The third Stepping Stones activity that related to speaking and listening was an investigation of the systems and processes used by the trust to communicate to staff their roles and responsibilities, including the aims and objectives of departments and of the trust itself as a whole. This investigation, originated by Stepping Stones, was supported by the trust's learning and development department, which was interested in exploring ways to develop on-the-job learning opportunities.
The investigation’s premise was simple. Work is a collective enterprise. Each day, a group of people assemble to pursue a shared a goal. They spend the rest of the day agreeing what that goal is and how best to achieve it. The investigation designated that process ‘communicating the job’ and hypothesised that it was likely to involve the use of literacy, English language, numeracy and ICT skills.
In its conceptualisation of the ‘job’, the investigation included not only the tasks listed on a worker’s job description, but also all the organisational activities a worker participates in (such as appraisal) that aim to co-ordinate individual efforts: activities that help articulate not only workers’ individual roles and responsibilities but also the aims and objectives of the organisation as a whole.
The investigation recognised that these activities may be formal, such as the appraisal meeting; they may be informal, for example a tea break discussion between colleagues about a procedure; or they may combine the formal with the informal, as when a supervisor places a new member of staff for several days with a more experienced colleague to learn through observation.
Since organisational aims and objectives and individual roles and responsibilities are constantly evolving, members of the organisation are required constantly to review and refresh their understanding. Insofar as this is a learning process, these activities constitute learning opportunities, but opportunities capable of negative as well as positive outcomes: ‘good’ learning that facilitates productive collaboration between members of the organisation, and ‘bad’ learning that obstructs it.
From that very wide range of activities and interactions that together ‘communicate the job’, the Stepping Stones investigation focused on four formal mechanisms used by the trust to articulate organisational aims and objectives, the roles and responsibilities of individuals within the organisation and changes in procedures and processes within the organisation.
The mechanisms investigated were:
· organisational (corporate) induction
· methods used to teach the job to the novice (new appointee)
· notice boards.
For each mechanism the investigation sought to:
· examine how effectively the formal process operated in practice
· identify any factors that interfered with or subverted that communication
· consider the implications for learning and development.
The investigation drew on three main sources of information. One was the facilitated group appraisal programme and the reports and records it had generated. Another was the health and safety training Stepping Stones delivered to the same staff groups. The third was an audit conducted specifically for the investigation with 16 facilities staff (two-thirds of whom were native speakers of English) drawn from a representative range of departments across the trust’s various sites.
In our audit sample 75% of staff reported having attended the trust’s corporate induction. When asked to assess their learning from induction, these workers identified basic orientation, such as about site layout, communicated orally. They reported that they did not use the written materials provided.
Methods used to teach the job to the novice (new appointee)
The task of teaching job routines to new members of staff is officially the responsibility of the supervisor. In practice the investigation found that supervisors generally delegated this task to one of their subordinates. Nearly all staff audited said they had learned their job by shadowing a colleague. The audit suggested that there were two principal criteria for selecting a member of staff to be shadowed. One was the length of service and experience of the person to be shadowed; the other was simply location. If the new member of staff was to work on a particular ward or work station then the task of teaching fell to the nearest member of staff, regardless of their length of service or experience.
Audit respondents considered that supervision was ‘good’ when supervisors gave the supervisee regular, constructive feedback on performance, and an opportunity to raise concerns and offer suggestions about work practices. Respondents considered speaking and listening to be the appropriate medium for this sort of communication.
It was through supervisory interactions that respondents formed their understanding of individual, departmental and organisational performance targets. These targets are an important factor in aligning individual activity to organisational aims. Although only 30% of the sample was able to give an example of one of the trust’s targets, 60% could identify a measurable performance target relating to their job. The remainder relied on general (oral) feedback (related for example to quality control assessment or customer feedback) and lack of complaints to assess performance.
In the departments audited only the manager and administrator (where there was an administrator) had regular access to email. Consequently, notice boards tended to serve as a sort of departmental global email, giving official notification about rotas, changes in work practices and new requirements relating to employment issues such as holiday leave. Despite the significance of these announcements, only 50% of our sample reported scanning notice boards for work-related information. The location of the notice board was an important factor in determining how much attention it got: workers were unlikely to scan a notice board unless their daily work routines took them past it at a point when they had time to look at it.
As has been frequently observed (Belfiore et al., 2003; Mahwah and Jackson, 2001), the low-paid, low-skilled workplace is increasingly familiar with paperwork, most of it generated by safety regulations and quality standards. Some 90% of the audit sample reported that paperwork was part of their everyday work routines. Less than 40% considered that paperwork served any valuable purpose, suggesting at least some sort of breakdown in communication between these workers and whoever ultimately required them to use the paperwork. As noted above, a bare half of respondents reported using information from notice boards. By contrast, 80% of respondents considered they engaged in regular oral communication with their supervisor. An equal number reported feeling able to influence aspects of departmental decision-making through this mechanism.
The importance of oral communication
The investigation’s report concluded that whatever the importance of written records, oral communication was central to departmental performance. In particular the report drew attention to there being ‘a potential relationship between staff confidence in their ability to influence change in their own department and the quality of communication with their supervisor’. It noted the importance of there being (confident) oral communication between supervisee and supervisor if information was to flow up as well as down the chain of command (from management to supervisor, from supervisor to staff, from staff to supervisor and from supervisor back to management). It noted the importance of oral communication in the teaming up of a novice with a more experienced member of staff to transmit departmental work practices to new staff.