Agency in L&D

Human Agency.

Our self‐understanding as human agents includes commitment to three crucial claims about human agency: That agents must be active, that actions are part of the natural order, and that intentional actions can be explained by the agent’s reasons for acting.

I often wonder in L&D if people are attracted to the profession (in whatever form of the profession they enter) so that they can impart their wisdom, as opposed to believing that people have agency as described above. And I wonder if there are people who want to tell people what to think, that’s not L&D at all. It’s evangelism.

Part of the world that L&D inhabits is to impart knowledge. It’s the fundamental purpose of the function / profession. My question is less that we impart knowledge, and more about how it’s done.

I observe that there are trainers / facilitators / presenters who simply want to tell people what to think. And to tell them what they must be thinking. And to prove their cleverness by inferring on someone’s behalf. I see it often. And whenever I do, I become more alert. I become more alert to the person and their lack of belief in others and their agency.

A while back, I realised that I can only share things as I know them. That I know things in a certain way means it makes sense to me in a certain way. I learned that I could be challenged on my thinking and from that challenge I am forced to address my understanding. It also meant that I could only speak on behalf of me. I realised I could not, and should not, presume to talk for anyone else.

It has become my fundamental way of being. My belief in others that they have the freedom, permission and support to explore their thinking, to arrive at their own answers, and to decide a course of action as is best seen by them.

Which sometimes works against the loved frameworks of L&D we are comfortable with. In most courses and programmes and solutions we deliver, we explicitly take away a person’s agency. We essentially design learning solutions in such a way that says “you do not know, this is how you will know, you are now better for knowing”.

When I have the platform to speak with others, be that at a conference, in a workshop, on a panel, on a webinar, or any other platform, I am very aware that I cannot prescribe thought. I can share what I know, and invite people to explore that with me. If that takes them to a place of insight, that’s good. If it doesn’t, that’s also good because they have their agency.

I am concerned that there are people who do not realise agency is fundamental to human learning. That there are many out there who are willingly and confidently and enthusiastically misunderstanding how to support learning in others. That they believe they can hear the words a person is saying and then speak for them. That they can tell a group what they must be thinking because they are so insightful. That they can tell an individual what they need to do, because they’ve been there and done it.

And I’m aware in writing this, I am suggesting agency should be a fundamental design aspect of L&D. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. It’s up for debate.


My #3GoodThings for this week

  1. I facilitated my first proper session with a management group in my new role. I’m really pleased to have got this under my belt. Being new in a company means some initial lag before you feel confident in understanding the context and delivering something of value. Positive feedback from key stakeholders strengthened my impression of how well the session went.
  2. Celebrating a birthday for Julie Drybrough. Mike Collins did a superb job of keeping it a surprise for me and others to be there. A really fun night and meal.
  3. Really pleased to have been on the GoodPractice podcast this week discussing all things self-care with Justin Andersen and Owen Ferguson. You can listen here

Have a good weekend, folks.

L&D are business leaders, too

I often hear how L&D need to be better aligned to the business. That when we design and deliver solutions of varying sorts, we have to ensure business leaders are bought in. That we’re not part of HR. That L&D are a cost to the business. How we need to market what we do better and create a learning culture. How we need to be better business partners and understand the leaders of the business.

And I hear less about how we are leaders of the business already. Because here are things normally under our control that we lead on for the business:

  • We normally have a budget we manage. Company money entrusted to us to deliver solutions for the business. That’s pretty significant.
  • In some cases we may be employing people to work with us and for us. We’re providing someone with gainful work.
  • We design solutions that help people perform better at work. It’s not always as clear cut as that, but it is what we do. That’s pretty important. 
  • We enable managers to be better. Managers/leaders are a core part of organisational effectiveness. If we are helping them to be more effective that’s pretty impressive.
  • We use data and insights into human behaviour to improve working environments and working relationships.

I stopped thinking of myself as not being a business leader some while ago when I realised I had all that in my purview. And sure people have different levels of comfort and acceptance that they are as such. And then I think, but you’re paid a fairly good wage to do these things. That, again, by virtue of itself gives you the remit and responsibility to lead the business. Imposter syndrome be damned.

Lastly, this. This isn’t about humility. L&D leaders have a unique business position where we are required to understand the business in a way many departments don’t need to or have the time for. That level if insight we can provide is unique. Additionally, when collaborative efforts are needed it’s often because there’s no-one to be that catalyst for change. Again, a unique position that L&D can provide leadership on.

Things will be ok

It’s tough at the moment. The constant threat of a world war looms with an unhinged President in Trump and equally unhinged leader in Kim-Jong Un. Brexit is only set up to be a disaster.

And if we look at human history, here’s some things that give me some confidence that things will be ok. Warning. This may be more optimistic than you may want.

Through nearly every significant moment of history, we have improved as a human race. Very rarely were in a position where we haven’t progressed since the Dark Ages.

We have enough checks and balances in place that public institutions, media and regulatory bodies will mostly mostly remain impartial and serve society as opposed to political leanings. Yes, there is a lot of worrying fascist and other rhetoric, but mostly the structures we have in society will protect us against any one person or persons leading us down dark paths as we’ve known them before.

We have the benefit of the present and of legislation to help us know what is morally and ethically defensible. We’ve never had that level of insight before. It means we can and do stand up for things in society in ways that we have never been able to before. Yes that means confronting some really dark social ills currently, and I have faith we’ll come out the right side of it all, because as people we’re good at doing that.

Regardless of your political leanings, over the last 20-30 years, each government has helped us do and be better as people. Yes there have been systemic choices which disadvantage some and advantage others, but we are still a better society than we were in the mid 1900’s.

Social media platforms will get better at what they do. If they don’t, people will just stop using them. Remember the old days of ICQ, Friends Reunited, Yahoo Messenger and those others? They were successful up to a point. Then they stopped. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube will get there. And if they don’t, other platforms will come along which offer something better. We never knew we needed those platforms until they existed. We won’t know we’ll need the next platform until it’s here too.

The rate at which technology is being developed and improving human living is astonishing. Just like ten years ago we never thought we’d need data scientists or social media directors or app designers we don’t know what jobs will be needed in the next ten years either. And at every step, the tech will help us be better. Because, again, humans are good at figuring out how to implement the right kind of tech for the right kinds of reasons.

So, yes, we can be sidetracked by the things that take our attention. And we can get riled up by them. And we can feel despondent and enraged. And we can and should take up political, societal and identity based stances. Our challenges of today are no different to the challenges of yesteryear – How do I live well? How do I make meaning in my life and for others? How do I help myself and others to grow? These are the questions we’ve always been searching answers for.

But things will be ok. It may take longer than we may want. In some cases like Trump and Brexit we don’t have a choice but to wait for a number of years. And once that time has passed, further decisions need to be made for things to progress and be corrected. But we’ll get there. Because as people, we’re pretty good at doing that.

The art of doing nothing

I remember listening to a talk, I think by Alan Wallace, where he was talking about the discomfort people have of doing nothing. He shared about how people are so uncomfortable in being with their own thoughts, they would rather play a pointless game such as Solitaire than be alone with their own thoughts.

Yesterday on the way home, I saw an elderly gent on the train occupy himself by playing a game for a full half hour. It was the game ‘coin drop’ which is essentially the app version of dropping two pence coins into the arcade machine and hoping to get a nice booty prize of some sort. Except it was an app. With no booty prize.

I hear people moan about how ineffective mindfulness is as a practice. That it can’t even be defined, so how do you know if you’re practicing it? That there’s no evidence base for it’s benefits, so why do it? There is an evidence base for practicing mindfulness, just not the kind these people are searching for.

I hear people who talk about how they struggle with ‘turning off’, that they need a ‘digital detox’, that they are ‘addicted’ to their smartphone.

There are people who professionally produce content and post on social media which fills our timelines with content we want to consume. (Not forgetting the bots that do a fair more than a chunk of social media positing). And by consuming the content, we are then almost driven to comment in some way – or at least offer a ‘Like’.

And as we read and see how everyone seems to be living their lives, we find ourselves in the quandary that I can’t have time to do nothing, because then I can’t live up to an unsaid expectation that I have to keep up with everyone else.

Which is quite exhausting.

And leaves no time for self-care.

Or allows us to justifiably do nothing.

Sometimes, we just need time for ourselves, and that’s ok.

Sometimes we need to sit with our thoughts, and then discern if we need to talk to someone about our thoughts or not.

Sometimes we need to do something on our own and experience things from our own point of view.

Sometimes we need to not be with others so that we can appreciate the time we do have with them that much more.

Such is the state of things today that people feel that being on their own isn’t a good thing to have available to ourselves.

And I’m not advocating for loneliness or solitude. Because we know that those things are social ills and cause much ill-health.

I am advocating that when there is nothing to do, perhaps we should just allow nothing to happen.

Communities of Practice; L&D Connect

In 2011, I attended my first set of events which were organised through social media. It was an absolute watershed moment in my professional development. Through mostly Twitter, and at the time the #connectinghr hashtag, I connected with some really good people all interested in the broad HR profession – L&D, HR itself and recruitment in the main with professionals from OD and coaching practices too. It was a bold time to be part of the social media mix. Not many were doing it. Those who were, chose to get right involved.

Later that year I attended my first unconference. It was such an eye-opening experience. Being invited to take part through facilitation techniques like Open Space and World Cafe, seeing graphic facilitators in action, having a collective lunch, and being involved in some really in depth conversations. All such a departure from everything I had ever experienced in terms of an event.

After that, I got to chatting with several others in the L&D space and raised the possibility of holding an event for L&D practitioners ourselves. There was agreement, and in April 2012, L&D Connect held the first L&D unconference. I think there were about 25 of us. It was an afternoon, and it was a new experience for nearly everyone. We didn’t know then, that it would continue. Over the next couple of years, we held more unconferences. They continued to be of value and people really appreciated attending them.

I think in 2015, three of us came together and decided we’d like to try and hold a Twitter chat. We’d seen these happen in various forms before. A set time on a set day with a hashtag and you kind of see how it goes. The first was an interesting experiment. We decided to repeat. And keep repeating. And #ldinsight then became quite the permanent fixture.

Things kept developing. More people wanted to volunteer and be involved in both the chats as well as the unconference organising. This year, we went international with it and held our first L&D Connect unconference in Rotterdam!

And I look back on the last 5 years the community has been running, and I think – well that’s how you develop a community of practice right there.

Santa and engagement

Oh yes, I went there.

At this festive time of year, I got to thinking about the myth of Santa, and the many different stories that have been created about him. But moreso, what would the elves be doing for their L&D?

Santa’s clearly the chairman. But he’s one of those rare people who actually gets out to talk to the people in his organisation – The Workshop. When the Elves join The Workshop, they’re clearly so enamoured to be working there, he can literally show his face once a year and they’re all made up for the year. He’ll do a Ho Ho Ho, and everyone goes crazy on the workshop floor.

He’s also the one who gets nearly all of the credit too. Although he’s good enough to make sure people know the Elves do all the hard work.

There’s got to be a Head Elf. The person who manages the actual operation of stuff. And who somehow manages to get peak performance from the whole workforce. I mean, who does that? And how? What is going on there that every single elf can contribute to such high levels of expectation?

I don’t think they have a HR department, because I don’t see that there would be any ER problems, recruitment is easy, there’s no problems with D&I, their organisational design is spot on, as is their learning and development. We never hear about Elves leaving The Workshop to work somewhere else, or raise complaints or have cases being heard by the likes of ACAS or the ECJ. It’s almost unbelievable.

I wonder how they handle finances? What’s their supply chain like? Do they even have one? How do they get all their raw materials? Is goodwill that strong, that it’s all done in good faith and for the good of humanity? Is that even possible?

What about pay? And wellbeing? I mean, the Elves are seemingly constantly working to any and all hours? Is it reasonable to expect them to do that? Who’s making sure they have a well earned break? How do they have time for their families and friends and being the lovely social creatures that they are? Not only that, but does Santa give them a bonus? Is it performance based? And what kind of dividend does he receive?

Do they have Elf Managers? What happens when a child isn’t happy with their toy? I don’t think that’s ever happened, so how do the managers know what improvements to make? What kind of conferences and seminars do the Elves go to? How do they do their market research, and learn about new trends? As the world is moving to more digital platforms, how are the Elves learning new skills to build ever better and more complicated technology?

Clearly the organisation is doing well because the kids keep believing. I mean, we can just about get people to believe in God, but belief in Santa for the under 10s is almost never ceasing. You literally couldn’t pay for that kind of dedication and commitment. And everyone seems to be bought in to continuing that narrative. You couldn’t buy that kind of PR. When you have national and international military and aviation organisations tracking Santa to ensure he doesn’t disrupt their operations, you’ve got to wonder how he masterfully negotiates with all of them.

For a mythical organisation, and a mythical entity, it’s by far one of the most successful organisations to have ever existed.