Outsider Goggles vs. Learning with the Learner

Yesterday I attended the 2nd L&D Connect Unconference in London, a gathering of 30+ in-house and external learning and development professionals of varying experience. As a relative newcomer to L&D it was an opportunity to feel part of a community that hitherto I had largely been viewing through my ‘outsider goggles’. I quickly felt at home primarily because of the warm welcome that other, longer standing members of the community gave me but also, I sense, because there is something about being an outsider that is consistent with being an L&D professional.

I was drawn early on by a question raised by one of the attendees – ‘What is the identity of L&D?’ – and I subsequently followed this idea’s thread through various discussions throughout the day. Admittedly, this was motivated in part by my own interests (my recent masters’ research focused on identity and learning). But it also reflects a sense I have picked up in L&D talk on social media that suggests a significant reappraisal of what L&D is (and by extension what it is to be an L&D practitioner) is on-going.

Attendees’ talk suggested that one focus for this reappraisal is a desire to provide more effective learning by moving away from a more traditional conceptualisation of learning (a production line, or ‘sheep dipping’ as one person put it) towards a more self-determining approach to learning in the workplace. There were two challenges I heard articulated:

  1. How to identify / assess the needs of workers more effectively
  2. How to encourage workers, management, execs to engage in new ways of learning

One suggestion for how to overcome the former involved adopting a more anthropological approach to communicating with and understanding those in the workplace. It was suggested that L&D staff might do well to be more integrated within the working environment. Thus, rather than being a stand alone function / arms-length observer, this approach would see the L&D practitioner embedded more fully in the cultural group whose learning it is they serve.

It was suggested that such an approach might help to overcome certain obstacles to understanding learners’ needs, not least maximising the observational ability required to achieve this. It was acknowledged that this approach brings with it questions of building trust. I would argue then that this reinforces the need for engaging more fully in day to day participation within a particular working community rather than as an occasional, if well-intentioned visitor. This might be understood through the difference in anthropological terms between autoethnographic and ethnographic approaches. There is no getting away with this approach, though, from the investment involved, particularly in terms of time.

An alternative perspective provided by one attendee and adopted by their organisation, involves seconding individuals from within other departments within a business, providing them with L&D training and then sending them back out into the ‘field’ at the end of the secondment where they are then able to provide more apt learning support than might be achieved by an L&D ‘outsider’.

As the person in question acknowledged, this approach isn’t without challenges, bringing with it the question of how to ‘back-fill’ the roles of those seconded. However, I am aware of at least one other organisation that takes a similar approach, recruiting its L&D staff from in-house, with the recruitment focus being on organisational cultural awareness rather than an L&D background. This organisation combines this with a ‘pastoral’ role that further emphasises engagement with staff at all levels with the aim of enabling cultural awareness and development of trust between learners and learning provider.

These are, in my view, compelling propositions that offer fresh, alternative perspectives on the L&D identity / function conundrum. That is to say that the role of L&D may well be more effective not in providing training or telling people what to learn, but in engaging more closely with those in the workforce to understand their needs and to help them to understand more clearly the how and why of learning. As one attendee suggested – and theoretical perspectives (e.g. Bourdieu) support this – too often individuals consider learning in relation to their previous (often directive) experiences of education (particularly school) and fail to recognise the empowering nature of the learning that they undertake in day to day life.

This perspective demands from L&D professionals an understanding of the way in which existing L&D practices potentially serve to reinforce previous, unhelpful assumptions about what it is to learn meaning that L&D practitioners risk legislating against themselves. It demands that practitioners understand their role as helping people to un-learn their assumptions about learning. And it is also why paying attention to the language chosen to promote learning is so significant, rendering the semantic difference between ‘learning’ and ‘training’ all the more abrupt. (See Weick’s Sensemaking in Organizations for helpful insight on this).

A change such as this requires a significant shift, and brings me to another proposal from yesterday’s discussion; namely, what was described as a need for L&D professionals to be ‘bold’. In my view, this need for boldness takes two forms; the first (and this seemed to be the primary focus during yesterday’s discussion) is the need to be more assertive in driving and questioning the L&D agenda in the face of opposition from buyers, execs and potential learners.

As an example, one attendee suggested that this should involve the willingness to say ‘no’ to requests for training. This kind of courage is crucial (and to be fair tends to be lacking in all areas of business). I wonder, though, if the intention this suggestion seems to convey might be more effectively posed as a question: ‘Why?’ This question opens the door, on the one hand, to critical reflection by the requesting party as to the purpose of the request, and on the other, to promoting continued dialogue (discourse) that fosters greater ownership of the learning process, which is considered to be key to transformational learning. It may also help to break down the perceived power imbalances between employee and L&D professional (where the latter is perceived to be on top) or between L&D professional and exec/buyer (as a more diplomatic approach).

The second, more intra-personal, element of a bolder approach, considers the need to give oneself permission to question the status quo, in particular concerning the purpose of existing organisational and individual learning agendas.

This type of boldness suggests a need for L&D professionals to question whether they themselves are ‘fit for purpose’, and this brings me somewhat haphazardly back to the opening question. If, as Wenger (1998) proposes, learning and identity formation are intrinsically linked then perhaps the answer to the question of how L&D looks, and how L&D professionals engage their organisational and individual ‘clients’ more effectively with their learning agenda lies in a thorough reappraisal of, and/or more purposeful engagement with, one’s own learning processes?

Attendees queried whether current methods of training / assessing the suitability of L&D professionals are appropriate for the challenge of developing L&D. And so, if L&D professionals are to reappraise their own learning, perhaps the answer lies in doing that alongside those whose learning we hope to support rather than on courses that maintain them at arms length?

Whatever changes are required and however they are achieved, it seems likely that this will involve a significant cultural and personal shift, and so perhaps first of all we need to be realistic about what can be achieved. Yesterday’s conference felt like a very positive step (not least for me in terms of understanding my on-going identity development as a practitioner) and I look forward to being part of the on-going discussion.

Thanks to those unnamed individuals who helped my thinking yesterday. For some of the thinking behind this you can search Twitter for @ismooreliam , @LnDConnect or #ldcu

Some further (if not very light) reading:

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1997) ‘The forms of capital’, in: A. H. Halsey, H. Lauder, P. Brown & A. S. Wells (eds.) Education: Culture, Economy, Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press,  pp.46-58.

Weick, K. E. (1995) Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

4 thoughts on “Outsider Goggles vs. Learning with the Learner

  1. Pingback: Change is afoot in the L&D world « Thinking About Learning

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