A university of many parts

A car components firm that invested in learning has encouraged others to do the same, says Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
When visitors arrive at the Cowley headquarters of Unipart, the car components group, one of the first things they see is the company university. The title is rather grand, but this and the establishment's site amount to a declaration of intent.

In setting up an in-house university Unipart is following a practice that has become popular in the United States, where the electronics group Motorola and the fast-food giant McDonald's are notable examples of companies that have them. Moreover, by not putting it in a shed at the back of the car park, the company is demonstrating that "it's an integral part of what we do", according to Frank Nigriello, group communications director.

The centre - which includes 14 lecture and other training rooms covering 13,000 sq ft on the first floor of the company's entrance area - was built at a cost of pounds 2.5m, and opened in September 1993 by the then education secretary, John Patten. It is the brainchild of John Neill, the company's chief executive, who believes that the business environment is changing so quickly that only through "step change investments in people" can companies have any hope of withstanding the competition that is beginning to hit Western economies from low-wage, fast-learning countries in eastern Europe and the Pacific rim.

Such is the spare parts group's commitment to becoming a "learning organisation" - as management speak has it - that everyone, from the chief executive to the humblest new recruit, is mandated to undertake nine days' training a year. Most divisions, however, comfortably exceed that target.

But the investment is even greater than this requirement suggests because a large amount of the tuition and development of the courses is done by the staff themselves, including Mr Neill. Ten per cent of the company's 4,000 employees can be trained at any one time. Mr Neill feels that by "making this morning's learning applicable to this afternoon's job", Unipart "U" is giving the company a significant competitive advantage over its rivals.

But he is not the only industrialist to realise that Britain cannot compete on cost of labour alone. Business people have for some time been calling for higher education to become more vocational by forging closer links with industry, as has been done by certain "newer" universities, such as Aston, Bradford and Strathclyde. The Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, is reportedly drawing up plans to bring teenage school students closer to the workplace as part of an initiative designed to demonstrate the importance of training and "reskilling" for Britain's prosperity.

Certain companies, including Motorola, have begun to site their plants close to the universities from which they recruit staff. Meanwhile, business schools are building on their flagship MBA programmes to offer executive courses and tailored programmes that involve them building relationships with certain companies.

Next Monday will see another step in this direction with the launch at a London conference of the TEAM programme, developed with the support of the Department of Trade and Industry, the Confederation of British Industry, the Engineering Employers' Federation and the Engineering Council with the specific aim of dealing with the need for constant "topping up" of managers' skills and knowledge in a fast-moving world. It is a problem that the legal, accountancy and medical professions have acknowledged for some time by making attendance of approved development courses a condition of the right to practise.

Among the speakers at the "Strategic Management of Technology in a Fast- Changing World" conference at the Royal Institution will be Peter Bonfield, who as chairman of the computer company ICL has done much to promote the idea of continuous learning; and Richard Duggan, chairman of Unilever's Crosfield Chemicals group and an industrial secondee to the Department of Trade and Industry's innovation unit.

According to Mr Duggan, the motivation behind the initiative is to prevent managers aged over 35 becoming obsolescent because of their inability to keep up with technological change. There is a real danger, he says, of such people having to seek alternative careers if they fall too far behind.

Although some companies, such as IBM and Pilkington, have developed close links with neighbouring universities, Mr Duggan believes the advantages of being able to tap into a wider range of establishments will help to bring100 organisations into the fold by the middle of next year.

But there are still companies prepared to make the huge investments required to obtain something that is totally suited to them by going it alone. Arthur Andersen, the US-based international accountancy and management consultancy firm, has what amounts to a university at the training centre in the countryside near its Chicago headquarters that has consumed more than $150m (pounds 97m) of the partnership's revenues since it was established in the early Seventies. Another US professional firm, Monitor of Boston, has also set up a university.

But Motorola's is perhaps the most significant development. Founded in the Eighties, it developed out of the group's commitment to quality as a feature distinguishing it from its rivals. The original idea was that it would become the chief means of keeping its managers up to date in the highly technical environment in which it was operating.

But as Robert Waterman, the US management guru, relates in his book The Frontiers of Excellence, the then chief executive, Bob Galvin, demanded that a programme be developed for all employees. The company opted for online training at the plants, as opposed to the more conventional off- the-job teaching - as Unipart is now doing more than 10 years later.

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