By Laura Servage
It was the end of a long work day – a long work week in fact – when Geoff, who managed a data entry department of fifty staff, leaned in to John's office. He looked weary. "My department is on fire," he declared. "I'm so desperate I'm coming to Internal Audit."
Geoff, a fairly new manager, needed help because his department was a hostile, unhappy place to work. Productivity was down and declining. Training and team building exercises through Human Resources had, if anything, made the situation worse by drawing more attention to the department's problems.
At the first of the Work and Learning Network's 2011/2012 symposiums, John Servage drew on his 35 years of financial, IT, Internal Audit and Risk Management experience to present a rich case study, which described how this troubled group of workers used employee-driven learning to turn their department around. John described how he and his staff broke the department into inquiry teams, and empowered them to change the way they worked together.
"You're the problem"
Why had previous efforts to address productivity by "training up" the department staff failed? John believes the mistake lay in telling the staff they were the problem. By extension, much training comes from this deficit perspective. Employees get two important, negative messages from the deficit model: first that they are not competent, and second that they have no voice in their own work processes. Someone else knows better, and "delivers" training. Employees watch the Power Point, take their notes, and dutifully return to their desks.
"Let's make it work better"
John's team took a different approach by locating the "problem" in work processes rather than in the people doing the work. The department's workers were invited to identify problems with their work flows and processes, and then to develop and implement solutions to those problems.
As John described during his presentation, the teams were, at first, passive and suspicious. This wasn't the first time someone had come in and doctored with the unit; what was to say this wasn't another passing fad? Further, noted John, these were the organization's most vulnerable workers: the department was made up almost entirely of data entry clerks, who were at the bottom of the organizational food chain. The workers were women; many were relatively young and inexperienced; many were single mothers. They needed their jobs, and had learned not to risk them by voicing their opinions.
However, once they realized the invitation was genuine and that they could, in fact, make things change, the workers took up the task in earnest. They requested training they felt they needed; they requested consultations with other departments; they set up their own peer-to-peer training models. The women researched and presented a business case for hiring more staff for their area, successfully bringing on five new workers.
The department began to flourish, and the indicators measuring productivity and worker satisfaction showed marked improvements in an assessment completed five months later. A follow-up assessment a year later showed that the improvements had continued, and that the staff had developed sustainable strategies to monitor their own effectiveness as a work group, and to continue to learn together.
The work undertaken by the data entry department in this case was essentially business process re-engineering: not an unheard of or untested model in management science. But as critics point out, BPR has and can be abused if workers' interests and their genuine engagement do not drive the transformation of work processes. John emphasized that the employees in this case were given the opportunity to learn the way adults learn best in the workplace: through active inquiry.
What lessons can be taken from this case about workplace learning? Or, as John asked, "In a business environment, what makes adults comfortable and effective learners?" John concluded with a strong critique of still commonly used work-based learning practices that "talk at" people instead of inviting them to engage. Effective workplace learning, John stressed, communicates to workers that they are trusted and valued members of their organizations.
Finally, the case study John presented highlighted the folly of focusing on "culture" without examining the material conditions of work: the policies, work processes, equipment, materials, schedules, and spaces that structure the way people interact and coordinate their work activities.
Solving issues related to "organizational culture" can seem impossible because culture is so difficult to define and "pin down." Where is "culture" in an organization? Can you point to it? However, when we recognize that workplace culture, workplace learning, and business processes are inter-connected, we have new ways to tackle what's not working well. John's engaging presentation showed us how effective workplace learning can bring culture and hands-on problem solving together in ways that benefit both workers and their organizations. It's a win-win.
This article was re-printed with permission from The Work and Learning Network at the University of Alberta.
Source: WLN Monthly broadcast