My trade is training

18th February 2005 at 00:00
Hostility to learning in the workplace can be overcome by calling in the brokers. Sue Jones reports

As far as his employers knew, Walter had no interest in learning. He wasn't being deliberately secretive, but he just hadn't mentioned the evening classes in accountancy and desktop publishing. And why should he? Taking those courses helped him to run the local pigeon fanciers' association.

They were nothing to do with his job at the sewage works.

Then there was the case of the manager of a car dealership who said his staff couldn't be bothered to learn. Their resistance, it turned out, was not to taking IT training for the company's benefit, but to doing it in their own time.

Such examples show how much mis-understanding there is about training in the workplace, according to researchers into the work of learning brokers.

When outsiders come on the shop floor to encourage people to go on courses, it is easy to overlook learning that is informal or connected with leisure.

And very often people's motives for not signing up for courses are not fully grasped.

Learning brokers are defined by researchers from Hull university's business school and the hu-man relations development unit at Leeds Metro-politan university as "those agents who would bring together employers, learners and training suppliers in a virtuous, mutually beneficial relationship".

The research team* investigated four ideal types of learning broker.

* Learning advisers, often union representatives, who work for the company but are separate from management. They have little power but act in the interests of both the individual and the company

* Management co-ordinators who are senior managers, or their appointees.

They define what will count as learning and who will have access to it

* Independent guidance in the form of information and advice given by organisations unconnected with the workplace, such as the University for Industry telephone helpline.

* Training intermediaries who work with em-ployers. Their job is to stimulate demand for train-ing, advise on needs and find suitable providers.

But the report warns there is no simple formula for effective brokerage in the workplace. Where industrial relations are poor, workers are likely to view innovations cynically and with suspicion. But where they feel genuinely represented, schemes are often successful.

When management is strongly in control, "learning" can be interpreted as the company's training needs with little thought for the benefit to employees. This can be a problem for inter-mediaries working with public funds. They are required to encourage reluctant companies into training, but they must not subsidise what is properly the company's training responsibility.

Training providers who act as intermediaries can find their position as "honest broker" compromised. The report cites a case in which one provider not only analysed the training needs at a care home, but also advised the owners on how to claim public funds and provided the training.

Even where intentions and relations are good, practicalities can get in the way. It is difficult for employees to consult any broker if they work shifts or are constantly travelling around.

The researchers concluded that brokerage works best if certain conditions are fulfilled:

* it is not constrained by a narrow workforce development agenda;

* employees have a sense of ownership;

* industrial relations are good;

* the broker's power comes from personal respect, not their position in the hierarchy; and

* the broker is at a similar position in the organisation to the learners.

In an example of good practice, a successful and expanding manufacturing business had set up an appraisal process to systematise its training needs and appointed two supervisors as learning brokers.

"For us, the significant difference in this organisation was the social cohesiveness of the workgroup," says the report. "This cohesiveness was enhanced by the quality of the relationships both brokers were able to maintain with, and within, the group."

"We had no doubt that ELD (employee-led development) in this organisation was a 'live' initiative; an almost palpable air of warmth and good feeling seemed to pervade the discussion we had with participants who were eager to tell us of their learning experiences."

The report recommends strengthening the role of the trade union learning representatives, developing the learning adviser role in small and medium-sized enterprises and offering training programmes for prospective workplace brokers.

* The report 'Learning Brokerage in the Workplace' was commissioned by the LSDA: www.lsda.org.uk

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