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L&D Shows How to Collaborate With the Competition

Bob Little 

January 27, 2017

History tells us that competition has enabled human society to survive relatively successfully. Consequently, competition is encouraged as a “good thing” and something that, along with love and money, makes the world go round.

In today’s world of work, competition occurs at all levels – departmental and individual – within organizations. Indeed, this competition can be extremely keen, even destructive, as the competitors vie for scarce resources.

So, some radical thinkers – especially those with an education or L&D background – have been suggesting for some time that more progress can be made through collaboration than through competition. While that can work among learners within an organization, it’s still a radical suggestion that competing organizations should pool their L&D resources.

For nearly 50 years, this concept has been practiced in the U.K., through Group Training Associations (GTAs). Employers – usually from the same industry and, thus, competitors – subscribe to a GTA-run off-the-job training center to collaborate on providing efficient, expertly delivered skills for their workers. The movement’s heyday ran for some 20 years from the late 1960s but, even today, there are some 40 GTAs functioning in the U.K.

This concept of competing organizations collaborating in L&D has also been operating for the last 10 years in the U.K.’s not-for-profit sector – through the Charity Learning Consortium (CLC). Its founder and CEO, Martin Baker, says that the idea of the Consortium came about when he talked to a well-known not-for-profit about buying some e-learning programs. Then he told it the price – and it laughed at him.

“So I started devising a way to work with charities that had little or no money to buy learning materials,” says Baker.

His initial idea was to convince just 10 not-for-profits to combine their budgets to buy a license for some e-learning materials but, after years of meetings and persuasion, only six agreed to collaborate and try this approach.

“We needed to test the learning materials’ platform and also ensure that the content was appropriate for those in the charity sector,” explains Baker. “It seemed that no one wanted to be the first to do this!”

He devised a graded payment system for the not-for-profits, based on their number of full-time workers. He then allowed them an unlimited license – principally to save on administration costs.

“I also wanted to keep in regular contact with the charities using this system but there wasn’t enough ‘margin’ in the project to allow me to see each charity even once every three months. So we set up a series of customer meetings, hosted – on their premises – by the customers, in turn.”

In addition, Baker signed up the Consortium’s charities as members of Towards Maturity, a U.K.-based learning benchmarking organization. This provided Towards Maturity with key benchmarking information on learning in the not-for-profit sector and it also gave CLC members access to the latest research on workplace learning trends.

Over the last 10 years, word of mouth has persuaded 120 not-for-profits to join the Consortium. These represent a wide range of charitable interests, including ones who are competing with one another for scarce funds and public support.

According to Baker, there are some 165,000 registered not-for-profits in England and Wales. Some 500 of these have dedicated L&D resources – and the CLC draws its 120 members from this pool. Together, these 120 not-for-profits employ around one million people full-time – and there are up to another 13 million volunteers associated with them. All of these people have L&D needs, which the CLC helps to meet with high quality learning materials and systems at low or, in some cases, no cost.

The CLC grew from a desire to make access to learning materials cheaper but – in these days of widely available cheap learning content – its members find further value from its regular meetings, tie-up with Towards Maturity for L&D industry insights, and shared curation skills.

Baker says, “You’d assume that competing charities X and Y wouldn’t collaborate but their L&D professionals will – because they face common challenges and understand their common constraints.

“Then again, in our experience, L&D professionals like to learn. That helps the CLC’s networking meetings to be successful.

“Moreover, people who work for charities are people who care about both their charity and the world in which they live. They want to collaborate in order to improve their organization’s operations and to help others facing similar issues.

CLC members are enthusiastic about the benefits of membership – notably the opportunity to collaborate.

According to Anand Yagnik, product developer for The Shaw Trust, “As a Consortium member, we can gather best practice material and use it for our own needs – and we get access to other organizations at workshops.”

Fiona Sinclair, employment support service manager at the Scottish charity Kibble Education, believes that being a Consortium member is “a cost-effective way of getting training immediately available. In addition, the meetings are a real ‘shot in the arm,’ keeping us really motivated.”

Fellow CLC member Jo Stephenson, the L&D manager at Addaction, says, “Going to the members’ meetings is brilliant. It’s great to share conversations with people doing the same jobs in different charities – and facing the same problems. You get support and ideas – and can give support and ideas to others.”

Claire Wilkins, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, agrees. She says, “The Consortium events provide fantastic networking opportunities. They’re great opportunities to learn – and to get enthused to apply the learning back at work.”

The CLC members’ meetings have even prompted the founding of sub-groups of CLC member not-for-profits that meet to discuss issues beyond “pure” L&D – promoting collaborative, rather than competitive, operations development.

Along with helping to meet the L&D needs of its member charities, the Consortium is constantly trying to change the culture of the way charities think about L&D – helping members’ L&D professionals to approach their role more like engineers than shopkeepers,” says Baker. “In other words, we encourage our members to say ‘why?’ – not an unthinking ‘yes’ – to the requests they receive.”

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