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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

The Economic Challenge


Is this just a management fad of 1992 or 93, lifelong learning, or have we got something a little more serious here?

Barton: No, it's not a fad. A lot of it is born out of the necessity to address the marketplace.

Flood: There's high risk in doing this, but once the genie's out of the bottle you can't get it back in. You're really talking about greater freedom, more empowerment, shifting the responsibility from the employer to the employee and I think that has to be brought in at various levels of the commitment. I don't think we have any choice but to move in this direction.

Brzustowski: Everybody else has had to live by their wits for a long time. We were cushioned by our natural resources and now we're forced to join the mainstream.

There was concern in our group that with the disappearance of traditional corporate structures, that some highly-held values – such as employer-employ loyalty – are disappearing in order to accommodate new management theories, or what some might cynically call fads. Is there a sense of insecurity among the employees?

Flood: There's no question there's a change in the contract. Our industry, for many years, was considered a paternal organization; that you joined coming out of graduation and as long as you were honest you had a job for life. That was ingrained into our culture and over time it developed a feeling of mediocrity. About 10 years ago we realized that we had to become much more of a performance-driven organization to compete. So, we've been evolving down this road for some time. The lifelong contract has been broken. Now, we're dealing with jobs that are becoming redundant, the world is changing. We have global competition, we have re-regulation, we have greater degrees of investment in communication and technology and the behaviour of our customers is changing. As a result some jobs have become obsolete. The fundamental reason why we're changing is to clearly communicate that to the employee in a very honest and credible way, so the employee knows what the choices are. It's up to us to put in place the support system that gives them the opportunities to develop the competencies and skills that will qualify them for a series of jobs in the future.

Barton: Employees do view it initially as the social contract being broken. However, this is my second time on a change agenda. In both cases, about 40 per cent of the people recognize the need for change at the same time or even before you do. Those are the people who go on and get the rewards. There are some people that are impacted negatively. That's about 20 per cent. The other 40 per cent are somewhere in between, but they manage to make it to safe ground and become successful, but not without a great deal of pain and tragedy.

Are there preconditions which must be in place before attempting to create a learning organization and, if so, will there be some organizations which are unsuited to the model?

Barton: One of the critical steps is to communicate to people what the change is all about and what, from your perspective, you see as desired state. If you have a continuous learning process, that desired state will change with time. We took a lot of time to project what it would mean at various time intervals, what it would mean to the various departments. In addition to that, we provided a job profile and matching of the skills and training that they had to develop and the assistance they would need to accomplish it.

Brzustkowski: We're a small organization and we're trying to become a learning organization and we're helped in that by the kind of work we do. I think the difficult thing is to provide a climate in which the members of the organization can be secure. Learning is an unsettling business. You might find yourself failing. You might find yourself having to reveal to others that there's something you don't know. You can be going down blind alleys. You don't know what the outcome is going to be. If you're a person whose security in a position is maintained by the fact you control the information in some way, as a lot of middle management has done, and the outcome of the learning is there's new information and everybody has it – there's a structural insecurity in that for you. A precondition to a learning organization is some very serious attempts to establish a climate of trust for the people in the organization.

Flood: What led us to the decision was the recognition that we had to change the competencies and skill sets of our employee base. How do you do that when you have 43,000 employees? We prepared our people that we were changing the structure of the organization; turning the pyramid upside down – putting the customer at the top. If you communicate that the easiest way to change your organization is through your employees, you can build that trust.

Do you believe the current structure of the post-secondary education system in Canada is conducive to producing the type of employees that will have the skills and competence spoken of here and, if you feel there is room for improvement, what kind of commitment or leadership skills are your firms or organizations willing to make towards addressing this issue?

Brzustowski: The organization I'm involved with has a task force on lifelong learning which tries to deal with just three aspects of that issue. We have a task force which tries to identify the success stories that have already arisen within the existing system. Where are the places where good things are happening that you want to hold up as models; not only hold them up and spotlight them, but somehow make sure that example is imitated and that the lessons are learned from it. We're look also at ways of measuring the performance, not just of individuals but of schools, of whole systems. And finally we're trying to strengthen the voice of the demand side in education. Education is a totally supply dominated activity, as far as I'm concerned, but the voice of those who say this is what we need, this is where we need it and to strengthen that. The people working on that task force represent all the stakeholder groups, the teaching profession, government, business and community groups. So there's some hope that when these results come out, when these directions are defined, some of that will actually be implemented.

One of the hallmarks of the learning organization is this absence of hierarchy and the devolution of the corporation into a network of co-operative teams. There was some scepticism by some members of our group as to how well Canadians really adapt to a team environment. It's a given, that ours and the American society are still very much societies in which individual merit and performance count most, both in terms in the value and also as those values are reflected in compensation. What specific, practical steps have you been able to take to encourage really effective teams in your organizations, given that compensation and promotion are still overwhelmingly based on merit of individuals?

Barton: We have changed our compensation and merit. I would add that I find Canadians are more team oriented than people in the United States. I'm from the U.S., so I can say that without somebody taking offense to it. It's not an event driven mentality. It takes time, it takes initiative, it takes one thing after the other. In time people begin to actually see the benefit in a team addressing the situation, rather than one individual. In information technology, there's no one who understands all of it – or who will ever know all of it – so you have to rely upon others in certain technological and skills areas to be able to complete any or meet any objective. But we have changed recognition and reward to team recognition and reward in a lot of cases; not totally.

Flood: We're setting up pools of compensation for various teams. On the investment banking side we've done that for years and it seems to work. I think some of the legal and accounting firms have been doing that. It has worked extremely well on the processing side and we're now rolling that out across the country.