University challenge

Aerospace, one of the UK’s most successful industries, is also one of the most dependent on exploiting advanced technology. It is not surprising, then, that aerospace companies have developed extensive education and research links with universities. The announcement in September of a technology partnership between British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and three universities to study ways to […]

Aerospace, one of the UK’s most successful industries, is also one of the most dependent on exploiting advanced technology. It is not surprising, then, that aerospace companies have developed extensive education and research links with universities.

The announcement in September of a technology partnership between British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and three universities to study ways to improve design was just the latest such joint venture (see box).

But to BAe, it had added importance: it was another step in a wider strategy to make learning central to the organisation. It was for this reason that it established its ‘virtual university’ at the end of April an initiative which BAe takes seriously enough to pledge a £2bn investment over the next decade.

Dr Geraldine Kenney-Wallace has been recruited from the University of Toronto to be its first vice-chancellor and managing director. She describes the virtual university as a business strategy aimed at the acquisition of knowledge by BAe. This can cover a spectrum from individual training and development at all levels to contract research at universities and implementation on the shopfloor.

‘It’s about preparing the workforce for a very different future,’ says Kenney-Wallace. ‘It’s about building technical and managerial capabilities to create a flexible, adaptable and confident workforce. The virtual university is at the core of the company’s competitiveness strategy.’

The university has a twin mandate. First, to build on BAe’s training, education and research programmes, co-ordinating them with the company’s needs for the 21st century; and second, to spread best practice through the 46,000-strong organisation. It will bring people together from across BAe’s business units to act as ‘a clearing house, a catalyst, a thoughtful questioner, leading as well as supporting activities’, says Kenney-Wallace.

The focus will be on developing long-term partnerships with universities and other academic and research organisations, centred in three faculties, plus a best practice centre. BAe’s internal Sowerby research centre will also be part of the new structure.

Deans have been appointed from within BAe to head the faculty of engineering and manufacturing technology, the faculty of learning, and the international business school.

Initial efforts have concentrated on understanding the needs of BAe’s 15 business units and identifying gaps. For example, says Kenney-Wallace, ‘we are desperately short of systems engineers’. The first graduates from a new MEng in Systems Engineering, a joint venture with Loughborough University, emerged this summer.

The business school, with Lancaster University and the Open University, will be offering a certificate in management studies, taught partly face-to-face and partly by distance learning. This will become the organisation’s foundation course for management.

‘The big issue is the question of technology transfer into the company,’ says Simon Howison, dean of the faculty of engineering and manufacturing technology, and former chief engineer on the Tornado. ‘We are spending money with universities, creating knowledge, but it’s not particularly well-integrated across the company.’

The challenges, he says, are to improve the access to research, to get the most from the money spent on it, and to improve the links between the disparate civil and military programmes across the company, whose products include missiles and ordnance as well as aircraft.

‘In manufacturing,’ says Howison, ‘the challenge is in the way resources are deployed rather than technological how do you use what you’ve got and make improvements?’

The faculty will also have the goal of finding untapped expertise in other universities. It will be a place that universities can come to and say would you be interested in this? ‘.

BAe has over 100 contracts with academic institutions and links with business units and universities such as Lancaster, Warwick, Cranfield and Imperial College. The faculty will provide simpler communications between these universities and will be better placed to take a strategic view and avoid duplication of effort.

In return, BAe will offer the universities student placements.

Sowerby research centre, says its director, Terry Knibb, will act as a bridge between universities and the business units. ‘The virtual university brings together centres of knowledge both in the sense of learning and of research and technology,’ he says.

‘Sowerby undertakes applied research and technology validation, to allow its exploitation by the business units. We don’t do curiosity-driven research it all has a target. Sowerby’s role is complementary to the other activities of the virtual university.’

Perhaps the only branch of the university whose function is not immediately obvious is the faculty of learning. Ian Grant, dean of the faculty, explains: ‘It’s about engendering a culture of lifelong learning among 46,000 people.’

It will be responsible for devising policies to ensure the workforce is motivated and plays a part in its training and development, for identifying needs and providing the training. ‘We’ll be making sure that training and education focuses on the future needs of the business,’ Grant says.

Site-based learning centres set up by many of the business units will help provide training. Taking 46,000 people away from their jobs for training would cause obvious problems, so there will be an emphasis on self-managed learning through CD-Roms, self-study books, and sometimes small local groups to study subjects such as languages and IT.

Networking learning resources

The existing learning resource centres are being networked to make them more effective. Grant says they will have a particular role in spreading best practice and offering ‘just-in-time’ training for subjects such as IT.

The faculty of learning will also have the role of ensuring the company offers an integrated curriculum. Three-quarters of the staff are involved in engineering, management and project management, and there will be professional development opportunities for all levels from apprentices upwards.

This will be supplemented by generic training for the whole workforce, including induction courses, interpersonal skills, language and IT packages.

By the end of the year, everyone in the organisation should have a personal development plan agreed with their manager. This will form a contract between the company and the individual, which will be updated annually.

‘It will give the individual clear aspirations; for the company, it will set out what the person can be expected to achieve, and what steps need to be taken such as meeting training needs to allow the individual to fulfil this capability,’ says Kenney-Wallace.

When the individual returns from a training course, managers will be expected to make sure they have an opportunity to use the expertise they have gained.

Many in the organisation may not have had any training or education for a considerable time, says Grant. For these people, a programme of assisted self-study has been developed. ‘It’s intended to help people get back into learning even if it’s not at face value connected with their current role.’

BAe provides up to £100 per person annually to allow employees to attend any course leading to a recognised qualification, often at local further education colleges.

Grant reckons this is good value: ‘We get a lot back, but the individual chooses to do it; they get a qualification. It has all the ingredients of a successful learning intervention and it’s very consistent with lifelong learning.

‘If all the development of people has to be driven by us, then the cost will be greater and the effectiveness less.’