Take some keen prospective talents, current students and successful graduates of a top-quality and innovative master’s programme. Put them together with interested university staff and more than 30 human resource experts from the region and beyond. Start them off with a high tea, and don’t hold back on the networking drinks. Add some lively discussion on a theme that is crucial to the success of all modern businesses, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success.
And so it was for the first ever MSc Management of Learning (MoL) Day, held at the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics (SBE) on 12 April. The event was organised by the Department of Educational Research and Development, which coordinates and teaches the MoL programme. In attendence were future, current and past students from as far away as China, Spain and Iran. They were joined by UM staff as well as representatives from companies such as DSM, Albert Heijn and Shell International.
More attention for Management of Learning
“We want to focus more attention on the programme”, says Professor Mien Segers, Management of Learning programme coordinator and chair of the event. “The goal is to recruit new master’s students, and make contacts with companies that can benefit the students, the programme and the department.” In total nearly 80 people were present to learn about the programme, meet students and staff, and get in touch with peers in the field of human resource development (HRD).
And what would such a day be without a theme like ‘Training and development as a strategic issue in learning organisations’? According to Segers, “Everyone has something to say about this theme, and everyone’s involved in it. It’s a critical success factor for companies in the 21st century.” So what makes it so significant? “The people within organisations are being seen as increasingly important – one of the key assets of an organisation. People are the ‘learning element’. By providing continuing training and development for employees, they’re able to develop and change within the company, and change the company at the same time. This is what we call a ‘learning organisation’: one that’s always changing and radiates an inner philosophy outwards. Organisational knowledge arises through socialising and internal knowledge exchange.”
E-learning for Gen-Y
Figuring prominently at the Management of Learning event was a pair of case studies, one of them presented by recent Management of Learning graduate Suzanne Tilanus. Now based in Amsterdam, Tilanus is a talent and organisational performance analyst at Fortune-100 company Accenture. Her case study example: A multinational petroleum company wants to save €40 million per year, while at the same time achieving its broader strategic objective of becoming a ‘high performance learning organisation’.
Sound like a big ask? Tilanus has the solution. E-learning, using rich media like podcasts, blended delivery, and mobile accessibility. This, she says, reduces the excessive costs associated with instructor-led training. It also addresses the need for new didactic techniques to accommodate Generation Y (the net generation) and to reach remote workers (after all, the company has offices in over 100 countries). It promotes a learning culture within the organisation, and keeps pace with current trends such as “making formal learning look less formal”.
Case number two was presented by Jos van Erp, competence development manager at FME-CWM. This is the Dutch association of employers in the technological industry, and it is no small deal: the association represents a turnover of almost €80 billion, produced by 2,700 companies with 260,000 employees. “The productivity of 260,000 people now is higher than the productivity of one million people in 1970”, Van Erp points out. “And learning in companies is increasingly becoming a core activity in itself.” His example is a company, which produces 300,000 kilometres of cables per year and has 500 staff spread over three different locations. The problem? Older people with technical skills are retiring at a rate of knots, taking their knowledge and experience with them. At the same time, too few young people are entering the labour market with the same skills. Not to mention the fact that the company has no internal knowledge-sharing system to speak of.
What this company needs, according to Van Erp, is to gather all the information and knowledge still available within the company – and from relevant sources elsewhere – and to ensure that this is disseminated across the organisation. The plan of action: take 20 or more knowledge experts and split them into teams, each addressing one aspect of the work processess in question. Next, figure out what knowledge and information is needed for each aspect, then train the experts to transmit all this to the rest of the staff. Sound straightforward enough? In fact, this is a huge logistical operation, involving a great deal of time and manpower. It can’t be done without the enthusiasm and support of the management, or without the willingness of expert staff who are prepared to become ‘teachers’, in a sense. Van Erp’s role in all this: “The learning adviser is an architect who guides others, who transfers his or her enthusiam and expertise to others, and yet who can – must, in fact – withdraw at a certain time.”
SBE plays its part
So what is SBE doing to produce learning advisers and HRD experts who can tackle this field in the future? “Learning theoretical things at an educational institution (such as SBE) prepares you in the best possible way to go out and work”, says Professor Segers. “And because organisations are increasingly focusing on life-long learning, SBE can also play a role here thanks to its broad range of degree programmes. Our department has a great deal of knowledge and expertise as well, and carries out practical research into learning. This knowledge can be put to good use by different companies. We also use real business cases in our teaching, we do practical research – including in-company studies – and we work together with the business world when it comes to knowledge exchange and innovation. And every year we produce master’s students who are trained to work in a learning organisation. Who have experience with and knowledge of such organisations.”
Learn it – Work it
The latter particularly applies to Management of Learning graduates. The programme is now in its third year, with an annual intake of around 15 students. Segers: “Our slogan is Learn it – Work it, but also the reverse: Work it – Learn it.” The curriculum revolves around that key concern of companies nowadays: the effective management of human capital. To stay competitive, no company can afford to neglect the training and development of its employees. Management of Learning students therefore examine learning in an international business environment, drawing on elements of economics, business, human resource management, and learning sciences. They are treated to guest lectures from high flyers at DSM, Philips, ABN AMRO and more. And perhaps most useful for their future employers, they put their classroom knowledge into practice by analysing and proposing solutions to authentic HRD problems faced by real companies.
Little wonder, then, that the Management of Learning Day was such a resounding success. So much so that it won’t stay a one-off event for long. Segers: “Everyone was very enthusiastic. We’re going to do this again next year – with a different theme, and again a different, unexpected setup!”