Highlight Symposium: The European perspective of HRD

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Subject Developing flexibility in pursuit of competitiveness (Nick Boreham)
Outline My presentation is based on the Framework IV TSER project 'work process knowledge in technological and organisational development' (WHOLE). The final report has just been published (book on work process knowledge - see reference), so you can refer to this if you want some further details. I am just going to pick out main points of the project that are related to the issue of developing flexibility in pursuit of competitiveness.
    This project looked at changes in European work processes and in particular the so-called modernisation programme supported by the European Commission. That is to say, this looked at changes from bureaucratic type organisations to much more organic work organisation, the change from hierarchical organisations where managers do the thinking to organisations which are much more participatory, where everybody is supposed to be involved in continuous improvement. It is the European Commission's policy that European industry should modernise itself in this way, and it is also the policy of most of the European member states that industry should change in the direction I have just described. 
    However, there is empirical evidence that the modernisation programme is actually moving very slowly, although there are some examples of learning organisations with much more flexible ways of doing work. There is a lot of evidence that this is a very gradual transformation. For example, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Standards carries out regular surveys of working conditions in Europe. These surveys show that most workers in Europe do not work under modernised conditions. There have also been a number of case studies which have looked in detail at modernisation attempts (some of these are especially described in chapter 15 of the book) and go into detail why modernisation attempts have failed. 
    There may be many reasons why the modernisation programme is moving slowly: flexible work may not in fact confer a competitive advantage, there may be a shortage of the skills needed for flexible work. However, my thesis in this presentation is to point to an argument which comes out of the work process knowledge report, which is that there is another reason which we can see as to why flexibility is not going to be taken up with great enthusiasm. Basically, any functioning work system is a social system which achieves a certain degree of equilibrium. This equilibrium is a particular way of distributing certain things throughout the organisation, it's a way of distributing responsibilities, it's a way of distributing rewards, and it's a way of distributing knowledge. The central issue in the modernisation programme is to reorganise European work places so that the distribution of knowledge is very different than has been in many traditional work systems. 
    The point that I want to make is that the case studies of the failure of modernisation projects show that modernisation tends to upset the delicate social contracts in the organisation. If you try to introduce a new work system which relies on different ways of distributing knowledge then this is very threatening to everybody involved, because it upsets the equilibrium which was established in the previous work system. Generally speaking, the modernisation requires much more knowledge creation and sharing at all levels of the organisation and it also requires much more lateral communication and much more bottom-up communication of knowledge within the organisation. The introduction of more flexible systems of continuous improvement imply changes of this sort, and these tend to challenge the existing social relations, and this is experienced as a threat by everybody involved. 
    So the point that we can draw from this is that the European modernisation programme is not just a process of vocational education and training and human resource development. There may be a cost to this, a cost in terms of the damage it does to the social systems we call work. It may be that many of these costs exceed the benefits to be gained in productivity. This is a fact which may underline the slow movement towards modernised work in Europe. But as far as this particular symposium is concerned it should draw our attention to the fact that if we want to be involved in modernisation then we need to address a much broader range of issues and skills, competences and training methods.
Reference Thesis: included in Manning 2002a; final project report: Boreham et al. 2000a; publication: Boreham et al. 2002
Source Recording of the symposium
Descriptors D-KM  EP05          V20
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO