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July 14, 2010

Creating a learning environment

Colin LonerganMost organisations strive to develop and maintain a culture that leads to a focus on continuous improvement. Link Asea's experience in working with clients is that a key determinate of whether an organisation can continuously improve its work quality and outputs is the extent to which it values learning.

A lot of traditional staff learning takes place in local coffee shops, pubs or at social functions. Management usually does not have the opportunity to contribute to these informal discussions and not all that is discussed is based on accurate information. The other common way of learning within an organisation is via formal in-house training sessions. These training sessions are of varied quality, but if professionally conducted and inclusive, are highly valuable.

In addition to the traditional tools new approaches to learning are increasingly being used in corporate and government America.

Over the last several years many of these have been adopted in Australia and the lessons that have been learned in the USA have reduced some of the dangers that can accompany the introduction of new work practices.

Here are four modern learning tools It may be of use for readers of this blog to note how many are being used in their workplace, and of those that are used, how many are effective.

  • BBLs (Brown Bag Lunches): are visiting experts or staff from other offices, asked to give a short talk over lunch time to interested staff?

  • On line information: do the CEO or senior managers provide knowledge about emerging issues or topical information through the web? Do staff have the chance to interact with the manager or his/her nominee on line?

  • Is there peer group support and review available on line? The modern work force is very comfortable with social networking. Their familiarity with twitter, face book, YouTube and Linkedin makes tools like an on-line “ask the expert”, or seeking advice from peers through a discussion board, or accessing stored knowledge through a web accessed knowledge bank easy for them to use.

  • Are Business Plans prepared within work units? And if so, are they as a tool for team building and for shared knowledge development? Does everyone have an equal role in their preparation? Does everyone get a chance to be part of a review process to check progress against the plan?

Clearly there are a lot more tools that can be used to create a learning culture within an organisation. And equally clearly a great deal of planning and careful implementation needs to be taken to ensure they are effective when introduced. The final thing that is abundantly clear is that organisations that do not embrace learning and continuous improvement are in trouble. The world is getting smaller and competition is increasingly keen. Organisations have to work smarter to stay in business.

July 02, 2010

Broadband - the challenge facing Australia

Fibre optocsOn July 1, Finland became the first country in the world to make broadband (at least 1 Mbps) a legal right of every citizen (BBC News). And they have committed to provide a minimum 100Mbps by 2015. In the UK, government has made it policy to provide 2MBps Broadband to all homes by 2012. Here, in suburban Melbourne just 17km from the CBD, the best "broadband" service available is 1.5MBps/256Kbps (yes, 256kbps!)

The federal government's NBN website places Australia somewhere between 27th and 16th on various measures such as broadband uptake, digital content and network readiness, as classified by the World Economic Forum, behind Japan, South Korea, the US and Canada, most of Europe and way behind the Scandinavian countries who are ranked highest (sources: WEF, Internet Evolution). Neither Finland or the UK are ranked at the top, though they are both ahead of Australia. China and India are, of course, ranked well behind the OECD countries, but if the penetration of mobile phone services is included, they are also making huge gains in terms of personal access to the internet.

The Australian government correctly identified access to broadband services as a fundamental need and, despite the delays resulting from the abandoned tender, work (and the TV commercials) on the NBN has begun. The plans sound ambitious - "speeds up to 100Mbps to at least 90% of homes, schools and workplaces" within eight years. But is this enough? Note: this is up to 100 Mbps. If Finland and the UK achieve their aims (leave alone the other countries), we could be further behind in eight years than we are right now. The NBN is advertised as "the biggest infrastructure project, ever" in Australia, so it is unlikely that there will be many more of these. Our current advantages in having weathered the GFC in reasonable shape and the prospect of China continuing to be a great customer will not last forever.

So what more can be done? Higher speeds? If "fibre to the premises" actually gets implemented, then speeds can be increased almost at will cease to be an issue. Speed up the project itself? Well -  judging by the insulation and schools projects, perhaps not.

But how about these other countries? Did they undertake similar projects? Did the private sector step in? Certainly, government commitment plays a vital role in getting the private sector interested, but does the government have to be the implementor? 

Isn't a policy environment that is designed to support continued, rapid development just as important as the NBN project itself?. A good, hard look at what has held us back, certainly won't hurt. The level of competition in the telecom industry for example: Without Telstra the NBN tender collapsed; the Ombudsman continues to get a record number of complaints about all the telcos; in a new development in suburban Melbourne we can only get 1.5MBps/256Kbps and that from Telstra only. Compare this with the competition for mobile services in Asia and the growth it has catalysed.

The notion of public / private partnership and successful mobilisation of private investment as the basis of rapid technological innovation and growth, seems pretty well established today. Laudable as it is, the NBN project by itself cannot catapult Australia ahead of its competitors unless we also take the trouble to develop a regulatory environment that fosters both investment and real competition. At least enough to make the telcos take serious account of customer needs.

Perhaps we should look to the Finns for a few tips? Or even the Canadians, who shares some of our geographical challenges?