Two sides of the same coin: leaders in private providers juggling educational and business imperatives

By Roger Harris, Michele Simons Research report 14 August 2012 ISBN 978 1 922056 11 5


How do leaders in private providers juggle the educational and business imperatives of their organisation? Through interviews with senior leaders and managers, as well as employees from several enterprise, industry and commercial registered training organisations, this report examines this overarching question. It finds that leadership is shaped by the structures and cultures of the organisation in which it is located, including the state of the business and its competitive position with other providers. Overall, respondents would like to see a shift to a more integrated form of leadership where the business and educational outcomes are seen as related, not competing, features.


About the research

Previous work on leadership in vocational education and training (VET) providers has mainly focused on public providers. This report builds on this research by specifically investigating leadership in private providers.

The researchers have used case studies to explore leadership across the different types of providers that make up private registered training organisations: enterprise, industry-sponsored and commercial. Through interviews with senior leaders and managers, as well as trainers, the research examines the overarching question of how leaders in these various private registered training organisations juggle the educational and business imperatives of their organisation.

Key messages

  • Leadership is shaped by the structures and cultures of the host organisation, including the state of the business and its competitive position in relation to other providers.

  • In industry and enterprise registered training organisations, leaders are driven primarily by the goal of ensuring that training adds value to the enterprise. On the other hand, leaders in commercial registered training organisations see outcomes for learners as fundamental, recognising that these can be assisted by industry connections in their market niche.

  • The business and educational imperatives of the organisation should not be seen as competing with each other. Rather, they should be treated as two integrated aspects of educational leadership.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary

Context and purpose

Australia has seen major changes in the leadership and management of vocational education and training (VET) organisations over the last 15 years. Increasingly competitive funding arrangements, the requirement for greater responsiveness and flexibility, the adoption of management models from business and industry, together with a policy emphasis on institutional self-reliance, have meant an escalation in non-educational leadership/management needs in Australian training providers. Yet a common theme through VET literature is that educational leadership is not recognised in research and practice, which means that policy-makers are left without a clear view of what is going on in registered training organisations and what genuine educational leadership looks like.

This project aimed to contribute to the body of knowledge on VET leadership by foregrounding educational leadership in the daily lives of private provider leaders/managers. The study distinguishes itself from previous research by focusing on private registered training organisations. Its purpose was therefore to investigate ways in which leaders/managers in these training organisations understand and enact leadership in their daily work. The overarching research question set for this study was: How do leaders of private registered training organisations understand and juggle the educational and business imperatives in their organisations?

Research process

Sixteen private registered training organisations formed the cases for this study, across three types of provider: commercial, enterprise-based and industry. The organisations were from the three states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Attempts were made when selecting these organisations to obtain a broad coverage, particularly in terms of geographical location and the types of industry served. The cases, therefore, provide some diversity but take account of the need for compromise because of time, funding and the intensive nature of the research methodology.

The study used three main methods for gathering information: a review of published national and international literature on this subject; content analysis of relevant documentation from the organisations or their websites to understand the nature of the enterprise; and in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 34 personnel — leaders/managers (n = 21) and employees/trainers (n = 13). Since the purpose of the study was primarily interpretive, its findings cannot be generalised to all private registered training organisations.

Key findings

Importance of context

The notable feature to emerge from this research is the role that context plays in influencing the phenomenon of leadership in training organisations. Leadership is enacted in a variety of ways that are predominantly shaped by the type of business a registered training organisation is involved in and the ways in which the leadership function is understood and structured in and across various job roles.

Distinctive emphases in understandings of leadership

Leaders across all three types of training organisation were able to articulate their understandings of leadership as taking a number of forms. Most referred to a variety of generic functions performed as part of a leadership role. Most informative, however, were the distinctive emphases that reflected the different aims to which their leadership was directed. For example, leadership in industry and enterprise registered training organisations was not so much focused on outcomes for learners, but on enhancing productivity. In commercial registered training organisations, outcomes for learners were integral to their concerns, although connections with their market niches were also always in sharp focus.

Leadership as a multi-dimensional phenomenon

Another key theme from this research was that the enactment of leadership in private registered training organisations was a multi-directional phenomenon — it was exercised ‘up’, ‘down’ and ‘across’ organisations. For commercial registered training organisations, leadership was often concentrated in a small team, meaning that ‘upwards’ leadership in the organisation was less evident, while engagement across the organisation and with stakeholders featured highly. In their enterprise counterparts, leaders worked ‘up’ to influence their enterprise senior executives on the value of the training organisation to their business, as well as ‘across’ the organisation to embed training in work structures and to influence other middle managers to engage in and support training. They also worked ‘down’ in the sense that, as part of the workforce, they were fully aware that their role as workers could influence other workers’ perceptions of the value and importance of training and be a significant driver for change. Leaders in industry training organisations operated in a similar fashion, except that their domain was an industry rather than an enterprise. Being ‘one step removed’ and having to operate across the range of businesses that constituted the industry required leaders to adopt both a broader perspective (the best interests of the industry) and a narrow, specialist focus (this particular business at this point in time).

Challenges faced by leaders

The three main challenges faced by all leaders, regardless of organisation type, were establishing their credibility in the arena in which they operated, managing compliance requirements and managing change. There were also particular challenges specific to the various types of training organisations. In commercial organisations, staffing issues featured as a significant challenge for leaders. Finding the right staff with a passion for their roles was paramount, as was recruiting staff who had the right skills mix. Other challenges were ‘growing’ staff, access to administrative support, and achieving a balance between commercial requirements and the need for quality provision. On the other hand, embedding the functions of a training organisation inside an enterprise presented unique challenges for leaders in enterprise training organisations. One major challenge was communicating the value of the training organisation to senior executives, while another was managing the different cultures within the whole enterprise and the requirements the training organisation demanded. For leaders in industry settings, like their counterparts in commercial training organisations, budgetary constraints and balancing commercial and quality imperatives loomed as significant challenges. A related issue was the necessity for engaging staff with both industry credibility as well as the ‘head set’ for business development. Leaders in industry training organisations, like their enterprise counterparts, also grappled with the challenge of changing cultures in their training organisation.

Success factors

The key factors that assisted leaders to meet these challenges were connected to their perceptions of their organisation’s objectives. For leaders in industry training organisations, their leadership centred on engaging their industry with the VET system in a way that assisted businesses in the industry to thrive and see their productivity enhanced. A second success factor was building the trust of the industry in the training organisation and paving the groundwork to support what could be perceived as ‘jumping through hoops’, that is, attention to compliance processes. A third success factor was the capacity of industry training organisation leaders to be proactive and, as far as possible, able to anticipate the impact of the dynamic compliance environment in which they operated.

For the leadership in commercial training organisations, success factors were linked to their capacity to maintain reputation, networks and market niche. Sound business models that built sustainable businesses were mentioned by these leaders. Synthesising educational and business leadership was considered essential for survival, as lean structures and smaller numbers of staff meant that it was not possible to operate using more hierarchical or specialised structures of leadership.

Leaders in enterprise training organisations saw that success lay in ensuring that their enterprise perceived value in the training organisation and what it could offer in terms of facilitating growth and developing a competitive advantage for the business. In this context, successful educational leadership was intimately bound up with the productivity of the business. Being able to network and to influence people in positions where they could have a direct bearing on the operation of the training organisation required skills of persuasion and highly developed networks. Another success factor was being able to integrate the learning systems developed by the training organisation into work structures and processes in a way that did not hamper enterprise productivity.

‘Two sides of the same coin’: educational and business leadership

Respondents were clear that exercising leadership directed towards educational outcomes, as distinct from business, financial and human resource outcomes, was an integral part of their role, but one that assumed a greater or lesser importance at particular points in time and in particular contexts. Thus, respondents were arguing for a shift from a ‘competing domains’ to a more integrated understanding of leadership, one in which exercising leadership across business and educational outcomes is viewed as two sides of the same coin. Educational leadership in private training organisations, then, can be understood as a phenomenon that is distributed over two dimensions — across people (it is not exercised by one person) and across functions (it has both business and pedagogic elements). While some aspects of leadership are undoubtedly based on personal traits and capabilities, this study illustrates that educational leadership in registered training organisations can be viewed as a practice that exists at a range of levels and is supported by a culture focused on high-quality outcomes for defined markets, enterprises, industries and learners.


This study suggests that it is important to think of educational leadership as not only embedded in personal capabilities but as equally situated in practices in particular organisations. This research directs attention to structures and cultures as the key enabling conditions to support the exercise of effective leadership whose objective is VET. It highlights the need for a revised definition of educational leadership, one that encompasses, as key elements in leadership, the perspective of the organisation, the nature of its work and the actions of the individuals from across the organisation. This in turn would ensure a focus on the VET goals of the organisation. This expansive and enriched understanding of leadership has the potential to be more attuned to the contemporary VET sector, where the emphasis is increasingly on quality as well as on competitiveness.



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