How public sector professionals use postformal thought in practice
Thomas, Jackie B.
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The purpose of this study was to understand how public sector professionals employ postformal thought in practice. Specifically, the ways in which public sector professionals took in, mentally sorted and weighed information were examined as they learned to deal with new, complex, and ill-structured problems in the context of their practice at the state Public Utilities Regulatory Commission (PURC). This study utilized a qualitative design consisting of in-depth, semi-structured interviews of 10 purposefully selected public sector professionals. Participants ranged in age from 35 to 63 and reflected diversity in race and gender as well. Professions represented were engineers and utilities/financial analysts. Three questions guided this study: (1) What are the elements of postformal thought? (2) What informal learning experiences at work influence the development and use of postformal thought? (3) What contextual factors shape learning in the workplace? Data analysis was guided by the constant comparative method, which led to three sets of findings: (1) The elements of postformal thought clustered around five themes: framing the problem, constructing knowledge, coping with ambiguity, finding a solution, and looking back. (2) Informal learning experiences influenced the development and use of postformal thought: being self-directed, learning from and with others, and building models. (3) Certain contextual factors shaped learning and development: the context of the work, the organizational culture, and access to resources. Two conclusions were drawn from this study: First, the use of postformal thought is shaped by the context of professional practice, and, secondly, informal learning experiences are the critical path to the development and use of postformal thought in the workplace. Findings from this study suggest that public sector professionals, with the appropriate contextual support, will develop and use postformal thought as conditions warrant in today’s fast changing and ill-structured work environment. Practical implications from this study suggest that understanding and identifying learning experiences and contextual factors that foster cognitive development benefits the working professional in the development of practice, benefits educators preparing adults to enter or advance in the workplace, and benefits the organization in preparing a 21st century workforce.