Thalheimer-Quinn: Stakeholders, Professional Responsibility, and Rocky Balboa

Will:

Yo Clark, I really liked your new book, Revolutionize Learning and Development, but there’s one thing I’m not sure I’m fully behind—your recommendation that we as learning professionals kowtow to the organization—that we build our learning interventions aimed solely to meet organizational needs. I grew up near Philadelphia, so I’m partial to Rocky Balboa, using the interjection “Yo,” and rooting for the little guy. What are you thinking? Isn’t revolution usually aimed against the powerful?

Clark:

Will, what is powerful are the forces against needed change.  L&D appears to be as tied to an older age as Rocky is!  I’m not saying a complete abdication to the organization, but we certainly can’t be oblivious to it either.  The organization doesn’t know learning, to be sure, and should be able to trust us on performance support and informal learning too.  But do you really think that most of what is happening under the guise of L&D is a good job on the formal learning side?

Will:

Clark, Of course not. Much of L&D is like Rocky’s brother-in-law Paulie, having an inner heart of gold, but not living up to full effectiveness. I’ve written about the Five Failures of Workplace Learning Professionals three years ago, so I’m on the record that we could do better. And yes, there are lots of forces allied against us, so I’m glad you’re calling for revolution. But back to the question Apollo! To whom do we have more responsibility, the organizations we work for or our profession? To whom should we give our Creed?

Clark:

Will, your proposed bout is a non-starter!  It’s not either/or; we need to honor both our organization and our profession (and, I’ll argue, we’re currently doing neither).   When we’re building our interventions, they should be to serve the organizations needs, not just their wants. We can’t be order takers, we need to go to the mat (merrily mixing my metaphors) to find out the real problem, and use all solutions (not just courses).   Mickey’d tell you; you got to have heart, but also do the hard yards.  Isn’t the real tension between what we know we should be doing and what we’re actually doing?

Will:

I am so much in agreement! Why are we always order takers? You want fries with that? Here’s where I think some in our profession go overboard on the organization-first approach. First, like you say, many don’t have a training-request process that pushes their organizations to look beyond training as the singular leverage point to performance improvement. Second, some measurement “gurus” claim that what’s most important is to measure organizational results—while reneging on our professional responsibility to measure what we have the most control over—like whether people can make good work-related decisions after we train them or even remember what we taught them. Honestly, if the workplace learning field was a human being, it would be a person you wouldn’t want to have as a friend—someone who didn’t have a core set of values, someone who would be prone to following any fad or phony demigod, someone who would shift allegiances with the wind.

Clark:

Now you’re talking; I love the idea of a training-request process! I recall an organization where the training head had a cost/benefit form for every idea that was brought to him.  It’s not how much it costs per bum per seat per hour, but is that bum per seat per hour making a difference!  And we can start with the ability to make those decisions, but ultimately we ought to also care that making those decisions is impacting the organization too.  I certainly agree we have to be strong and fight for what’s right, not what’s easy or expedient.  Serious elearning for the win!

Will:

We seem to be coming to consensus, however, you inspired another question. We agree that we have two responsibilities, one to our professional values and one to our organization’s needs. But should we add another stakeholder to this mix? I have my own answer, inherent in one of my many below-the-radar models, but I’d like your wisdom. Here’s the question, do we have a responsibility to our learners/performers? If we do have responsibilities to them, what are those responsibilities? And here is perhaps the hardest question–in comparison to the responsibility we have to our organizations, is our level of responsibility to our learners/performers higher, lower, or about the same? Remember, the smaller the ring, the harder it is to run…the more likely we get hit by a haymaker. Good luck with these questions…

Clark:

Bringing in a ringer, eh?  I suppose you could see it as either of two ways: it’s our obligation to our profession and our organization to consider our learners, or they’re another stakeholder. I kinda like the former, as there’re lots of stakeholders: society, learners, ‘clients', SMEs, colleagues, profession, and more.  In fact, I’m inclined to go back to my proposition that’s it’s not either/or. Our obligation as professionals is to do the job that needs to be done in ways that responsibly address our learners, our organizations, and all stakeholders.  To put it in other words, designing interventions in ways that optimally equip learners to meet the needs of the organization is an integration of responsibilities, not a tradeoff.  We need to unify our approach  like boxing needs to unify the different titles!

Will:

From what I hear, boxing is dying as a spectator sport precisely because of all the discord and multiple sanctifying bodies. We in the learning-and-performance field might take this as a warning—we need to get our house in order, follow research-based best practices, and build a common body of knowledge and values. It starts with knowing who our stakeholders are and knowing that we have a responsibility to the values and goals of our profession. I like to give our learners a privileged place—at the same level of priority as the organization. It’s not that I think this is an easy argument in an economic sense, because the organization is paying the bills after all. But too often we forget our learners, so I like to keep them front and center in our learning-to-performance models.

Thanks Clark for the great discussion. And thanks for agreeing to host the next one on your blog

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