Wild writing reflections from L&D Connect unconference #ldcu16

As ever with these things it’s less about the process and the right way to do things and it’s more about enabling people to experience learning through different methods they may not be familiar with. What constantly amazes me when I come to an unconference is always that people are so pleasantly surprised at how well it all just works.

You come to this morning thing and not sure what to expect. You’re asked to co-create an agenda and make sense of your own thinking and take responsibility for your own learning, and then you’re into the discussions. People’s insights are amazing. They take them into all sorts of directions. No-one’s an expert, no-one is the best pracititoner, or the most influential, or the learning leader, we’re all equal and we all have a shared voice. How empowering is that? How much shared value is there in that? How do we cultivate that in our daily lives? What difference would there be if we tried to do that more?

And here we are. A group of people, some 20 people in London. Most don’t know each other, most are here because they’ve been attracted by a desire to test their L&D experience and do something different with it, to push their own boundaries, to learn what’s going on. And I think back to 2012 when we did the first unconference. 4 hours long was all we did that first time, and today we’ve spent a whole day together.

People’s sharing through digital technology has been really great to see too. Give people permission and the acceptance of their thoughts and tweets and they’ll contribute – not because they’ve been instructed to, but because the design has been inclusive, it’s been acceptant, and it’s been healthy. People’s individual needs are taken care of by them owning what they want and what they choose to share with others.

How do you do this? How do you purposefully set about challenging what you know and letting it just wash over you? An experience like an unconference fundamentally is about being allowed to act like an adult and be fully accepted as one. We’ve used a variety of facilitation techniques to help us over the day. It almost doesn’t matter what that is or how we did it. What matters is that it was created, it was designed to be amazing.

I have big love going out to Michelle Parry-Slater, my London co-facilitator. Fiona McBride, Julie Drybrough, Phil Willcox and Joey Stephenson. Together we’ve created something cool. We’ve done something unique and we can take credit for helping shift and change the conversation when it comes to learning event delivery and experience. There is important learning there for L&D practitioners from all walks of life. This group of people that have helped to do this are amazing and inspiring and I’m proud to have them in my life – both as friends and as fellow professionals.

Is this what wild-writing is meant to be? Has this stream of consicousness followed how this is meant to go? Am I breaking some kind of accepted methodology? When you’ve read this, ¬†how have you felt? How has it moved you? Does it evoke anything in you? For me when I write like this, it’s free. I’m not constrained. It’s just sharing as I’m writing.


Privilege, inclusion and HR

In and around the discussions about diversity and inclusion at work, there is a growing conversation around the concept of privilege and how this impacts on individuals. It’s an interesting and compelling concept if you’ve not come across it previously. When people talk about privilege in this space it tends to be used in the context of race relations – primarily about the privilege that white people have and how this is manifest in day to day life both in favour of white people and against people of colour. It is also present in conversations around gender parity where men have privilege over women and this is present in both overt ways and in systemic ways in society and indeed in organisations. It is also prevalent in conversations to do with sexual orientation and gender identity.

I’m still exploring this concept myself and am careful to pass commentary on it.

If you’ve not come across the term in this context, it can be defined as:

Privilege exists when one group has something of value that another group does not, not because of anything that they have done or not done, but simply because of the groups that they belong to. Privilege most frequently shows up as unearned advantage or conferred dominance.

Peggy McIntosh via this blog post from Joe Gerstandt

Privilege most frequently shows up as unearned advantage or conferred dominance. Pretty powerful words.

And it’s a difficult concept too. It almost sounds like that in acknowledging this privilege it means that you’re a racist, a homophobe or a misogynist/misandrist by being part of any group. It’s less about being labelled in any way and more about acknowledging that privilege exists. Look again at that definition – it’s about the unearned advantage.

It’s as much about enforced societal norms as it is about overt and explicit discrimination as it is about unsaid rules and acceptance of ‘this is just the way things are’.

It’s also almost too difficult a topic to discuss well with others.

“Hey, I want to discuss your white male privilege and why you got chosen for that promotion over me” is a pretty challenging discussion to have. Even if you toned down the language and it became something like “I just wanted to congratulate you on your promotion. I went for it too, and it’s tough for me to understand the decision making of why you got chosen when we have similar experience and qualifications”.

There is a link to other concepts that we may know of such as implicit bias, cognitive bias of different sorts, stereotypes, out and out discrimination. There are those who willfully attack, harass, abuse and hurt others and wear their privilege with pride. There are those who may have only experienced good fortune and may not see that their privilege may have been a helping hand. And it’s almost too easy to use it in argument and say “see, that’s an example of your privilege right there”.

It’s also hard to know how we correct things like privilege.

As with many things to do with improved relationships and improved human connections, it’s about understanding ourselves, understanding what we were brought up with, and understanding how that influences our lives and choices that we make.

As a British-Indian male, raised during the 1980s, attending an independent school, I had privilege all around me and I didn’t even realise. I had the benefit of a private education, which shaped my future decision making around my career. I lived in a certain area which meant I had better choices around social activities and friendships I chose to have. I could make the choice to attend university and had the privilege of not needing to work during that time and lean on my parents to see me through. Privilege positively saw me through most of the first 25 years of my life.

In recognising that we all have privilege in different ways, we can start to acknowledge how that plays out and how we might experience that in different ways. But it requires some brave conversations to be had, and with trusted people who can help us explore things in helpful and supportive ways. As I’ve been exploring what privilege means, I’m also learning a lot about myself and my life choices. Some of that needs resolving and I need to better reflect on things.

In organisations, concepts like privilege raise even more questions – and many of them uncomfortable ones. We build in privilege into employment contracts. As an employee you are privy to certain employment rights at certain times. As well as those rights, you also have organsiational benefits available to you. Many of those are simply not present when it comes to zero hours contract staff – those privileges are taken away. Pay is the most obvious form of privilege in organisations. The more senior you are the higher salary you’re paid, and the more improved privileges are available to you. Why is it more common practise for senior leaders to have privileges such as company car allowances when such a thing would benefit lower paid workers more? Sure we can applaud companies like John Lewis for paying their ‘partners’ a share paying scheme, but that privilege only extends to their partners. Anyone working as a contractor or supplier doesn’t receive that privilege even though they may be part of the company make up.

Privilege also becomes manifest in teams in unspoken and accepted ways. We don’t discuss things like politics, emotions, or sexual orientation because society tells us that the accepted norm is to not discuss these openly and in healthy ways, and instead to accept that they are mostly private topics for discussion at home only. It also becomes manifest in overt and obvious ways. If you have a disability, your organisation or team may need to make reasonable adjustments for you – not because it’s your right, but because the workplace was designed for able-bodied people. Most work environments have to retrofit adjustments when they recruit someone with disabilities as opposed to designing a work environment where people with disabilities are already able to fulfil their duties.

If we care about inclusion at work – and many HR professionals claim they do – we have to start talking about privilege as part of that discussion. From what I’ve understood so far, there is still much to explore in this topic. It’s a hard one to understand, and is harder still to discuss openly. People take offence easily because this isn’t about outright discrimination or negative thoughts about others – it’s about unseen and unearned advantages. Those in receipt of those advantages can only claim that something like privilege is a myth of the minorities – and those in minorities can only claim that privilege is working against them by unseen and unfair systemic practices. It’s not even a chicken and egg thing – it’s a fundamental shift in understanding a broader narrative in discussing race, equality and inclusion.

13 years of L&D later…

I remember when I started out in this game 13 years ago being a trainer and delivering content in a workshop. The content was well designed and thought through. There were workbooks, handouts, acetates for the OHP, and a video to use at different points in the training. The content was good. I was a novice, and really appreciated the trainer notes that helped the discussion move along. It was all about getting through the content. That’s what defined good training.

Or at least, that’s how I defined it.

And I’m confronted with the fact that 13 years later, there are still many L&D practitioners who think modern learning should still look like this. There are still many L&D practitioners who are working in businesses and organisations up and down and across the globe who think this form of training delivery is efficient and right.

And to an extent they’re right.

But just because people expect training to be delivered to them in this way, doesn’t mean this is what’s best for them.


13 years ago, I didn’t know that I could be a better trainer by understanding emotional intelligence. Or that I could improve my facilitation skills by gaining regular feedback on the very same. Or that if I understood the business need I could develop a really relevant training course. I didn’t know that my own development – as a practitioner – needed to move with the times. For about 6 years, I was happy just delivering content, slowly improving my ability as a trainer, but not really doing much more.

Until I started to understand that moving into senior roles in learning and development wasn’t just about delivering training, but it was about providing solutions to the business that helped the business be better at what it does. I started attending all manners of workshops, seminars, conferences, webinars, and all sorts. I got onto social media and started consuming everything I could that informed me better as a practitioner – but more so, helped me be a better human being at work.

As time went on and I started to become better at understanding business leaders, what they needed from L&D and delivering solutions that made a difference that I started to then rethink my whole approach to L&D itself. It was fine that I was working on being as good as I could be, but then I started to grow and develop my understanding of how learning itself works. After 9 years of doing this stuff, you’d think I’d know, but I didn’t – all I knew, really, was how to do training – how people learn, though, was a whole other thing.

And all the while this was happening, technology was moving at pace, as were world events. Terrorism defined the media, disruption was happening in all high street businesses, banks were getting caught out for ridiculously bad behaviour, racist, mysoginist and abusive behaviour was becoming rife. At the same time, human understanding started to explode like never before. Where models like NLP and MBTI had strong holds, these were becoming unpicked. Learning Styles, which was once the darling model all trainers used, was becoming debunked at pace. Emotional intelligence, which was once a very theoretical model, became far more entrenched in evidence and provided a whole new way to articulate human understanding. An unknown area called neuroscience started uncovering the mechanisms of the brain – not just that it worked in certain ways, but what that meant for people. A whole new field of behavioural economics became fresh and exciting helping people to understand that you can encourage good behaviours for the common good.

L&D itself almost transformed over the last decade. People began posting their own how to videos online. People began writing their own thoughts and experiences through platforms and getting them read and shared widely. Online content fast became the go to source for knowing anything. Brands moved away from broadcasting content, to be content providers, helping people know how to do better things with their products, not just that the products exist. We started to learn that there were experts everywhere, and we didn’t need to hold all the information ourselves. Online experiences became more and more about user experience, forcing us to re-examine how e-learning itself works. We learned that in providing online spaces for discussion and debate you can collaborate, meet other people and achieve pretty cool things.

I’m a bit exhausted just writing about how much has changed in the last 13 years that I’ve been doing this L&D and OD stuff.

And yet, there are trainers, HR types, recruitment types, and L&D/OD types who refuse to understand this explosion of new information and new ways of working. The world has literally moved on, and the very people who are meant to understand human insight and provide this knowledge to the organisation are worried about the transactional activities they’re doing and not looking at the stuff which makes a difference.

Which leaves me a bit deflated I’m honest. I’ve been at this blogging lark for a number of years now. I don’t get as many readers as some of you might think – I’m a modest writer with modest readership. But I’ve been writing about this stuff consistently for all that time. And not just me – many other better writers are out there. They’re trying to do the same. Get people to think differently. To work differently. To behave differently. To be amazing all on their own. And for all the people who will share and like and retweet this blog, there are many more who are blissfully unaware the world has fundamentally changed around them. They’re there, getting on and delivering the same old thing in the same old way.

Where are the BAME speakers in L&D?

It is becoming increasingly apparent to me that conference organisers are either willfully blind to the diversity of their speakers, or willfully excluding diversity in their speakers. If you look at any L&D conference line up, you’ll be hard pressed to find people of colour speaking. There may be gender diversity, but even that is not guaranteed. Apparently, only white people are sought to speak and equally apparently are the only ones who seem to have a credible voice that people can and want to hear.

Ticket sales are important, you see, and diversity is important, but not as important as ticket sales. And of course the organisers understand that diversity and inclusion are important, but you have to understand that sometimes it’s hard enough to get a speaker on a topic at all, let alone from BAME (Black, Asian and Minortiy Ethnic) community. And they have attendance of people from BAME communities so they must be respecting diversity and inclusion.

So let’s look at this from another angle.

What’s stopping people from BAME communities from having and using their voice? After all, it’s a valid argument to also say that the reason people from BAME communities aren’t present is because we don’t know they exist and that they have a voice worth hearing. By exist I mean that they are working in the profession (although some people will be colour blind to such things and choose not to acknowledge that).

Social media allows people from BAME communities to have a voice, and to be heard. So why aren’t we seeing or hearing from more? I’m plenty aware that the online communities that I’m part of are only as representative as I seek them to be. But I also have faith in my networks to share good content regardless of who the writer is. But maybe I’m not doing a good enough job and maybe I’m trusting that serendipity too much.

It’s not just that social media allows people from BAME communities to have a voice, we also have to acknowledge that people from BAME communities aren’t generally heard in society. So even though there is the facility for it, it doesn’t mean inclusion can happen until we also seek to address how inclusion is genuinely sought after.

We’re hearing too much these days of people trolling others and actively finding ways to harm others online. People get shamed into not voicing their opinion for no other reason than they aren’t white. There is too much tarring of the same brush and it can take just one negative experience to stop anything positive from occurring again.

So I’m vowing to take an action that whenever I’m asked to be part of a conference, and I don’t see that there’s good enough diversity of speakers, I’m going to ask why. If I don’t get a healthy answer, then I’ll have to consider if I want to be part of that line up.

And also, I’m very interested in helping people from BAME communities in L&D to find their online voice.

I recently did an interview with Kim George as part of the online programme, Learning Now TV. She asked some good questions and helped me to articulate what I’m writing about today.

Positive Psychology and Leadership

I’ve given a few Ignite talks, and this is the first time I’ve had it videoed and made available to me.

Have a watch, and let me know what you think.

In particular, I’m really keen to know feedback on my presentation delivery.

What Does Positive Psychology Tell Us About Leadership? | Sukhvinder Pabial | DisruptHR Talks from DisruptHR on Vimeo.

More thoughts on digital skills in L&D

Isn’t just everyone talking about digital skills these days? It’s like the topic du jour for everyone, all the time about everything.

I read a really insightful piece last week about how the Department for Work and Pensions are setting out to become digital innovators. Yeah, the DWP – notorious for finding inhuman ways to treat people who aren’t doing well in society – my words and my judgements, no one else’s. One of the most stalwart of government departments is jumping on the bandwagon of digital, and it makes a lot of sense that they do too. In an age when austerity has driven many public offices to fundamentally re-think how they work, turning to digital is a much needed progression.

And yet, there are still many L&Ders who haven’t moved in step and in line with digital progression – and I’m left wondering (forever) why?

There is no argument from anyone leading on the new world of L&D that face to face training and workshops isn’t still a highly useful form of learning delivery. In fact, it’s still what most L&D departments buy in terms of learning solutions. It can still be relevant, it can still deliver high quality content, and is still a highly engaging form of learning delivery.

What I’m more concerned about is the absolute lack of thinking on how digital technology enables us to provide much more rounded support when it comes to learning delivery, and a lot of it accessible to most L&Ders.

Our understanding of e-learning has come on leaps and bounds from the days of converting slide decks to simple click next training. And we’ve come on from just dumping every piece of knowledge and content into e-learning too. Those methods were never good enough and they still aren’t. We can now develop e-learning where the content comes direct from subject matter experts, in original documents, including video, no longer than 20 mins, and with much improved user experience.

In fact, the technology is now there to break away from e-learning as we’ve known it into what’s called ‘micro-learning’ or ‘bite-size’ learning. This is where you use a short video platform like Vine or Periscope, you capture a short video for how something is done and share it with your network.

We’re now learning that you can provide resources and content to people when it comes to programme / campaign based content and this means not every part needs to be face to face training. For example, instead of explaining models and theories in a classroom, why not provide the source content ahead of time, and use the classroom environment to have a full and proper debate about the content? Instead of running a training course on PowerPoint contstruction, why not send a YouTube video of someone explaining exactly that?

Whats also becoming more and more relevant is how people use online collaboration tools. Sites like Ning, Slack, Basecamp or Conceptboard allow people to contribute to collective information, share thoughts and insights and build and develop their content knowledge.

There’s more that can be done in this space and that I could describe – far more. What’s concerning to me is that there are too many L&Ders who have their head in the sand about digital and its capabilities that they’re just not providing the right kind of support to the people they’re trying to support. Instead they’re offering the same old kind of old solution which is stuck in an old way of thinking and doesn’t consider adult based learning principles or modern models and ways of thinking.

I’m not saying that L&Ders need to know everyone type of digital solution that’s out there, but we do have to better consider the inclusion of a range of learning options when it comes to learning solutions.

Wearable Technology and L&D

I’ve been keeping an eye on the world of wearable technology and how it’s changing consumer behaviour. The most common wearables that people seem to have are things like smartwatches or fitness trackers – Apple watch, Samsung Gear watch, Fitbit, that kind of thing. I have the Samsung Gear watch, others I know have either the above, or variants of the above. What is fascinating about this type of technology is how it gives the user information about their body in a way which is accessible and immediate like never before.

Runners enjoy them for the accuracy of the information. They link to GPS information giving you useful understanding of where you’re running, and how far. The internal mechanism tracks your speed, and, if you want, your heart rate too, as well as the distance.

The smartwatches are useful for scanning notifications and deciding how you want to respond to them. Just a nonsense email? Delete. A message from your partner? Read. A WhatsApp message? Read. An incoming phone call you don’t want to take? Dismiss. A LinkedIn invitation? Accept. All without having to touch your phone. Nice, easy and intuitive.

Of course they can offer other functionality too – telling the time(!), alarm facility, using it for sat nav while walking, controlling your music.

And along the way, there have been experiments with other types of wearable technology. The most obvious of these in recent years was the Google Glass. This year seems to have seen a real focus on VR with the likes of Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. I’ve seen some of what is capable in VR and it really is impressive – creating 3D drawings, immersing in a hostile environment, thrill seeking. It’s pretty impressive stuff, not quite Holodeck level, but impressive all the same.

There are a good many applications for all this technology to working lives. Google Glass had the potential to support consultants in training observe operations in real time, and gain valuable insight into how they happen. I recall hearing from Donald Clark that VR is being used to provide training for care professionals and for police officers from the perspective of service users and from the public. That’s really powerful for insights, reflections and awareness raising. And it speaks to a deeper level of learning which is about lived experience as opposed to intellectualisation of topics like Diversity and Inclusion.

What I’ve been mindful in watching all this unfold is that we’re a long way off these things becoming out and out useful applications to L&D in general. Mostly that’s to do with the cost element and lack of well thought out design for L&D purposes. At present, most wearable technology is too costly to buy in bulk. The money you’d need to spend to buy the technology could be better spent in upskilling L&Ders with the knowledge and skills to design and facilitate better learning solutions.

Also, we have to be mindful that consumer behaviour is fundamentally different to employee behaviour. When I get a notification on my smartwatch, I know it’s something relevant to me and that I instigated. When I get a message or email on my phone, I know it’s likely to be from someone who is contacting me for a reason that is relevant and appropriate (of course there are also the cases of nuisance, but that’s just modern life). Those interactions, and the acceptance of them, is a fundamentally different experience to my work phone. When I receive messages on my work phone, there are a number of factors to bear in mind.

It’s a work phone, so there’s a psychological contract that if I’m being contacted on there, I have to respond. As a piece of work technology, I am also expected to use it to be able to access relevant information. However, if I were given wearable technology to help me do work better, it starts to demand different sets of behaviours from me that need to be fully explored. If it’s a smartwatch, how do I use it to contact people with ease? What permissions are set on it to contact me when I’m in a meeting or working on something important? If it’s ‘micro-learning’ that’s being pushed to me through notifications, how do you know it’s relevant to me at the right time? If it’s a prompt to nudge me to access a learning solution, how do you know you’re not intruding on something else I’m meant to be prioritising?

When your Fitbit or smartwatch gives you information about your heart-rate or your fitness level, that’s useful information that you choose to know about. If it’s provided through work, how will the same tech be used to track you as an individual? What happens to that trust element of work? Do I trust that you’re working even though your smartwatch tells me that you’ve been sitting at your desk for 3 hours? Am I concerned about your wellbeing because I can see that you haven’t been actively mobile for 3 hours? Am I concerned about your health because I can see from your wearable that your heart-rate has increased and you’re likely feeling stressed or something else concerning? Am I also concerned about your workload because I can see that you’ve not responded to anything on the smartwatch for 3 hours?

Like I said, consumer behaviour is fundamentally different to employee behaviour. The intent, basis and usage of wearable tech for personal usage is inherently different to why employees might be asked to use it/wear it.

Wearable technology will start to become available to the workforce in different forms. With each that is adopted, we need to be sure that we help people know why it’s being introduced, what the expectations are from receiving it, how they’re meant to make sense of their interactions with it, and how they choose to use it to enhance performance. I don’t think we’re there yet. There still need to be better thought out reasons as to why wearable technology should be included as part of the L&D offering, and more compelling reasoning on how it can actually enhance performance at work.