JUST GOOD BUSINESS CASE STUDY : A Workbase to build on

With vision to provide the best and most innovative architectural systems into every market they operate in, Fletcher Aluminium has identified constant innovation as vital requirement.
But innovation is not something that can just be generated by sheer force of management will – engaging and empowering staff to make their contribution at every level of the organisation is very much part of the package. With commitment to learning and development core part of the company’s philosophy, literacy training was logical option to pursue – which is why the company’s story is now included in growing range of case studies outlined on the website of literacy specialists, Workbase.
The challenges Fletcher Aluminium faces are not unique.
With workforce described as “around 85 percent Pasifika and other ethnicities” for whom English is second language, the company reflects the increasing cultural diversity of New Zealand’s (and particularly Auckland’s) population base. And the reality is that limited English language skills can impact on employees’ ability to fully understand quality standards and procedures – including health and safety.
Those standards and procedures, like all aspects of today’s work environments, are more complex and constantly evolving in line with customer expectations, market demands and technology innovations. Dealing with ongoing change, complexity and the need to meet rigorous quality standards is now the norm for most businesses.
While education standards in New Zealand are good, the actual levels of literacy and numeracy in more than 40 percent of today’s working population fall below those needed to meet the everyday demands of modern work and life. That rather startling figure emerged from an Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey carried out in 2006.
It shows that the percentage of workers likely to experience considerable difficulties with basic literacy/numeracy tots up to 13 percent for prose literacy, 14 percent for document literacy and 20 percent for numeracy literacy. That will inevitably show up in workplace productivity, suggests Workbase chief executive Katherine Percy.
“Given they are measured as being lower than what might be needed – particularly for unfamiliar, complex or changing work, then it seems like an essential plank for productivity will be compromised.”
While some of the problem goes back to skills not adequately delivered during school years, there’s also evidence to show that like any faculty – if you don’t use it, then you’re apt to lose it.
“Many older adults entered the workforce at time when there was no expectation or opportunity for them to continue exercising writing skills or to do calculations – so those skills have sort of rusted from lack of use,” says Percy. “And the evidence is quite clear that demand in workplaces for such skills is rising all the time. So while those skills might have been very adequate for working when they left school few decades back, they may now find they just haven’t been able to keep up. So lot of this is about rising workplace demands.”
She notes that when people think about literacy, often it’s in an all-or-nothing context and that low literacy equates with low skills. It may be common perception, but it misses the mark, says Percy.
“I believe the biggest group we should be worrying about is the 27 percent or so who have lot of good skills but are just missing out at the margins – where perhaps they need to use inferential literacy. Perhaps they are dealing with new and complex information and the explanations or induction just haven’t been that good, or have been poorly written.
“So these people are doing 90 percent of their job extremely well and the things companies should be worrying about are the marginal bits that are being fudged because people don’t really understand it or the impact it might have.
“A good example is when companies are trying to implement significant changes like new systems or processes – lean manufacturing for instance. Or if it’s big push on health and safety, it becomes imperative that everyone completely understands what the organisation is doing.”
Difficulties with language and literacy can also impede people’s abilities to complete job-related qualifications. When you start dealing with theoretical concepts behind vocational work or the statutory environment in which it takes place, that inevitably puts higher demands on reading/writing skills, says Percy.
The need to understand graphs is also increasing – but it’s not uncommon for people unfamiliar with how they work to think that any graph on an upward curve has to be good thing, even if it’s measuring lost-time work injuries.
Feedback from companies suggests that many, while they’re aware there’s problem, are taken by surprise when its scope and extent are clearly spelled out, says Percy. Even when people are working side by side with employees who’ve been in the company for over decade, they haven’t fully appreciated the problems they might be having. That’s because people often develop strategies that allow them to get by – such as avoiding or delegating particular tasks.
As to outcomes – there’s little doubt that investing in people development is strategy that pays off. Case studies like that of Fletcher Aluminium show that productivity is not the only area of gain. Companies report improvements in communication, employee skills, employee engagement, reduction in errors and improved quality and customer satisfaction.
As Fletcher Aluminium makes clear – literacy is prerequisite for other improvement initiatives. In the past few years, the company has successfully implemented range of productivity and training initiatives to improve quality and communication and awareness of health and safety. And while it would be difficult to attribute improvements to training literacy alone – without it, the successful outcomes would not have been possible.

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