Smart Moves: The car is not the only star

Volvo is moving into the fast track in staff training, says Rachelle Thackray
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VOLVO is known for the reliability and safety features of its solid-looking cars. Up till now, the company hasn't had much of a high- speed reputation. But that's all about to change, thanks to a new training programme launched by company bosses.

The programme is a globally-tailored fast-track management scheme which uses the concept of self-managed learning to get employees to take responsibility for their own development in locations all over the world. The reason Volvo has felt the need for such a programme, says its manager, Anders Boglind, is that the rules are changing within the emerging global economy.

"The majority of our top managers are Swedish, but as we are now present in all parts of the world, we need to open up our management and prepare a new generation of leaders with international experience," he explains.

Formed as a small car company back in 1927, Volvo now has 70,000 staff working in production plants in 20 countries worldwide. It encouraged employees of all nationalities to apply for the scheme, with the result that the first 15 participants hail from countries including Japan, Malaysia, Spain and Thailand.

The concept of managing your own learning is integral to the programme, explains Mr Boglind. "We're allowing people to focus on their own key areas for improvement while contributing to the organisation. Once learned, it's a process that participants keep for life."

Employees who were chosen for the scheme met for a two-week introduction in January, drew up their own personal development plans, and were then divided into 'learning sets' of five. They also chose a mentor each from within the company. The next stage is a five-month international placement, where employees are expected to apply their experience towards their objectives. There is then a second five-month placement, an assessment and a presentation. Graduates of the scheme can then apply again for a position within the company.

Andrew Constable, who runs programmes on self-managed learning at Roffey Park Management Institute, says that although it is not a new concept, organisations have often been reluctant to adopt it because of the investment involved and the amount of responsibility delegated to employees. But the advantage, he says, is that it links individual learning and goals with the organisation's own objectives.

"One of the ways that self-managed learning differs from other kinds of programmes is that it has both continuous and final assessment elements. There are no examinations, but in our experience, people actually produce work of a higher standard than you might expect in a comparable, more conventional programme," he says.

There are potential pitfalls though: often, an organisation can fail to link individual learning programmes with its own central strategies, and employees who want to get on with 'learning' might rush through the stage of preparing their own contract. Volvo, meanwhile, has two main concerns about its new programme. One is that by internationalising the company in this way, there is a danger of it losing touch with its Swedish roots. The other is to ensure that employees on the programme value their learning.

Says Mr Boglind: "It gives them a strategic, multinational perspective, focuses on the areas they need to develop, and improves their motivation. So they benefit, and we have better recruits in place for our top positions."