British business falls behind in the training game

Globalisation will not spare the stragglers, says Roger Trapp
Continuous improvement and "learning organisations" might be all the rage at the moment, but far too few British businesses create the conditions for such developments, according to a report just published by the Institute of Personnel and Development.

The study, produced in collaboration with the International Federation of Training and Development Organisations, shows that the UK has been slow in embracing high-performance working practices and the high-performance learning on which they are based. As a result, instead of being characterised by learning through experience, improved work systems designs, employee development and flexible learning, many British businesses are stuck in a low-skill, low-quality equilibrium, and are a long way from becoming high-performance workplaces. The researchers responsible for Workplace Learning, Culture and Performance found that, while there is evidence of productivity increases following new employees' induction training, there is little evidence yet of the continuous training and learning needed for increased levels of productivity.

This is important because changes in market conditions are providing the spur for increased investment in human capital. In particular, globalisation and the introduction of new technologies are driving this new approach to business.

The authors of the report - Elliot Stern and Elizabeth Sommerlad of the Tavistock Institute - stress that no single country can be used as a model for turning UK plc from a low-performance to a high-performance economy. But there are lessons to be learned from abroad. Indeed, the report highlights the close links that Germany has developed between education and employment and makes the point that these will provide the foundations for the country's economic recovery.

Similarly, Singapore and Canada are held up as examples of countries that have succeeded in developing and encouraging cultures that have moved away from a narrow educational approach towards a continuous learning method that focuses as much on "soft" skills as on hard qualifications.

John Stevens, director of development and public policy at the institute, says: "If the UK is to keep pace with its competitors, then we need to move to what might be described as `high performance working'. Increasingly, our competitive position worldwide will depend on developing businesses which compete on the basis of how they manage knowledge and how they develop their staff."

But, pointing out that all is not doom and gloom with British business, he adds that some companies are responding to changes in their markets by developing some new learning approaches. "Many are team-based with an emphasis on continual on-the-job improvement and development and involving the whole workforce (not just a small elite at the top) in education and learning centres. The shift towards the team has resulted in innovations in vocational training."

And, once they are placed alongside and within other "people management systems", such workplace learning techniques have the potential to produce dramatic results in the areas of profitability and productivity. "High- performance workplaces are the workplaces of the future," says Mr Stevens. "For these are workplaces which understand that it is people who mean business."