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Developing high-performance to key to VET success

Campus Review, 19 June 2002

Three vastly different registered training organisations recently completed a pilot strategic and change management project that throws light on how to become a high-performing VET organisation. JACQUI ELSON-GREEN reports

IN 2001, Reframing the Future national project director Susan Young and VET researcher John Mitchell found that one of the keys to achieving a truly integrated national training system was to encourage the development of high-performing VET organisations.

Their report High-skilled High performing VET outlined a range of cultural and structural changes needed to achieve this goal including strategic management and change management interventions needed to bring about the desired changes.

As a direct response to these findings a Reframing the Future sub-program on strategic management and change management was developed and piloted over seven months among three registered training organisations in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. The RTOs were the Institute of TAFE Tasmania, private provider MEGT and North Sydney College.

Mitchell, from John Mitchell and Associates, evaluated the pilot and produced the report The never-ending quest: effective strategy-making and change management for high-performing VET organisations.

Following the success of the pilot, more than 25 new projects were launched late last month in the first full year of this important new sub-program. Leaders of the three pilot projects attended the launch in Sydney to share their experiences.

CEO of the Institute of TAFE Tasmania, John Smyth, told Campus Review that although the institution was named Training Provider of the Year in 2000, it did not want to rest on its laurels and was critically aware of the intensity of increasing competition. Smyth's institute was the largest in the pilot program employing nearly 1000 staff scattered across the entire state.

MEGT, a small, not-for-profit private provider based in Melbourne, employs just over 100 people and delivers almost all its training on-the-job while TAFE NSW's North Sydney College is located in the heart of the IT industry in Australia, has a staff of 565 and faces intense pressure to service local industry.

While each of the RTOs is part of the national training system, each faced quite different challenges in developing strategies for their various markets.

At the beginning of the pilot Smyth noted that his institute had begun the transition journey to becoming a high-performing organisation with some teams excelling and some individuals emerging as "stars of excellence" in delivering VET programs.

The pilot project supported the institute's development of a "guiding coalition" work teams with a shared vision of the organisation and how it sits within the national training framework, with an agreed set of messages to communicate and with agreed change strategies.

The focus of the project for MEGT was more becoming more flexible in training delivery methods, specifically within the areas of call centre and retain training which required the company to address both cultural and structural change.

At North Sydney College staff modified the project focus to develop "operations response teams", initially revolving around the heads of sections. Four operations response teams were formed, each consisting of five sections, which meet formally three times a semester to plan and review actions. The response teams are mechanisms for developing senior staff.

Mitchell's report explains how each of the RTOs undertook strategic management, noting that each identified their unique external environments, client needs and internal resources.

He says that one way to prepare for the uncertain future, as demonstrated by the three RTOs, is to continually refine management capability in strategy-making.

Smyth says that regardless of how well the organisation has been positioned, a strategic analysis inevitably identifies some apparent gaps between customer/client needs and service delivery.

"In a regional economy undergoing structural change, it has proven invaluable to assess our strategic positioning in relation to key stakeholders - the challenge is in creating the organisational agility and change strategies to respond to the emerging demands," he says.

MEGT employed a conceptual framework in their strategic analysis that proved useful in dissecting aspects of the external environment as it showed how the structures of industries influence the competitive strategies of enterprises and their profitability.

North Sydney College's strategic analysis provided the following unexpected results:

  • The level of target group readiness was below the expectation of the project team
  • There was a mismatch between internal and external environment
  • Indicated the need to start with the simple and basic and relate very strongly to the work of the target group
  • Project team had to modify the strategy and its own expectations

In terms of using change management, the RTOs were satisfied with their success but each used different frameworks, which supports the view a range of approaches is valid, depending on the particular environment.

Mitchell notes that each of organisation was mindful of exhausting their managers by trying to achieve too much, too quickly. "Change management requires VET managers leading the change to use a mix of wisdom, judgement, sensitivity, patience and flexibility," he says.

According to Mitchell, evidence provided by the three RTOs suggests that the benefits of this sub-program are that individual managers learnt critical, new skills and developed a heightened sense of unity and purpose in pursing the goals of the national training framework, particularly to be demand-driven and client-focused.

"Generally, the resultant benefits of change management for each of the three were the changing of their internal culture by encouraging increased cooperation across internal departments and changing of the structure of their organisations to become more responsive to external clients."

Other benefits of the sub-program were that it helps VET managers develop management skills in their workplaces, and, in most cases, to immediately influence their organisations' structures and cultures.

The conventional method for management skill development is for the individual manager to enrol in a postgraduate management course to learn about rational strategic planning processes that deliver a theoretical solution, Mitchell notes.

In contrast, he says this sub-program emphasises the art of designing successful strategies on-the-job.

"Creating the conditions for managers to feel safe to ask questions and formulate hypotheses and to experiment is essential for the development of strategy," Mitchell argues, and he says these conditions were created by the three RTOs teams in the pilot project.

As the title of the report suggests, effective strategy-making and change management is a never-ending quest with Mitchell emphasising that the challenge for managers to develop successful strategy is relentless.

And he stresses that every RTO in the VET sector in Australia needs managers who understand intimately their own organisations' capabilities, clients and wider environment and who can design effective strategies in the midst of change, while coping with the uncertainty of what the future may bring.

"The 2001-2002 Reframing the Future sub-program provided a window into the lives of RTO managers who are developing such knowledge, skills and attitudes."

Susan Young and John Mitchell have published a three-page overview containing the "core ideas" behind strategic management and change management in the context of the national training framework. Details about this highly readable document as well as The never-ending quest are available from the Reframing the Future website at www.reframingthefuture.net

Reframing the Future is the national staff development and change management program that supports the implementation of the national training framework.