solutions they applied. They knew their companies in a specific way, based on a
certain perception of reality. The lack of skills and knowledge reduces the potentials for cleaner
production as well as the capacity to envisage the possibilities of cleaner production.
It is difficult to change peoples’ expectations and belief systems. Only by stimulating several
search processes within the companies was it possible to convince the people involved that
their perception of reality was a selective one. Companies were never challenged. Other
relevant stakeholders had the same ‘blind spots’.
Dieleman (1999) proved that the implementation of cleaner production options within industry
was much more complicated than was predicted. Although the technologies involved may be
relatively simple, the search processes designed to implement the technological options usually
is complicated. Options, or market opportunities, should be considered within the context in
which they have to be implemented. The targets that are used in search processes, profit
maximization, the traditional assumption in economic theory, are difficult to reconcile to
sustainability targets. In practice it appears that search processes are not framed by
optimization but by risk reduction.
Dieleman distinguishes four groups of factor, that each plays a different role in articulating the
relevant questions, and in realising and maintaining change trajectories: 1. The informal
organization of companies, 2. The formal organization of companies, 3. Interaction with relevant
actors in the companies’ environment, and 4. Social perceptions, problem definitions and
solution directions (see Table 2).
Table 2: Factors that play a role in articulating the questions and realizing and maintaining change
trajectories towards cleaner production (based on Dieleman, 1999)
1. The informal Company culture, routines, certainties and problem definitions influence the
organization knowledge and skills that have been acquired. There is not much a lack of
knowledge about environmental alternatives, but more about the company
itself. Too little was learned from evaluation and feedback with regard to the
conditions of the companies. Solutions to problems were ‘fixed’. When
implementing new options, people were unable to fall back on routines. It
turned out there was a lack of social and communicative skills.
2. The formal organization In the actual realization of options, the formal organization plays an important
role. An environmental management system promotes the implementation of
changes. Although it has its own dynamics, it is not aimed as such at solving
environmental issues, and nor does it lead to cleaner production.
3. Relevant actors In customizing the options, there was a lack of support on the part of relevant
parties in the environment. The companies were reasonably well aware of
developments within their industry. There were discussions about what should
be done, about the seriousness of the environmental problem and the time
frame within which changes had to be implemented. However, neither the
companies themselves, nor the environment (branch organizations, employers’
and employees organizations, consultancy firms and knowledge institutes)
provided serious stimuli to look for preventive solutions.
4. Social perceptions, Virtually the entire constellation of actors acted within the same perception and
problem definitions and problem definition. Over time, approaches and solutions (like the cleaning
directions for solutions trajectories) have slowly crystallized. Perceptions and convictions (cultural
phenomena) as well as organizations and institutional networks (structural
phenomena) are fixed. Collectively shared convictions affect the actions of
people within the companies and within their environment. Routines,
knowledge and experience within the companies and a positive influence of
actors in the environment of the companies are lacking.
Three key conclusions of Dieleman (1999) emphasize the importance of:
1. Establishing a process of confrontation of all relevant stakeholders within the context.
Confrontation with blind spots is the mechanism of “opening” a context and showing that the
world is less self-evident than people believe. Confrontation focuses on “defreezing”
2. Reflecting on and/or analyzing and changing existing path dependencies or institutional
blockades. Reflection aims at indentifying path dependencies that are the result of the
structuration of the contexts, and can be used to formulate steps towards change.
3. Learning by doing, using and interacting, with the aim of changing the context in a constant
interplay and reciprocity between thinking and doing, and planning and executing.
According to Dieleman (1999), it is not the existence of interesting market opportunities outside
the companies that determines the probability of cleaner production opportunities being
implemented, but the learning capacities inside the companies. There clearly is a gap between
the mere existence of opportunities for cleaner production and the realization of these
opportunities. In between the two, there is a complex process of acting, searching, learning and
decision-making. This can be understood and assessed by analyzing existing knowledge, skills
A well-developed, comprehensive and internally consistent context helps stimulate so-called
first order change. First order change is change within a given context that takes place, without
changing problem definitions of reality, building upon existing knowledge, skills, routines and
standard solutions (Levy, 1986). It can contribute specifically to the kind of incremental changes
that originate from the shop floor of companies, as these changes are routed in routines and
implicit knowledge. Second order change or paradigm change involves changing the context,
the problem definition, definitions of reality, and changing the institutional set-up of a given
context. The context within which a company operates has a cultural and a structural
dimension. Cultural dimensions become self-evident through a process of internalization.
Structures establish themselves through a process of externalization or structuration. Within this
context, action and interactions contribute to stability or change.
According to Dieleman (1999), the informal organization, the business environment and
institutions play a role in a company’s problem definitions and search processes. Reality
(problems, challenges, chances and opportunities) is not approached by logical analysis.
Instead, it is approached on the basis of matching opportunities with existing representations in
people’s memory. Previous experiences influence the way problems are perceived and
solutions explored. Behaviour is constantly adjusted through new experiences. There is a
continuous interaction between thinking and doing. Behaviour is not always deliberate and
conscious. Explicit processes of search and decision-making are often absent. Implicit
knowledge, experiences and perceptions of reality play an important role.
Microtraining tries to formalize this (currently informal) procedure, in order to increase its
chances of success. It is difficult to assess the value of environmental objectives and eventual
solutions. Because of the difficulties involved in assessing sustainability-related results in the
short term, there is not always a first order relationship between changes (innovation) and the
commonly used performance measures, which makes it harder to convince companies and
people of the necessity of training.
2. Why do classical training methods fail to support such needs?
Knowledge and learning have become critical assets for most companies because of the swift
socio-economic and technological changes that reduce the time span from the moment
knowledge is gained until it becomes obsolete. Especially industries that focus on innovations
and sustainability-related issues have an increasing need for a rapid development and
dissemination of knowledge. The inability of the traditional training and learning organizations to
cope with the rising demand to a large extent is related to inflexibility in time and place of
teaching and learning, the irrelevance of the content, the lack of experts and the problems
involved in applying lessons to a workplace environment. However, other factors play a role as
The characteristics of today’s and tomorrow’s worker are changing (De Vries, 2005; Cross,
2007; Siemens, 2005 and 2006; Van Dam, 2007; Veen and Vrakking, 2006). Motivating and
retaining talented employees requires a different approach to employee development. Not only
do employees constitute a heterogeneous population, they are vary increasingly in their learning
habits (baby boomers (1945–1960) versus gamers (1980–2000)) (Veen and Vrakking, 2006)
and the increased cultural heterogeneity of the workforce (De Vries, 2005; Van Dam, 2007).
In such a situation, the traditional approach has become obsolete, especially in situations where
flexibility has turned into a prime element of an organization’s competitiveness. Generally
speaking, learning and training are not considered a high priority, but in situations where the
learning capacity of an organization starts playing a decisive role, things have to change.
The need for new concepts and other methods is very much related to the discussion on formal
and informal learning. According to Digenti (2000) and Cross (2007), formal learning - in classes
and workshops – no longer works, because it covers only ten to twenty percent of what people
need to know to do their job well. The other eighty percent is acquired through informal learning
that takes place in the vicinity of the workplace and is generally speaking more relevant to job
performance than any other factor (Cross, 2007, p.235).
In reality, people learn all the time, in a multitude of learning settings, which can take place in a
classroom, but which obviously occur in an informal situation most of the time. However, on
average, eighty percent of the training budget is spent on formal learning, which means that
companies overinvest in formal training programs, while missing out on the opportunity to foster
the more natural and informal learning processes. This is what Cross (2007) calls the ‘Spending
& Outcomes Paradox’ (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: The Spending and Outcomes Paradox (Cross, 2007, p. XIV)
The distinction between formal and informal learning should not be understood as a strictly
separated set of learning activities, but as a learning spectrum with formal learning depicted as
traditional classroom-oriented, curriculum bound learning, and informal learning as a social
activity consisting of a mix of actions that support learning on the go (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: The Learning Spectrum (De Vries and Leege, 2008)
Formal learning is very much integrated into the existing organization, it is quite predictable and
people are used to it, due to their previous learning experiences. Considerable efforts have
been made to add flexibility to the traditional system. For example, e-learning has been used to
make formal learning more flexible. However, in most cases the traditional classroom paradigm
of the ‘lonely learner’ was copied into flashy looking e-learning courses ‘consumed’ outside the
workplace (De Vries et al., 2008).
Although informal learning is less predictable, it is a very natural way of learning, even though it
is often not perceived as learning. In practice, however, informal learning is considered more
effective than formal learning, because it is personal and real and because the learner is
responsible (Cross, 2007; De Vries and Leege, 2008). Organizations are still not really aware of
the opportunities informal learning can offer, with its potential of being developed into a profit
strategy that allows organizations to deal better with their emerging learning demands. With
regard to innovation towards sustainability, informal learning (sharing experience, trial and error,
etc.) is essential. For informal learning to flourish, it is crucial to find ways to keep the
ingredients that make it so successful in place, while avoiding the drawbacks associated with
3. Why does Microtraining method appear to be effective and how can the learning
opportunities for the employees be increased?
Microtraining is a method that is designed to help organizations support informal learning, while
finding a balance between the pros and cons of using an informal process. Microtraining is a
support mechanism for the development of informal learning activities. For Microtraining to
flourish, organizational requirements have to be considered to achieve the advantages
organizations are looking for because of the ever-changing demands for learning. The success
of a company is increasingly seen as a responsibility that is shared by all the employees.
Informal learning allows for a straightforward, purposeful and efficient progress with regard to
the working process (Brall and Hees, 2007).
The application of Microtraining helps people connect with colleagues and other learning
processes in the organization, and it can help to maintain, distribute and share knowledge in a
structured way, so it does not become incidental, hidden or in transferrable. It is not just about
individual learning, but about a mechanism that should be part of the organizational learning
strategy (Brall et al., 2007). Microtraining supplies a practical mechanism for the transfer of new
knowledge and insight that enables companies to inform their employees of the latest
developments, safety issues, new environmental regulations, new products, new techniques
and new production methods, etc., with the aim of eventually improving the level of knowledge
towards sustainable technological innovation.
Microtraining is based on sound educational learning theories for heterogeneous groups of
participants. In a series of sessions of 15 to 30 minutes, related topics are dealt with in a
Microtraining learning setting. The selection of topics will be determined by the knowledge
requirements of the employees and by the objectives of the company. It is effective for people
whose presence in the workplace is of vital importance for the primary process, for instance
people in the production industry, construction and sales, and whose basic knowledge needs to
be refreshed or improved. An important notion is that employees should be able to put the
knowledge they acquire into practice immediately.
Experience with Microtraining over the last few years in the Netherlands and Spain shows that
(Overschie et al., 2007, 2008; Pérez-Moya et al., 2008; De Vries and Leege, 2008):
• Individuals connect, collaborate and produce resources that can be used throughout the
• Individuals are brought together and problems are solved collectively;
• Learning processes can take place in the vicinity of the workplace, with ample opportunities
for information transfer;
• Target-oriented informal and self-directed learning motivates the staff;
• It saves time by focusing on the activation of essential advancements.
Experience also shows that, to increase the effectiveness of the Microtraining method, the
following things are required:
• Companies need to create learning settings for employees to develop themselves
permanently and to support this awareness process in relation to the increasing learning
• Employees must recognize the potential of self- development with regard to their individual
responsibility and the development of the company.
• The organization of Microtraining takes time, even when the initiative is launched by
individual learning needs.
• Employees and executives need to be prepared and supported to function as initiators,
coaches or trainers.
• Employees and other stakeholders need to familiarize themselves with the peculiarities of
activating learning activities.
The Microtraining project5 is aimed at developing an online support service that supplies all the
ingredients needed to develop Microtraining in a company setting.
Innovative companies need to have a learning policy in place as part of their business strategy,
to be able to deal with the fast-changing learning demands. Microtraining is a method that helps
companies deal better with this demand by making informal learning activities more effective for
workplace-related knowledge to increase the chances of successful (incremental) innovations
towards sustainable development. In all cases it is important to assess the value of informal
learning by looking at the corresponding costs and benefits for the company.
Sustainability is a collective responsibility that requires constructive collaboration and a global
(integrated) view of the global mission of a company, beyond the traditional technical objectives
(which usually can be easily divided into related but independent procedures).
Sustainability/environmental/safety issues and resulting actions can be detected by anyone in
the company. People can feel they are personally affected by them, even more than they feel
affected by the economic results of the company. Since local procedural improvements have
often already been implemented, nowadays significant reductions in environmental impact
usually require interdepartmental collaborative actions.
However, a lack of information and mistrust about whatever lies beyond the interest of their core
business delay the process of innovation towards sustainability. The search processes are
framed by risk reduction. The difficulties in assessing sustainability-related results in the short
term may result in a lack of motivation for training. Options to improve towards sustainability
should be considered within the context in which they have to be implemented. Learning by
doing, using and interacting, aimed at changing the context in a constant interplay between
thinking and doing, planning and executing, is crucial.
TUDelft, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, Faculty of Technology Policy and Management, Technology Dynamics &
Sustainable Development / EduTec
UPC Technical University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Center for Sustainability / Department of Chemical Engineering, Spain
RWTH, Technical University of Aachen, Germany, Center for Learning and Knowledge Management and Department of Computer
Science in Mechanical Engineering (ZLW/IMA), Germany
The European Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning sub project Microteaching for Sustainable Technological Innovation started in
October 2004 and ran till March 2007. Sub project partners:TUD (Delft University of Technology), UPC (Technical University of
Catalonia). Project coordinationRWTH (Technical University of Aachen, Germany).
The European Leonardo da Vinci Life Long Learning project ‘Microtraining for effective learning’ started in November 2007 and will
continue until the end of 2009. Partners are TUD (Delft University of Technology), RWTH (Technical University of Aachen,
Germany), UPC (Technical University of Catalonia), METU (Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey) and KTH (Royal
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