Wright, N. (2004) ‘Ten Killer Questions’, Training Technology & Human Resources, Institute of Training & Occupational Learning, January-February, pp14-15.
Learning & Development (L&D) practitioners are increasingly called upon to provide internal consultancy (e.g. coaching and advice on change management) alongside conventional training services. Practitioners are, too, required to integrate individual learning with organisational learning in order to maximise benefits in both arenas. In light of this, I believe the ability to analyse, inform and enhance an organisation’s development strategy on the basis of individual and organisational learning is now a de facto critical competency for this profession.
The majority of L&D practitioners I encounter are, however, from professional teaching and training backgrounds where excellent skills have been acquired in such areas as creative course design, interpersonal communication and intra-group dynamics. In contrast, I meet relatively few L&D practitioners who are trained or experienced in learning, dynamics and development at wider organisational levels. Some broadening of core professional expertise may be required, therefore, to match the challenges of the future.
I work with L&D practitioners to expand insight in this latter arena using ‘reframing’, a technique that involves examination of tasks and situations from diverse new perspectives (see Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organisation, Sage, 1997). I’ve found that certain direct questions and provocative statements can help stimulate discussion and challenge presuppositions about L&D and its fit/role within a broader organisational context. After presenting each statement I will ask, “What do you think?” and discussion or debate inevitably ensues.
The approach is used in semi-structured consulting and group seminars and I’ve found 10 key perspectives to be particularly useful. The list is reproduced in table form below. The perspectives included are certainly not exhaustive and can be modified to suit specific practitioners and organisational situations (the notes in the ‘Perspective’ column are for explanatory purposes only).
Constructs: What psychological categories does the practitioner use to make sense of the organisation in which s/he operates?
Psychodynamics: What subconscious influences do past experiences have on the practitioner’s analysis of the organisation in the present?
Anthropomorphism: What are the implications of the practitioner conceiving of and responding to the organisation as if it were a person?
Strategy: What are the practitioner’s underlying beliefs and models for organisation development strategy?
Culture: What is the practitioner’s understanding of culture and its practice implications?
‘Double-loop’ learning: To what degree is the practitioner able to apply learning outside of the immediate context from which it was derived?
Integration: What level of tactical awareness does the practitioner have at strategic planning levels?
Ownership: What is the practitioner’s understanding of respective responsibilities for L&D and how they interact in practice?
Values: To what degree is the practitioner able to apply personal and organisational values to his/her practice?
Impact: What is the practitioner’s understanding of added value and how is this reflected in strategy, policy and practice?
What is an organisation?
What might the organisation represent to its members (e.g. psychologically, socially, economically, spiritually)?
What does it mean for an organisation to learn and develop?
What are the best ways to develop an organisation?
What is an organisation’s culture and how can it be changed to support L&D?
How can individual learning be applied to support organisational learning?
How can you ensure that L&D strategy supports wider organisational strategy?
Where should responsibility for organisational learning and development lie?
In what ways are the organisation’s core values reflected in your L&D priorities and approach?
How can you ensure that L&D genuinely benefits the organisation?
‘Organisations don’t exist in their own right. They’re just groups of people with a common goal.’
‘The organisation is a parent figure and its members are its children.’
‘Organisations can’t learn, but people can.’
‘All you need to do is train people to do their jobs properly.’
‘Culture is a description of the way we do things around here. Change the way we do things and you change the culture.’
‘The organisation will learn automatically if its members learn.’
‘When individuals learn, the organisation is automatically enabled to achieve its strategy.’
‘Organisation development should be the responsibility of L&D because it has the staff development remit.’
‘Values are only important for public relations purposes.’
‘The benefits of L&D relative to cost are impossible to measure.’
I suggest that each perspective is tackled sequentially (although not slavishly, if natural conversation takes a different route) and using language that reflects the knowledge of the particular audience. At the end of each section I pose the question, ‘So what are the implications for your L&D practice?’ and ask the participant(s) to write down their reflections before moving on. I don’t try to tackle all questions in one session but move with the pace of individual practitioners in order to help maintain interest and avoid overload.
I’ve found this approach most effective when there is genuine opportunity for discussion and follow-up. After deconstruction of assumptions, for instance, it’s important to allow time for reconstruction of new, more holistic strategies; affirming existing knowledge and good practice as a foundation for the future. This helps build vision and confidence and prevents practitioners feeling disorientated or undermined. I also recommend allowing time towards the end of each session and at the start of each subsequent session for review of learning and, if needed, further enquiry.
Where possible, practitioners are encouraged to meet with peers between sessions and seminars to explore and resolve any emerging problems and concerns together. Where this is not possible (e.g. if a practitioner is working in an isolated role or remote location), I suggest that ideas are sounded out through an open discussion form such as UK HRD (www.ukhrd.com) and, if practitioners are members of a professional institute, via discussion groups on their respective websites (e.g. www.itol.co.uk; www.cipd.org.uk).
Andrew Mayo’s Creating a Learning & Development Strategy(CIPD, 2004) and Rosemary Harrison’s Learning & Development (CIPD, 2009) are particularly valuable books that help practitioners convert insight gained through this type of reflection process into renewed L&D practice. I do, therefore, recommend these texts to readers with further interest in this field. Other helpful points of reference for written ideas and information include the British Journal of Occupational Learning (www.itol.co.uk) and Organisations & People (www.amed.org.uk).
If any of the perspectives in this short article have triggered new ideas in your own thinking, why not jot them down and ask a colleague to give you feedback? My own experience suggests that double-loop learning on one’s own perspectives and practice can be a challenging and stimulating starting point!