Making decisions about workforce development in registered training organisations

By Geof Hawke Research report 3 November 2008 ISBN 978 1 921412 70 7 print; 978 1 921412 71 4 web


Building organisational capability relies on effective workforce development. This study examines the processes that registered training organisations (RTO) use to make workforce development decisions. It also looked at how well these align to the personal decisions RTO staff make about their own development. The research found that workforce development needs to be comprehensive, well integrated within the organisation and used strategically.


About the research

Building organisational capability relies on effective workforce development. This study examines the processes that registered training organisations use to make decisions about workforce development and also looks at how well these align to the personal decisions staff make about their own development.

The important drivers of workforce development are maintaining vocational currency and building the skills of the organisation’s workforce to enhance teaching quality and the level of service to the registered training organisation’s clients. It is also a way of building staff morale.

Key messages

  • Large public providers, in some cases, see themselves as overly constrained by their training authorities.
  • In addition, the top-down approach to workforce development adopted by the large registered training organisations can lead to local practices that are distinctly different from their strategic or operational intentions. Communication failures occur and, as a consequence, well-intentioned strategies are not implemented with fidelity.
  • Managers and staff in private providers have a more consistent vision of their mission and this is reflected in their approaches to workforce development, such that organisational and personal development needs are generally in harmony.
  • Most registered training organisations take a comprehensive approach to the development of their workforces. However, the effort is focused on teaching staff and managers and rarely addresses the needs of support staff, despite their often key role in assuring client satisfaction.
  • For many staff, the terms ‘staff training’ and ‘staff development’ have unfortunately become too closely identified with performance management, through which poorly performing staff are assigned remedial training.

Readers interested in this topic should also read Human resource management in Australian registered training organisations (forthcoming) by Andy Smith and Geof Hawke. Other components of the research program on building VET provider capability are available at <>.

Tom Karmel
Managing Director, NCVER

Executive summary


The purpose of this research activity is to understand further how large and small registered training organisations (RTOs) make decisions about the allocation of resources for developing their workforces. Six registered training organisations—four technical and further education (TAFE) institutes and two private providers—were selected for this project. The research also sets out to understand more about how individual staff members make decisions about their professional development within these registered training organisations. These concerns are important because, while there has been a great deal of focus in Australian and international research in recent years on the professional development needs of ‘the new VET professional’, this has not addressed how organisational and personal decision-making about workforce development actually occurs—and how it might best proceed.

Thus the three specific goals of the research were to:

  • review recent literature and evidence from Australian and international researchers on human resource decision-making, especially in relation to teachers’ professional development
  • explore forms of decision-making used in VET providers (for example, registered training organisations) and identify factors influencing this process
  • identify how decisions staff make about their own development relate to those made by the organisation.


There is clear recent evidence from the literature that the Australian vocational education and training (VET) system has placed a great emphasis on professional development targeted at addressing the many and varied needs that arise from the changing workplaces of registered training organisations themselves and the environments in which the organisation’s clients work (for example, Clayton, Fisher & Hughes 2005; Dickie et al. 2004; Harris, Simons & Clayton 2005). As well, there is the notion of ‘the new VET professional’ and how this is to be realised in the Australian VET system (one example is David Rumsey and Associates 2002, but see also Guthrie, Perkins & Nguyen 2006).

However, in the past decade registered training organisations have been undergoing many structural and other changes which have been transforming the relationship between management and their staff, and the strategic and administrative approaches adopted by these institutions.

The Australian and international human resource development literature offers a wide range of recommendations for ‘good’ or ‘best practice’, many based on sound good sense, others on particular perspectives (for example, a local initiative such as Frizzell & Walpole 1996 or the series of reports prepared for the former Australian National Training Authority 1 , such as Victoria University of Technology 1999). However, not many of these recommendations are empirically based or arise from investigation that seeks to examine or evaluate actual practice in some detail. In particular, there has been little research on the decision-making rationales that underlie an organisation’s choices about the development of its workforce. What does exist suggests that it is common to find a disjuncture between the high-level strategic decisions being made by senior management and the day-to-day decisions made in the workplace (for example, Maree 2000) about workforce development.

This research seeks to examine such issues in the context of a small selection of public and privately operated registered training organisations in order to explore decision-making processes about workforce development across and within these organisations. These organisations were located in three states/territories and were predominantly metropolitan based, although one TAFE institute and one private provider serviced rural and regional areas.

Key findings

The study of these six registered training organisations shows that they differ widely in their approaches to workforce decision-making. The size and operational context of the registered training organisation is key to explaining these differences.

Public sector registered training organisations are increasingly adopting management systems and models that were previously typical of private, for-profit organisations. However, the participating registered training organisations implement such changes under considerable constraint. In some states/territories, governments have withdrawn the decision-making capacity from registered training organisations in key areas associated with workforce development. In others, they maintain ‘autonomy’, but are subject to many regulatory caveats which affect the degree to which they can undertake the workforce development they really need. Other registered training organisations are much more able to determine their own policies and practices. However, these organisations are also typically much smaller, more reliant on personal relationships between staff and management, and are much less likely to have a formal approach to workforce development. There is also a greater harmony between the workforce development needs of the organisation and individual development needs, and a greater level of understanding about the course the organisation is plotting. However, this can also mean that they frequently lack a systematic means for understanding and developing future workforce demands. Strategies appropriate for larger registered training organisations are unlikely to be viable or effective in smaller organisations because their smaller counterparts operate on more direct and personal relationships between staff.

In the larger public organisations studied, senior management decisions primarily shape the largescale features of their workforce, such as the balance of teaching staff between discipline areas. It is less evident that management at this level is concerned with more operational decisions relating to the development of the workforce. Moreover, decisions at senior management level primarily affect the teaching workforce and much less often concern other employees in the organisation.

It was common to see the various sections in the participating large registered training organisations making different workforce development decisions (especially about individual access to professional development). Section heads in these organisations understand and describe the rationale of central decision-making quite differently from their senior managers. In particular, they are often unaware of issues of organisation-wide strategic importance that are not directly relevant to their own section. The reverse is also true.

At the individual level, decision-making about a staff member’s own development is now commonly linked to the organisation’s ‘performance management’ approach. This approach often positions professional development as being an activity primarily concerned with remediation of failure rather than as an opportunity for growth. In addition, formal development programs may be mandated by senior staff to inform other staff of new or changed statutory requirements or of the introduction of new administrative systems. However, some staff saw such programs as having limited impact and value.

The effect of local managers in setting the tone and environment for workforce development is critical. There are examples of chief executive officers who are highly visible and who influence the character of their organisations. In many larger registered training organisations, some sections were notably more positive and optimistic than others. However, the growing size of many registered training organisations has meant that, in some cases, senior management has little direct influence on the operational environment of many sections within the organisation.

1 The Australian National Training Authority (ANTA) was abolished in 2005 and its functions assumed by the Department of Education, Science and Training (now the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations).


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