Learning Organisations

In the 2nd of a two part article, Dick Evans of Stockport College looks at products, services and environment.

Part 1 of this article – The Learning College – last month (September 1998) began to explore the concept of the Learning Or ganisation and focused on the value associated with ‘people’. A number of pitfalls and difficulties were highlighted and it was pointed out that these are present in all areas of employment and are not exclusive to education.

Part 2 focuses on the other two chosen values, namely ‘services and products’ and ‘environment’. The emphasis will again be on colleges, but will have a resonance with other areas of employment. The quality of what a college offers by way of services and products is the primary core business on which it is judged. Learner satisfaction and success can guarantee a more secure future and return business from employers and other sponsors. Currently the rapidly accelerating and changing world of competencies, skills and knowledge present particular challenges to colleges in order for them to realise high quality, relevant and appropriate provision. Couple this with diminishing resources from the Funding Councils and the need not only to remain a significant institution of learning and in addition develop its own ethos as a Learning Organisation, the challenges become even more significant.

Services and products.

Whatever provision is offered it must recognise and match the learners’ needs. A good example of these challenges is in the area of IT skills. The knowledge ‘half life’ in some subjects is now down to two years. The time to develop and then to achieve accreditation and validation for new programmes of study is typically longer, in the UK and Europe up to two years or more. Therefore it follows that by the time a programme is offered it may be largely redundant. Similar difficulties arise in many other areas of study and learning, especially in the scientific and technological subjects. The knowledge/skills/competence half-life is also decreasing rapidly. There is a mismatch in the ability of institutions of learning to respond quickly enough to the needs of the learners and employers. The traditional system for course and programme accreditation and the associated long approval procedures are out of synch with the needs of its students. Keeping the programme of study ‘refreshed’ and/or developing new ones requires fundamental changes in approval methods and the way the programmes of study are configured. Existing approaches in education and training decision-making systems and processes are now being challenged, arising from these ever-accelerating knowledge/skill bases. Accrediting and validating bodies need to fundamentally change their systems and processes to be far more responsive and flexible in giving recognition to programmes of study.

Figure 01.

Figure 01.

Challenges not only confront awarding bodies but also institutions that must identify and plan for major content changes. Awarding bodies and colleges must differentiate between:

  • fundamental skills – where the demand changes relatively slowly, for example in such areas as literacy, numeracy, languages and the more academic and professional disciplines
  • vocational skills – where the curriculum may need to be refreshed or significantly changed in twelve to eighteen months. This could arise from a change in the demand for new mixes associated with technology, business and language skills. The increasing move to multi-disciplinary and team working in industry requires multi-cross-skilling of its workforce. Traditional demarcations are vanishing and increasingly craft people and technicians need to be reskilled/cross-skilled and as a result cross traditional discipline boundaries.
  • technology or product skills – these are an ever growing activity where programmes of study may need to be developed, researched and implemented within two to six months. A good example here would be the introduction of new operating systems for computers, Windows 98, NT, Office, etc.

Once a college has identified new programmes of study in order to respond to the needs of its learners and/or employers, it must then in addition to constructing a programme of study in terms of relevant and up-to-date content, decide how it can be packaged and delivered. Modular and unitised curricula most certainly will be more appropriate in the future but a college must also further develop provision that is bespoke/tailor made for its learners and employers. Major reforms in the way colleges operate modes of attendance of study must also be considered. Location and pace are also key issues in order for colleges to develop the provision that their learners require and to satisfy the increasing sophistication of employers’ needs. Time served linear programmes of study are becoming more inappropriate to the changes that are occurring. Learners of the future will increasingly adopt an ‘interrupter mode’ where they will enter, study, leave and then return, and this will require a national system for recognition and accumulation. Employees must become more flexible and multi-skilled. This in turn creates a learning culture and most certainly promotes versatility and curiosity.

If a college is serious about becoming a Learning Organisation it must recognise these transformations and support its staff to up-date their knowledge, skills and competence in order for them to facilitate more effective learning for the students. This will clearly require colleges to develop more effective and efficient programmes of staff and professional development. A great deal of this work can be done within the college using their own staff or commissioning externally appointed facilitators, but also it must be more prepared to send staff to refresher courses or in some cases provision that completely relocates them to new subjects of programmes of study. This is a multi-layered challenge and very often short order retraining programmes can upskill and update full-time staff building upon their previous experience and qualifications. In some cases there might be longer term retraining where a member of staff is being relocated into new areas of study. In addition colleges will increasingly recruit part-time and contract staff with relevant and recent experience in business/industry and the necessary teaching skills. These staff will complement and add value to the fulltime staff. A learning organisation needs to identify and support this growing element within the institution. All organisations are moving towards a greater proportion of its workforce based on short-term contracts. These staff must be supported and treated as equals and be included within the values of the organisation if that organisation is to be a learning organisation.

It could be, because of the restraints on resources,that colleges need to decide which areas of study they wish to remain in, an approach, which is enshrined in its mission and strategic objectives. A college might decide to maintain a core business for the younger student market (GNVQ/A Level) which requires the more traditional time-served programmes of study. If one looks at the way the world is changing, then many should badge themselves as committed to vocationalism and all that that entails, especially in some of the skills mentioned above, particularly in the areas of vocational, technology and product skills. This area precipitates a whole series of key elements associated around supply and demand and adequacy and sufficiency across the colleges within the FE sector. Some of the issues around supply and demand were explored in an earlier article published in ‘t’ Magazine in February 1997 (1).

The development of a unitised curriculum most certainly will be more appropriate for the future and it was pleasing to see that the recent Parliamentary Select Committee on Education and Employment stressed the need for such a development and the creation of a national unitised framework for qualifications/awards.


The final value explored is that associated with the environment. All organisations must create an environment that is welcoming and attractive and in the case of Learning Organisations, have an environment that effectively facilitates learning. Clearly the impact of the new learning technologies will require colleges to remodel their estates in order to fully utilise the undoubted benefits of these new learning technologies. Environments must be fit for purpose and colleges need to think very carefully about the range, scope and nature of their learning environments. Next to people, environment can be the most costly aspect to any organisation’s work. Too often colleges have very traditional layouts for learning. They are very much about teaching, individual class-rooms/workshops, which most certainly are not appropriate for the newer forms of learning. This leads to low utilisation because many of these rooms are inflexible or are far more subject specific. Learning environments have to be configured to be flexible and up-to-date and most certainly to move away from the more traditional boxed approaches to teaching. Learning is clearly the essential focus and not methods that encourage didactic approaches of teaching and learning. As more colleges develop distance and remote learning, the need for extensive estate is being questioned. For all kinds of value, both educational and financial, colleges should be thinking of downsizing their estate and not increasing or upsizing. The secret here is to remodel, if it can be done, so that environments do effectively facilitate learning.

Whatever values or beliefs an organisation adopts, they must map into operational behaviour that is appropriate for that organisation. The organisation is judged not only on its performance which arises from its stated mission and strategic objectives, but it will also be judged by whether its operation reflects the values that it has set itself. Most organisations are now subjected to inspections and assessments and clearly inspectors and assessors will look for evidence that the organisation is practising what it preaches.

Colleges, if they are serious about becoming Learning Organisations must, I would argue, adopt the three values discussed in this article, whatever the difficulties that might precipitate. They have a major responsibility to support their staff and to make certain that they are effective facilitators of learning. Learners themselves must feel that they have had a good service from the college and employers should feel that the provision made for them is valuable to them and their staff and most certainly adds value to their operations, whether that is economy, productivity, etc. etc. Many of the values are linked and cannot be treated separately. The environment is all-important in helping to make the college an effective deliverer of learning. Whether or not an organisation is for-profit or not-for-profit these values are important. They have to be continually monitored in order for them to respond to the ever-changing external environment and also to be robust enough to deal with the unexpected external intervention.

Learning within the context of a learning organisation should be about:
* learning to know
* learning to do
* learning to be, and
* learning to be together

and a final quote from Nussbaum(2)

“Learning for a life worth living”

The consequences of a learning organisation must complement and reinforce the learning that occurs outside it and as a result moves closer to the true intention of lifelong learning. Learning has no end and that includes the organisation and its entire staff. The concept of a learning organisation more closely matches and recognises the rapid transformations occurring in knowledge, skills and competence associated with an increasingly scientific and technological world.

References (1),    ‘Managing Supply and Demand’, ‘t’ Magazine, R.G. Evans, February 1997
(2) ‘Cultivating Humanity’, M. Nussbaum, Harvard UP (1997)

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