Professor Laurie Thomas
19th March 1927 – 8th October 2023

I met Laurie Thomas for the first time in mid-1985 and he has remained an enormous influence on my life ever since. At that time I was working for the Post Office in what is now Royal Mail and had just taken over responsibility for the collection, distribution and delivery of letters and parcels in Reading and the western half of Berkshire. The Post Office had started a project to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of mail services and had chosen CSHL to trial Self-Organised Learning as a means to improve the performance of front line supervision. At the same time I was seeking a means to enable my management team to show more initiative and to take more responsibility. These two related purposes came together in a ‘life changing’ way as Laurie and Sheila sat in my office explaining Self-Organised Learning, a method to operationalise what I, and, I hoped, the organisation, were seeking. This work developed into one of the biggest projects in which CSHL were involved.

I was struck very early in my relationship with Laurie how he combined the wide ranging intellectual underpinning of Self-Organised Learning, with great energy and curiosity, alongside a very practical approach to its use. He very quickly gained an understanding of how Royal Mail operations functioned, and very perceptively saw how measurement was lacking and I subsequently learnt of his engineering background which, perhaps, partly explained this. However, what struck me most strongly was the ease and success with which he engaged with and won over to SOL supervisors and managers who had learnt their roles through practical experience and were often, indeed mostly, sceptical of new ideas. The work of Laurie and the CSHL team led to the flourishing of supervisors and managers many of whom had been ‘written off’ by their superiors. Men (and, at that time they were all men) displayed gifts of which nobody, perhaps most notably themselves, was previously aware. Some took on performance improvement projects which had real and lasting impact on the way things were done. Confidence was raised and the relationships between managers and supervisors at different levels were improved and became more collaborative and less autocratic. The trial in Reading was regarded as a success and the trial was further extended, initially to Edinburgh and then more widely all with equal success. Unfortunately the overall efficiency and effectiveness improvement project had been tied into achieving a major deal with the main trade union and when this did not come to fruition the ongoing spread of SOL also came to an end. Whilst the trial of SOL was taking place, I moved to a role in Parcelforce following a reorganisation of Royal Mail. The positive results coming out of the trial persuaded the senior management of Parcelforce to contract with Laurie and CSHL to work with me and my new team.

During the intensive time that Laurie and his team spent in Royal Mail, my relationship with and respect for Laurie and his ideas grew. They fed into my own model of leadership and management and strengthened it. Laurie was Carl Rogers Professor at Clayton University USA and what I learnt of Rogers’ ‘person centred’ approach influenced and provided academic underpinning to my leadership and management approach, and, indeed to my life as a whole. As someone who had left school and gone straight into work, it was, to say the least, a shock when Laurie and Sheila suggested that I could turn the work we had done together into a research degree, ultimately into a PhD. Under their joint supervision my thesis grew into an 80,000 word document and as my relationship with Laurie grew so did my confidence and commitment to the Self-Organised Learning approach to life. My conversations with Laurie during this time were wide ranging and inspiring, and built into my life a worldview of the connectedness of all things and of the great capacity of people to learn, flourish and grow, so much of which remains suppressed, untapped and wasted. Laurie’s vision continues to enlighten my life.

After completing my PhD in 1997 and retiring from Royal Mail in 2000, I remained in touch with Laurie and Sheila. With their usual rigour and imagination they supported my initiative to establish, with Nick Crowder, the College of Self-Organised Learning to offer SOL mainly in the public and voluntary sectors. Having left Brunel University and moved to Oxford, Laurie focussed on his Purpose to produce a website to document and make available all the work of the Centre for the Study of Human Learning and he invited me to help him in this project. In line with how he had learnt how to learn, Laurie’s Strategy for building the website was one of doing so from scratch but unfortunately as his health began to deteriorate, I could see that this was becoming too much for him and, with some trepidation, I proposed that we invited a web builder to complete the work. Laurie graciously accepted my proposal and I hope that provides a worthy tribute to him and all he contributed in his long academic career but, for me more importantly, the impact he had on the lives of so many people who studied under him or worked with him, myself very much included.

Andrew Taylor
CSHL Postgraduate and former Royal Mail Manager