I’m just returning from my annual trek to the Academy of HRD conference, held this year in the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado. I enjoy the conference as much for the conversations held in the hallways and lounge areas as I do for the insights I gain from symposia and other sessions.
While academics of our field and practitioners in organizations are talking about the same trends and implications, I was struck by new perspectives on often talked-about topics. We were urged – in the words of Steve Jobs – to “think different.”
Globilization. We talk about attending to cultural differences and language barriers when we globalize our training efforts. The academics reminded me as well that people from other parts of the world – other cultures – often have very different ideas about how we learn, and about what is important for creating environments that promote learning. The core tenets of characteristics of adult learners and effective approaches to learning may not hold true with learners across the globe. Our learning theories need to be further tested and updated for a global world. I know I’ll be having different conversations with designers and learning leaders regarding how we globalize our learning programs – and I have much more learning to do myself in this regard.
Workforce pressures. HRD leaders are very concerned about the pressures being brought to bear on today’s workforce. Employees are increasingly contingent, global, and virtual, and expectations for productivity and responsiveness are high, leaving them exhausted. At the same time, because of the access to knowledge and expertise afforded by the internet, support for wider deep professionalization and individual expertise-building may be limited. That kind of deprofessionalization decreases employees’ levels of engagement and capacity for rapid, customized response in organizations, and learning leaders should be raising caution flags about this trend. It’s clear that we can’t both expect employees to care about and manage their own development and demand more than 100% of their time and attention to getting the work done. It’s simply not sustainable. The question is, as a learning leader, what can I do about that?
Bottom line orientation. Contrary to popular belief, academics do place value on bottom line results. They contribute theory and research to define which activities and processes will have the most impact, and they support guiding learning in ways that improve performance and facilitate change. But more than that, many of the thought leaders I listened to were encouraging HRD professionals to change the world. We are encouraged to think about how our work can focus on the well-being of all humanity. We need to be concerned about ethics, morality, and even spirituality. Learning is key to fulfilling the promise of our future world, and we don’t need to limit our efforts to individual organizations. We can focus on the people themselves. I’m left wondering how I want to change the world, and what actions and advocacy may be important for me to embrace.
Need for scholarly, evidence-based practice. Questions were raised about whether or not our current understandings of learning, performance, and change are even adequate to address the needs of our rapidly changing, connected, global environment. Have things changed so much that we have to reconsider our theoretical underpinnings and assumptions? We were reminded that the tension between theory and practice is a good one – it leads to advances in our thinking and changes in our actions. There is quite a bit we do know about how to operate most effectively in the 21st century, but there too often remains a big gap between what we know and what we do in organizations. I am reminded why the conversation between academics and practitioners is so important, and I want to continue to do my part to be a bridge between the two worlds and to encourage other practitioners to find ways to get connected to the theory and research tha can make us more impactful in our work.
For me, the Academy conference is always a head-spinning few days. I’m glad that my choice of transportation is train travel, because the trek across the plains states has given me time and space for mulling over insights, implications and next steps. While my colleagues are already back at work facing an overflowing in-bin, I am still able to be in my head a bit.
Whether you travel by plane or train or automobile, I would encourage you to consider attending the Academy of HRD conference in Alexandria, Virginia (just outside Washington, DC) next year. Or find other means of getting plugged into theory and research, and cutting-edge conversations among the academic thought leaders and leading researchers of our field.
Only by coming together can we learn to “think different” for the future.