A report by the ESRC centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University
In July 2009, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) committed around £2.9 million in funding to 12 ‘action research’ projects aimed at exploring the role that universities and colleges might potentially play in improving skills utilisation in the workplace. The programme is a direct response to the challenges facing Scotland as originally outlined in the 2007 Skills Strategy and by the Skills Utilisation Leadership Group, and is part of a broader range of policy activity currently aimed at supporting more effective use of skills in Scottish workplaces.
This report is an independent interim evaluation of the SFC programme which has been conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) centre for Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE). Drawing upon interviews with project managers, employers and employees involved with four of the 12 projects as well as discussions with key Scottish policy makers, it finds some evidence that universities and colleges can make a positive contribution to skills utilisation, thereby providing an initial empirical basis for establishing ‘proof of concept’, and also highlights a number of issues and challenges which have implications in terms of programme development and next steps.
The main findings and recommendations are summarised below:
• If the intention is to try to move towards a full-cost recovery model, policy makers need to recognise that obtaining up-front employer contributions towards the cost of such initiatives is likely to be challenging. Careful thought will need to be given to how this might be achieved in practice. One model, which may be applicable in some cases, is for the public purse to fund the initial exploratory phase of projects, with employers asked to contribute more as the benefits become clearer. There are, however, serious questions around whether some of these initiatives are sustainable in the absence of public funding.
• Policy makers may wish to consider an expanded publicly-funded programme of skills utilisation/workplace innovation projects which could potentially be positioned as part of a broader approach to business improvement and innovation policy. As a first step, policy makers might consider funding an exploratory second phase of the programme.
• Consideration might be given to whether there is a case for extending funding to existing innovative projects which are still at an early stage of development and have the potential to generate further learning.
• Research suggests that the way in which jobs are designed, both in terms of the complexity of tasks and level of autonomy and discretion afforded to employees, has a significant bearing upon the scope available to employees to engage in informal learning and the opportunities they have to develop and deploy their skills at work. Although some projects have touched upon issues of task delegation and role design, work organisation would not appear to have figured prominently within the current programme. In thinking about future programme development, policy makers may wish to encourage project proposals which have work re-organisation and job redesign as a central aim or objective.
• Funding criteria should take account of the quality of the intervention and whether projects leave a legacy of development activity within participating organisations by helping them to embed approaches within their everyday practice which can be sustained after project funding ends.
• There are issues around the existing capacity of universities and colleges to engage with this agenda. Some projects are highly dependent upon the knowledge and expertise within the project team, raising questions about to what extent such approaches could be replicated or scaled up. ‘Action research’ approaches to workplace development/innovation tend to have a more limited presence in UK universities compared to elsewhere in Europe and Scandinavia. This may reflect institutional pressures upon UK academics to publish in high ranking international journals as well as the weakness of social partnership in the UK which leaves many critical researchers reluctant to involve themselves in workplace change initiatives, often emanating from management. Scottish business schools do not appear to be engaged with the SFC programme and one challenge would be to try and build their involvement into any subsequent second phase.
• Given existing capacity issues, it makes sense to build the programme slowly and gradually. Providing further opportunities for projects to discuss their different approaches to working within organisations would be useful as part of a continued commitment to cross-project networking. Establishing links with research institutes in other countries, in particular Scandinavia, which have a strong tradition of ‘action research’ in support of workplace development/innovation could also help to build up ‘process knowledge’. Using existing projects to guide, mentor and support new ones will be particularly important in terms of capacity building.
• There is a need to ensure that the programme continues to be rigorously evaluated in terms of impact. Policy makers also need to be aware of the challenges and difficulties involved in undertaking such evaluation. The concept of ‘skills utilisation’ is relatively new and not always well understood by employers and employees. Assessing the impact of projects on skills utilisation is nevertheless likely to rely heavily upon the subjective feedback of project managers, together with the testimonies of participating employers and employees. Demonstrating impact in terms of ‘hard measures’ of performance, such as productivity, efficiency or service quality, may also be problematic, not least because of the difficulties of ‘controlling’ for other influences beside the actual project itself. The full impact of projects may not be felt for some time so it is important that both project and programme evaluation adopts an adequate and realistic timeframe.
• In evaluating ‘success’, consideration should also be given to the potential and quality of the intervention in terms of what it is that policy makers are seeking to achieve. Should, for example, more emphasis be placed upon initiatives which improve operational efficiency, given where firms are currently positioned in the market, or upon those which have the potential to help firms to move up the value chain?
• It is also important to consider the extent to which projects have acted as a catalyst for enabling universities and colleges to rethink their role in economic development/business improvement or how they might deliver training within the workplace and link this to improved skills utilisation. There is evidence that some projects have developed their understanding over time and that this is now beginning to influence discussions within their wider institutions. It is important that evaluation takes account of such ‘developmental effects’ for the provider.
• Building upon existing relationships, there is scope to explore ways in which the programme can be more fully integrated with the work of other agencies, such as Scottish Enterprise (SE), Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Skills Development Scotland (SDS), so that universities and colleges are closer to the point of intervention with regard to business support and can add value to the current offer. Consideration might be given to developing the programme as a joint initiative across a wider range of partners, including SFC, SDS, SE and HIE, with Scotland’s economic development agencies afforded representation within the Skills Committee.
• Building upon policy concerns outlined in the refreshed skills strategy and developments within some of the projects, policy makers may wish to consider the role and potential of ‘learning networks’, which draw together universities/colleges, public agencies and firms/organisations, as a means of helping employers to learn together and share knowledge about workplace development.
• Finally, changing employer behaviour to support more effective utilisation of skills is extremely challenging and needs to be considered as a long-term project. It is important then to avoid ‘over-selling’ what a small programme, on its own, can contribute to Scottish economic performance. More generally, there is a need to build a strong supportive policy consensus across government, employer and employee organisations that can underpin programme development over time. The challenge is to weave the programme into the tartan of Scottish skills and innovation policy.
Scottish Funding Council (SFC) | http://www.sfc.ac.uk/reports_publications/ | 20 June 2011