Training for life

Towards a Competent Workforce
April 3, 1998

Today, "people-orientated" organisations tend to focus on outcomes - achievements that staff are expected to attain at work as part of their contribution to the organisation's objectives and, more important, in terms of the economy overall, their own self-development.

In the training and development field, "outcomes" (as opposed to processes) have been embedded in national occupational standards and vocational qualifications. Towards a Competent Workforce contains a complete and very accessible description and critique of the methodology underpinning this logical and practical approach to setting occupational benchmarks.

The authors' fundamental position is that training is an investment in assets rather than a short-term cost that has to show an immediate return; a position that I have no problem in signing up to wholeheartedly.

This consistently challenging book is in four parts defined as: the rhetorical; the theoretical; the technical (concepts); and, the technical (applications). The first consists mainly of an effective and spirited critique of the lack of strategic vision that, the authors argue, should have been present in developments in vocational training in the United Kingdom.

Bob Mansfield and Lindsay Mitchell argue that many NVQs, and the standards on which they are based, are inadequate because they narrowly define job-specific skills that do not encourage or require candidates or their employers to widen and deepen their performance and personal development. They criticise the plethora of consultative papers and reports issued over the past 20 years for being strong on rhetoric but scant on detail, and they provide evidence from the period to support their position. The authors also describe and illustrate the enormous acceleration in the advance of technology over the same period and consider what this means for those who design and produce the products of our age: "Relating change to the real things happening around us emphasises that the infrastructures that support economic and social change, of which vocational education and training is a key contributor, must, of necessity, have to change and adapt just as fast - if not even faster - to keep up with the competition."

The second part discusses how in the language of training, the word "tasks" has been replaced by the concept of "outcomes", which in turn has influenced the development of the Job Competence model. There is a useful discussion about broadly and narrowly defined models of competence, illustrated by the clothing industry in Holland and Germany where, in the 1970s, workers were expected to be able to contribute to the manufacture of whole garments, to adapt quickly to different jobs as production needs fluctuated and as different styles of garment were required, to monitor the quality of their products and to learn how to maintain their equipment and machinery. This is contrasted with the clothing industry in the UK in the 1970s where competence was narrowly reduced simply to being able to do one very limited task very quickly and to high standards of accuracy, with quality not necessarily being "built-in"; Taylorism meets human resource development, one might say. This is familiar territory for many people involved in training, development, job design and industrial relations. Mansfield and Mitchell insist that this narrow perspective still informs much current work on occupational standards and models of competence because its original justification has become embodied in attitudes and beliefs about people, their capabilities and the relative status of different jobs.

The third and fourth, more technical sections of the book explore functional analysis techniques and occupational standards thoroughly and detail what the authors consider to be the shortcomings; I would have thought that these sections will become essential reading for those involved with the development of occupational standards.

Even for the lay reader, they are clear and a testimony to the authors' commitment to achieving comprehension and understanding of a subject that has become overly technical and, to many, incomprehensible because of excessive jargon. The key points are illustrated with examples and anecdotes that provide a good bridge between the descriptions of the techniques and the failures that the authors identify. For example, the table describing more than 70 practical uses for occupational standards illustrates the mistake of seeing such standards as purely a step in the formation of vocational qualifications.

The appendices contain valuable tools for standards developers, particularly a list of active verbs used in statements of competence, which will also interest students of the English language.

This is an important book that works on a number of levels. As a technical manual, it is first class with a polemical tone throughout that makes for an enjoyable read even when the technical focus is uppermost. It is also interesting for its political analysis of the UK's failure to address some of the mistakes in practice and in concepts that, the authors claim, we continue to make. It argues for an open approach to standards development that involves all of the stakeholders: users, candidates, training providers and employers. It should gain a wide audience among people involved with the development of human resources at company and national level.

John Monks is general secretary, Trades Union Congress.

Towards a Competent Workforce

Author - Bob Mansfield and Lindsay Mitchell
ISBN - 0 566 07699 3
Publisher - Gower
Price - £45.00
Pages - 352

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