Learning factories and their use in changed practices of human resource management

Anna Conrad, Ruhr University Bochum
Manfred Wannöffel, Ruhr University Bochum

Digitalisation, Industry 4.0, The Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, new technologies – even though these buzzwords already define parts of the working world, they will gain even more importance in the future. They offer new chances for lifelong learning, work-life balance, handling the demographic change, ergonomic design, or the development of new professions. However, they also constitute challenges in terms of job security, replacement of human actors or the role of workers’ representatives such as trade unions and works councils. They affect Human Resource Management in general because these changes of technologies are likely to result in changed employment and business models.  All in all, new methods of qualification are required to fill the gaps in knowledge and competencies that inevitably open up when new technologies are introduced at such a fast rate as we experience it today.

Traditional concepts of vocational and further educations profit from adding modular trainings which provide practical experience as well as theoretical knowledge about different, urgent matters appearing in the context of changing working worlds. Learning factories are relatively new learning environments that can offer this mixture of practical and theoretical examination. Learning factories have been built in industry and academia and were set up in many variations aiming to improve the learning experience in several areas of applications. They figure a model of a real factory and include education, research and innovation.

Even though they originally centre on more technological topics such as production, lean management or robotics, some learning factories with a different focus have been established. One unique example is the LPS Learning Factory of the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB). It uses a socio-technical approach (technology – organisation – personnel), placing the human actor and workers´ participation in the centre of considerations. In an interdisciplinary cooperation between two institutions of the Ruhr-University Bochum different fields such as participation, co-determination, assistance systems, quality of work, or human-robot-collaboration can be addressed from different perspectives. More specifically, the Office of Cooperation Ruhr-University Bochum/IG Metall contributes topics of Industrial Relations and the Chair of Production Systems (Faculty of Mechanical Engineering) covers the more technological questions. Via problem based and action orientated learning approaches participants are confronted with complex professional situations and can gain experience in a shielded area about the possible consequences their actions and reactions can have.

This paper will explain what defines learning factories in general, but it will also present the huge variety of learning factories and the benefits of the particular RUB learning factory. It will deal with the different target groups that can be trained in this special learning environment, such as works councils, bachelor, master or PhD students, managers, trade unionists, teachers or high school students. Two examples of interdisciplinary teaching programmes will be presented; one is addressed at master students of social sciences and mechanical engineering, the other at works councils and trade unionists coming from the IG Metall project “Work and Innovation”, which took place at the RUB-learning factory between 2016 and 2019.

The paper will try to answer the question what learning factories can contribute to the ever-changing practice of Human Resource Management, especially in this complex and rapidly developing world of technologies, in a way that the human actors, workers´ participation and co-determination remain at the centre of action.

Keywords: learning factories, qualification, further education, co-determination, human resource management


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