Use Strategic Learning Contracts when you are 'obliged' to provide training
This month's lead article addresses the use of Strategic Learning Contracts (SLC's) to ensure that the cost of compliance with the various labour Acts, with respect to training and development, leads to a win-win situation for companies and employees. From an employer's perspective, the business benefits of voluntary (as apposed to trite) compliance must outweigh the cost of administrative compliance. These benefits are realised in improved results, productivity, industrial relations climate, and employee morale.
Prior to the Labour Relations (1995), and the Skill Development Acts (1998) becoming a legal fact of life for business, training was a 'voluntary' issue: 'voluntary' for companies to provide formal and/or on-job training, and 'voluntary' for employees to consciously apply newly acquired competencies, and technical knowledge back on the job. There was no legal backbone to the issue of rights and obligations with respect to training and development.
Training has become a legal issue in the South African workplace with the introduction of learnerships (i.e. voluntary legal agreements to employ, and train people with the use of public funds obtained from SETAS), AND due to a landmark decision handed down by Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) in 2000.
The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) handed down a decision about an employee's right to training after a Department of Transport employee claimed his employer had denied him necessary additional training. The CCMA found in favour of Navin Gurahoo, who declared a dispute with the Department of Transport for denying him a promotion because he lacked experience. The department had refused to train him in areas other than the position in which he was already employed, even after Gurahoo made several verbal and written requests to be trained in other areas within the department.
He declared a dispute after not being short-listed for an advertised position because he lacked the relevant experience. The CCMA found that Gurahoo was a highly efficient applicant who had mastered his duties in the department, and said the department acted IN IT'S OWN INTEREST in dealing with his requests. The commissioner was of the view that it was in fact an unfair labour practice for the department to have restricted Gurahoo's chances of gaining experience, which may have lead to a promotion.
This type of situation can be avoided if line managers and human resource professionals take a far more hard-nosed, and business-like approach to the business of training. This requires that line managers insist on the use of SLC's by learners and training professionals as a major focus in the training, development, and learning process. These learning (and performance) contracts need to become a non-negotiable way of life in business that protects both employer and employee in the event of disputes about the right to training, and the right to expect high performance standards once training, and other supports have been provided by employers
The remainder of this article explores key issues about the use of SLC's as a legally binding contract that leads to a win-win for employers, developers, and employees.
# What is a strategic learning contract
An SLC is more than just a fancy name for a personal development plan or an action plan. Such plans, often completed at the close of training courses, development centres or annual appraisal and review meetings, typically remain no more than interesting short-term wish-Iists (the equivalent of New Year's resolutions). They are unlikely to involve any negotiation, agreement, or regular, and continuing contacts with others. A SLC is different from a personal development plan for the following reasons:
>> It is a written document created by the individual, after SERIOUS consideration, and then negotiated with his/her manager.
>> A living document that individuals refer to regularly, and are held accountable for achieving.
>> It covers BOTH long- and short-term development needs, and spells out a programme to meet these (preferably, but not necessarily linked to obtaining a recognised, quality controlled national qualification or credit linked to the National Qualification Framework).
>> It has measures of achievement built in so that pay-off for the individual, and the organisation can be monitored. Monitoring should preferably be based on industry specific outcomes, and unit standards generated by the relevant Skills Generating Body (SGB).
>> It is developed at the start (and not the end) of any learning opportunity; approximately 20% of the programme's time is spent on fleshing out the contract around five key questions taken in order, moving the person from the past to the present, to the future.
# Why strategic'?
A Strategic Learning Contract is designed to be strategic in that participant on a qualification (NQF) or non-qualification programme are encouraged to take a strategic approach to his or her own learning. That is to say, their view is broadened upward and outward, beyond the immediate needs of the job to a consideration of their career, and even as far as taking a perspective on their life as a whole.
All too often, goals for learning (as with any other kinds of goals) are chosen to deal with a present situation. Therefore, they tend to be short term. Yet, any goal of today or tomorrow sets a direction into the future. If the implications of that direction are not considered, we can find ourselves in futures of our own making, but not of our intention, nor to our satisfaction. Being strategic means setting learning goals that lead in the desired life direction. Once that general direction is established, the short-term steps along the way can be identified. There is nothing wrong with having short-term goals. Short-term goals are useful. It is only important to ensure that they will take you into the long-term future you want.
One issue that frequently arises when people attempt to formulate strategic learning goals is that they experience difficulty identifying the strategic direction of their company. Obviously, the business strategy has a bearing on what their strategy might be. In addition, participants are encouraged to take account of their organisation's strategy as it sets the context for their own learning and development.
It is sometimes possible to discover an organisation's strategy, either from published sources, or from senior managers, although all too often it is not. This can be due to lack of communication in the organisation, or simply to the lack of any clear strategic direction. More often, though, there is a general strategy, though it lacks sufficient detail to guide the choice of learning goals. This presents a dilemma for the participant wanting to ensure that their own learning reflects the needs of their company. However, it is every bit as difficult for an organisation to establish a clear strategic direction as it is for an individual, often more so in that there may be a number of stakeholders with diverging ideas about where the business should be heading.
Ultimately, learners need to be clear about their own strategic direction even when the company is unable to be. The individual learner needs to step back from the day-to-day issues with which they are dealing and to cast their vision wider- to take account of what is happening in the surrounding context and out in the economy and world at large. Their situation must be viewed dispassionately enough to provide useful guidance, yet the learning goals they formulate must be ones that excite the enough passion to bring them into being.
# Why a contract?
Many organisations have embraced the concept of learning and development. Unfortunately, they often go about it in a misguided way, jumping from the concept straight to the provision of courses. A strategic approach to learning and development is rarely taken. In many instances, this means the closest people come to experiencing it is in the context of appraisals. Yet, these tend not to be very strategic either.
Interestingly enough, the need for appraisals are widely accepted, and rarely evaluated on a cost-benefit basis. Appraisals often lead to the formulation of a Personal Development Plan (PDP). These are sometimes seen as having the same value as a Strategic Learning Contract. This is rarely the case. More often than not, when compared to an SLC, Personal Development Plans can be rather poorly focused and sloppy and often appear very precise. But, being activity-based, the lack of clarity about goals and many of them end up as little more than a list of courses which it is assumed will fulfil those development needs the appraisal has identified.
# What is the difference between personal development plans and strategic
The major differences between the two forms are listed below.
# # PDP's:
>> Tactical in nature
>> Usually have 1-year timeframe, and are linked to the annual skill development plan
>> Emphasises the here and now
>> Have tasks and current-job as the key concern
>> Based upon abilities, competencies, outcomes, and unit standards
>> Concerned with performance as the overriding determinant of success
# # SLC's:
>> Both strategic and tactical in nature
>> Usually have a 3-5 year timeframe, and are linked to the succession management plan and overall employment equity plan
>> Emphasise the current and future situations
>> Have work and life as a whole as a key concern
>> Concerned with the development of capability
>> Have learning and continuous improvement as a key concern
A PDP is usually designed to last for a maximum of one year. It rarely takes into account anything beyond that timescale. An SLC, though its active life may be for less than a year, encourages thought about how the goals of that period relate to and accomplish future aspirations. That is to say, it encourages participants to look at both the quarterly short term and the long term, and to align the short-term goals with the long-term direction toward which the person is aiming.
A PDP has a far more restricted focus. When developing an SLC, people are encouraged to take a more holistic view of their development. Their whole life, past, present, and future is relevant to their learning goals.
There is a tendency for PDPs to get caught up in a deficiency perspective. Appraisals put much of their focus on performance issues. Development needs are seen as being what is required to bring the person's performance up to the required level. In such cases, the focus of the PDP may be less on learning than on performance. Performance goals are set between the person and their manager, but such goals do not necessarily imply any learning.
This difference between performance and learning is Important. Results also feature in an SLC, though here they will be used to demonstrate the achievement of a learning goal. But when our attention is solely on the result, it is all too easy to forget the learning that is required to get us there.
For similar reasons, PDPs often get tied to competences. The limits of such an appraisal system perspective is that competences all too often fall into a 'ticking the boxes' approach, which usually limit the integration of what is being learnt. Many organisations have become attached to their competency lists. As a checklist of things to take account of in relation to particular roles, they can be useful. Where they slip from usefulness to tyranny is when attempts have been made to nail them down to nitty-gritty specifics and it becomes mandatory, that all learning be in terms of this specification. This line of reasoning by logical extension can also be applied to the whole arena of unit standards, and outcomes!
As was implied earlier, when learning does feature explicitly within a PDP it often means an agreement that a manager will put the person on a course whereas a wider range of on-job options is possible and these are reflected in a person's SLC. When a PDP is agreed, the people are pretty much left to themselves to 'just get on with it' and accomplish its goals. Even in the best cases, where a manager makes time for a quarterly check with the person on their progress, this is not frequent enough and it needs to be remembered that there may be good reasons for not being completely candid with one's manager.
It is widely recognised that there is a far higher tendency for people to achieve goals that they feel they have chosen, and have made a commitment to achieving. While the rhetoric of appraisals, and PDPs is that these are negotiated between the person and their manager, the nature of the reporting relationship makes for an unequal negotiation. All too often people end up feeling that the goals were imposed on them. The assumption that they were mutually identified only makes this feeling more painful.
# How is a strategic learning contract constructed?
A strategic learning contract can be constructed in whatever way an individual finds useful. Almost everyone, though, finds it useful to have guidelines. A SLC is explicitly constructed around five questions, using them as headings and dealing with each in turn (though they need not be done in that way).
>> Q 1. WHERE HAVE I BEEN? (How has my career progressed? What have I learned from experiences?) This question helps employees make sense of their past experiences. The reason for starting with this question is that we are a product of the past. We are 100 per cent created by the past -either we were born this way (the genes) or we had accidents that changed us, or we learned to be this way. Whatever the reason, it's 100 per cent due to the past. So in order to move on we need to explore where our current capabilities, values, beliefs, etc. have come from. And we may need to modify some of our ingrained habits if we are to move on. This is where an ASSESSOR can play a valuable role in helping learners obtain RECOGNITION FOR PRIOR LEARNING as a contribution to obtaining a recognised NQF qualification. In addition to this role, an assessor can help learners identify patterns and skill gaps by considering the following:
++ Constants: is there something that is there all of the time, for example a personal quality?
++ What skills and abilities did you use in order to move out of the 'lows' and to progress? Is there something about you that appears from time to time?
++ What patterns are emerging? How do you feel about these patterns? Are they weaker/lessening or stronger/increasing?
++ How would you like them to be?
++ What is still unfinished, or your next task?
++ Looking back over your life experience, what skills/qualities/abilities have you gained?
>> Q 2. WHERE AM I NOW? (What kind of person am I? What are my strengths and weaknesses?) What are my guiding values and beliefs?) This question locates the person's current situation. The person may have a range of sources of information and feedback to help them address this. Getting a secure sense of the present is essential as a line for considering the future.
>> Q 3 WHERE DO I WANT TO GET TO? (What kind of person would I like to be? What strengths can I develop?) What weaknesses do I want to address? What are my short- and long-term goals? This question focuses on the future. Here is where the goals are set. They should be informed by the previous two questions just as their pursuit will be informed by the two questions to come. As has been mentioned, these goals are learning goals. It can be helpful to think of the following different types of goals:
++ Job goals: These relate to learning you may wish to undertake to improve your performance in your current job. You may also want to change aspects of your present role and would include these under this heading.
++ Career goals: You may wish to set goals in relation to your future career. This may cover job changes you would like to make and any development you feel you would need to go along with this. Career goals may not always include assumptions ofupward progression: some people find it helpful to consider sideways moves for instance.
++ Life goals: Increasingly, people want to ensure a balance in their lives -between, especially, work and home -and to specify what precisely they want to create in the future.
All the above are inter-linked but it can be helpful to use these headings as a starter for analysis.
>> Q 4. HOW WILL I GET THERE? (What action is needed for me to progress from where I am to where I'd like to be? What learning do I need to undertake -and how I do it?) The answer to this question in essence provides the person's own plan of action, and is equivalent to a curriculum as 'prescribed' in the various NQF qualification levels issues by SAQA (South African Qualifications Authority). Learners may draw on a whole range of methods to achieve their goals including (the standard training offerings (e.g. workshops, courses, seminars and conferences), as well as coaching and mentoring assistance, learning packages, secondments, projects and so on. There is nothing that need be excluded, except on grounds of cost or company policy.
>> Q.5. HOW WILL I KNOW THAT I HAVE ARRIVED? (How will I demonstrate the achievement of my goals? What will be my measures of achievement? What evidence will I be able to show?) This last question is vitally important. The learner is contracting to learn against specified goals, and they need to show that this has happened (after a period of time -typically six months to a year). This question adds considerable bite to the Self Managed Learning process and is one example of a difference between Strategic Learning Contracts, and less rigorous formulations of development goals. The answer to question 5 provides the ASSESSMENT CRITERIA that will be used in the assessment process leading to the award of a credit or a qualification.
# Agreeing a contract
As would be expected, the process of agreeing the contract will be more thorough and more rigorous in the case of qualification programmes than for short-term in company one-off interventions. Even when the process of agreeing the contracts is not overly formal, it is in the nature of a 'contract' that an agreement is made. That agreement involves all parties to the contract (assessors, coach, manager, mentor, trainer). To provide a framework for agreeing a contract, it may be useful to have achecklist of criteria that senior management have sanctioned and agreed and adds legitimacy and credibility to the contract.
# Changing the contract
Learners may see it as a paradox that so much attention is given to formulating the Strategic Learning Contract and yet it is not 'set in stone'. Making a thorough job of developing the contract is useful for all the reasons we have seen. It is a working document. And it has to work effectively. It must accord with the principle that everything is to remain relevant to the individual's needs. Needs can change and, if they do, then so must the Strategic Learning Contract.
# Assessing the contract
Assessment always occurs in the context of goals, unit standards, and expected learning outcomes, and assessment criteria. The individual presents their learning as a whole, that is to say, bringing together all they have gained from a learning programme. This will often include 'opportunistic learning', learning that was not set as a goal in the contract but which has resulted from pursuing goals that were, or learning that in some other way has resulted from the person's pursuing a programme. In their presentation the person is making a claim that, taken as a whole, what they have learnt constitutes an effective fulfilment of their contract.
A separate aspect of taking stock is to ask people to address the question of whether, and to what extent, they feel they have made good use of the learning opportunity they have had (through being on the programme). It was mentioned earlier that, over and above the achievement of the individual's learning goals, at added benefit of a programme could be in the 'learning to learn' area. This is the path to becoming a self-directed learner. Consequently, this question allows participants to reflect on how they approached the programme and how effective they were in dealing with the various issues that confronted them in the process of mastering the requirements of a programme.
Through developing a Strategic Learning Contract, a person becomes familiar with using that particular structure. Over and above its immediate use in a legal instrument in business, it embodies a way of thinking that can be applied to any situation where goal setting might play a part. The more experience people have of being strategic learners the more likely are they to become self-managing learners and to make the best future use of Strategic Learning Contracts.