HELIX Conference 2013, Opening keynote - Organising for Learning at Work

Below are some notes from day 1 of the International HELIX Conference in Linköping, this years theme is Innovative Practices in Work, Organisation and Regional Development - Problems & Prospects.

Bengt-Åke Lundvall
Organising for Learning at Work - An Important but neglected dimension of Innovation Systems

Work org and innovation in collab with Ned Lorenz (Edward) and others 2000.

OECD Lissabon initiative: The goal was more & better jobs - we did not really succeed.

Take home message: we need to link the organisation of work to innovation and economic performance.

Innovation is dependent on active participation and learning of workers. The role of the work process itself is neglected in most innovation studies. But the quality of work is worsening in the crisis.

Two types of innovation 1) Sciencebased: STI - Science, Technology, Innovation; 2) Experience-based: DUI - Doing, Using, Interacting. Science based combined with experience based learning = significantly more innovative firms than one method biased firms. (Odds-ratio 5 vs about 2). Controlled for size, sector & ownership.

Major driver of innovation is competition. Interaction with users, and employee involvement, is crucial for innovation. Human resources and organisation in and across firms very important.

Research tends to look at managers, scientists and policy makers as the main actors. How work is organised is more important! Common indicators of innovation - such as the european scoreboard - do not reflect how work is organised.

The underlying structure of how people work & learn is more important than technological infrastructure

Some preliminary results from a European study. Survey interviews were made with individual workers. Main dimensions: Do you learn new stuff? How much freedom do you have to organise your own work? 

Four clusters of jobs: discretionary learning (high learning, high freedom), lean (high learning, low freedom), taylorist (low learning, low freedom), traditional (low learning, high freedom).

When you work in a Taylorist mode you are very exposed to competition from China etc. That's why we need better jobs.

Correlation between "discretionary learning" and firms leading innovation. Neg. correlation between lean practices (in their definition) and firms leading innovation.

Egalitarian economies are better off. Income inequality goes hand in hand with decreased influence at work.

Source not yet published: Holm & Lorenz - A decline in the quality of jobs EMAEE 2013
[[How exactly does this translate to a measure of quality of jobs?]]

Economists reduce work to employment, to numbers. Ignore quality of job, how work is organised.

KEY! Open education systems that you are never excluded from, that you can always enter as needed. Make theoretical education more practical, more experience based and make practical education more theoretical and reflective.

Flexicurity is important. Which is to say, not just flexibility, but also security. The latter has been lost, Lundvall says. Security & trust must not be ignored.

Q&A session

Lundvall says that actually they found that the more discretionary learning, the fewer startups!! His hypothesis: Where jobs suck, you have to start your own firm to get an exciting jobs.

The key to success: fail & learn

In an article by Forbes on finnish game studio Supercell, their CEO claims to follow an oblique route to success by focussing not on profitability first but on fun. Similar ideas have been espoused by for example Umair Haque, author of The New Capitalist Manifesto: "Profit is an effect, not a cause; a reward, not the accomplishment." So, profits are not a purpose that inspires roaring success. Key number two from the article is distributed decision making:

Is This The Fastest-Growing Game Company Ever? - Forbes:

Most game studios have an autocratic executive producer green-lighting the work of designers and programmers. Supercell’s developers work in autonomous groups of five to seven people. Each cell comes up with its own game ideas. They run their ideas by Paananen (he can’t remember ever nixing a proposal), then develop those into a game. If the team likes it, the rest of the employees get to play. If they like it, the game gets tested in Canada‘s iTunes App store. If it’s a hit there it will be deemed ready for global release. This staged approach has killed off four games so far, with each dead project a cause for celebration. Employees crack open champagne to toast their failure. “We really want to celebrate maybe not the failure itself but the learning that comes out of the failure,” says Paananen.

Focus only profits will probably steer you away from anything that might equal failure, but at the same time steer you away from the learning that can happen through failure. Failure often teaches us much more, gives much more information, about the nature of things. To be innovative, to be successful and, dare I say it, happier people, we must learn to embrace failure as the learning experience it is.