From the mid until the late 2000s, a series of projects undertaken by a consortium of influential VET researchers looked at how the capability of VET providers could be improved.

These projects resulted in a significant number of publications. In the light a recent NCVER publication focused on how the past might inform the future, maybe we should take a look at what this work found? Does it help us think about how provider capability might be improved now?

The work program and some key publications

The work of the consortium is summarised in a series of project overviews published in 2008. The first provides an outline of this 3-plus year project, while others summarise the major aspects of capability the projects touched on aspects of RTO capability, including: management and leadership; organisational structure and culture; the quality of teaching learning and assessment; issues affecting workforce development; career pathways for VET practitioners and human resource practices in RTOs. It all started with a ‘kick-off’ paper that summarised what participants at 5 forums held in May/June 2005 felt were ‘visions and options’ for building RTO capability. The messages in this paper will be familiar to readers even 15 years later.

While most of the links highlighted above are to summaries of reports, the full reports can be accessed by looking at the related items section of this link. But wait, there’s more: a second series of forums was run in late 2007 showcasing the consortium’s work and its findings.

A paper was then produced which synthesised and fed back what participants said when the consortium’s findings were discussed. Finally, a short summary paper was developed, and I’ll draw on these last two papers to highlight the key messages that the consortium’s research revealed.

So, what did all this work find and conclude?

The feedback from the forums suggested that:

“There is a range of enablers and barriers to building organisational capability. The enablers include a positive workplace culture, supportive leadership, and having the right staff in the right job with the authority to make things happen. Barriers include the lack of the human and financial resources needed to get things done, as well as over-regulation and the constraints imposed by geography.”

What was seen as needed to overcome barriers were: (1) setting up a good staff induction process and mentoring, (2) benchmarking and partnering with other organisations, (3) networking, sharing and cooperating, collaborating and communicating constantly, (4) engaging and involving staff (5) making people truly accountable for outcomes, (6) celebrating best practice and having appropriate awards and recognition, and finally, (7) getting the work–life balance right.

When we look to the summary paper, it had three key messages:

KEY MESSAGE 1: Strategies that build capability focus on the needs of both the individual and the organisation. These strategies included providing all staff with opportunities and environments to promote ongoing learning and development, re-emphasising and re-focusing on teaching, learning and assessment as ‘core business’ and creating “organisational climates that encourage innovation and foster individual/team autonomy and responsibility.”

KEY MESSAGE 2: Building provider capability requires a strategic focus. “Capable providers are those where the vision, strategy and approaches to operating are shared and understood across all organisational levels and “effective leaders … have moved from an exclusive focus on operational concerns to a more strategic focus.” It also concluded that: “Effective providers utilise cross-organisational collaboration and their diversity of skills and knowledge to enhance capability and build expertise [and] “collaboration and networking in capable providers extend beyond the organisational boundaries to embrace other providers, industry and the community.”

KEY MESSAGE 3: Over-regulation at a variety of levels can constrain organisational capability and flexibility. It concluded that “building provider capability requires a balance between local autonomy and the governance requirements of the broader system.” In addition, “diversity is a major strength of the sector, and policy-makers must expect a diversity of provider responses in the implementation of policy and regulation. Finally, “leaders of providers need to find ways to minimise internal policies and procedures that impede flexibility in the delivery of services and products.”

However, one of the main concerns of those who heard these key messages was about disseminating, and then acting upon what had been found. As informants said: “The messages are right, but are the right people hearing them and prepared to do anything about them?” More importantly, are these messages still true today over a dozen years later? I suspect YES!