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Newcomers Training as an Opportunity for Improved Knowledge Management and Some Controversial Aspects of Apprenticeship1

Michele Mariani

Oronzo Parlangeli

Multimedia Communication Laboratory
University of Siena, Italy

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

Abstract

A very efficient process of temporary workers introduction and training will be documented. It will be stressed how newcomers can represent an opportunity for improved knowledge management. At the end of the paper some controversial aspects of apprenticeship and temporary jobs, deserving more research efforts, will be put forward.

Introduction

New organisational models (e.g. 'flat', 'organic', 'network', etc. firms) and fast changing market conditions call for improved ways to generate, share and transfer the knowledge inside the company (Lundvall & Borras, 1999). As a consequence of such a demand, a lot of research and theoretical models on knowledge as a primary asset for companies have been put forward (Senge, 1990; Garvin, 1993; Beer & Eisenstat, 1996; Brown & Duguid, 1998). Despite of this, there is still a lack of understanding on how innovative organisations can effectively manage their know-how, while solutions have been primarily technologically-oriented. However, IT tools can deal with the problem of knowledge management (Davenport et al., 1998) only to a limited extent. It is in the continuos interaction of people, in fact, that knowledge and sense are generated, shared and transmitted (see e.g. Baerentsen and Larsen, 1990). Innovative organisational practices seem thus to be more appropriate candidates for optimal knowledge creation, sharing and transfer. In the following, innovative organisational practices for knowledge management and some controversial aspects of apprenticeship will be discussed, in the context of the case of a company that regards knowledge as its main asset.

The Case Study

The site of our study is part of a big chemical corporation and is made up of three main divisions: laboratories, pilot plants, and production plants. Pilot plants and laboratories are the places in which research on innovative products and processes takes place. Pilot plants are particularly relevant, because, as stated by one of the company's executives: "they are the engines of our activity".

"Pilot plants are the facilities where research and working hypotheses are tested. The pilots are used to test, in a scaled-down plant, whether the results obtained in the laboratory can be transferred to production. Testing in the pilot plants leads to the:

conception and development of new production processes;

development of new products;

set up of new catalyst;

improvement of the layout of the plant and production efficiency;

creation of other new prospects for research and development". (Catino & Fasulo, 1998).

Pilot plants are operated by two distinct teams: a planning team and an operational team. The planning team is made up of three key competencies: a technologist, a process engineer, and a plant manager. They are in charge for the design of new experiments and for the modification of ongoing ones. The composition of the operational team mirrors in an interesting way the composition of the planning team (both teams being made up of the same three competencies, see fig. 1). The above mentioned dual team structure is the evolutionary result of 40 years of continuous organisational re-design (Mariani et al. 1998). It popped up from successive adaptations to changed conditions.

In the following we will focus our attention at the level of the operational team. Such team is made up of three roles:

• an external operator, who modifies the physical part of the plant;

• a control room operator, who keeps under monitoring the process and modifies the different 'soft' variables that keep the process on its right track;

• a team leader, who is the most expert worker and supervises the team's activity.

Differently from the planning team, the operational team needs more than one person for each competence to operate. Therefore, such teams are normally made up of a number in between 4 and 7 individuals. Such small self-managed teams make the pilot plant functioning 24 hours a day. The workprogramme of the pilot plants can change very rapidly as a function of new marketing opportunities and unexpected research findings. As a consequence of the many changes in the workprogramme, the team must be able to reconfigure the installation as fast as possible. To operate together in a fast, efficient and safe way, members of the operational team continuously share information about the plant. A big diagram representing the main elements and parameters of the pilot plant is located in the control room. Such diagram is pictured on a white-board so that the schema can be continuously updated with the new parameters. The schema on the white-board works as a cognitive tool for sharing knowledge on the ongoing process, being visible and readable by any operator entering the control room. Changes in the 'recipe' of the chemical ingredients to be put in the pilot plant will be tested and evaluated continuously, until the gap between the desired and the current status is null.

 

 

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Figure 1. Technical, scientific and managerial knowledge are put together at the two different levels of organisation.

The Management of Temporary Workers

Following other countries' trends2, in the last years in Italy companies have been more and more allowed to hire temporary workforce. This is also true for the chemical sector, which is by now trying to have the 25% of the total personnel made up of temporary workers. The site of our study was one of the first places that took advantage from flexibility, having the 10% of its workforce made up of temporary workers. The primary advantage of hiring temporary workers results in the possibility to empower short-term research programmes with a higher freedom than it was possible to do within long-term (5 years) budget plan (Consorzio Provinciale Formazione C.P.F. Ferrara, 1998). The new personnel is employed both in the laboratories and in the pilot plants3. Through the years the company acquired a very efficient organisational practice that allows it to introduce newcomers very fast:

• after a period of 3-4 months newcomers are already able to perform autonomously a number of routinary tasks;

• 60 newcomers out of a total of 1000 workers are successfully integrated each year.

Such process4 is made up of four phases:

• selection of candidates;

• 3 to 5 months formative period;

• 9 to 12 months temporary contract within the Company;

• final evaluations.

The selection phase consists of psycho-attitudinal tests, interviews, credits evaluation and medical exams. The formative period is splitted in two phases. In a first phase each novice attends to classroom lessons lasting one month. Such lessons are organized around five modules:

materials and products;

reference professional profile;

organisation of work;

processes and installations;

safety at work.

The knowledge provided in classroom lessons serves as a skeleton for the workers' mental model and is used to assimilate the empirical lessons from apprenticeship (Orr, 1986). With the second phase the process of learning-by-doing begins, with the novices inserted in pilot plant teams, always supported by an experienced operator5. When the temporary contract starts, novices begin performing on their own the simple activities they had previously performed under supervision. They start as external operators, and, as soon as they acquire knowledge on the plant functioning, they go on to the control room (at the panel) in cooperation with a board-operator. The experience ends up with a final assessment which has two goals: the delivery of a certificate of successful apprenticeship and the inscription inside a classification that will serve to hire a few new, permanent, personnel. Assessment is made up of four parts:

• oral examinations assessing the knowledge acquired with respect to the theoretical module;

• practical tests;

• interview;

• writing of a thesis on some of the plant aspects.

The above described process of newcomers' integration represents an effective modality for a rapid integration of novices. The integration of traditional training (class lessons) with apprenticeship within the community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1990; Brown & Duguid, 1991) represented by the team permits a quicker, more thorough socialization of novices (Gustavsson & Ellström, 1998). "Each team serves as a 'training context', setting an example for activities performed and the professional behaviour and orientation required ... what is learned is that everybody needs to know everything; there should be no 'grey areas' where only a few know to operate" (Catino & Fasulo, 1998). Integration times are reduced by the immersion in the community, facilitating mastering of common language (Oliveira, 1998), interpersonal sensemaking (Weick 1993) and development of personal competence (Nuutinen & Norros, 1998).

Newcomers and the Creation of Work Process Knowledge

In the last period an increasing consent on the importance of a correct knowledge management inside organisations as a critical factor for companies' success has been raised. Such knowledge (fig. 2) can be conceived as variously distributed between human actors (e.g. experienced operators, executives, etc.) and physical and cognitive artifacts (e.g. manuals, organizational charts, job descriptions, information technologies)6.

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Figure 2. The knowledge that makes organisations operate partly resides in its physical and informational artifacts and partly in their operators' minds.

To be useful, knowledge embedded in physical and informational tools has to be continuously updated and shared among experienced operators. In the last years solutions to such problems have tended to be technologically-oriented, with the release of software tools for workflow, document, knowledge management7. However, technical tools can deal to a limited extent with the dynamic and socially constructed nature of knowledge. As Davenport et al. (1998) put it: "Knowledge often resists engineering ... in knowledge management initiatives we observed that the complexity of human factors to be managed was much greater than for most data or information management projects ... knowledge is created invisibly in the human brain, and only the right organisational climate can persuade people to create, reveal, share and use it". It is in the continuos interaction of people that knowledge and sense are built (Weick 1993). The search for innovative organisational practices, therefore, seems to be a much more appropriate research direction. The site under study heavily relies on such practices for its functioning. Continuous innovation, high flexibility, and the nature of its main mission (i.e. research) impose the set up of a number of mechanisms for knowledge sharing. Among these:

• continuos upskilling;

• frequent job rotation;

• intensive team work;

• different types of meetings;

• errors management;

• integration roles.

In the following of this paragraph, we will discuss how the process of newcomers' introduction was exploited as a further means to foster knowledge acquisition, update and sharing (see fig. 3). Along newcomers' training and introduction, in fact, intensive social interactions take place, and knowledge has more chances to be generated (Pires, 1998). To fully exploit such an opportunity, training and apprenticeship have to shift from being monodirectional processes (from experts to novices) to bi-directional (fig. 3), in which both consolidated work process knowledge is transferred and new one is generated and acquired.

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Figure 3. Training as a means for the improvement of organisational knowledge.

Newcomers as an Opportunity for Updating Organisational Memories

Recent ethnographic studies of workplace practices confirm the (old) finding that the ways people actually work deeply differ from the ways in which organizations describe themselves in manuals, charts, and job descriptions. Those 'memories' have the double problem to be of an abstract type and to rapidly become obsolete (and, obviously, this is especially true for fast pace innovative organisations). Such descriptions "mask not only the ways people work, but also significant learning and innovation generated in the informal communities of practice in which they work" (Brown & Duguid, 1991).

As it was said in par. 3 of this paper, at the end of their experience, and as part of the assessment, temporary workers are asked to write a thesis on some aspects of plant functioning. As the experience of having temporary workforce went on, and thesis were made, it became evident that these could be used as valuable resources for updating organisational knowledge. When compared with the 'official' manuals specifying the installations' functioning, in fact, the accounts made by temporary workers gave 'real-time' descriptions of the same installations. Newcomers, thus, became agents for updating organisational memories.

Newcomers as an Opportunity for Innovation

"Work practice is generally viewed as conservative and resistant to change" (Brown & Duguid, 1991). The fact that pilot plants are managed in teams and that temporary workers rapidly (after a 3 to 5 months period) have to be able to perform on their own, enforce to a great extent the need for continuous conversations. Newcomers, in fact, hold limited experience on how to deal with the different aspects of their job. Therefore they put a lot of questions, some of which 'force' experienced operators to re-consider work procedures and various aspects of the plant. Newcomers hold a 'naive' perspective on the workprocess. Questioning consolidated habits they open opportunities to innovation.

Newcomers as an Opportunity to Transform Tacit Knowledge Into Explicit Knowledge

Nonaka & Takeuchi (1995), drawing on Polaniy's (1966) work, put forward the idea that (new) concepts are generated in the interplay between tacit and explicit knowledge.

"It is a quintessential knowledge-creation process in that tacit knowledge becomes explicit ... When we attempt to conceptualize an image, we express its essence mostly in language. Yet expressions are often inadequate, inconsistent, and insufficient. Such discrepancies and gaps between images and expressions, however, help promote reflection and interaction between individuals" (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995).Having to teach the newcomers, skilled workers have to explicitate their experience, transforming tacit into explicit knowledge. As it was reported by one of them: "having always to teach to others increases our professionality. For example, if we would have not to teach some of our plant's schemes to newcomers, we would not have a look at those schemes for 4/5 months. In this way, we have to continuously refresh our knowledge to be able to transmit it".

Some Controversial Aspects of Temporary Jobs and Apprenticeship

In the previous part of this paper we discussed a particularly successful process for dealing with temporary workers. Such process heavily relies on apprenticeship, which has been seen both as a powerful means to speed up newcomers' introduction and as an opportunity for improving knowledge management. Such finding is largely confirmed by research coming from ethnography. When contrasted to classroom lessons, apprenticeship seems to be a superior way of learning in which newcomers both acquire the status of legitimate team members (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and a set of examples that makes it possible to instantiate the abstract, formal knowledge (Shön, 1983). The gains for companies are obvious, especially if they have the need and the opportunity to hire temporary workers. However, one may question what is the gain for the individuals. As Boreham (1995) put it: "The overwhelming problem of apprenticeship is that it takes place in a workplace which is designed to achieve operational goals, not educational ones". In the remaining of this paper, some controversial aspects of the adoption of temporary workforce and apprenticeship will be put forward.

Does Apprenticeship Equals Improved Qualification?

The power of apprenticeship and its connected mechanism of 'legitimate peripheral participation' (Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1990) lie in their capability to ground plans and abstract knowledge in specific contexts. Such process, as we have seen, speeds up the acquisition of competence to act within a worksetting and this can be particularly relevant for the low-skilled (see Pollet & Hootegem, 1998).

The question, here, is: does such competence equals more qualification? To what extent the acquired abilities could be usefully exploited to get a new job8?

Training-on-the-Job or Selection-on-the-Job?

The fact that newcomers ends up their experience with the inscription within a classification holds the undoubted advantage that managers have at disposal a highly motivated workforce with very low contractual power.

"With respect to past experiences with other novices, who were sure to be hired, the process of skill acquisition for these temporary workers, who will be inscribed within a classification and hold very scarce chances to be hired, is faster" (extract from an interview with an experienced, permanent worker).

The question, here, is whether it is legitimate to use temporary contracts and educational initiatives as selection-on the job mechanisms.

Apprenticeship Increases Experienced Workers' Workload

Permanent workers, as we have seen, are the ones who have to teach and supervise newcomers. Such a task results in an increase of workload which has to be carefully evaluated.

"Temporary workers becomes very rapidly able to perform a very high portion of routinary work, and this is the positive side. The negative side is that the workload due to the activity of continuous teaching can be very high" (extract from an interview with an experienced, permanent worker).

The question, here, is about the trade off that exist between the benefits of teaching and socializing one's job outside the small group of the same colleagues and the cost of summing this activity/responsibility9 to the 'normal' one of making the plant to efficiently run.

Does Apprenticeship Lead to Experienced Workers Increased Satisfaction or Frustration?

Experienced workers reported about the satisfaction that they derive from seeing that their 'scholars' learn very fast, being rapidly able to act autonomously. However, they also reported their frustration seeing that once a newcomer becomes skilled enough, his temporary contract might be over, vanishing their efforts to be good teachers and having to start the same process with the next newcomers.

"To teach is very fatiguing, sometimes I ask to myself why should I do that, but there also is a lot of satisfaction when you can see that a trainee becomes able to work by him/herself ... If you are sure that the novices will remain in your team, you put a lot of effort in training, because you know that in the future he will work with you. If, on the opposite, he goes away, the risk is that your effort in teaching is reduced and you are feel frustrated" (extract from an interview with experienced, permanent workers).

The question, here, is about the long-run effects of having expert workers as teachers of an ever-changing new workforce. For how long will it be maintain its positive, motivational effect?

Conclusion

Along the paper a particularly successful process for temporary workers integration has been documented. Newcomers, on one hand, have been seen as an opportunity to create work process knowledge, enforcing organisational learning mechanisms. On the other hand such system raises some controversial aspects on apprenticeship and temporary jobs both on the novices' side (too much narrow qualification; apprenticeship as selection) and on the experienced workers' one (increased workload and frustration due to high turnover). It is the authors' opinion that such controversial aspects deserve a special attention by future research. Such studies would shed light on the psychological (e.g. see the concept of self-reliance in Frese, 1996 and Frese et al. 1997), social and institutional (e.g. 'open' occupational markets) conditions that give workforce the chances to take advantage from changes in the labour market.

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Footnotes

1 This paper was made thanks to the support of the EU funded thematic network SOE1-CT97-1074 (DG XII) 'Whole': Work Process Knowledge in Technological and Organisational Development.

2 Actually in the US the company with the highest workforce is Manpower, a temprary employment agency with over 600.000 employees.

3 In the following we will discuss the process related to those newcomers who will work inside the operational team of the pilot plants, which is the destination of the majority of novices.

4 The management of temporary workers was designed as a joint initiative between the company's board, the unions and the regional institutions.

5 The novice's tutor is often choosen between those workers who are next to retirement. Those workers, in fact, are both the most experienced ones and the more keen to teach the young newcomers.

6 Such a view has a theoretical referent in the 'distributed cognition theory' (Hutchins, 1995; Norman, 1990; Lave, 1988) that explains human activities as the result of a mutual cooperation between humans, artifacts and the context in which the activity is situated.

7 It is interesting to see that one of the workshops of the ECSCW99 conference already proposes to 'go beyond knowledge management', putting forward the new term 'expertise management'. "... Expertise management focuses on the human components, the cognitive, social, cultural and organisational aspects of knowledge work, as well as information storage and retrieval issues" (from ECSCW99 call, http://www.cti.dtu.dk/cscw/ecscw99.html).

8 By the way, in a follow up made six months after the novices completed their apprenticeship and leave the company, the 80% of them was unemployed. This finding is particularly interesting when compared to those people who were rejected at the selection for the temporary employment: 'only' 40% of them was still unemployed, while a 25% was successful in finding a permanent job.

9 Workers' responsibilities in a chemical plants are particularly high: errors can lead to enormous negative consequences.

This document was added to the Education-line database 23 September 1999