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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Culture and storytelling – learning a key lesson


Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement and Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture both published by Kogan Page. Robin will be chairing the World of Learning Conference at the NEC on 19th and 20th October, 2016.

Sometimes two completely unrelated events spark a connection which nags away like an intellectual toothache. Thought builds a link, a significance or synergy where none previously existed.

  • Event 1: A TV interview with a rogue city trader recently released from prison having been caught dishonestly gambling in arcane financial products resulting in a quite breath-taking level of losses for his employer.
  • Event 2: The death of an intellectual giant in the world of learning and cognition at the age of 100.

The intellectual giant...

Jerome Seymour Bruner (Jerry to his chums) was an educational psychologist, one of the founding fathers of cognitivism and a man whose brilliance has informed many of the things we now take for granted (although he rarely receives his due recognition outside of those working in pre-school settings).

If you’ve ever built a programme based on a spiral curriculum (where a subject is introduced simply and increases in complexity over time as your learners gain competence) - thank Bruner.

Ever talked about ‘scaffolding’ the learning – changing the level of support a learner receives as they develop skills and eventually perform unaided? Thank Bruner.

Ever thought of individuals as natural problem solvers who use that ability to help them learn? Thank Bruner.

Ever tried to introduce storytelling into your learning programmes as a natural learning method? Thank Bruner.

'Culture as a construct'

Bruner also wrote about and worked on culture – culture as a construct, a created environment through which the world is perceived and responded to.

A place in which stories are told, stories which become our experiences as our understanding is passed through the filter and the prism of the culture in which we find ourselves.

Linking storytelling and culture in a Guardian Interview in 2007, Bruner said: “Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive.”

‘The cultural function of making the strange familiar’ is a phrase to roll around in our head, to unpack and interpret. It is the link to the other character in this article.

The rogue City trader...

Kweku Adoboli is an ex-offender in his 30s. He was a successful trader at UBS in the City and had worked his way to a 6-figure salary and a position of some responsibility.

He was a successful speculator until, in the light of the financial and Euro currency crisis between 2008 and 2011, his bets stopped paying off.

Faced with the unacceptable option of coming clean and explaining his losses (and in all likelihood losing the career he had worked so hard for) he covered up the situation and embarked on ever riskier speculation to reverse the position in which he found himself.

As with all gamblers chasing the last loss, his slide was rapid and catastrophic.In 2012 he was jailed for 7 years for ‘the biggest fraud in UK history’ having lost £1.5 bn of his employer’s money (and presumably that of their clients).

But what's the link between the two?

The link to Bruner may not be immediately apparent until you watch the interview Adoboli gave to the BBC’s Kamal Ahmed.

Here he describes how the culture of the bank contributed to his actions. He talks about being pushed to make profits ‘no matter what’ and how he was under pressure to take increased risks as the return on each individual trade was reduced by the economic crash.

For Kweku Adoboli the culture had done its job. The strange had become familiar.

Chasing profits were none were to be made without ostentatious risk taking became normal.

Being secretive and ultra-competitive with colleagues was business as usual. Conflicts of interest were simply rocks in the stream of commerce that needed careful navigation. The pressure to succeed ‘no matter what’ became just the way we do things around here.

Culture trumps training?

I can guarantee that there is no training programme managed by any L&D department in any bank about how to defraud the institution.

There is no e-learning programme dedicated to taking ever increasing, and increasingly unwise, risks in pursuit of profit.

People in those institutions are learning how to do these things themselves and they are learning to do it informally.

They are constructing stories which cast them as the hero of their own narrative and which subtly, over time, reinforces the organisational culture which facilitates transgression.

What would be considered strange, weird, unacceptable or downright criminal in any other context became familiar and OK. It became the way we do things around here.

The culture in banking? Much the same as it's always been...

Adoboli now speaks at conferences and seminars at his own expense. He tells his story, one which contradicts the dominant narrative in the more toxic trading rooms of the Square Mile.

Because, as he articulately explains in his BBC interview, the culture hasn’t changed, the pressure is the same and the behaviour is unlikely to have suddenly become more ethical. In fact, if there has been anything learned from Adoboli’s story as the master fraudster behind the largest fraud in UK history it is a relatively simple message: “Don’t get caught!”

We are all complicit. We talk about banks having ‘Casino Operations’ as though the spin of the roulette wheel and the fortuitous turn of a card is a legitimate basis for our economy.

Adoboli is clear that a similar offence could - and most likely will - happen again unless the lesson is learned from the story he tells. Unless the strange world of financial skulduggery is made less familiar and exposed for what it is – high stakes gambling where we are all left holding a losing betting slip – we run the risk of history repeating itself.

I hope he gets to tell his story, to help those who will listen construct a new narrative and a less toxic culture.

I hope that L&D teams around the City will ask for his input.

I hope training programmes will use his experience and help people construct a new understanding in a way that Jerry Bruner would have recognised and applauded.

I doubt it though.

As someone who has served a prison sentence of more than 1 year and who was born elsewhere, Kweku Adoboli with his valuable story to tell is likely to be deported to Ghana by the Home Office.

Sorry, Jerry.


Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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