Comment: What has adult learning ever done for us?

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The Atomium (Benelux)The great examples of companies thriving on change and innovation are the ones with the most liberal definition of learning, says Nigel Paine. In the future, successful organisations will be the ones that do not draw the line too narrowly around what constitutes 'appropriate' learning, he predicts.

The National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) has just published a collection of essays called 'Not Just the Economy'. This book laments the decline in state funded education provision, and castigates the government for its narrow focus on qualification programmes and (in England) the ELQ rule - which prevents funding being given to learners who want to complete a lower or equivalent qualification to the ones they possess already. That latter policy decision will, for instance, hit the Open University very hard over the next few years.

Photo of Nigel Paine"Just think of Google - and the 20% of time it gives its staff to work outside their normal role - to see the difference between a learning organisation and a company with a traditional training department."

All of this creates mixed messages around the concept of lifelong learning. Is it the key to our future success, economically, that we create adults able to learn and relearn new skills, ideas, competences and ways of working? Or is anything that could be deemed non-vocational or an equivalent qualification a lesser priority for any kind of support or subsidy? Does lifelong learning really mean: only go ahead if your employer deems it appropriate, or pay for yourself?

So what has this got to do with the world of workplace training? Well a similar debate rages inside corporate training organisations as we speak. For a start: are they learning organisations with the implication that they have a broad, generic approach to learning? Or are they training organisations, focused on clearly defined workplace skill development!

Related to this is a second important debate concerning the place of informal learning inside organisations. Jay Cross tells us in his book of the same name 'Informal Learning' that 70% of the learning that takes place inside organisations is informal. Yet it attracts, at best, 30% of the available resources. Should we care? Should we ignore this and get on with focused and clearly relevant (and expensive) training programmes? Or dip our toes into action learning, coaching and mentoring, wikis, blogs and podcasts? These are clearly cheaper to develop but with far more uncertain outcomes than more structured and formal programmes.

Is the essence of this debate about whether we spend the lion's share of our energies encouraging and supporting the myriad ways that knowledge is shared around an organisation, or focus on bigger and better formal courses being made available to more and more employees? In other words is NIACE putting its finger on a critical and unresolved issue at the moment that is far broader than their - argued for - high public value of adult education? Do we want an inclusive definition of workplace learning or maybe an inclusive definition of learning that bleeds out from the workplace into leisure and home? Is the most valuable employee the curious, flexible staff member who wants to continue to develop his or her mind, skills and knowledge or the individual who can do his or her job really well and looks no further than to do that? And in a world of increasing demands for learning and decreasing budgets, where do you place your chips?

"I have never yet encountered an unhappy, frustrated employee who at the same time is creative and innovative."

Let's search out an answer by looking at what defines the world of work at the moment. There are three acute pressures that almost anyone would agree upon: first the increased velocity of work, not just doing things faster but reacting and adapting to changes in the external climate. Secondly, the pressures and demand for ever greater efficiencies. And thirdly, the need to do what you do better, i.e. to innovate constantly. And you need, increasingly, to set this is in a global context.

It is a fearsome agenda and one that will demand a workforce of engaged individuals - not disillusioned, bedraggled and browbeaten employees capable of doing their job but with no enthusiasm for either it or their employer. I have never yet encountered an unhappy, frustrated employee who at the same time is creative and innovative. Some of the great examples of companies thriving on change and innovation are the ones with the most liberal definition of learning. Just think of Google, and the 20% of time it gives its staff to work outside their normal role, to see the difference between a learning organisation and a company with a traditional training department!

I think that I have to come down heavily on the side of NIACE here. Successful companies, governments and other organisations will be the ones that do not draw the line too narrowly around what constitutes appropriate learning. And embrace a workplace that leaks knowledge to and from customer and supplier, as well as employee. To do this you need communication pathways that live and breathe with the changes in the organisation and a policy of trusting the range of people involved, to make sense of the infrastructure and solve their own problems and set their own challenges.

NAICE argues that: "we need an educated, critical, tolerant citizenry". I say amen to all that and would add: engaged, creative and motivated to the list.

Nigel Paine is a former head of training and development at the BBC and now runs his own company, Nigel Paine.Com which focuses on people, learning and technology. For more information visit his website at www.nigelpaine.com

For more information about NIACE go to www.niace.org.uk

To read our news stories about the fall in adult learners go to www.trainingzone.co.uk/item/182364
and www.trainingzone.co.uk/item/182365

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