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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Bringing university learning into the workplace
Article Type: HR at work From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 7, Issue 5
Short case studies that demonstrate best practice in HR
One of the major obstacles to development has always been the inevitable time out of the office for programs that may – or may not – have some benefit for individuals and the business. Key people cannot afford to go missing and for many managers this can mean either delaying serious development or the need for career breaks and moves. The issue becomes particularly difficult with 24/7 operations, such as emergency rescue organization, the AA.
But what if people did not need to leave the office or even be taken away from their daily job, if the development could be tailored purely for that manager, and if everyday work itself was the curriculum?
Developing an alternative model
In December 2006, the School of Lifelong Learning at Coventry University in the UK was awarded over £3.5 million by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), which promotes and funds high-quality, cost-effective teaching and research, meeting the diverse needs of students, the economy and society. This funding was to enable the School of Lifelong Learning to implement a new way of delivering higher education-level development directly into the workplace through an initiative called the Employer Engagement Project, which actively seeks the input of employers in the design and delivery of work-based learning and accreditation and aims to meet their employee and organizational development needs.
The work is a direct response to the Leitch report, which was commissioned by the UK government to investigate the UK’s long-term skills needs. In its findings, it calls for an increase in higher skills across the UK and points to the need for smarter ways to encourage employers to invest beyond standard training and into higher levels of development. The project, based over three years, allows for a much closer work-based learning relationship between the university and employers to be developed and builds on the concept of combining capability and competence. The program changes the way the university works with employers by being truly “at work and in work”.
Bringing lifelong learning to AA
At the heart of the process is the learning and development consultant (LDC) who works directly within the host organization. This case study is based on my experiences as an LDC working with the AA and its contact centers at Oldbury in the West Midlands and Cheadle Hulme in Cheshire. One of the most recognized brands in the UK, the AA provides breakdown and recovery services for 15 million members across the country.
The design of the program allows people to get involved who may not, under normal circumstances, have ever considered studying with a university. Many of the students on the program have been in employment since they left school at 16. The only real entry requirement from the AA’s perspective was that students taking part in the launch of the program must be at team manager level. The AA has an “Aspiring to Manage” program running alongside the university program and it is hoped that many of these students will form the basis of a second cohort. The students are working towards a Certificate in Lifelong Learning, which will gain them higher education and vocational points – specifically, they earn 60 CAT credits at Higher Education level 1 as well as an NVQ (National Vocational Qualification) level 3 in management
Rolling out the program
The program was advertised internally to team managers and following a selection process 27 managers were successfully inducted onto the program. These team managers are from either the call handling side of the business or service delivery, which deals with all the other aspects of the breakdown service. An LDC with relevant experience is selected to work with the organization. My own background has been as a traffic policeman, specializing in crash investigation and later going on to take on a training role in helping police deal with fatal incidents. Based on this experience, I was assigned to work with the AA in May 2007.
I spend on average four days a week directly within the AA, either seeing students in one-to-one tutorials or working with small groups. I liaise with AA senior management who talk through the various aspects of the business on which they would like me to concentrate. The program then works by taking these live issues from within the business and turning them into a series of case studies. Because I was able to work extensively within the AA’s premises I became very visible and available to the students, which gave me the opportunity to build up some excellent working relationships.
Linking learning and work experiences
My role has been to support the students working on the case studies and relate the process to wider learning, encouraging them to read and research further. Because the case studies are tailored from the AA’s workflows and processes, the teaching and learning is able to interact at an operational level. In the tutorials the students are able to discuss the academic theories and models and how they relate to work. They can try these out in the workplace in their day-to-day activities and then relate them back to the case studies. In this way, their own work is the basis for learning.
The students are assessed through a series of assignments. These are assessed and moderated through usual university procedures and this forms the higher education element of the program. Because the case studies and assignments are based on real working situations, the evidence they generate can be assessed against the NVQ in management. This provides for a real economy of working, where both the capability of the student is increased through their study and involvement in the program and their competence is accredited through the NVQ system.
Tangible results emerge
While the successes in formally marked assignments have been very encouraging, the real acid test of any program is whether the learning is being applied in the workplace and what difference it is making. On recent assignments students have looked at issues as varied as recruiting through to team briefings and because the process is “at work and in work” the results have been tangible.
One student who was examining the issues of critical decision-making took for her theme a local recruitment process. She applied this to a decision on how to advertise for potential recruits within a new area. This led her to examining the recruiting process in some detail, linking her work-based experience to her study and critically examining the issues through the assignment. The subsequent assignment was successful through the higher education process and provided an effective solution to the local issue of recruitment, with her recommendations being adopted by the AA. The internal HR department would have traditionally carried out this work. By making her work the subject of the learning process both the student and the AA have gained through her extended experience and applied learning.
Another student examined how learning styles may interact with team briefings. His team works both mornings and afternoons on an alternating process. He noticed that there was a performance drop when the team was working afternoons. He chose to examine how his team was briefed and experimented with a changed briefing process for the afternoon to the morning, using the information and learning he had gained from learning styles. He was able to show a tangible increase in performance on afternoons over his previous figures.
Looking to the future
At a recent review of the program with the students and senior managers from the AA, the students were able describe in some detail how they are using their learning in the workplace and how it is affecting their confidence and ability, how their teams are seeing the benefit and, ultimately, how it is affecting their service to their members.
All the organizations taking part have been encouraged to work with the university to identify the measures of the program’s impact on their business. LDCs and the central university team are gathering data throughout the delivery of the program to inform this. Work is currently being undertaken by the university to develop a sustainable model of delivery beyond the project funding period.
Andy BirchLearning and development consultant at Coventry University. He joined West Midlands Police in 1976, serving on the south side of Birmingham as a patrol officer and later as a traffic motorcyclist. A specialist in vehicle examination and forensic crash investigation, Birch went on to build a career in academia, developing and delivering a range of police force training programs. He can be contacted at: email@example.com