Lessons learnt from the natives

three months to go before the Adult Learning Inspectorate is wound up.

Three months before I emerge, whooping, into the playground.

Like most men, I've spent years - 40 - defining myself through a job. What is my self-image for the future? Quentin Crisp, who spent his life as a nude model at London art schools and then went off to New York to write a wonderful, rackety autobiography.

Save for a month or two, I came in with Tony Blair and I'll go out with Tony Blair. It's not my style to dwell, I think. However, 2007 looks like the year for pondering on legacies.

Top of the list comes something we knew when we started the ALI but had forgotten until a group from Canada reminded us last November. It's common sense. You stand no chance of encouraging someone to go for gold if their organisation is already better than yours.

"Why should I listen to you when we're more efficient, more productive, more up-to-speed with the global pack than you are?" Fair point.

Be bold. Be cutting edge.

That's why we designed the inspectorate the way we did: open plan, no individual offices, everyone has a similar desk and kit, all the meeting rooms have glass walls, everyone doing the same job gets paid the same, and we return money to the Treasury every year.

What is the secret of being listened to? Business excellence.

Second point: don't rely on legislation to give you the right to judge. You have to earn it. The only way to do that in a world where deference has gone by the board is to compete and win.

One of my chirpiest moments before Christmas was winning a British Safety Council Sword of Honour. Winning an accolade which only 40 organisations in the world can receive each year - and not a UK government agency among them except the ALI - is the cream.

How does it feel to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dubai Drydocks, Tata Chemicals of India, SeaRiver Maritime of Houston, as well as Babcock Engineering and others from Britain? Terrific! They know the ALI has won the right to act as critical friend to their organisations, and so does everyone else.

The ALI's quality improvement service, Excalibur, was the breakthrough. We learnt how to build it by doing what you should always do in strange territory: learn from the natives. We learnt about corporate universities and how they lead you into supply-chain quality management from Unipart.

The ALI was the first government learning inspectorate in the private sector.

In the business world, you can't judge, however expertly and authoritatively you do it, and walk away. If you find a problem, you fix it. That is the modern inspection business. It chimes well with the "what works wins" pragmatism of Mr Blair and David Cameron.

I'm already packing my knapsack for April, full of ideas. Pied Piper, perhaps; certainly not Don Quixote.

David Sherlock is Chief Inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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