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Highlight Round table: Theory, policy and practice in lifelong learning

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Subject Motivation to engage in lifelong learning
Context The discussion summarised below is related to the statements made by the panel group (see proceedings).
Discussion Participants: Ian Bennett UK [IB], Winfried Heidemann DE [WH], Monica Lee UK [ML], Jim McGoldrick UK [JM], Denise Thursfield UK [DTh], Jim Stewart UK [JiS]

[JiS] I've got an observation and a response. First, an alternative source, Bob Hamlin, and quote on planning. As Bob says, ‘a plan is that which is changed’. Second, there is a lot of evidence in EC funded research that employees do not engage in lifelong learning and that is defined as a problem in those projects. But, why is it a problem and is their motivation the real cause if it is a problem? Winfried and Ian are offering the best solutions if the problem is employees, workers’ motivation to engage in lifelong learning. But, why should they want to? And, why does that matter if they are content not to engage? 

[IB] On motivation: in the presentation yesterday on ten large organisations, the learners when questioned picked motivation as the top of their list; they felt they needed to be motivated to get engaged; that's why I picked upon that point.

[JM] There is a statistic that came in the open in the plenary yesterday. In the EU there is an excess of 170 Mill. employees in SMEs. I think there is a big issue about reach. Maybe the technology is the answer, but I think Ian has said it's only a medium.

[JiS] My argument is maybe the problem is being wrongly defined. I would like to refer to John and Denise’s argument in their paper at this conference. As I understand it, they are saying there are lots of opportunities and resources available to employees to engage in learning, maybe lifelong learning. So more of that is not a solution. But, why define the employees’ lack of motivation to engage with the opportunities a problem, if they themselves don’t? If they haven’t wanted all of the opportunities etc. why blame them for not using them?

[IB] An organisation has a need to implement skills; learning is a process; they have an obligation to maintain skills; and people are employed on the basis of qualifications; they have got years to go; it's little use to take the traditional learning and stick it on the web; this is unlikely to motivate, and it doesn't make use of what is possible.

[WH] I think motivation is not only a matter of human beings; also organisations have to be motivated to learn and to change. As we all know, not only human being are conservative, but also organisations are conservative, and the bigger they are the more conservative they came to be. So I think the point is to establish mechanisms which allow organisations to undergo training and to learn, and which also allow individuals to learn, to change themselves in their environment. 

[DTh] I'm just a little bit concerned about the focus on individual motivation. That’s not what this paper was about. I think that the reasons why people do not participate in learning are much more complex than their amount of motivation. I think research needs to look at the material structures in which people live and work, and we need some understanding of the contextual power relations within which people are expected to engage in these learning programmes. It's not about motivation, its about the material structures of capitalism.

[WH] One answer: We made an analysis of a database in Germany on individual participation in continued vocational training. The result of this multivariate analysis was that individuals engage in continued training if they have the impression that they can use it. That helps them that there is an outcome. If they do not have this impression, if they are forced to learn and to participate, if they do not find that it is something for themselves, for their career or for themselves personally, then they are not engaged to participate in training and learning.

[JM] Can I come back: I think Denise has made an interesting point. I used to teach sociology at work, which is why are people motivated or not motivated. Because, if you can capture the essence of what motivation is, you can solve all the problems of productivity. If I remember from all of the literature, sometimes people are motivated extrinsically, they do that for the money and do think that's enough. There are some people who buy into learning opportunities because they change with what they want to do, to change at a certain time in their life, and a certain time in their career. There are other people who just not bother; they don't care about flexicurity, the world doesn't appear to them in those terms. 
    What a colleague of mine and I found, over a number of years on a programme of lifelong learning within the company NCR, was a very complex network of reasons. There were enormous benefits to employees if they engaged in education for all, in training and development and educational opportunity that broadly related to the work, not specifically to the job. There were technicians who upgraded to engineers, engineers went on the managerial courses, senior professionals ended up doing doctorates. An interesting finding was the argument about mutuality: the employees benefited and the company benefited; the company benefited by a highly skilled group of people remaining with them and not leaving. But there was a large population also in that company who didn't bother. I wish I knew the answer to that; they didn't see it as something for them; the opportunity was there, but they didn't feel that they had to take this up. so I think it's somehow an unanswerable question.

[ML] That reminds me of work that a PhD student was writing. What she did was to look at the career progression of employees in the financial sector who are responsible for caring for others. One of the findings was that, although there were development opportunities available to them and lifelong learning policies in place, many people did not make use of them.  This was partly because of lack of time, but also .it was heavily influenced by the attitudes of the supervisors and line managers.  Some people talked of the way or manner in which supervisors answered their requests as being off-putting... Just because something is right, or is available, doesn’t mean that it is socially acceptable to make use of it. I think there's something about organisational culture as well as policy and practice.

[IB] In a study we did on the best companies to work for, the employees are not claiming that they are better paid; what comes out at the top each time is that there is a good environment for work, which encourages them.

Source Recording of the discussion at the final session (plenary round table) of the HRD conference in Toulouse, May 2003 (see proceedings).
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO