20 Sep.

An Age of Learning? Instilling the right to learn at the heart of the organisation

By Miguel Martínez Lucio - Professor of International Human Resource Management at Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester. 

There has been much talk about the competitive edge that the training and learning strategies provide to a nation and the firm. This is a moment of increasing change and flexibility with ongoing demands for workers and managers to continuously reassess and redevelop their skills and their knowledge more broadly.  The leading edge firms are seen to be those that, amongst other things, are able to engage their workforce through strategic and ongoing training strategies that develop the human capital of the firm.  Training is no longer a subsidiary or secondary aspect of the organisations portfolio of human resource activities, but becoming increasingly central as a way to retain and motivate a workforce that is increasingly diverse and varied in its capabilities.

However, for all the rhetoric – and there is much rhetoric in contemporary management education and research – many firms fail to position this is as a primary activity. They fail to realise that the workforce seeks from their employer not just fair and better reward systems, or fairer and more open approaches to worker participation, they also seek a commitment from the organisation that it will ensure that they will not become obsolete in the labour market and irrelevant due to ongoing economic and technical changes. According to many observers, training and learning have become an increasingly important part of what is commonly called the psychological contract between workers and their employers: that commitment from the workforce is supported by a greater commitment to resources and time for learning, for example. Yet the reality is that in this area many firms fail to engage on such matters beyond purely symbolic ways.

More recently, however, training has become an increasingly important part of this implicit contract.  The sheer intensity of change and the move to another - new - economic order, where virtual and robotic developments are presenting deeper challenges just as the emergence of the Internet did, means that many are locating training as a pivotal feature of their personal portfolio of demands as the reality of stable work is further eroded.  What is more, we now face the reality that many workers in key positions in a range of countries carry high levels of debt as a consequence of their own investment in learning and education as the state increasingly, and in the author’s view wrongly, abstains from its responsibilities in ensuring a trained and able workforce. This puts the issue of who pays for training - and how an organisation frees time, resources, and engenders learning environments - at the centre of the politics of human resource management. The problem is that the ongoing uncertainty and precariousness of employment, the declining access to free learning on specialised courses and modules as adults, and the growing personal cost of earlier stages of learning results in the fact that workers find it very difficult to finance and plan their learning strategies.

This means that the space of the organisation has a greater responsibility – and opportunity – to create learning spaces and training cultures that acknowledge such developments. In various contexts as in Germany or Japan, the role of learning remains a key part of the culture and practice of the firm. It is seen as a space around which a dialogue with workers and worker representatives can emerge which assists with planning and managing resources in a more meaningful way. In the United Kingdom, there have been experiments and initiatives in some cases with learning representatives from the trade union and the workforce which have engaged with debates on learning, provided advice and mapped out resources through work based learning centres.  Funds in some cases are systematically available for technical and cultural development which ensure that there are balanced and holistic approaches to learning and development. There has also been a greater attention paid to the use of performance appraisals as space to discuss and support the developmental needs of the workforce.  Many academics recognise that training is an increasingly important feature of an organisation’s people strategy and that the input of workers is key.

This may seem utopian or even fantasy for some but the author thinks this is an important discussion in the face of economic uncertainty because in the case of training it is important to develop an approach that establishes a systematic commitment in terms of time, resources and support that is explicitly linked to the broader development of the individual, thus casting the space of employment no matter show short term in different and proactive terms. This re-tuning of the reality of training needs a broader political contract between the state, organisations and workers that is not just about resourcing but relates to the deepening of a dialogue and participation culture at the heart of the employment relation between workers and their organisation on such development-related issues. Such inclusive approaches to training is a space where we can genuinely start to think through a more grounded and mutually beneficial vision of work.


Miguel Martínez Lucio - Professor of International Human Resource Management at Alliance Manchester Business School, The University of Manchester.

Miguel was born in London and attended Aylestone Comprehensive (now Queens Park Community School). He then studied for a BA (Hons.) in Economics and Governmentand then a SSRC sponsored MA in Latin American Government and Politics at Essex University (1979-1983). He was a Researcher located in the Universidad Autonoma de Madrids Sociology Department (1983-84) financed by a British Council/Spanish Ministry of Education Scholarship and later a Vicente Cañada Blanch Foundation/University of London Fellowship (1986-87). He completed his PhD in Industrial Relations in 1988 with an ESRC scholarship (1984-86) at the Warwick Business School, University of Warwick. He has worked at Cardiff University, Keele University, Leeds University, and Bradford University.

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