Things I’ve learned about being an ally

My reality, and my lived experiences are only one part of living in this world. Yes, they are valuable to me. Yes, they may also have been from a position of privilege. Yes, I have also been a victim of and a supporter of systemic bias.

Listening is hard. It means having to accept another person’s reality, which can mean understanding you directly or indirectly harmed others.

If someone is not being heard, stand up for them and let others know they have a voice to be heard, and to acknowledge them and their voice wholly.

I don’t have to add my thoughts. I can be more helpful and supportive by just hearing others and letting them say what they can, want, and need to.

I have to do the work. Reading from others’ experiences. Learning about and from them. Accepting their truth and accepting their reality.

I understand how systemic bias works against others in a myriad of ways. I understand I have been complicit in that. I understand I have benefited from that.

Amplifying voices of difference and stories of harm, abuse and attack are important. If those voices aren’t heard by a broad spectrum, how are we to correct for our own biases and prejudices?

Asking questions and talking with others is important. Dialogue is key. Through dialogue, I understand how I’m expressing myself, being critical of my own language, and assess my thoughts.

Allyship is empathy. By being empathetic, I allow myself to understand how to be a good ally.

Giving advice is so easy to do, and so often the wrong move. Unless being sought, advice is often our way of feeling like we’re being helpful. Giving unsolicited advice is an ego-driven approach.

I respect how others use their language. If I don’t understand how they are using their language, I seek to understand, and I seek to learn. It’s not for me to determine if their use of language is right or not, if they inform me, I learn. It doesn’t mean I adopt their language, it means I understand how they’re using it.

Allyship is friendship. Friendship means I will always seek to be supportive and stand with my friends. Friendship is allyship.

Allyship is learning. I don’t beat myself up over past mistakes. I accept them. I learn. Learning is allyship.

I accept guilt and shame for past mistakes. I haven’t always been an ally as well as I thought I was. It has taken time and a lot of self-reflection and personal learning.

I am still learning. I understand how I can be an ally. That doesn’t stop today, and it doesn’t end. Allyship is important to me.

Allyship is inclusion. By accepting others’ reality and their lived experiences, I include them in my day to day life. Inclusion is allyship.

Being an ally is a positive outcome for all. By being an ally I am not excluding others.

Systemic racism in L&D

I’ve been writing about the problem of the lack of diversity, the bias we face in L&D, and about racism for years. I’ve spoken about it in public forums, and on recorded media. It is not a bandwagon topic, it’s something which I recognise as being harmful to the profession.

We are incredibly guilty as a profession of fooling ourselves into believing that because of the work we do that we are somehow immune to things like systemic bias, systemic racism in particular, not affected by either conscious or unconscious bias.

I hear professional trainers and consultants and L&Ders make incredible claims that because they focus on the business needs, or because they are taking direction from a client, or because they are not part of the organisation they’re working for, that they can’t be biased, and are in fact free from their biases, and do not act in ways that are directly harmful to others.

If we’ve learned anything in the years and decades of discussing systemic racism, it’s that it is in the defence of the system that we neglect to reflect on the hidden ways others may be impacted by our direct and indirect actions.

So I’m moved to comment about systemic racism in L&D. These are observations. This is not research led. You are free to disagree with my observations, and if you do, I encourage you to be articulate in your response.

Inclusion of voices from people of colour in design

When we are seeking to get SME input into our design and thinking of solutions, how often do we just accept that the SMEs (subject matter experts) are the best people to work with? How often do we look at the names provided and ask – could you provide me with a demographic breakdown of these SMEs? Can you ensure there is diversity of race? If not, you need to recognise that the data I will be using is biased by a homogenous group, and the solution will be biased because of that groups bias.

Delegate list interrogation

When we are ready to run either a digital learning or in-person session, how often do we take time to interrogate the delegate list? Asking similar questions as above? Can you give me a demographic breakdown of the list of delegates? I’ve identified that this group is made up in these ways.

If you’re doing repeat work with a client, what patterns do you notice of the people attending your sessions? I’ve noticed the group are regularly consisting of these groups of people. Could you let me know why? Are there people of colour in your organisation? How are they allowed to attend the training/development available for them? What are you doing to improve the diversity of your workforce?

It’s not my position mentality

This is the most insidious answer. It’s a get out clause. It’s washing your hands of any responsibility for what’s happening in society.

All it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.

Most of us are good people. We treat others with kindness, respect, and appreciation. We build up those we work with. We support and coach and mentor. We do helpful things for them.

But for some reason we choose not to act on topics important at a societal level? Why? Just because someone has the title of Head of Diversity and Inclusion, does not mean they are the only ones responsible for raising important issues and ensuring the system is not racist, or the system is free from bias.

As a professional in L&D, your moral conviction is as important as your professional capability. You can design and deliver great learning solutions? Fantastic. How are you also fighting systemic racism and upholding better societal standards for everyone?

Saying something is important

If you believe that there are bad things happening against Black people, and you are not voicing that thinking, you are complicit. That does not mean you automatically become a bad person, but there is a harsh realisation there that you are upholding a negative in society through your non-action. And it can’t be “well I’m trying to be respectful”, or “I’m trying to be balanced”. Who are you being respectful to? Certainly not Black people, otherwise you’d be making that clear. Balanced about what? If racism is a good thing or not?

Improve the diversity of your network

The amount of times I have heard – but Sukh, there just aren’t Black people in our profession. Wow. Just wow.

You’ve networked so much, that in all your years of connecting with others, you haven’t stopped to think – do I have trusted Black colleagues who I can work with to deliver my work? Not because you have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. How are we supporting Black people to deliver great work if we’re not including them in our proposals, our design thinking, our delivery of the work?

Erasure of people because you’re not looking in better ways is unacceptable.

Actively examine your pool of people

Building on the last point, take the time to really think about who you have in your pool of people you work with that you trust. I’m willing to bet they are majority White. That’s ok, it’s a starting point to recognise that.

Build on it by actively discussing with that pool how they are missing on having Black people in your pool. You don’t have to self-punish over these things. It’s not about your guilt or your shame. It’s about improving the opportunities and options for Black people they may not have otherwise. And it’s not about the point of view of a Black person, or if they can add a diversity perspective. It’s them. That’s it, it’s them being in the conversation. That’s the important thing.

In your tenders and requests for pitching

If you’re an in-house person, and the work you’re requesting is coming from a certain cadre of vendors / suppliers – are they themselves doing enough to include Black people in their solutions with you? Is their account manager a Black person? What about their lead consultant? What about their instructional designer? Their chosen facilitators?

How are you questioning your partners on these things? What are they doing to improve the diversity of their workforce so it’s not just a homogenous group?

If you’re feeling guilty or ashamed, fine, but that’s not the point

The hard thing about understanding systemic racism is that we all play a part in either how we uphold it or raise awareness to combat it. Understanding raises awareness. Awareness can be painful and uncomfortable. Good, that’s important for personal learning and to push through that is important for action.

The discussions you’re likely to have will be clumsy, uncomfortable and people are likely to get defensive. All that is how these things happen in reality. We don’t have enough honest and open conversations about racism and systemic racism. We’ve only learned how to be tolerant, not how to challenge ourselves and others on what systemic racism looks and feels like and what we can do to combat it.

Brilliant ideas, design and delivery

You know what it’s like. You’ve had a brilliant idea. You get in touch with those you know you want to get feedback from. You’re really into the design and working incredibly well with your partner(s). You’re all set for delivery, and ready to deliver a great learning solution.

In any of that, where are the Black people in your network to be included? All of the people who would normally be part of any of those pieces of the overall thing – are they from a mostly White background? What can you do to change that?

I can’t change the system

That’s just not a valid stance. If you don’t want to change the system because it’s hard personal work for you, be honest about that. You are benefiting from a White system, and it works for you, and you don’t want to create change for yourself.

Let me put it like this – a Black person is far more unlikely to benefit from the White system until they are included and accepted as being equal. You may say you’re not racist, but if you’re unwilling to change your practice, how can you confidently uphold that belief? What practical examples of inclusion can you point to in your personal practise that show how inclusive and accepting you are of Black people?

Also, don’t become an apologist for the system. The system – yes all of the systems in society – is racist. Keeping things as they are is upholding systemic racism, and if you don’t want to influence or change that, then you are complicit in it remaining so.

This isn’t about tokenism

First of all, Black people are not tokens. It’s an awful phrase, so don’t use it.

It’s about being anti-racist. It’s about recognising your collusion and complicity and inacceptance of having a better network of people in your life. It’s about understanding that pretty much for your whole life you may have been not racist, and that was never good enough. You weren’t being anti-racist, and you definitely were not being actively inclusive.

Inclusion, genuine inclusion, is about acceptance of your own failures in your personal decision making. It’s not about guilt. It’s that we’ve never really had to examine these things collectively in the way we’re doing now.

If you want to make a change, we can have really good conversations about that. There are hugely positive ways to seek out better diversity in your network, and what you are and not doing to enable that to happen in strong ways.

L&D Thinkers and Leading Voices

You know when you seek to quote L&D thinkers and the leading voices in the profession? How many are Black people? What research have you done to identify which Black people have prominent voices that you could be reading, listening to, and paying attention to? How are you including them actively in your ongoing personal learning, your reading, and your recommendations to you client groups?

I’m willing to bet most of the models, theories, and quoted individuals are from White people.

When I look in the wider L&D space, a lot of the “top thinkers” or the “leading practitioners” are White people. That’s problematic in and of itself right there! Are we really so blind that we can’t see that?

Change is possible

One of the powerful things we’ve seen in recent weeks is that more and more people are becoming alert to systemic racism. That in and of itself is powerful. What I’m hoping to do here in this piece is raise just how systemically racist L&D is itself. We can effect change. We can raise awareness and have incredibly difficult conversations, and when we do and they progress to personal learning and action, that’s powerful.

Lessons in converting in-person training to virtual training

Don’t assume they are the same

Many people I know who are attempting to take their in-person training and convert to virtual format are making a lot of assumptions about virtual training and their capability to deliver highly effective virtual training.

The fallacy comes from the belief that as an experienced and highly skilled in-person facilitator, you can transfer that same capability to virtual.

The fallacy also comes from the belief that activities and exercises you do in-person will work the same in a virtual environment.

The Tech is your saviour

Regardless of the platform you use, the tech is your saviour. Most virtual training fails happen because the facilitator is unfamiliar with the tech and has not spent the requisite time and energy and effort to understand each element.

I’ve sat through some amazingly good virtual training because we were guided through every aspect of the tech as well as the learning content.

E.g. you’re going to go into a breakout room. In the breakout room, this is what you will experience and what you’re being asked to do.

Virtual activities have to be designed differently

It sounds obvious, and unfortunately even when learning the hard way that some activities aren’t working well virtually, they are persisted with.

Collaborate with someone who does digital instructional design / digital experience design. Your amazingly good in-person activity can have an equivalent virtually, but you’re going to have to re-design it to make it work equally as well.

The platform you use will also determine what you can and cannot do.

Timings in virtual training work differently

In virtual training timings need to be very different for the activities you’re trying to make happen. First you have to account for the setup of the activity. Are people clear on what they have to do? How much time they have? What the expectation of your output is?

If it’s a group discussion that is different to a group collaboration to complete a task, which is different to a group activity to do some skills practise.

You can definitely do skills practise

It’s all about the design of the practise. Again, if you’re unsure how, seek the help from a professional, don’t just wing it and hope for the best.

I have been through high quality training on topics like unconscious bias, coaching skills development and improving communication skills because the facilitator designed the skills practise incredibly well.

You can still be responsive to individuals

A huge myth and misunderstanding from professional in-person facilitators is that you lose the ability to be responsive to individuals and adapt your own behaviour accordingly.

This is largely down to the lack of time and effort put into developing an understanding of several things.

  • The chat function can be used incredibly well to gauge how participative and engaged different delegates are
  • You can use video to call on people to talk to you directly in response to something e.g. I’d like to call on X to let me know what you make of what we just went through, and please use your video for us to have this chat.
  • Giving people explicit instructions on how to engage with you during the virtual training e.g. you can ask questions only using the chat, you can ask questions by coming off mute, use the ‘raise hand’ button and I’ll come to you

Partner with a producer!

A lot of the highly effective virtual training I have been through has been with the partnering of a producer. This is someone who knows the tech incredibly well, and can deal with all tech queries while you’re focused on delivering the content.

The producer role can also help to launch polls, let you know what questions are being asked in the chat, post up resources and links as you’re going through the virtual training. Used effectively, they can be raise the engagement of the session you’re delivering.

Virtual training shouldn’t be a one and done activity

Don’t leave virtual training to be a one and done activity. People are incredibly comfortable using their digital devices to consume content, so build that in to the overall delivery. Send out pre-work that makes sense to do before the virtual training. E.g. watch this video, read this article, complete this self-assessment.

During the virtual training, signpost people to relevant resources and job aids they can use and access immediately.

After the virtual training, follow up with additional content e.g. here’s the documents you asked for, here’s the slide deck we went through, here’s the templates we discussed.

Populism, facts, common sense, and law and order

I don’t even know where to start!

Christ, what we’ve witnessed in the UK in the last 5 days has been nothing short of extraordinary from a public health and civic duty lens in the face of all things COVID-19.

There are several things which are highlighted to me, which cause concern.

Populism isn’t a new phenomenon. It has arguably been one of the factors which led to the rise of people like Farage and Trump in the last decade. What it has been doing, is steadily attacking several normal societal conventions. Things such as law and order. Long established faith in the judiciary is called into question and trust in the system being attacked. There is a clear difference in, for example, highlighting systemic injustice against Black people, and claiming that the judges who make decisions against criminals are politically motivated against national interest. In attacking the judiciary, it draws national attention away from actual policy and decisions affecting millions of people, and focuses on debates we would ordinarily consider to be undebatable. Questions of “should we trust the judiciary?” (Yes, we should), become more important than “the proposed policy is racist and divisive”.

With populism is the ever rise of post-truths, untruths, and outright lies. In the most recent of events, UK government ministers have tried to claim that the actions of a senior adviser were acceptable, and that the general public were given the same information that they could have acted on, and that in retrospect the Law can be flouted if someone so desires. It’s been a hot mess, as one of my colleagues often refers to things.

The problem with the previous paragraph is several fold.

People’s common sense is very influenced by a myriad of things. WhatsApp is a known platform where memes and conspiracies find incredibly fertile ground on which to grow. In the round, people are not wise. This is why we have trained professionals such as medics, lawyers, teachers, financial advisers, engineers, etc., etc., providing guidance and rules and instruction for how things should be done. Because of those experts, we are better informed, and can live healthier lives and productive lives. We also have law and order to guide us. Combined, all those things enable us to live up to our civic responsibilities.

When senior officials make claims such as sunlight or an equivalent being used to defeat COVID-19 (untestable, and don’t try any made-at-home remedies), or if you should drive your car to test if your vision is ok (against the law and very bad idea), it makes thing problematic for public civic responsibility. Relevant agencies have to then get involved and re-advise what they think would be clear public messaging that has been received for decades, and not apparently called into question because untruths are spoken. They have to get involved because they don’t want the public to be in danger to themselves or to others.

Defenders of those speaking untruths, will then use logic as their defence – but they care little for logical consistency. E.g. It is logical to accept that if you’re unsure about your vision you could drive your car, and in a separate comment to state that it is against the law to drive with poor vision. Both statements cannot be true. Either they are both false – or one is definitely false and the other is definitely a fact/truth. The problem is that because both statements can be argued for, and they are calling into question Law and Order, we’ve left the realms of reasonable debate. Reasonable debate would assume two (or more) positions where either is within the realms of Law and Order.

The fall of logic and the height of populism also gives rise to rampant conspiracy theories and fake news. When we are all so distracted by debates and arguments about if things are lawful and if they fight against normal order, we give way to fake news. People are claiming all sorts of stuff about medicines, phone masts, and bleach, which some people choose to pay attention to, with often fatal if not significant impact on personal health – both mental and physical.

When we talk about people using common sense, we forget just how easily influenced we are, and just how poor our common sense can be. If it’s common sense to not drive your car if you suspect you have poor vision, why are senior officials claiming it’s ok to do that? And why is the agency responsible for driving putting out public messaging reminding people not to do this? Either the senior official is wrong, or the agency responsible for driving is wrong. Both cannot be right. It follows, one would think, that the agency is more right (they definitely are), because they don’t want the general public to be confused about driving safely for themselves and for others.

When Dominic Cummings read out his statement in a press briefing, it was very well articulated and expressed. You could understand his personal decision making. However, and this is the thrust of stuff, we all had instruction, law, and order about what our actions should be, not what we want them to be. The UK public messaging to stay home, and not travel, were incredibly clear. Millions complied and obeyed. Cummings’ situation was laid bare, and clear for all to see his personal situation was not exceptional – despite his explanation. There is nothing in his personal account which could explain his non-compliance because when compared to millions of others, it is clear his decision making was against the very norm, law, and order we were instructed to keep. For his situation to have been exceptional would mean he would have to demonstrate his personal circumstances could not have been faced by many others, and there were no other reasonable options available to him.

The defence for him is astounding because it calls into question whether or not we are a country who believe in Law and Order. Ostensibly, we are. However, his surrogates and defendants are willing to argue in his favour even when those arguments cannot be reasonable. Because the arguments in his favour are unreasonable, there are rabbit holes on rabbit holes of debate about all manners of things.

By his own account, Cummings broke the law. He disobeyed the orders the government crafted for public health. Senior politicians defending his actions as understandable means that we are presented with two arguments that cannot both be true, because either both are false, or one is definitely false (his actions were not justifiable), and the other is definitely right (he broke the law).

The lack of discipline against Cummings, or consequence for his actions, means that the debate is allowed to continue and to be important than messages about public health. Again, two positions which cannot both be true. Is it more important for Cummings to keep his career even if he’s breaking the law, or is it more important for public health messages to be strictly adhered to by everyone? It cannot be both. Either both positions are wrong, or one is definitely wrong (his career is not that important), and one is definitely right (public health is more important). By allowing both to be debated as though they are both reasonable means we are redefining what reasonable debate should be based on.

Beyond all this, we are now in a highly precarious situation where if there is another resurgence or need for the UK government to insist on public health messages be followed, the present government will be asking citizens to follow civic duty when it is demonstrably acceptable to break the law without consequence. Again, are we a country who believes in Law and Order (yes, we are), and if we are, (we really are), we have to be a lot more disciplined about how we allow unreasonable opinions to be voiced and to be heard in the public domain. Alt-right activists are now finding themselves invited onto public broadcast platforms and being given a voice as being about “balance”. However, that balance is often about theories and arguments which are largely untestable or plainly false. The realm of reasonable debate is to present two (or more options) which do not infringe on normal, acceptable, conventions. If one of those positions is about how we abandon those conventions for the sake of debate, then definitions of reason also fundamentally change.

I am frustrated with a lot of public debate. Long before this weekend and the news about Cummings, I have been concerned about the ever rapid rise of populism and the alt-right in particular. The influence of both on public life is deeply concerning, and as much as there are people out there working to correct that, it does give a hard emotional and mental ride to the rest of us, whether we admit to it or not.

Things I miss

Before COVID-19 forced us into hibernation, I had reason to think about what I appreciate, and what I chose to complain about. I wasn’t much of a complainer anyway, but I learned that complaining about everyday occurrences was really misplaced energy. I much prefer to appreciate what’s happening around me and allow that to be my focus.

So, there are things I miss. In no particular order.

  • Nandos. Oh. My. God. Give me that peri-peri chicken. Give me all of it now.
  • Wagamama. I’m only on point two and I think I’m going to start crying. Chicken katsu curry, where are you in my life?
  • Wasabi. Hold on, there’s a definite theme emerging here.
  • The commute. Like, I actually never minded the commute. Yes it could get awfully busy and the delays are annoying, but by God I miss it.
  • Queues. Yes, really.
  • Driving my car. I like my car. I live driving. I have a car so I can drive the f thing. Otherwise WHY WOULD I WANT A CAR.
  • If COVID-19 takes away my annual Swingers Xmas Golf Night out, me and Mother Nature are having stern words.
  • Meantime Pale Ale. Please?
  • The cinema. The big screen. The seats. The popcorn. I’m really going to start crying soon.
  • Wearing work clothes. Mostly because I have them available to be worn. I have new work shoes I need to wear people.
  • Not going out to have a night in, or a quiet weekend. I wasn’t even that socially busy, but I liked being able to say no to things.

There are clearly more meaningful things I miss. Some levity can be helpful to just alleviate the weight of what we’re all experiencing.

Be safe. Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. Connect digitally with others.

Myths of Learning laid bare

During this time of COVID-19, it is sharply calling into question many workplace practices and beliefs.

Roles can’t be fulfilled from home? Except, everyone who can, is. It’s going to play havoc with leaders and managers who believe that if you’re not “present” you’re not “working”.

Roles that weren’t given to disabled people due to the above myth? No basis for that belief anyway, and in this crisis, highlighting that disabled people could always have been given those roles, that they could work from home, and they can be productive and contributory.

Working from home can’t be successful? Except, everyone who is able to, is showing just how successful it can be.

Flexible working requests that can’t be met? Why couldn’t they be met exactly? What was the genuine reason?

We have made decisions about a lot of working practice on nothing more than false narratives. More fool us.

And in the world of Learning, a lot of our practices and beliefs are having lights shone on them like never before.

In-person training / Instructor-led training is the best form of learning design and delivery. Uh-huh. Except, now we can’t deliver in this way, what is the next best form of learning?

Virtual training / webinars are inferior. Are they? Why is it that all these trainers and consultants whose business was primarily about them in-person, are now moving to virtual / webinar platforms?

Virtual learning platforms can’t deliver great learning experiences. Except, we’ve now got all those same trainers mentioned previously, who would confidently decry the utility or effectiveness of these platforms, suddenly all become advocates and experts in the tools. Where was that advocacy before COVID-19?

When you’re in person you can support individuals when they’re struggling with learning concepts. Because apparently facilitators/trainers are experts in reading body language and expert at responding to people’s needs. Maybe they are. This can be done digitally. Quite effectively, too. Fundamentally it’s about the design of the learning session. How are you designing the learning experience so you can support learning in that direct way?

Digital learning is too hard. Except YouTube remains one of the most production platforms in the world and people use it everyday for their regular problems. Is is that digital learning is too hard, or is it that people haven’t had the will to learn the skills they need?

Transforming in-person training to virtual training is easy. I remember when people made the same assumptions about how e-learning was going to revolutionise accessibility of learning. If your assumption is that you can deliver virtual training in similar ways to in-person training, you’re about to experience an incredibly sharp learning curve. You’ll probably write a blog post or two about it.

You can’t really make a business out of virtual learning. I would strongly encourage you to seek out both Jo Cook of Lightbulb Moment, and Catherine Nicholson of The Virtual Training Team. They have been leading on this long before COVID-19 concerns were a thing.

Virtual training is cheaper than in-person training. Listen, if you’re a client and you’re suggesting this, then go have a word with yourself. You are still gaining the full experience, qualification, intelligent, smart human being delivering your content. Don’t be a dick about paying less because it’s digitally led. Honour the consultant. Pay the right fee.

If learning isn’t being “delivered”, what’s the role of the L&Der? Interesting how conversations of performance support / performance consultancy have been going on for years, and now we’re questioning if delivering on learning needs analyses was the right approach. What about in-the-moment needs that can’t be met by learning design? When a manager needs to address a performance gap, what should they do? When the product manager needs to collaborate virtually, how can they be supported? When the sales leader needs to deliver a plan for the next 2 months virtually to their team, what do they need? How do we ensure staff are remaining compliant with mandatory care requirements when they are overworked and overstretched so much that they have zero time or energy to complete e-learning?

This is a good time for L&D to really examine its accepted practice and really try to understand how to support their respective businesses/clients in more acute and exploratory ways. Yes, a lot of in-person stuff has been ripped away. The fundamentals of what L&D can do and deliver remain true. Understand the business. Understand the tech landscape much better. There are experts in virtual learning we should be seeking out and enabling us to upskill. The more we hold fast onto the myths we’ve believed for years, the more we do a disservice to our profession, and keep ourselves in the past.