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Subject Working and learning practices in an oil refinery (Nick Boreham)
Outline I'd like to describe an example of integrating work and learning. This is an example drawn from a project which Martin Fischer is coordinating, called OrgLearn, organisational learning in the chemical industry. This is a study of an oil refinery in the UK. This company used to be a very traditional organisation, but it has now stated that it wishes to learn as an organisation. It has taken learning as an organisation as one of its core values with the aim of being the best oil refinery in Europe. What I wanted to describe was an initiative which they've just begun. This is an example of planned culture change, called Procedures and Competence Development Methodology. The aims here are basically to get the workforce to redefine the working processes, and as part of the redefinition of the working processes the workforce are expected to learn. 
     We have been carrying out studies for two years observing this and interviewing employees. Of course it's very innovatory that the new procedures are being written by the process operators. Previously in an oil refinery the procedures were written by chemical engineers in very senior positions. But the new procedures manual is being written by people who turn the valves and take the samples, the basic grade employees. What they go through is a very highly structured methodology. Essentially it consists of convening and meeting of all the employees who carry out a certain operation. There are five shifts, and typically there are five employees who do a certain task. These people are brought in and sit round the table, and they have to exchange information on how they do this one task. When they compare the different ways of doing it they have to decide on best practice. This is then written up by a set of operating procedures which become the operating procedures for that part of the refinery. There is something of an authorisation process in which what they recommend is put to senior management and the refinery technologists who check it for safety, but basically they don't change the whole procedure. 
     We did an interview with a refinery technologist, a highly qualified chemical engineer. He said he much prefers that the procedures are written by the workers who actually do the operations themselves. These in the UK are people with no formal qualifications whatsoever. This is essentially a learning process. We have investigated the way in which learning takes place in this context. Not only is there the exchange of information of best practice between the five operators who do the work, but in the process of doing the PCDM they involve many others employees in the plant in which they are operating. So there is a widespread lateral communication going on. 
     What is very significant is the change in the nature of work. Previously there was very little talk in the work place. You are coming to work, you are allocated a task and you do it on your own. Now everybody is talking very much about the best way of carrying out these various operations. So there is a massive increase in dialogue between workers at all levels, and this is generating knowledge and creating learning. There is also learning which goes up the hierarchy. Some of the procedures which have been developed have been discussed with senior management as part of the authorisation process. That has created a dialogue between management and operators about the best way to run the plant. This has led to in fact a project to re-engineer the plant. The refinery technologists are actually learning form the process operators who, I repeat, have no qualifications in engineering. So it does seem that there has been a normalisation of a culture of learning in this particular context. 
     My problem is this: in the UK there is a debate on organisational learning by educationalists. These people are very critical of the concept of organisational learning. They say it is not authentic learning because it is firstly instrumental and secondly because there is no autonomy to the learner. On the basis of these observations my own conclusion, having listened to the voice of the workers involved, is that they are more empowered than they were previously and that there is genuine learning that is taking place here. However I am having some difficulty in convincing the educational community in the UK that this is authentic learning.
Reference Thesis: included in Manning 2002a
Source Recording of the symposium
Descriptors D-LO  EP09          
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO