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Jon Kennard


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The TrainingZone interview: Charles Elvin


Charles Elvin is one of the leading thinkers on the subject of embedding modern learning techniques. After seeing his contribution to the 'Old World Learning vs New World Learning' debate at HRD, TrainingZone tracked him down for a quick interview.

How far away are we from the true integration of learning in the workplace in the corporate space and how will we know when this is the case?
It depends, I don't think the corporate space is a homogenous mass, I think in certain professions and certain activities within organisations, learning and work are highly integrated and people teach themselves as they go along, they pick up information while self-directing their professional development on an ongoing basis, particularly in organisations with functions that change rapidly. In the IT industry, for example, they will have a lot of formal training but they will do a huge amount of self-directed informal training as they go because they know the speed of change is so great. So, I would say that in some areas for some people it is highly integrated, but for others it still remains fairly separate. 
I don't actually believe we will ever be at a stage where everybody is working and learning constantly; I think that's a nice dream but I don't think it's a practical reality.
Having had extensive experience of working with blue chip companies, do you believe there's a particular strategy to gain senior management buy-in for new learning techniques?
Yes it's very simple - you have to demonstrate how it contributes to achieving the organisation's objectives. You have to link it to the strategy. Don't talk about learning or training at all; talk about solving business problems, addressing issues and finding solutions. In business the minute you say we have a problem in this area and this is how I can solve it, you will get buy-in as long as you turn out to be correct. Go to anyone in senior management's door and say you have a training solution they will just wave you away, because you're not focused on what's important.
"Don't talk about learning or training at all; talk about solving business problems, addressing issues and finding solutions. In business the minute you say we have a problem in this area and this is how I can solve it, you will get buy-in as long as you turn out to be correct."
Does this provide a problem for training managers in that they have to partially reclassify their objectives?
I think if they can't link what they do to how it fits with organisational objectives they probably shouldn't be doing their job. I think one of the greatest issues for learning and development is that in some places (not everywhere) it has failed to position itself to solve corporate organisational issues. Training is an enormously powerful tool but some people in the training world are obsessed with the idea of training and not with what can be done for the organisation. And what matters is what it does for the organisation. I think it may be a problem for some [training managers], but I think if they can't do it it's a problem they'd better solve quickly because it's a fundamental requirement now going forward to justify your position to an organisation; if you're just baggage they should let go.
Is there still credence in the belief that larger companies often see learning purely in terms of results over process, and so wouldn't be as receptive to techniques that have a less tangible structure eg informal learning?
I think there is a need to inform and educate people on why the act/process of learning is in itself a result, is in itself an outcome in its own right. I think you have to again justify what the process of exploring an issue, for example, may actually tell you.
The same applies to learning, the process of learning and investigating, studying and reflecting; thinking back on activities in itself changes the way you more deeply understand those things, so the journey is as important as what you see as results. The journey IS one of the results, and I think too often people have been allowed to classify learning as 'first you learn, then you get results'. I don't think that is a sensible way to look at it - I think that a lot of learning starts to generate both personal and organisational results as you learn, and the two are very inter-related.
I think there's a danger of classification in that question which assumes that the two are actually separate, and I think that when you examine them often you find that most of the time they are not separate, the results are the process and the process is results.
Why is academia always so far ahead of the commercial sector?
I don't think academia is always ahead of the curve. I think it likes to think it is and I think they're frequently ahead on technology but not always on other issues. I know from experience that companies that try to solve a problem using learning frequently have far greater resources to tap in to. I once worked for a large and very wealthy organisation that allowed me funding for activities that no academic organisation was even close to providing so there's an assumption there that I don't fully agree with. There are times when academia are ahead with certain ideas and concepts that they're scoping out, but that's also because they've got time to think.
Academics spend a lot of time trying to understand the issues, and one of the things that academics bring to this whole process is academic scrutiny, the understanding of whether something works, the ability to measure its effectiveness, test trials, exploration. So, being an academic gives you that privilege of both time and resources, which people inside organisations may not have. 
Experimentation inside a business environment - unless you're being specifically funded to do that - can be quite risky because it might not generate the result you want and that's also why organisations frequently fund academic institutions to do that exploration for them. It takes the risk outside the organisation.
Do you think that the focus on apprenticeships will embed learning further in organisations, not just from the apprentices themselves but the approach to learning as a whole within the organisation?
I think it will do, I think the concept of apprenticeships should be taken much more broadly than it sometimes is, this idea of constantly developing someone, possibly from an early age and supporting their learning as they work; the idea of someone learning and working at the same time even from an early age is really the concept sitting behind apprenticeships and learning from people who are already expert practitioners, so you've got embedding the transfer of knowledge from expert practitioners to new practitioners.
"I don't think apprenticeships ever went away really, and I think they do add to a culture of learning within the organisation so I'm all in favour of them."
But apprenticeships are not new, they've been known to be incredibly effective learning methodologies for hundreds and hundreds of years, so I think what we're doing now is rediscovering something that is enormously effective for all those concerned, for the organisation because you have the retention and transfer of knowledge, for the apprentice because they are learning as they work and can see how it's applied, and for the person who is coaching or teaching that apprentice in that they are able to explore that knowledge and how important it is. I think we're rediscovering them; I don't think apprenticeships ever went away really, and I think they do add to a culture of learning within the organisation so I'm all in favour of them. I think it's a very positive move as long as they're taken in a broader context, not just bringing in people to do a particular type of job in a particular type of way.
Charles Elvin is director of the Centre for Professional Learning and Development at the Open University. Charles has previously held senior executive positions held in major private and public sector organisations, with extensive international and cross cultural experience through living and working in the USA, across Europe and throughout SE Asia.

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Jon Kennard

Freelance writer

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