Few government programmes merit uncomplicated praise. But participating in the Investors in People scheme has transformed the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
When the IIP standard was first developed, I thought it sounded rather formulaic. I felt that a small body like NIACE worked better with more flexible structures, and that there was a danger in a programme which tied a training plan too closely to a business plan.
For an organisation that earns 70 per cent of its turnover from its capacity to react quickly to external changes, business plans always feel like broad direction finders rather than detailed road maps, and I was afraid that the mechanisms we would need to secure IIP recognition might inhibit our speed of responsiveness.
I believed NIACE's informality gave colleagues all the space they needed to innovate and explore.
But I was wrong. This was brought home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer when some staff at NIACE had a 24-hour residential course, and came back reporting that in an exercise to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, people had put "the director" in every box on a questionnaire.
The best thing IIP did for NIACE was to slow us down, and systematise for all what was already enjoyed by some. At first, many colleagues found it difficult to commit the time to the process - and the procedures are more evident than the benefits initially. Without the flair and determination of our co-ordinator, Dorothy Spence, we would undoubtedly have given up.
But over time the benefits for individuals and the organisation have flowed. A key need identified in the training plan and the appraisal process was that skills in managing people needed to be strengthened. We hired De Montfort University for a two-day programme. We learned enough from that to have a surge of energy throughout the institute. It made us see that leadership and task management did not need to be undertaken by the same members of a team.
Not all the initiatives went well. It makes little sense to train people for IT applications when their machines are too slow to run them. Some tasks, like improving writing skills, will inevitably be on our agenda every year. We probably focused more on the development needs of the individuals than the short-term needs of NIACE.
But overall, the programme has forced us to improve internal communications, and has released more of the creativity of more of our people. By the time our application was assessed last month, we had been convinced that it was not important if we got the award, since pursuing it had been so positive. Still, there was a satisfaction in the bauble, too.
In the feedback session, our assessor reported that the industrialists who had judged our application had commented enviously about the NIACE employee development scheme, saying they wished they could afford to fund workers to study anything they wanted. The NIACE scheme, which has been running for three or four years now, was actually modelled on the Ford employee development programme.
Like Ford, like Vauxhall, Rover, Lucas, and hundreds of other firms, our experience of employee development schemes is that people do best when trusted to set their own learning journeys.
The Ford programme suggests that there are benefits for employers, including lower staff turnover, decreased absenteeism, and an improvement in conflict resolution.
For workers, the space to learn what you want to may lead people first to learn golf, or to visit the health spa, but within three years it is languages, computing, basic skills, and OU degrees that dominate the choices.
Most importantly, learning leaks. The confidence built in learning what you want to spills over into the work-related training your employer needs you to do. So my response to the assessor was to suggest that IIP without an employee development scheme was like a cake without icing, or a gin without the tonic - nice enough on their own, but far better taken in combination.
Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.