BRAIN – Barriers and drivers regarding adult education, skills acquisition and innovative activity

The BRAIN Project, with the full name Barriers and drivers regarding adult education, skills acquisition and innovative activity, is funded by The Norwegian Research Council, under the programme Research and Innovation in the Educational Sector (FINNUT) for the period 2014 – 2017.

A central objective is the application of PIAAC data to conduct international comparisons on different aspects of adult learning. The primary objective is to increase the understanding of the conditions that lead to a high level of learning in the adult population, by empirically looking at the interrelationship between different modes of learning, characteristics of work organisations and institutional framework conditions in selected north European countries. The project aims at contributing to an explanation of seemingly puzzling findings at the national level concerning adult skills, participation in adult learning and the rate of innovation in firms/organisations.

Four countries participating in the PIAAC survey are selected for in-depth studies: Denmark, Finland, The Netherlands and Norway. The project is organized as four sub-projects: 1) Skills levels and skills acquisition, 2) Participation in adult learning, 3) Training, skills and innovation, and 4) Learning processes in enterprises – ‘virtuous-circle’ organisations. The fourth project uses mainly qualitative data, whereas the first mentioned three projects use quantitative data, mainly PIAAC data. In addition, a PhD-project called ‘Drivers and barriers in adult education: How and why are there differences among workers in various industries?’ is connected to the project.

The project involves participation by a group of researchers at NIFU, international scholars and different institutions, national as well as international. See “Partners and Researhers” for further information.

Partners and Researchers

The BRAIN research group at NIFU consists of Liv Anne Støren (project manager for BRAIN), Dorothy Sutherland Olsen, Asgeir Skålholt, Elisabeth Hovdhaugen, Pål Børing, Vibeke Opheim, and Kari Vea Salvanes.

The project has a national partner at the University of Stavanger, Norwegian Reading Centre, represented by Associate Professors Kjersti Lundetræ and Egil Gabrielsen. They are responsible for the sub-project ‘Skills levels and skills acquisition’.

The international partners in the project are Professor Rolf van der Velden, The University of Maastricht; Professor (Associate) Richard Desjardins, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies; and Senior Researcher Jouni Nurmi / Professor Osmo Kivinen at the University of  Turku/ Research Unit for the Sociology of Education – RUSE. Associated with the project as an adviser is also Professor Edward Lorenz at the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis.


Støren, L.A. (2015). Innovative learners at work. Results from the BRAIN project – the sub-project ‘Training, skills and innovation’. Report 23/2015. Oslo: NIFU

Olsen, D. S. (2015). Are There Learning Agents in Innovative Firms? A Study of the Potential Role of Human Resource Managers in Learning and Innovation. Journal of the Knowledge Economy. DOI  10.1007/s13132-015-0252-9

Støren, L. A. (2016). Hvor innovative er vi på jobben? Forskningspolitikk. Fagbladet for forskning, høyere utdanning og innovasjon. 1/4-2016: 24–25.

Olsen, D. S. (2016). Adult Learning in Innovative Organisations, European Journal of Education, Volume 51, Issue 2: 210–226.

Desjardins, R., Melo, V. & J. Lee (2016). Cross-national patterns of participation in adult education and policy trends in Korea, Norway and Vietnam. Prospects, September 2016. DOI: 10.1007/s11125-016-9384-3

Støren, L. A. (2016). Factors That Promote Innovativeness and Being An Innovative Learner At Work – Results From PIAAC, European Journal of Education, Volume 51, Issue 2: 176–192).

Børing, P. (2017). The relationship between training and innovation activities in enterprises. International Journal of Training and Development. Published online January 5, 2017.

Desjardins, R (2017). Political Economy of Adult Learning Systems. Comparative Study of Strategies, Policies and Constraints. Bloomsbury Academic. eBook.

Støren, L. A. (2017). Medarbeidere i norsk helsesektor: bak sine danske kolleger når det gjelder læring og innovasjon? Forskningspolitikk. Fagbladet for forskning, høyere utdanning og innovasjon. 3/4-2017: 30–32.

Støren, L.A. & P. Børing (2018). Training of various durations: Do we find the same social predictors as for training participation rates. International Journal of Lifelong Education.

Olsen, Dorothy Sutherland; Tikkanen, Tarja Irene (2018). The developing field of workplace learning and the contribution of PIAAC. International Journal of Lifelong Education.

Støren, Liv Anne & Pål Børing (2018). Immigrants’ participation in non-formal job-related trainingInternational Journal of Lifelong Education.

Støren, Liv Anne; Kjersti Lundetræ & Pål Børing (2018). Country differences in numeracy skills: how do they vary by job characteristics and education levels? International Journal of Lifelong Education.

Hovdhaugen, Elisabeth & Vibeke Opheim (2018). Participation in adult education and training in countries with high and low participation rates: demand and barriersInternational Journal of Lifelong Education.

Tikkanen,Tarja; Elisabeth Hovdhaugen & Liv Anne Støren (2018). Work-related training and workplace learning: Nordic perspectives and European comparisonsInternational Journal of Lifelong Education.

Also linked to the project:

Sequeda, M. F., de Grip, A. & R. van der Velden, R. (2015). Does on-the-job informal learning in OECD countries differ by contract duration? RM/15/021. Maastricht University.


Sub-project 1. Skills levels and skills acquisition

Associate professors Kjersti Lundetræ and Egil Gabrielsen, University of Stavanger, have the primary responsibility for this sub-project. The project examines among other things why the skills levels vary within educational groups, and why different types of skills vary between countries, and between age groups. The skills level among young persons (16–24 years) in Norway is of particular interest for the project. The project also deals with the extent to which learning conditions at work contribute to differences in different types of skills.

Sub-project 2, Participation in adult learning

Several NIFU researchers in the BRAIN group as well the partner Richard Desjardins (UCLA) are working on this project. Previous research on adult education has shown that to fully understand patterns of participation there is a need to study empirically how institutional characteristics that enable or promote learning, interact with motivational factors in producing country differences in participation in adult learning. To what extent do motivational factors for training vary between the countries? How do the different factors affect the differences in training rates between the countries and according to educational level and immigrant level? What characterizes workplaces where work-related training most/least frequently occurs?

Sub-project 3. Training, skills and innovation

Research Professor Liv Anne Støren, NIFU, has the main responsibility for this project. In the projects ‘innovativeness’ is defined in terms of workers who are actively seeking and utilizing new knowledge. It is considered that the worker possesses a high degree of innovativeness if his/her job largely involves keeping up to date with new products or services, and to a large extent involves learning-by-doing from the tasks he/she performs; and if the respondent scores high on a set of active and creative learning strategies, as well as solving complex problems at work. This worker is described as being an innovative strategic learner at work. Which factors enhance the probability of being such a worker? Of particular interest when examining this is the occurrence of discretionary work forms such as flexibility and autonomy. Consideration is also made of those factors which may contribute to explaining possible country differences.

Sub-project 4. Learning processes in enterprises – ‘virtuous-circle’ organisations

Senior Researcher Dorothy Sutherland Olsen has the main responsibility for this project. To shed more light on the role of learning in the innovation process in firms, in-depth case studies are carried out (in this case only in Norway). Research questions are: Do managers and employees view learning as important for innovation? In what way is the environment in innovative organisations conducive to informal learning? What kind of learning can we identify in innovative organisations?

PhD-project (2015–2017) Drivers and barriers in adult education: How and why are there differences among workers in various industries?

PhD-project supplements parts of the BRAIN-project, mainly in terms of how characteristics of the vocational adult education affect learning and participation in adult learning in different industries, and how informal learning associated with adult vocational education possibly affects innovation in the workplace. The project examines among other things the extent to which firms/organizations that are characterised as learning intensive appear as innovative firms, and country differences – depending on the industrial sector – in terms of the connection between training activities and innovative activity in the workplace.


The NIFU researchers and the partners in the BRAIN project, i.e. the partners from the Universities of Maastricht, Turku, Stavanger and UCLA  have met at three workshops at NIFU, i.e. in November 2015, June 2015 and May 2016. In the meetings, different drafts to papers and reports referring to all the sub-projects have been intensely discussed and the meetings have resulted in valuable contributions to the publications. Many papers are on its way, which were thoroughly discussed in the May 2016 workshop.

NIFU Researchers and other members from the BRAIN group will participate in the third PIAAC International Conference in Madrid, on 6–8 November 2016. Previously, NIFU researchers have also attended in the first PIAAC International Conference in Washington (13–15 November 2013) and the second PIAAC International Conference in Harlem, the Netherlands (22–24. November 2016), as well as the PIAAC International Database Training, Prague, Czech Republic, May 13-15, 2014.

At the ECER Conference, Dublin, 23 – 26 August 2016, Network 23, Policy studies and Politics of Education, Elisabeth Hovdhaugen will present the paper: Motivation for participation in different forms of adult learning: unmet demand or insatiable needs?
The BRAIN projects will also be presented at the Research council, FINNUT’s conference on educational research 8. November 2016. (“Utdanningskonferansen 2016: Ny kunnskap om læring”). The title of the presentation is: «Lærende og innovativ på jobben? Analyser av yrkesaktive i fire land» (“Learning at work and being innovative? Analyses of employed persons in four countries).

project details

project number12820338
project leader
project coworkersDorothy Sutherland Olsen, Asgeir Skålholt, Elisabeth Hovdhaugen, Pål Børing, Vibeke Opheim, Kari Vea Salvanes
project period01.01.2014  -  31.12.2017
fundingNorges forskningsråd

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