As a result of its 1996-7 research centres competition the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) established a new multi-disciplinary research centre. The Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance (SKOPE) examines the links between the acquisition and use of skills and knowledge, product market strategies and performance (measured in a variety of ways). Initially the Centre was based jointly at the universities of Oxford and Warwick. In 2006 the Warwick operation was moved to Cardiff University. The Centre builds on existing strengths at both institutions and attempts to extend them into areas that are of major theoretical and policy concern. SKOPE started its third five-year research programme in October 2008.
A Collaborative Model
SKOPE has been designed around a collaborative model of research, and represents a strategic alliance between two leading UK research universities, each contributing particular areas of expertise. SKOPE also aims to be inclusive, in that it seeks to involve, through an international network of associate research fellows, many academics and researchers from other institutions who have an interest in this field. It also has research student members.
It is generally believed that a developed economy needs a highly educated and skilled workforce, and that this, in combination with a range of other factors, can help secure competitive advantage.
Traditionally public policy has tended to focus largely on the supply of skills. SKOPE's work balances this with an analysis of the demand for, and use of, these skills, as well as the many different routes to competitive success that organisations are following. SKOPE's research also examines how best skills and learning can be supplied, what other factors are necessary to maximise the benefit from higher levels of skill (for example, particular forms of work organisation or investment in R & D), and what policy interventions could most effectively bring about the required changes.
SKOPE's third five-year research programme is split into three themes, each of which contains a number of research projects:
1. The implications of simultaneous growth in top and bottom end employment
2. The spatial dimensions of the generation and distribution of skills and knowledge
3. Reform of E&T provision and the emergence of ‘smart’ education, training and economic development systems in the 21st century.
Within each theme are a range of projects, which seek to achieve a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches, to deploy a range of appropriate methodologies, and to draw upon and synthesise understanding from a broad field of disciplinary perspectives. They address a spectrum of theoretical, methodological and policy issues that are of major importance and where the prospects for the most significant advances are high. These themes are supported by an underpinning platform of cross-thematic activity. This has 3 strands:
1. Data gathering and analysis
2. A range of integrative theory building
3. Dissemination and user engagement activity
The prime focus of the theory building activity is to achieve better integration between economic and social perspectives on skill acquisition and usage.
SKOPE's research programme touches upon many areas of relevance to academics across a broad range of disciplines. It is also of interest to policy makers and practitioners at home and abroad. In the UK, audiences have so far included the DCFS, DIUS, BERR, the Treasury, Cabinet Office, the Home Office, the CBI and TUC, the Learning and Skills Council, the Commission for Employment and Skills, the Nuffield Foundation, the Learning and Skills Development Agency and Learning and Skills Research Centre, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Scottish Enterprise and other sectoral, voluntary and community bodies. At the international level SKOPE has worked with a number of governments, and with the EU and OECD. Amongst its international collaborations have been projects with Danish Technology Institute, ROA (Maastricht) and RAND (Europe). User engagement is structured through SKOPE's advisory board, joint research projects and surveys, SKOPE forums for policy makers and practitioners, and through staff secondments.
SKOPE's research output is disseminated via a newsletter, website, issue papers, a research papers series, research monographs, workshops, seminars and national and international conferences, teaching and consultancy activities and scholarly and popular publications.
The researchers come from a broad range of the social science disciplines including education and management studies.
The core staff are:
- Director - Ken Mayhew
- Assistant Director - Susan James
- Research Fellow - Ewart Keep, Hubert Ertl
- Research Officer - Maia Chankseliani, Gerbrand Tholen, Jennifer Allen, Stephanie Wilde
- Support Staff - Emma Miller, Marta Mordarska
In addition to the staff listed, the centre purchases research time from a range of academics and researchers. They come not just from Oxford or Cardiff, but also from many other institutions including the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, the London Institute of Education, the Universities of Leicester, Birmingham, Kent, Strathclyde, Warwick and the West of England. SKOPE also has an extensive international network of Associate Research Fellows and maintains linkages with other research groups in the UK and overseas working in the broad field of vocational educations and training.
It is hoped to make major advances in the following 4 main areas over the lifetime of the third programme:
(1) Re-thinking the meaning, creation, usage and certification of skill in an economy where new technologies and structures of employment and occupations have changed dramatically (80% plus of the workforce are employed in the service sector), yet where conceptions of skill are often still rooted in a nineteenth century manufacturing model of technical mastery/knowledge rather than social and generic skills. There are significant advances to be made in defining and certifying new forms of workplace skill, and exploring how jobs can be designed in order to maximise effective skill utilisation.
(2) Theory building, supported by ethnographic methods and greater integration of insights from economics and other social science disciplines, can produce a more rounded, socially grounded understanding of skill creation and usage within particular workplace settings and employment relations paradigms. It can also offer, in parallel, the development of economic models that move beyond traditional takes on human capital and rates of return analysis. These
offer the promise of fresh perspectives on the relationship within and between skill creation and labour market and productive outcomes.
(3) The development of an enhanced appreciation, measurement and mapping of the importance of place and space is now essential to meaningful analysis of current developments. Such an approach needs to be operationalised at a range of levels (global, supra-national (e.g. EU), national, regional, and local), and encompass dynamic movements of skill within and between these levels.
(4) There are significant opportunities (through comparative research) for the identification of ‘smarter’ approaches to the design and performance management of E&T systems; a better understanding of the role that trust plays within the design of E&T systems architecture; and the evolution of viable models for closer integration between E&T policies and other economic
development, labour market and employee relations, and social justice interventions.