Business organisations are creating learning barriers

The future belongs to those who can learn, unlearn, and relearn, says Dr Thulane Ngele.

Alvin Toffler puts it succinctly that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”.

It is evident that learning should be a continuous lifelong process. The survival of human species depends on continuous learning. Organisations have realised the fundamental importance of learning, hence their learning strategies.

Many organisations have declared openly that they are learning organisations, meaning that they subscribe to the concept of lifelong learning. They encourage their employees to further their studies and improve themselves, so they can contribute both to the organisation and society at large.

One aspect of learning is to acquire academic qualifications. Academic studies at a higher level require students to conduct research on a particular topic. The primary objective of conducting research is to solve a particular problem that exists or might exist in the future. In essence, a thesis or dissertation must contribute to the development of a new body of evidence which can be used to solve present and/or future practical problems. To conduct research, a student should have access to information that will be used as part of literature review and/or gathering of data. This step is probably one of the most critical in research: one’s research turns on this aspect.

The challenge that many students encounter is access to information, in particular information that belongs to business organisations. For some reason, many businesses are unwilling to provide students with access to information. All sorts of bureaucratic excuses; governance and confidentiality are cited to justify their refusal. This is despite their declarations that they are learning organisations.

Learning by its very nature requires access to information. It is hypocritical, therefore, to market yourself as a learning organisation while at the same time creating learning barriers. The default position should be access to information and the refusal should be on an exceptional basis.

At present, the opposite holds true in businesses. There are many frameworks that can be developed to manage access to information to enable learning and avoid abuse of information. Efforts should be spent on this and not creating layers of learning barriers.

There are very few organisations that have these kinds of frameworks in place.
The consequences of refusing to give students access to information is that much of the research to be conducted will be solving theoretical problems. The findings of the academic research become irrelevant and impractical because they do not talk to organisational problems.

Organisational problems can only be solved by understanding the real problem through access to information. It is not surprising that many higher learning institutions’ libraries are littered with research findings that can’t be practically applied. One cannot blame the students for choosing to address theoretical problems: what choice do they have if they are unable to access information? Business organisations are prepared to spend lots of money on further studies and when recruiting they expect people with higher qualifications, yet on the other hand, they create learning barriers.

How do we solve this problem?

Maybe it is about time that as businesses we practise the concept of how to learn, unlearn and relearn. If learning is a strategic pillar in achieving our organisational strategic objectives, then learning should be treated as such.

To this end, the following proposals are made:

  • Development of organisational frameworks to manage research applications.
  • Fostering research partnerships with institutions of higher learning (IHL).
  • Participation in committees that approve research topics at IHL.
  • Sharing business challenges with IHL and inviting students to do research on these challenges.
  • Instilling a culture of participation in research surveys, including access to senior people.

In life we have to learn, unlearn, and relearn if we are to improve ourselves and better our lives (Dr T.P. Chia). We all want learned employees to come work for our organisations because we believe they have the competencies to solve our organisational problems and make us succeed.

We should therefore create opportunities for learning by being enablers of learning. Our IHL can only be relevant to business organisations and society if they produce research findings that are practically addressing our problems.

Thulane is the general manager for People Relations at Eskom.