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The 21st Century learning professional: Being strategic

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StategyPaul Kearns' training professional's oath has certainly caught readers' attention but, rather than inspiring them to join him, they appear to be running scared. His advice? Beat the nerves and get strategic.







Since the original Oath was suggested we have had more than 8,000 reads in this series and are now up to approximately 10 Oath-takers (the final figure will only include those who formally take the Oath – but more on that later in the series).

However, I am still very disappointed that rather than inspiring the majority to join up it seems I am frightening the life out of some. Here is one comment from the last instalment:

"I fear unless we address the reality of mortgage payments, client relationships and the freelancer world rather than visionary stuff it simply won't work... My ethical oath of feeding my family has a higher moral, practical and societal value."

I fully understand this position but if I wasn't too worried about the future of trainers before, I certainly am now. This comment suggests that training providers are faced with very unprincipled training purchasers who don't want to be asked too many awkward questions.

Photo of Paul Kearns"Learning professionals are here to help organisations get out of vicious circles… and transform them into a virtuous circle, where organisations actually learn to improve, and people feel better about it as well."

If that is true then maybe we need some training managers out there to write in to assure us this is not the case. No doubt some of them will take the same view as this comment - but from an internal perspective - that they are only doing what they are told to do because to do otherwise might be career limiting. So how can a learning professional get through this apparent impasse? The answer is learning strategy.

So what does an effective learning strategy look like? It might be instructive first to consider what happens when there is no learning strategy in place. Take the recent stories about data security in civil service departments (including HM Revenue and Customs data disks going missing containing the personal data on 25m citizens). These led to a review of procedures and the Data Handling Procedures in Government - Final Report, June 2008.

One direct consequence of this is a recommendation to give thousands of civil servants mandatory training in data security.

As so often happens in these situations the training is knee-jerk (do all these thousands of civil servants need this training?); sheep dip (even if they do need training do they all need the same training?); and its main purpose, to the cynical eye, is to give the impression that 'something is being done about the problem'. Other actions usually taken, at least for public consumption, are the firing, demotion or transfer of some poor official who is scapegoated as the 'culprit'. This is not an environment in which learning is likely to thrive.

Now, if anyone reading this is actually involved in the mandatory training being delivered at HMRC (either as purchaser or provider) they are in exactly the position that the comment posted on my article suggests. Obviously you should be sticking to your principles by declaring this to be a shocking waste of taxpayers' money (which it probably is) but I guess this would not endear you to your boss or the cabinet secretary, Gus O'Donnell, who produced the report.

"Learning professionals are certainly not naïve and will cover their backside like any other political player. Believe it or not though, this is the start of your learning strategy."

Making senior civil servants or the government look stupid is easy to do but it is not to be recommended, by me or any other learning professional. Learning professionals are here to help organisations get out of vicious circles like these and transform them into a virtuous circle, where organisations actually learn to improve, and people feel better about it as well.

One way to try and turn this situation around, and hang onto your precious job, is to make sure that if the training isn't likely to work then those responsible for enforcing it are fully aware that it is their necks on the line, not yours.

Even a mere trainer of data security should have clear training objectives before this training starts (e.g. 'By the end of this programme participants will have learned that they should not send data disks by standard post...' doh!) and check that this is what the dictators of the training want. If even that basic level of 'professionalism' is not welcomed then you might want to email the boss saying that the trainers have no objectives to work to but will carry on regardless if they have his/her blessing. Learning professionals are certainly not naïve and will cover their backside like any other political player. Believe it or not though, this is the start of your learning strategy. If you prefer the jargon (blinding bosses with science is another devious trick learning professionals will call on in a tight corner) you could describe what you are doing as creating a closed-loop feedback system – that is, the organisation gets what it asks for but has to start learning in the process. This way, the learning professional cannot lose.

The alternative of course is to keep your mouth shut and do what you are told. If the Oath is ever going to mean anything though then my vision (yes it is that vision thing) is that those who keep their mouths shut will have no place in the civil service of the future. That, for me, is my "higher moral, practical and societal value".

The real irony in all of this is that Gus O'Donnell is not stupid and neither are most senior civil servants or ministers. They know exactly what is going on and, recognising the true culture in which they find themselves, they play the politics that they consider gives them the best chance of surviving in their precious jobs. But then the reason we are all in this current mess is that departments like HRMC have failed to learn such simple lessons in the past. Gus O'Donnell realises this and knows that sheep dip training is not the answer to the problem, because his own report highlights one of the key issues as the need to change the culture stating:

"If you prefer the jargon (blinding bosses with science is another devious trick learning professionals will call on in a tight corner) you could describe what you are doing as creating a closed-loop feedback system."

"High levels of data security must be underpinned by a culture that values, protects and uses information."

It goes on to suggest that processes are needed "by which individuals can bring concerns to the attention of senior management, anonymously if necessary".

He is only too aware that a culture of fear not only exists in the civil service, but is also damaging it and the society it is meant to serve - why else suggest anonymity? So here we have an organisation where employees live in fear of speaking out and apparently trainers also fear following their own professional principles as the best way forward. On this basis we are all likely to be going round in ever decreasing circles for evermore.

Those who share the views about keeping focused on your own personal interests might still be right though. Hey, maybe as a result of writing this openly and critically, as a learning professional should, I might never work with the Cabinet Office or the Civil Service again? Well, all I can say to that by way of reply to those who are afraid of taking the Oath, is we shall see, won't we?

Read Paul Kearn's previous feature</strong. in the 21st century learning professional series
To sign the Training professional's oath, click here

Paul Kearns specialises in measuring the value of the human contribution to organisational success and teaches real evaluation around the world. He is the author of the CIPD's best selling 'Evaluating the ROI from Learning' and has campaigned for many years to raise professional standards. For more information visit www.paulkearns.co.uk

This feature first appeared on site in July 2008

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