Learning innovation in the public sector

by | Jun 11, 2010 | Articles

Well it has been an interesting first few weeks as the new coalition government is bedding in. The message clearly is that things are going to be different moving forward as the government  takes ‘ immediate and decisive action’! And for many in the public sector that action looks like it is going to mean just 4 things cuts cuts cuts and cuts!

The day after the election, those cuts were top of the agenda at the Public Sector Learning Conference ran by  Learning Pool. It was good to hear the perspective of Rob Whiteman, the newly appointed head of IDeA  on the challenges that lie ahead within the public sector and how to respond to them  .
Rob’s view was that over the next 3 years, those in the public sector can expect some  massive budget cuts with some organisations reducing by up to a fifth.  However, he felt that downsizing won’t get organisations very far. Service improvement used to be about be about increased spend and whilst cutting spend is a good shock tactic, it will not solve the problem alone – he challenged the audience ‘how do we become a people that deliver better outcomes with less money? Innovation is about change and collaboration and collaboration means that we need to engage in a way that is meaningful and often uncomfortable.

As I listened, it made me wonder if there were lessons there for those who are working in L&D within the sector as well.

Is it time for learning professionals in the public sector to sit tight and wait for the axe to fall or is it time to adapt from current manifestos and adopt new policies to come up with a new approach to delivering improved services but with a deficit of funds and support?

Change – time to let go of long held beliefs

One decisive action that I think L&D staff will need to take to make a conscious decision to lay down previous agendas  in order to address this new challenge.  This may mean changing the way that we think about how we meet the learning and performance needs of business but letting go of strongly held beliefs about the way we achieve that goal can be uncomfortable (Dave and Nick will probably testify to that!)

There are some manifestos that many of us hold onto that will not be appropriate going forward. Those traditionally holding a view that L&D departments are there to deliver courses to support the business may find that they need to do more to justify their existence or find themselves in the first line of fire. Those working with learning technologies may find themselves in a similar position. Many use technology to automate the old way of ‘doing learning’ ie providing courses on line but this may not be enough moving forward. If we can’t justify how a technology enabled approach to learning really makes a difference to critical business issues such as performance, improved service delivery and efficiency then do we deserve to be kept on the books?

What might change look like? Fewer courses (online and face to face)– that’s probably a given! What about shifting from learning to performance support? What about the learning that takes place without us – does this need to be encouraged and enabled even more in this new environment? Can we afford to design to every ‘learning style’ or should we only be concentration on the helping the organisations meet its pressing needs of delivering improved services with fewer resources?
Learning and development professionals have a significant role to play in equipping public sector organisations for change but only if we are able to change ourselves.(Check out how Cheshire ICT Services did this!)

Collaboration

To enable change we have to learn to collaborate in different ways.  Collaborating directly with the lines of business who are delivering services will be critical moving forward. As Rob Whiteman suggested, that collaboration needs to challenge the preconceived ways of working and learning in order to identify an innovative new approach to the problem.

That will mean asking difficult questions and identifying learning solutions that are unexpected. Do you really need someone to go on a 3 week orientation  course for their new role or can you help them get up to speed much faster with a combination of online resources & support, on the job tasks and support via a virtual meeting space?

Collaborating better with other departments to pool resources may also be necessary. For example, can sharepoint be used to help provide innovative learning support ( as in BT’s innovative Dare2Share project)? Can online meeting spaces be used to bring cohorts of learners together (Devon County council provides a great example of this)? Can internal communications portals be used to deliver learning – or learning portals be used to deliver communications messages?

We won’t know until we start to investigate the possibilities.

The power of Community

Pooling internal resources is one thing but should we also be looking to pooling learning resources with others outside of the operation? This will require collaboration on a scale not yet seen by the public sector and technology has the potential to provide the glue that sticks all this activity. Organisations like LearningPool  are making it possible for organisations across the public sector to collaborate together to deliver improved efficiencies.

For example,  Plymouth City Council saved £82,000 by using e-learning to deliver their mandatory Government Connect information security training to staff; the e-learning cost £3 per delegate compared to a classroom cost of £85. Plymouth then shared the Government Connect course they created to the ‘pool’ and Essex County Council repurposed it to deliver to 9,000 of their own employees, saving even more. This sharing meant that Essex was able to create their e-learning course for £1 per head compared to their classroom cost of £65.

LearningPool isn’t the only group to support cross organisational collaboration. The Charity Learning Consortium do something similar for the charity sector and Brightwave  also works in the public sector to ensure collaborative action drives down cost.  We can join these specific communities or  start engaging with the wider community via groups such as the eLearning Network   or the Learning and Skills group  .

You can also take part in the TM 2010 learning technology benchmark – a powerful opportunity to harness collective knowledge and knowhow.

Now is the time to be active, to learn from each other, to share resources and collectively start to innovate.

Communicate

How we communicate our learning offering will be critical moving forward. This is not about rolling out platitudes about learning and performance or even about technology and efficiency– time is probably passed for that.

It is critical that we really start to articulate the benefits for the organisation, to engage stakeholders and be part of a new learning culture that looks at delivering performance under pressure.  I strongly recommend the work commissioned by Becta to support businesses in building the business case for innovative learning practices . For example, their Delivering Results report helps L&D staff to articulate how to improve services, build efficiency, address the green agenda, increase productivity.   It  is this type of contribution that will be sorely missed when Becta go but the work that they have done on behalf of employers illustrates how important it is that using technology in learning is not enough to bring about change –  we also need to communicate what we are doing in a language understood by all in business if we are to be around in the long run.

Immediate , decisive action!

So 2010 has to be a year of ‘immediate and decisive action’ for those serving the public sector. In response to government directives for  cuts cuts cuts & cuts, L&D need to take  decisive action that  leads to change, collaboration, community and communication!

Learning in the public sector- Cuts, Change & Collaboration

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