Investors in People Special Report: Trade unions and senior executives work in tandem

`The trade unions recognise the link between lifelong learning and economic success'
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The Independent Online
Workplace initiatives welcomed with equal enthusiasm by trade unions and senior executives are few and far between. It is particularly rare when such initiatives encourage increased communications and even partnerships between the two groups. In some areas, however, Investors in People has produced such a reaction.

The phenomenon is made more remarkable by two other incidents: First, the TUC set its sights on becoming Investors in People employers 12 months ahead of the CBI - despite the latter organisation being involved in IIP's creation. Second, the Labour Party have recently become the first political party to gain the national standard backed enthusiastically by the Conservative government.

While the Department for Education and Employment have described the scheme as crucial for all companies who want to keep one step ahead of the competition, IIP is equally attractive for the benefits it brings to individuals in the organisation.

One could argue that unions are bound to be in favour of an initiative which obliges employers to acknowledge and inform employees in a way which has not happened since de-recognition but it is the scheme's training focus that strikes a chord with union thinking on how to support their members in the short-term job market.

Training not only benefits the current employer but automatically raises the overall skill level of the national workforce - a point highlighted by John Monks, TUC general secretary: "The trade union movement recognises the link between lifelong learning and economic success," he wrote in the IIP's own magazine. But training was confirmed as a union priority last year when the TUC published `Training In the Workplace: A Negotiator's Guide' which urged officials to make training an element of any bargaining process.

The guide included information on many initiatives including IIP - making union officials better informed in this area than some company training officers.

It is interesting to note that training guarantees were an essential element to the resolution of the Royal Mail and Communication Worker's Union dispute last summer.

Tom Sibley at the Institute of Employment Rights points out that company derived training initiatives are rarely designed to benefit the employee: "Employers are unlikely to train people in anything other than what they need," he comments. "Altruism does not come very high in a company's priorities." IIP not only promotes investment in employee's skills but gives sound business reasons to do so. The credibility this affords could prove embarrassing to companies keen on keeping their training costs down.

Organisations who have included unions in establishing and managing IIP have reported a number of benefits. The scheme was originally introduced at KP's Rotherham plant as a means of evaluating training but it became clear that the management-only steering group was not making significant progress.

Including union representatives reduced the `them and us' attitude which surrounded the scheme and used the union infrastructure to facilitate communications.

The TGWU covers around 90 per cent of the company's employees but the union has no more representation or influence than the other two smaller unions. James Warriner, Training Officer at KP notes: "The unions are simply one way in which we communicate and involve our workforce. It's not about how many representatives you have at the end of the day, it's about them getting the information to their members."

IIP has been a two way process, with members of the AEEU approaching management at the end of 1995 with proposals for dual-skilling engineers and electricians. The employees are now working towards gaining NVQs in a new skill while at the same time the company gains through greater flexibility and commitment from their workforce.

"The process by which Investors in People is achieved is more important than getting the award," notes James Warriner. "It puts systems in place that gear everything towards benefiting both the business and the employees."

Braintree District Council have long believed in achieving results through people, indeed, according to head of training and development Stewart Beamont, the Council was one of the organisations used as a model for developing the award.

Including Unison in attaining the standard was simply another aspect of the council/union partnership and Beamont is keen to emphasise the way in which IIP aligns both parties' interests: "Our employees gain in terms of greater skills, greater job satisfaction and attaining long term career goals," he explains. "At the same time the organisation gains by becoming more effective."

In October, the TUC post-poned its target date for IIP assessment by six months because, while great improvements had been made, there was still much work to be done.

A survey within the organisation identified a major problem in line manager support of staff and development.

In response to this, staff development manager Philippa Childs pointed out that some of the organisation's managers came from a traditional union background and have had no previous experience of the new management skills required.

If this is a common experience then it would appear that while the principles of IIP satisfy union demands for training, the on-going maintenance of a scheme offers officials a new understanding of how today's companies work.