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"It became clear that we had the capacity to address call challenges and we could offer something a bit different"

Interview to Kieran Delaney, member of the Munster Technological University, leader partner of the FIT4FoF.

Kieran Delaney is Research Development Manager and Principal Investigator at the Nimbus Centre of the Munster Technological University and also member of the FIT4FoF. He answered some questions about the project and the development of the Irish pilot.

What was the main reason to create the FIT4FoF consortium?

To start, our university built up a good reputation for research on networked technologies and embedded systems in the built environment and MTU was seeking to bring this to Industry 4.0 initiatives. We had also been developing new educational approaches and exploring the role of communities of practice in leveraging technology for learning; this is where I came in. The convergence of these areas really came into focus in the H2020 Call challenge for upskilling that ultimately funded FIT4FoF. 

We built up a network of contacts and met some of the partners who would form the FIT4FoF consortium. From a very early stage the emphasis upon engaging and empowering the worker focused our approach and this was reinforced by the industry partners, CEAGA, Boston Scientific, as well as MESAP and Arctic. Everyone brought concepts and capabilities that strengthened the approach. It became clear that we had the capacity to address call challenges and we could offer something a bit different in how we would do it.

For you, what is the most attractive aspect of the project?

The project has built communities across Europe, each of which have deep levels of know-how across a wide range of manufacturing, technological, educational and operational domains. Finding ways to bring this level of expertise together, to manage the complexity and to create methods for communities to share knowledge is both daunting and rewarding. To me this is a really interest research area, but the most compelling aspect was taking on the challenge to understand this complexity and create practical approaches that makes this knowledge accessible to workers, who are the key stakeholder in this larger process. We want to make workers co-designers in these upskilling initiatives; they have to be able to build an authentic understanding of what they are designing and the many inputs and influences that matter in these processes. This changes the dynamic for everyone; the project’s focus on practical workplace pilots was essential to this.

How was the experience of leading a consortium with nine partners from different countries?

I have been participating in EU projects for 30 years. This one became very different for two reasons; first, the emphasis on finding learning approaches that work in situ for pilot communities in countries across Europe and, second, absorbing and adapting to the shock associated with the Covid crisis. Our original thinking was built around two cycles of implementation, but the process became more like completing a jigsaw where we had to find tools and methods in existing work practices and make some new ones of our own. Covid shifted the emphasis to fully online solutions, which ultimately worked. I think it’s to the credit of the consortium partnership that they each found new ways of addressing the challenges and created new pathways to make our pilot process work.

What is your impression of how the pilots developed?

The pilots went through a transformation when we faced the challenge of providing new educational solutions through the Covid crisis. The original model placed a greater emphasis upon educational experts designing an approach and pushing this to the pilot communities to test the outcomes. The adaptations that we made in response to the crisis, both challenged and empowered the local pilot communities to compose the approaches themselves and to share some of this across communities through the consortium partnership and the knowledge exchange processes we set up. The result has become a hybrid of local upskilling innovation and the expert models. We have strong evidence that the mix of methods is providing catalysts. Pilot communities are more likely to sustain their use of the expert models because members of the communities have co-developed them, know they work and understand how to adapt them in practice. This in turn shapes the educational models and the approach; it’s a lot more complex to assess but we gain a much better idea of what is accessible for learners, what is transferrable between learning communities and what to work on next.

Where does the Irish industry stand in terms of skills?

I would say Ireland’s emphasis upon advance technology skills has worked. The country is a strong performer is delivering highly skilled digital subject matter experts; there is still not enough of them, but the model is strong. An area to for us improve is with workers, where upskilling for the twin (digital and green) transition needs to be turbo-charged across informal, non-formal and formal learning landscape and as educators across this landscape we need to work together in new ways. I would say this is urgent.

Other areas of challenge include systematic assessment of future technology and skills trends for regions, industry sectors and for their supply chains. More companies need to complete digital and green transition plans that they need better starting points. It is important that these are shared within the industry communities as foresight programmes that incorporate regional context and adapt to global and local changes; like a video stream rather than a still image. All of this should be done with an emphasis upon empowering companies to bring inhouse an ability to do important elements of this process themselves. The closer this is to the learner the better. 

Thinking about an ideal scenario, what do you imagine the education of the future to be like? 

My first thought is perhaps the ‘Ideal’ not the best lens. There is much to do. We need more transparent models of the upskilling, and we need collaboration throughout the entire life-cycle to become the ‘norm’. We need a better collective culture move away from the ‘old’ industry production model of the human as a component in the process to something that leverages technology well. The human-centric aspects of Industry 5.0 need to be made real through an evolution of how we think. I think we need to separate ourselves from the enormous legacy effects of old industrial concepts and answer this challenge practically, doing our best to avoid the traps of cynicism or idealised thinking. 

One of the key ideas of our project was to look at upskilling in a new way: to empower the worker and connect this new agency to the innovation ‘engines’ of the companies. We have in some ways built towards that by developing a better understanding of the challenge and the landscape of upskilling solutions. We have focussed very much on tools to make the process more accessible and transparent, like our iCoED approach, but also on the many small steps it takes to build and sustain new upskilling practices while keeping pace with the high level of change that the learners, companies, and educators are seeing in our sectors and in wider society. I believe there is much more to be done in this area, but I also know that it possible to do this and to achieve it equitably; some of the top performing companies in Europe are showing us this. Our challenge is to be able to achieve this broadly across industry as part of our answer to the major crises we now face as a society.