Another year, another train, another exhibition hall and yes, another trade conference. I was in London’s Olympia for the Learning Technologies and Learning and Skills 2012 Conference. Most ‘industry events’ act, at the most superficial level, as a kind of barometer: the level and enthusiasm of those in the hall can speak volumes, even if you don’t listen to the actual words.
Encouragingly, the event was packed: unless vast droves of the HR and L&D professions are fearing imminent redundancy and are taking any opportunity to network furiously, the implication is that learning has not fallen either from fashion or from organisational budgets. It would, however, be unwise to overlook the ‘jackdaw’ effect of technology. In the learning arena, this effect is arguably doubled – the possibilities of each new technology as a medium for learning (and for quite a wide range of present participles, come to think of it …) brings the possibility of fresh excitement to existing themes, while the possibility of delivering learning (and yes, that does make it sound like milk or groceries) to a large, geographically dispersed audience without travel costs, with fewer trainers and no travel budget understandably brings a rare glint to the usually steely eyes of budget holders.
Although e-learning has, in various forms, been around for twenty years or so now, the sense of optimism that the idea of it instils is still powerful, and the technologists and the educationalists have in many ways grown closer together: ‘how’ and ‘what’ no longer feel like they occupy separate cubicles. The part of me (possibly the childish one?) that wants to put my hand up and say “Why?” is still there, sighing every time it catches me muttering “Cool!” under my breath, and there are plenty of others who see the world differently. “Why not?” isn’t just a geeky whine from the techno-determinist corner: sometimes it’s a genuine challenge to existing thinking.
Martin Couzins, covering the event for Personnel Today, highlighted the example of one speaker, Steve Wheeler, associate professor of learning technology at Plymouth University, who is concerned that organisations and individuals impose constraints that aren’t inherent in the technologies themselves:
His advice is to find the “positive deviants”, those who are being creative and subverting the rules in some way because they know that things need to happen. Once you have found them, work with them and learn from them and do it yourself, he added.”
A valid point, provided that those working with them hold out for some evidence of effectiveness as well as modernity and VFM. (We may need to abandon the Aga, but even a microwaved pudding needs proving.) But I couldn’t help but think another few minutes in the branding brainstorm might have paid off. ‘Positive deviants’ made me think of Grayson Perry rather than brave digital pioneers, and I couldn’t see either the phrase or the verb ‘subverting’ being factors that might endear some HR departments.
Elsewhere, more subversive thinking was afoot. At a basic level, the issue of cost raised its head – not the cost of new learning approaches, but the cost of attending events where those whose thinking will benefit most from exposure to not just speakers but fellow attendees. Over at Mark Barthelemy’s blog, a commenter called Mark pointed out:
If I wasn’t given a free pass as a conference speaker, I wouldn’t attend the conference either. I couldn’t justify the cost to my line manager. If I was really interested in what a speaker had to say, I’d read their blog, or buy their book.
I’m wondering if there’s a space for low cost events, a bit like TeachMeets in the education sector [...]“
The #unconference idea plainly has legs as one response to this syndrome. For the purposes of developing coming generations and getting ideas circulating, let’s hope the legs become visible to more people and the organisers find ways of making the concept scalable and sustainable.
More subversion, of a different flavour, came from a tweet from IBM’s Paul Jagger, suggesting L&D should remove itself from HR. Jon Ingham explored the theme – disagreeing firmly – at this own blog, but recognising Jagger’s point that, looking for example at its qualification structure, there’s not much emphasis of ‘D’ in CIPD. (Jagger’s suggestion might have been provocative, but it was more in the spirit of ‘leaving the P’ than taking it.) Reading the many blogs inspired by the events themes, directly or indirectly, it’s hard to wonder if the underlying issue is a combination of how different functions see their role and purpose, and how they present and voice their sense of purpose to other people.
Jagger himself had earlier tweeted a link to a blog, If you’re in L&D, just what do you do?, by Donald Taylor. While the definitions and descriptions will rouse subjective opinions, the following is worth quoting by way of example:
When asked “what do you do?” we reply in concrete terms. We take the question ‘What do you do?’ literally. We describe what we do do in our daily lives. And from there it is a short step to “Oh, so you’re in training.”
There is a different, better answer. It is a definition of our roles that focuses not on what we do, but on what we make possible. Let me restate that: Learning and Development should be defined not by what it does but by what it makes possible. And what do we make possible? We help organisations deliver on their promises.
In a world where tangible assets, the supply of capital and even specialist information no longer guarantee differentiation, people’s skills and knowledge are how our organisations deliver. And we make it possible for them to have those skills and that knowledge.
Each of us is like the mason in the Rule of St Benedict. Busily carving a block of stone, he is approached by a wise man. “What are you doing?” asks the wise man. Without looking up, the man replies. He does not say “I’m carving a block of stone.” He does not say “I’m earning money for my family.” He replies: “I am building a cathedral.”
For a different take on labels and perceptions, Jon Ingham’s post included two word clouds (from Paul Jagger) based on job ads in the respective L&D and HR disciplines. If how we present opportunities influences the outlook and type of those that will apply, these are quite eye-opening. The most prominent words in the HR cloud are: management, coordinate, checks, business, support, model, tracker, organisation, maintain (and, far bigger than the rest, HR itself).
Looking at the L&D word cloud, the standout terms are: training, programmes, learning, business, able, needs, development, courses, business, support, ensure, coaching, interventions.
A rose is a rose is a rose, but there’s a big difference between “a dew-dappled scented example of nature’s endless beauty” and “a hardy garden bush or shrub whose thorned stems can cause injury where caution is not appropriately exercised”. I know which one I’d be more tempted to stop and sniff, but that’s not the point: the point is to find a way of bridging the two outlooks, or negotiating a trial separation.