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Subject Organisational learning and knowledge sharing in the chemical industry (Martin Fischer)
Outline In the project OrgLearn we empirically investigate processes of organisational learning in four large chemical companies in Italy, Belgium, Germany and the UK. We try to find out what those companies which claim to be learning companies really do. I must admit I was rather sceptical, but we have found some interesting cases of organisational learning. I've brought such a case with me, similar to the case which Nick already described (see contribution). 
     In the chemical industry the knowledge which is being stored in plant manuals and standard operating procedures is very important, it's crucial. Usually that kind of knowledge is being produced by engineers, but in many companies we investigated the workers had their own little booklets. In the Belgian company from our consortium for instance there is a tradition that each worker has a little grey booklet where the knowledge is being documented what to do in different critical situations. So this kind of knowledge is really important. In our case of organisational learning the German company decided to produce such a plant manual with the help of the workforce. Teams were set up, with one experienced worker, one novice and steered by an external chair person. Those teams had three to four weeks time to produce the operation manual for one unit of a technical plant. So within two and a half years time all the workforce together produced 35 single folders describing the plant and describing what to do in a critical situation. This operation manual is linked to the wage system. Workers can pass an examination and raise in salary if they prepare this examination with the help of the operation manual. This case has been described in detail in my paper.
     I am coming to the conclusions now. Some of them have already been discussed by Alan Brown (see discussion). 
  • In the case which I described the emphasis lies in the provision of an organisational structure for knowledge creation and knowledge sharing. The knowledge to be created and shared is what we call work process knowledge. It's knowledge about the whole labour process within a factory, including reflections on practical and theoretical knowledge which might be used for work. 
  • There is in that case an increase of self-organised learning and a reduction of personal controlling and of determining learning processes by masters and foremen, which was the case in former times. Now these workers can pass this examination independently from the masters and foremen. 
  • The content of learning is oriented towards the running of the plant combined to some extent with career opportunities. The content of learning is not oriented towards job descriptions and to the range of vocational competencies which are defined by the German Beruf. That is the thing which Alan mentioned. Processes of organisational learning were among others like health and safety regulations stimulated by a remarkable reduction of personnel and a loss of experienced workers. Organisational learning can be regarded as an attempt to compensate the loss of know-how. 
  • Knowledge which formerly belonged to the individual worker or a group of individuals is objectified in two ways: it is objectified through a process of generalising individual knowledge and it is objectified through artefacts this operation manual by which knowledge can be stored in a memory of the organisation. 
  • It is not yet clear to what extent organisational learning may support an outsourcing-and-insourcing policy and to what extent the individual worker benefits from processes of organisational learning he is involved in, especially if he is leaving the company.
Reference Thesis: included in Manning 2002a; paper: Fischer et al. 2002
Source Recording of the symposium
Descriptors  D-LO   D-KM   EP10         V24
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO