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Sometimes, random dots create interesting pictures. Over the weekend, my disparate reading ventures raised some points that when connected together formed a nuanced line of thought around how to approach my role in supporting professional development for folks in the L&D field.

Dot 1: I read a lovely novel by Jodi Picoult, called Leaving Time, which included a great deal of information about elephant behavior. (Stay with me, there is a relevant point here…) Elephants “allomother” their young; the elephants in a herd, especially female siblings, all do their part to raise babies. They are for the most part endlessly patient in doing so, gently redirecting behavior and teaching the skills needed to thrive in the wild. Allomothers provide good role-modeling, give youngsters freedom to explore, set limits as needed, and staunchly defend their young from predators that might injure them. It’s always dangerous to anthropomorphize, but the behavior described reads like deep love and concern, a deliberate and gentle way of facilitating learning in a world that can be harsh.

Dot 2: I came across some articles and blog posts that were discussing the challenges of political correctness.*  A key point from these pieces is that some of our critique of one another – pointing out offensive word choices and calling out people for taking opposing stands on hot-topic issues – is not conducive to our ability to educate one another. These days, conversations, especially online, can be strident and accusatory, and social media often exacerbates the sense of piling on when someone’s opinions are out of line with group views. There is too often little tolerance for making inadvertent mistakes (in language use, in interpretation), and little room given for opening a discussion and listening to varied perspectives. And yet we know that some of the most significant learning and education requires deep listening, questioning one’s own assumptions, and building from common ground. I have seen clear evidence of the kind of politically-charged conversations that were referenced in the articles, and I have also seen echoes of this same sort of back-and-forth in the blogs and Twitter feeds in our own field.

Dot 3: Because I’m teaching three online courses at the moment, I spent a number of hours reading discussion posts, mostly on the subject of learning and development strategies in organizations. As usually happens in this context, students’ comments provide opportunity to clarify theory and research on hot-button topics like learning styles, generational differences, proper phrasing of learning objectives, and the like. At varying times, I found myself torn between:

  • wanting to be absolutely certain students adopt the “right” beliefs and practices (Read: my beliefs and practices),
  • wanting to understand where these odd ideas come from and why they persist (Am I missing something? Do they know something I don’t?), and
  • wanting to warn my students that some of their statements could get them eviscerated by others in the field who disagree.

When I connect those dots, I wonder if maybe allomothering (gently guiding) and asking deeper questions (not forcing students to be “p.c.”) is a much better way of shaping professional behavior than playing the professor/expert trump card and telling students and fellow professionals what to believe and how to do their work.

I realize that to some degree, people want to have experts (managers, professors, thought leaders) tell them what to do. And there is often overwhelming evidence and agreement that allows us to provide unequivocal recommendations. Like the allomothers, we may indeed know what is best. But that does not mean that we should come down hard on those who see things differently. If we act like p.c. police, we run the risk of alienating the very people we want to bring over to our points of view. We can’t educate if we don’t first seek to understand others’ perspectives. Making people feel small (with a condescending pronouncement or a low grade) isn’t the best way to persuade.

And there’s another reason to be cautious about our surety. Some debates are still bubbling. Sometimes we turn out to be wrong. Science uncovers new findings. The nature of the world changes. Newer techniques replace the old. There has to be room for us to talk with one another – to really question one another – or we will never hear the voices of those on the cutting edge leading us to new territory.

As I think about my own work, there are many times when I hear statements that stem from what I view as inaccurate interpretations of theory and research, surface understanding of key ideas, or belief in debunked or outmoded theories and models. When that happens, there are a couple of ways I can go as a teacher / coach / facilitator. I can take a strong stand: “I’m the expert, and this is the right model.” Or I can play the co-learner:  “Here’s my understanding of the issue and my reasoning; here’s some additional research or readings for you to consider; tell me what you think and let’s discuss.” The latter approach communicates respect, allows for robust debate, provides opportunities to persuade, and has a much better potential for deeply impacting a developing professional’s theory and practice. And if I really listen to their responses, it also allows for the possibility that students and new professionals have something to teach me.

 

* My crash course in the consequences of political correctness all started with an NPR report that drew my attention here, and then I followed links here, here, and here before I really needed to get on with my day.)

 

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I read some really interesting work from one of my favorite authors over the weekend. Brandon Sanderson, who writes amazing fantasy novels and stories, just published an anthology with three colleagues that demonstrates how they supported one another in developing a set of short stories. The book is called  Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology, and in addition to the final piece, the anthology contains transcripts from brainstorming and critique sessions as well as “track changes” documents that show the differences between the first draft and final version.

From what I’ve seen, many novelists have strong writing groups that they rely on as first readers and candid critics for draft material; the writing groups point out flaws and help authors think through writers block. They help each other to learn the craft. Brandon Sanderson has said that he has a reliable group of fellow authors and prime readers who know his writing, his characters, and his complex world-building as well as he does, and they help him shape his work. The involvement of this group doesn’t diminish Brandon’s brilliance, or make his novels co-authored works.

Reading Shadows Beneath got me wishing intently that we did more of that kind of workshopping in our own field. Even in organizations that have large learning and development teams, I haven’t often heard of practices that include regular sharing of works-in-progress. And it can be very difficult to get deep reviews and critiques when you are relatively independent in your work.

The idea of workshopping our work is in alignment with the “working out loud” mantra (see Jane Bozarth’s Show Your Work) and advice offered by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace in Creativity, Inc. (longer discussions of each forthcoming).

Working out loud (often by posting about projects in social venues) gives others the opportunity to support our work and opens the door to collaboration on areas of mutual interest. Just as importantly, it exposes the thought process – the why of work – so that others may learn from (or influence) that as well.

In Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull shares the “brain trust” practice at Pixar where emerging material is screened and discussed at length, often dramatically changing films from original concept to final project. These discussions are not seen as “slowing down” the process or as interfering with a director’s creative vision, but they are largely responsible for the exceptional quality and innovation of Pixar’s products.

The value of this kind of critique is well-known. Back in 1987, Donald Schon advocated for a practicum approach to teaching professional practice in Educating the Reflective Practitioner:

“Perhaps, then, learning all forms of professional artistry depends, at least in part, on conditions similar to those created in the studios and conservatories: freedom to learn by doing in a setting relatively low in risk, with access to coaches who initiate students into the “traditions of the calling” and help them, by “the right kind of telling” to see on their own behalf and in their own way what they need most to see” (p. 17).

Schon’s advice might be directed at those who teach graduate programs in our field, but Ed Catmull shows us that the same kind of environment can be created in the workplace. In truth, we need both – our graduate programs often need more embedded practice and critique, and our workplaces need to have safe avenues for collaborative creative discussions.

While we might agree a workshopping process would be beneficial, there are actually a lot of headwinds. Most professionals in our field are rewarded for their individual efforts, and are working in environments characterized by tight deadlines and scant resources. Graduate courses educate people with a wide range of backgrounds and practice areas in the same course, so defining projects and scoping them within the confines of a term can be tricky.

I can see the barriers that need to be overcome in my own work… the fact that I have a solo consulting practice, the particulars around some of my course design work, and the time constraints I am under (and that potential collaborators are under as well).

Nonetheless, it’s worth considering how we might workshop our designs and our writings more often and more thoroughly. The practice would support the development of professionals in our field , improve the quality of our outcomes, and accelerate adoption of new techniques and tools. I’d love to hear how you find ways to workshop your work.

We can do more, I think, to help each other learn our craft.

 

 

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Some of the frustration we feel in our jobs (when there is frustration) is our inability to get clients to understand the value we can offer. We may be having trouble articulating the benefits of our ideas, or we may be faced with clients that have preconceived notions of what they want and what we might do for them. It can seem like L&D is a disrespected profession, out of sync somehow with the rest of the organization.

I recently came across a research study that puts those feelings in perspective by showing that we are clearly not alone in our disappointments about how we are perceived. The study looked at “what clients don’t get about my profession,” and while the folks in the study were professionals in architecture, nursing, accounting, and the law – the results mirror our experiences in L&D consulting.

In a series of interviews, 85 professionals were asked about how their work was perceived. The researchers found that professionals felt that clients didn’t get the scope and complexity of their work, that clients didn’t value their professional expertise, and that clients had inaccurate or unreasonable expectations of what could be accomplished. When these kinds of problems existed in the professional-client relationship, there were productivity costs (impaired collaboration, contesting of fees, bypassing or working around the professional) and emotional costs (frustration, annoyance).

Does this sound vaguely familiar to you?

Those perceptions also sound a wee bit whiney – like a teenager complaining that no one understands her feelings. Nonetheless, these perceptions do get in the way of us doing our best work, so it’s important that we understand that expectations may be out of sync with what we can deliver – either by underestimating how our work can contribute to organizational success, or by expecting far more than is reasonable. It’s much easier to quell these kinds of discrepancies early in the relationship than to backtrack to fix a client relationship that is off track.

There are several ways that professionals in the study worked to counteract these perceptions and mitigate these costs – and you could probably name them based on your own experiences. They educate clients, explaining their role and processes more thoroughly, they demonstrate what they do, letting clients see a little more about how they do the work, and they strive to strengthen relationships, working on establishing trust and building rapport. The researchers discussed the deep importance of building trust and establishing roles and expectations early on in the relationship, and that is always good advice. Misalignment starts a downward spiral where unmet expectations trigger mistrust and further devaluing of what the profession has to offer.

Employing these tactics might also work for us. If you’re not already doing so, perhaps we should think about these things:

Educating clients. How well do we communicate our role, our services, and our value proposition to our clients? Do we set ourselves up for success from the beginning? Better still, do our results with other clients speak for themselves in terms of the outcomes we have accomplished? I’m not sure that handing out a brochure or laying out service agreements is productive – much better to talk to clients about how what we do can ensure their success. This isn’t about bringing clients up to speed on our jargon and constructs (in fact, they can be a bit off-putting). We need to speak about our contributions in language that our clients already understand.

Demonstrating our work. Can we let clients in on more of our data gathering and analysis – letting them see the thought process that goes into making recommendations and crafting solutions? Of course, we don’t want to take up too much of our clients’ time, but there are many ways that inviting their contributions alongside ours will make for a much better outcome. Creativity and innovation is enhanced when there are many perspectives in the room, and I know that I have gained insights from client contributions as well as from peers in the field.

Building relationships. How well are we listening in order to deeply understand our client’s expectations and concerns so that we can ensure that we are aligning well to achieve project goals? If we focus too heavily on flexing our expertise, we may miss other opportunities to contribute to crafting a successful strategy and achieving defined goals. Clients will trust and listen to us if they can see that we have really taken the time to understand their business and their perspective.

I find it oddly comforting that other professionals sometimes experience image problems. At the same time, I don’t want to get caught up in any kind of negativity about clients (despite the title of the post). It’s our responsibility if clients just don’t understand, but helping them understand begins by seeking to understand their perspectives as well.

To read the full research study, see What Clients Don’t Get About My Profession: A model of perceived role-based image discrepancies, by Heather C. Vough, M. Teresa Cardador, Jeffrey S. Bednar, Erik Dane, and Michael G. Pratt, in the Academy of Management Journal 56(4), August 2013.

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A friend of mine, consultant and blogger Michele Martin, writes often about the challenges of personal career management and decision-making. I bet many of us who work in learning and development can relate to her recent blog post: Managing Your Career When You Have More Than One. Those who have more than one job are said to have slash careers.

If you work in L&D, you no doubt take on a lot of different roles, among them potentially: designer, facilitator, consultant, project manager, developer, learning strategist, team manager, senior learning leader, business person, employee advocate,  needs assessor, evaluator, writer, videographer, audio technician, and on it goes. Each of those roles could be a full-time job in itself, but whether you are in a leadership role in the organization or one of the worker bees, you seldom do just one thing. In a slash-career world, you may be a consultant/designer, or a designer/developer, or a facilitator/coach or a leader/learning strategist or some other combination of roles, with more than one slash needed to list them.

There’s a lot of joy and excitement in that reality – the days are never boring, and you can market yourself as being highly flexible and multi-talented. One of the downsides, as Michele points out, is managing your skill development and personal growth in the field. We have perfected the art of learning by doing, but it’s also trial by fire – we don’t often get enough time in some areas of practice to hone our skills to their highest levels. And we often don’t get a lot of choice in the kinds of projects we are assigned so we wind up developing skills as necessary instead of as part of a deliberate development plan. We become – as the old saying goes – Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none.

But the work that we do in organizations is too important for us to be “master of none.” If you’re in this profession, how do you develop mastery?  How do we find a better balance between having flexible skill sets and developing deep expertise?

Workable development strategies
I’ve noticed a few strategies that work…

Pick one. Find a way to specialize – work hard to develop a skill and position yourself as the go-to person for a specific need. Often, development of the skill begins in a work project, but you can then go out and get further development on the skill that excites you. Your are then in a position to negotiate to work on more projects that need the skill, finally being recognized as a specialist.

Aim for continuous development. You may not want to choose, but nor do you want to feel like you are not developing yourself. If that is the case, you might apply a continuous learning strategy. With each new project, stop for a moment to consider what you might learn in the project. Then, take action to supplement the on-the-job learning with other enrichment activities that amplify the learning potential of the project. In that way, you’ll always feel like you are advancing their skills.

Limit the context of application. In addition to skill variety, we often have context variety – we design for a wide range of audiences on a wide range of topics. That can put additional strain on our learning capacity. If you are one of those people who relish the skill variety, you might consider trying to limit audience and context rather than the L&D skill set. You can focus on technical training, or sales, or manager development. Or you can focus on work in a particular industry, which can be especially useful when your selected industry has a lot of compliance or regulatory issues to be considered.

In my own career, I’ve cycled through all of these strategies, and I find them all to be successful in their own ways. There are times, too, when it seems I was able to employ all of them simultaneously. I see myself as having a “portfolio career,” which sounds much gentler than a “slash career.” Envisioning my choices as a portfolio career also helps me to recognize self-development efforts as a real tangible investment in that portfolio.

Regardless of our career aspirations, our development needs and desires, or our work situations, it’s critical that we work to deepen our skill sets. Without learning and development expertise of one kind or another, it’s hard for us to have impact in organizations, to be recognized as business partners, and to be true workplace learning professionals.

How are you working out the challenges of professional development in your career?  How do you develop mastery?

 

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When I talk about reflective practice in my classes, I often start the discussion with the question: What makes “reflection” different from just “thinking about”?

This conversation-starter frequently leads to a robust analysis of what reflection is, and we often come back to the fact that effective reflection depends on the questions you ask. Some questions lead to a deeper analysis of the nuances of our experiences so that the lessons learned from them have real impact. Some questions guide us to look at our underlying assumptions and to think more critically about what happened and why.

To design effective activities meant to promote reflection, or to use reflective practice for ourselves, we need to focus our attention on crafting the best questions for our purpose.

Richard Cotter and John Cullen just published an interesting article that gets to the heart of the matter by proposing a conceptual typology of how reflection is used as a learning technique.  (See Reflexive Management Learning : An Integrative Review and a Conceptual Typology in the June 2012 issue of Human Resource Development Review 11(2).)

Specifically focusing on the literature on reflection in the management development context, Cotter and Cullen identified five approaches to reflection (they use the overarching term reflexive management learning).

In one approach, our aim is simply to provide time and space for reflection. This is no small feat, as many designers well know. Our hyperactive world leaves many people either very uncomfortable with stopping to think, or with no time for it.

A second approach is to organize a social forum for reflection – to bring many minds to the task of reflecting on the topic at hand. It can be very important to draw in many perspectives on an issue, and to provide the safe space to listen to alternate points of view and to allow people to challenge each other’s interpretations and assumptions.

A third approach is to deliberately challenge the “values, beliefs, and working assumptions” that are at play. This is a sometimes hard to pull off, but necessary in some instances. The aim is to “jolt” people “out of their existing modes of thinking” so they can explore new ideas. Any of us who have tried to do that know that it’s a tricky proposition to maintain a safe learning environment and still push people a little out of their comfort zones.

Fourth is an approach that Cotter and Cullen characterize as “confessional” which is perhaps not as scary as it sounds (or maybe it is). Learners’ individual perspectives can be deeply personal, and we may need to coax and challenge them into articulating their beliefs. It may take some self-disclosure ourselves in order to make this safe. The perspective of this school of thought is that real change begins by owning our own beliefs and behaviors.

A fifth approach to reflection is from the critical perspective – its aim is to get learners to analyze the moral implications of actions. Like the confessional approach, this can really press on learner’s patience and willingness to engage – especially if they start to recognize a real differential between what they think is right and what they believe the organization expects.

The typology will help me to describe reflective practice in a more complex way – giving me words and concepts to describe the differences in depth and potential outcomes that can be gained from reflective exercises. The article does not provide much in the way of specific techniques for engaging each type of reflection – but that may be found, I think, by exploring the many references in the article.

I’ll likely make this reading required for future class discussions on the topic of reflective practice.  It provided real food for thought for me on my brief walk in the summer sunshine and breezes this afternoon – so I thought I would pass it along.

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I had a chance this week to peruse the 2012 Horizon Report – Higher Education Edition – a publication of the New Media Consortium (NMC) that describes emerging technologies judged to be likely to have a near term impact in the world of education.  I am frequently intrigued by the insights NMC provides, but this year, I was most excited by one of the trends they decided to leave out of this year’s final report.  On the preliminary “short list” was an item that caught my imagination, “social reading.”

I agree with NMC’s analysis that this particular trend is still in its infancy and the technology to support it is not yet clear. But my solo practitioner, bookish heart is enamored with the possibility of being able to connect with folks who are reading the same material I am. 

A glimpse of what is possible

A few years ago, I finished the third book of a fantasy series that was truly the most satisfying, spectacular ending to a series that I have ever read (Brandon Sanderson’s The Hero of Ages). Unlike when it seemed the whole world read the end of the Harry Potter series in the same weekend, I knew no one who was reading the Mistborn series and so had no one to share in relishing the outcome. Luckily, I was able to locate an online discussion board. I spent several hours pouring over others’ reactions, discovering some additional nuances and terrific discussions.

I recently participated in Karl Kapp’s blog book tour for The Gamification of Learning and Instruction, and was able to get insight into others’ reactions to the concepts that Karl brought forward.  Because I was following that conversation, I became aware of a series of posts offering opinions both for and against gamification (discussed by Karl here). The posts challenge my thinking and called attention to aspects of gamification that I was not considering.

I have noticed this kind of conversation in the blogosphere when particularly intriguing or controversial books are published, and I have been enlightened and energized by those conversations – and occasionally have joined in through comments and my own blog posts.

These experiences demonstrate for me that “social reading” has a great deal of potential – well beyond online book clubs and review aggregators.

What my solo practitioner, bookish heart wants

While I can see the power in sharing highlights and margin comments (although that won’t work well for those of us prefer to read on paper),  I am more interested in engaging in conversation about the ideas brought forward in a book. I want to find the other people – people I’ve never even met – who have been intrigued enough by the material to share a little of their insights into its implications and connections with other material. Reading those kinds of comments and connecting with people who share my interests would be very valuable.

There are places where this kind of thing is happening. In my online classes, I can see the power of getting students to engage in a deeper discussion of our text as we go along. But that conversation is closed to the people attending the class. And while authors and publishers are more frequently creating web sites for their books, they tend to aggregate reviews and press. Creating sites that generate open dialog would be more powerful, I think – especially if the site also helps to introduce me to other like-minded thinkers.

A brief perusal of some of the current tools (GoodReads, BookGlutton, ReadSocial) provides glimmers of hope, but are not quite what I am looking for…

So I will very much look forward to the day when “social reading” hits the top of the list of technology trends with powerful tools and an entre to finding a virtual book club that helps me to expand my thinking and enrich my reading experiences. Until then, my bookish heart can dream…

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More frequently than I care to admit, I run across studies that show that we do not effectively apply the knowledge we have demonstrably learned. That’s a big challenge for those of us that teach stuff for a living.

The evidence that we don’t apply learning
Here’s what got me thinking:  An article in the December issue of the Academy of Management’s Learning and Education journal reported on a study of applied management knowledge . Based on a written in-basket exercise, participants were found to have earned only 32% of the possible performance points across eight items. (Data was drawn from 25 years of results with nearly 24,000 participants). The authors of the study comment on the “disturbingly low level” of results that “leave little question that there are, in fact, substantive gaps in the applied knowledge of both practicing and aspiring managers.”  (Study by Baldwin, Peirce, Jones, & Farouk – see sources.)

I was reminded of a 2009 study conducted by the Corporate Executive Board which revealed that while employees who engaged in formal training events were highly enthusiastic about learning in the workplace (73% favorable), they were considerably less enthusiastic about applying what they learned from formal learning events (41% favorable).  (Data was drawn from over 10,000 learners in 47 companies worldwide. See sources.)

Promoting application of learning
At first glance, studies of this nature force us to take a look at what we can do to promote transfer, and the HRD literature gives us several fine models that identify the factors that promote transfer. These factors include learner motivation and self-efficacy, perceived relevance of content and skills, effectiveness of trainers, use of engaging practice activities in program design, peer support, manager support and reinforcement, effective feedback and coaching, recognition and reward for demonstrated behaviors and outcomes, and active removal of barriers to applying learning.  (See sources for details.)

But what if…
These models are well-researched and provide terrific guidance, but I wonder if we may be looking at this all wrong. What if the real problem with applying knowledge is the very notion that knowledge can be garnered in one context (formal learning) and then applied in another (on the job)?

Situated learning theorists and many constructivist thinkers make the argument that learning must take place in the context of its use – that “application” of learning is really more akin to relearning. And even some cognitive load studies have shown that it doesn’t help to break down complex skills into more learnable chunks if the context of use requires people to pull all those knowledge chunks and discrete skills together in a complex and dynamic environment.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is a time and place for formal learning, and all that we have learned about performance-based design and promoting transfer should be applied (oh, the irony!) to ensure our formal learning contributes to our ability to “do” on the job (or wherever it is we do what we learned).

But these kinds of studies also underscore the need for crafting strong apprenticeship-like learning, coaching, communities of practice, and other in-the-job learning support activities that make “transfer of learning” obsolete. All formal learning programs need to be “blended” – either by the designers of the program who ensure the follow up activities, or by the learners themselves who take control of experimenting and reflecting on experience in their performance environments.

Note to self
Being jarred by these kinds of studies reminds me that even the most interactive, engaging learning events are just the beginning of learning – that to be effective, I must put into play additional activities that bring the learning into its context of use. In that application or performance context, I need to be sure there are plenty of supports – mostly of the human kind – to bridge that final step between “learning”  and truly having “learned.”

 

Sources:

The Elusiveness of Applied Management Knowledge: A critical challenge for management eduction. (2011) By Timothy T. Baldwin, Jason R. Pierce, Richard C. Jones and Shameem Farouk. Academy of Management Learning & Education 10(4).

Refocusing L&D on Business Results: Bridging the gap between learning and performance. (2009) By the Corporate Executive Board.

A study of best practices in training transfer and proposed model of transfer. (2008)  By Lisa Burke and Holly Hutchins.  Human Resource Development Quarterly, 19(2).

Development of a generalized learning transfer system inventory. (2000)  By Elwood F. Holton III, Reid A. Bates, and Wendy E. A. Ruona.  Human Resource Development Quarterly, 11(4).

 

 

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