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Influencing Factors on Lifelong Learning and HRD Practices:

Comparison of Seven European Countries

Sally Sambrook

Jim Stewart

Department of HRM
Nottingham Business School
Nottingham Trent University, UK

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


In this paper, we will describe and report the emerging results of a pan-European research project exploring the connections between HRD practices and lifelong learning in learning orientated organisations. The project is described briefly below. However, the particular focus of the paper is upon one aspect of the research - that is, identifying and exploring factors which influence lifelong learning. Influencing factors were divided into those which inhibit and those which facilitate a learning orientation. One finding of particular interest and potential significance is that the same factors could have both supportive and inhibiting influence. Members from even the same organisation talked about various factors, such as HRD resources and management skills, as either enhancing or inhibiting learning, suggesting the subjectivity of this aspect of the research. Inhibiting factors most commonly cited were: a lack of motivation to engage in either learning processes or new learning tasks; an insufficiently developed learning culture; a lack of clarity on the role of HRD; a lack of financial resources and a lack of time allocated for development. However, these same factors, talked about in positive terms, also facilitated a learning orientation. Also, whilst certain factors appear necessary, they are insufficient for developing a learning organisation. Yet, other factors, although negative, do not appear to prevent organisational learning. These issues are discussed later in the paper.

The Project

The research project in question is funded by the European Union under its TSER programme, Area 11-Research in Education and Training. The project management team is located in the University of Twente in The Netherlands. A further six partner universities or research institutes are drawn from Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy and the UK. The present authors are the UK partners in the project. The European Consortium for the Learning Organisation (ECLO) is an additional partner. The project aims to address the following questions:

How do HRD departments in learning orientated organisations throughout Europe envision their role in stimulating and supporting employees to learn continuously as part of everyday work?

What differences in outlook can be found between HRD departments in European organisations and the perspectives on the role of HRD which exist in the USA and in Japan?

What strategies do European HRD departments adopt to realise their envisaged role?

What inhibiting and facilitating factors do European HRD departments encounter when trying to realise their role, and how do they cope with these factors?

The second question is being addressed by comparing and contrasting the European results with reported practice in the USA and Japan through a literature review. Answers to the other questions are being sought through empirical research conducted by the partner institutions in each of the seven European countries. The first three questions will be answered in complimentary papers presented at the conference, and it is not our intention to report such findings here (see Mulder et al, Symposium Introduction). It is the fourth question that is the focus of this paper. The next section briefly reviews the context and conceptual basis of the research. The following section then explains how the research has been conducted.

Context and Conceptual Basis

The programme for Targeted Socio-Economic Research (TSER) is organised and sponsored by the European Union to facilitate research into current social and economical issues of great relevance to Europe. Lifelong learning is one of the themes that are studied within the framework of this programme. It is deemed an important topic, as Europe is developing towards a ‘learning society.’ Next to schools and governments (DfEE 1998), organisations are becoming important partners in this learning society. As they experience a greater demand on their capacity for organisational learning, their view of employee learning changes. Learning is no longer regarded solely as a classroom activity, necessary to enable employees to become more proficient at a certain task. Instead, learning is increasingly seen primarily as a continuous work-based activity, necessary to cope with changing demands from the organisational environment. Consequently, organisations are striving to create more opportunities for continuous employee learning, for instance, through teamwork, empowerment and broader job structures and design.

This changing view of learning has far-reaching consequences for line managers, who are expected to manage the workplace as a place fit for learning, for instance, by fostering a learning climate, and by coaching employees. In addition, it considerably affects the role and tasks of Human Resource Development (HRD) professionals, who are involved in organising learning activities for the organisation. Their role changes from that of ‘trainer’ to ‘performance consultant’ or ‘learning specialist.’ Finally, this shift impacts upon employees who are now expected to take greater responsibility for their own learning.

The overall research project explores the concepts of lifelong learning (DfEE 1998, Learning Declaration Group 1998), learning organisations (Senge 1990, Pedler, Burgoyne & Boydell 1991) and learning oriented organisations (Tjepkema & Scheerens 1997). The first two concepts are well documented and defined in existing literature and will only be briefly discussed here. However, it is useful to explain further the concept of the learning oriented organisation and how this relates to lifelong learning and the notion of organisational learning.

Why a Learning Organisation?

As organisations struggle to survive and prosper in the increasingly competitive environment, much is written about the virtues of enhancing the potential of the ‘human asset’ to achieve sustainable competitive advantage and cope with change (Porter 1990, Senge 1990). One approach is to constantly identify learning opportunities for individuals and the organisation (as a collection of individuals), share the learning from these and continuously transform the organisation. This requires re-thinking structures, working practices, communication systems and management styles.

Organisational Learning

Argyris and Schon (1978) suggested that organisational learning is a process in which members of an organisation detect error or anomaly and correct it by restructuring organisational theory of action, embedding the results of their inquiry in organisational maps and images. The key point here is that errors are detected and corrected or organisations cease to survive. The authors suggest three forms of learning - single, double and triple (or deutero) loop. Single loop learning is concerned with detecting and correcting errors in the current operating system - this is achieved by changing the ways in which tasks are performed within the same system of operation. Double loop learning involves detecting errors, but finding solutions outside the current ways of thinking and acting - there is a change in the system itself. Deutero learning involves changing the ways of thinking about error detection and solution - a process often referred to as learning to learn.

The concept of the learning organisation emerged and became popular following the writing of Senge (1990). Senge linked learning with ‘excellence’ (Peters & Waterman 1987), a concept enthusiastically embraced by employers and managers as a means of securing competitive advantage in a turbulent trading environment. This allows organisations to move beyond survival to sustainable success. The concept suggests that whilst individuals may learn themselves, unless this learning is shared and acted upon, and unless the organisation as a whole can change, then there is no learning organisation. Individuals learning alone can choose not to use their learning, or even take their learning with them if they leave the organisation. The building blocks of a learning organisation are, initially, individuals and then teams, who create, share and act upon collective learning. Such an organisation operates an organisational learning cycle (Nonaka 1991) - where new knowledge is created, captured, shared and implemented. In a learning organisation, managers - supported by HRD professionals - have a key role in creating opportunities for learning and sharing learning in work (Garavan 1991, Watkins & Ellinger 1998), whether for individuals and/or teams.

In the UK, Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell (1991) have made a significant contribution with their work on the learning company. Pedler et al (1991) suggest ‘a learning company is one which facilitates the learning of all its members, and which continuously transforms itself.’ Within this definition is the notion that it is members of an organisation who learn, learning can be enhanced, and learning results in changes - in shape (structure), direction (strategy) or values (culture). In addition, Pedler and colleagues (1991) identified eleven interconnected characteristics associated with learning organisations. Many of these features are included in what Watkins defines as a learning infrastructure, yet too many formal systems can slow the learning process (Watkins & Ellinger 1998). This focus on learning is not exclusive to organisations, however, but also to larger societies.

In the United Kingdom, for example, there is an increasing focus on learning. The government has published a Green Paper on life long learning (DfEE 1998), which states,

We stand on the brink of a new age. Familiar certainties and old ways of doing things are disappearing. Jobs are changing and with them the skills needed for the world of tomorrow.... Learning is the key to prosperity - for each of us as individuals, as well as for the nation as a whole... The fostering of an enquiring mind and the love of learning are essential for our future success... To achieve stable and sustainable growth, we will need a well-educated, well-equipped and adaptable workforce. To cope with rapid change we must ensure that people can return to learning throughout their lives. We cannot rely on a small elite: we will need the creativity, enterprise and scholarship of all our people.’

The Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) - the professional body for HR practitioners - has launched a five year project (Harrison in PM 1998) to further explore how learning might be encouraged and enhanced in work organisations - moving beyond traditional concepts of training and development - to benefit individuals, businesses and the nation. In the NHS, for example - one of Britain’s largest employers - Heron (1997) calls for ‘sharing of learning’ on a structured basis as part of a service-wide approach to HR strategy.

From an organisational perspective, this interest in learning suggests an increased focus on HRD, and a changing role for HRD practitioners. Training and development (T&D), HRD and strategic HRD could be described as interventions in learning - that is an attempt to manage, steer or direct what is a natural, individual and continuous process (Stewart 1992). The focus on learning has had an impact on these interventions and on developers’ roles. In the UK, Kenney and Reid (1988), for example, noted a shift away from a focus on standardised training programmes to an emphasis on the learning process, and to self-directed and self-managed learning.

In the USA, Marsick and Watkins (1990) reconceptualised the field of HRD as shifting from a reliance on behaviourism to a broader, more transformative conception of learning, with new demands brought about by the need for continuous learning in the workplace, requiring greater inclusion of informal and incidental learning strategies (Watkins & Ellinger 1998). HRD professionals are increasingly concerned with how to harness and co-ordinate learning, rather than become involved in direct training, and how to support individuals and managers in creating opportunities for learning.

A learning oriented organisation can be described as: an organisation which, with the aim of becoming a ‘learning organisation,’ deliberately:

creates opportunities for informal employee learning, both ‘on the job’ and ‘off the job’ and

stimulates employees not only to attain new knowledge and skills, but also to acquire skills in the field of learning and problem solving and thus develop their capacity for future learning, or ‘learning to learn’ (Tjepkema & Scheerens 1998).

Thus, a learning oriented organisation seeks to become a learning organisation, and attempts to achieve this by supporting individual lifelong learning, whether formal or informal, and by encouraging the sharing of this learning in order that all members of the organisation might learn and change and improve performance (organisational learning and development). Having briefly reviewed the conceptual basis of the research project, we now discuss the research methods.

Research Methods

The empirical research consists of two stages. Firstly, qualitative research through in-depth case studies and, secondly, a questionnaire survey. Each of the seven partner institutions has identified and conducted case study research in four organisations, producing a total of 28 case studies. This stage has been completed and forms the basis of the results reported later in the paper. The second stage will be a questionnaire survey of a minimum of 20 organisations in each country. The survey instrument has recently been finalised and the survey organisations are currently being selected. The survey is planned to be completed by the end of July 1999.

Selection of Case Study Organisations

Based on a review of the literature and suggestions from each partner institution, certain criteria were adopted in the process of selecting suitable case study organisations. A selection questionnaire was used to identify potential case study organisations and determine whether they were both characteristic of what has been described as learning oriented (Tjepkema & Scheerens 1997), and were willing to participate. These criteria were required to operationalise the concept of 'learning orientated.' However, additional factors, such as size and industry, were considered significant to enable comparisons across the seven countries. The size of organisation was decided at between 500 and 1,000 employees. Organisations were also selected to represent different sectors of the economy. A matrix was developed to categorise the organisations according to two variables: whether organisations operated in manufacturing or service sectors of the economy; and the extent to which they engaged in 'mass production' or adopted a 'customer orientation,' thus giving four cells. Each partner agreed to select one organisation from each cell. Thus, in each country the case organisations had to meet six of the 'learning orientated' criteria, employ between 500 and 1,000 staff and meet the specification of each cell in the matrix.

Case Study Methods

Each partner institution selected four organisations through a telephone interview with the HRD manager of potential and willing case study sites. A researcher from the institution then spent time in each selected organisation. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a number of senior managers, including whoever had board responsibility for HRD policy and, in some cases, the Chief Executive; with the HRD manager; and with a number of HRD practitioner staff. These were supplemented by interviews with a number of middle/operational managers drawn from a variety of departments or functions, and with a number of non-managerial and non-HRD practitioner employees, again drawn from a range of departments or functions. These latter interviews; together with the collection and analysis of documentary evidence such as mission statements, business plans, policy statements, and examples of HRD programmes/materials; were an attempt to achieve triangulation in the research design.

A key element of the interviews was to ask participants to identify factors which they thought inhibited or enhanced learning and the development of a learning (oriented) organisation. Two open-ended questions were asked:

What factors inhibit or provide obstacles to employee and organisational learning?

What factors support or facilitate employee and organisational learning?

In each case study organisation, the responses were recorded via the researchers’ notes, and then analysed and incorporated into the researchers’ case study reports. Each partner institution prepared reports for their own case study organisations in an agreed standard format. The responses were analysed both quantitatively and qualitatively, and by both individual researchers and the Dutch project management team.

The project management team analysed and compared the data, which form the basis of both a formal report to the European Union and a (soon to be published) practitioner handbook, detailing some of the 'good practices' identified in this stage of the project. This paper draws upon both the EU report and own our personal analyses of the findings. We now discuss the factors influencing lifelong learning in these learning-oriented organisations.

Influencing Factors

Here, we report the various factors influencing learning, drawing upon the findings from, and our analysis of, the twenty-eight case studies. First, we examine the four British case studies, and then explore factors influencing learning across the seven European countries.

Influencing factors were divided into those which inhibit and those which facilitate a learning orientation. One finding of particular interest and potential significance is that the same factors could and did have both supportive and inhibiting influence. Members from even the same organisation talked about various factors, such as HRD resources and management skills, as either enhancing or inhibiting learning, suggesting the subjectivity of this aspect of the research. Inhibiting factors most commonly cited were: a lack of motivation to engage in either learning processes or new learning tasks; an insufficiently developed learning culture; a lack of clarity on the role of HRD; a lack of financial resources and a lack of time allocated for development. However, these same factors, talked about in positive terms, also facilitated a learning orientation. Also, whilst certain factors appear necessary, they are insufficient for developing a learning organisation. Yet, other factors, although negative, do not appear to prevent organisational learning.

Summary and Conclusions

To summarise, based on our analysis of findings from the case study reports and overall project report of an EU-funded research project, we suggest in this paper that lifelong learning is influenced by many factors, and the same factors can be expressed in both a positive and negative manner. The key factors can be grouped into the various stakeholders (that is managers, employees and HRD professionals), organisational culture, the structure of work, and resources. A key finding is the changing role of the stakeholders, the attempt to develop a (new) learning culture, and the restructuring of work.

The role of HRD practitioners seems to be one of facilitation, co-ordination and support rather than merely providing training and development. This is an educational role, informing and encouraging managers and other employees to consider the wider range of opportunities for, and methods of, learning and development. The role is one of being a champion of, and role model for, learning, where learning is not restricted to attending formal courses. The HRD practitioner’s role is one of a working partnership with managers, to support the business. This shift in HRD roles is similar to that found in a study of British NHS hospitals, where practitioners have moved from being able/expected to tell individuals and managers what training is needed, through having to sell their products and services in the internal market, to working with individuals and all levels of management to capture and share learning, to gel the organisation (Sambrook 1998). This facilitates the development of a learning culture. Line manager roles are also changing. HRD activities are increasingly devolved to operational managers, a practice which can be perceived as either ‘extra work’ or greater involvement and responsibility for developing subordinates. In addition, the employee’s role is changing, with a greater emphasis placed the individual’s responsibility and involvement in identifying and meeting learning needs.

Significant inhibiting factors were talked about as: insufficient HRD resources; a traditional culture and entrenched attitudes towards training; business pressures; and poor managerial skills. Key conducive factors included: sufficient HRD resources (human resources such as facilitation skills, learning expertise and flexible solutions, as well as financial resources); management support for learning; and the increasing willingness to learn on the part of employees.

It might be that some of the conducive factors are necessary but insufficient conditions for organisations to become learning oriented. For example, despite increasing HRD resources and senior management commitment, until workload pressures and the organisation of work are addressed, and work time is devoted to learning issues, employees will continue to see learning as extra to their daily work practices, perhaps even unnecessary and worthless. The need to meet targets and a task orientation impedes the development of a learning environment. Conversely, inhibiting factors might not necessarily preclude the achievement of becoming learning oriented. For example, in two case study organisations, despite shift work and daily targets, time is being found to enable learning events to be scheduled in work time and in the work environment.

A common theme throughout the research has been the motivation for seeking to become learning oriented, which clearly emerges as the perceived improvement in business performance and competitive advantage. However, this seemingly causal relationship has not been extensively evaluated in any of the four organisations, and can be explained as either an act of faith, or mimetic isomorphism - copying what apparently successful organisations seem to be doing. A significant means of achieving a learning culture/orientation is the focus on changing attitudes to learning through culture change programmes and the recognition of all forms of learning, not merely formal courses.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 24 September 1999