Uncharted Waters

So it’s been a few days since HRD 2013 finished hosted by the CIPD, and here’s my final set of thoughts on the conference and the L&D profession.

The L&D profession is essentially driving itself into complacency. The other day I asked the question if L&D has stalled, and this has been bugging me. Why have we stalled? As one of the speakers at the conference said, this is the time for L&D (and HR) to shine, to really let loose within our organisations, and drive change. Except, this is an ambition only a few will ever realise.

There’s some important things to consider in my statement.

The economy continues to be fucked. Spending is still down, people are unsure of what’s happening tomorrow, and the government has narrowly escaped a third recession. This means organisations are in uncharted waters. They don’t know how to navigate this uncertainty, and don’t know where to get their inspiration from. There aren’t any experts or ‘gurus’ who can provide the much sought after guidance. No-one knows what the answer is. This has the potential to ignite a fire in some and create an awesome set of opportunities. For the vast majority they’re just trying to tread this water until they find shore when they can regain their footing and do what they always did. Except what most don’t realise is that shore they land on will be in undiscovered countries where the same old things are obsolete.

There are no new advancement in the understanding of the human condition – not significant enough to challenge the way we think about human learning and development. When we are still using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a basis for talking about motivation, this is evidence enough of how complacent we are in the profession. Quite possibly the only new piece of thinking we can rely on is in the area of neuroscience, as technology allows us to discover more about the intricacies of the brain.

At the same time, there are a lot of theories about human learning and development, and in particular about organisational learning and development. For the modern L&Der to be skilled enough, knowledgeable enough, and able enough to be jack of all trades, and master of all is mission impossible – yet it’s what’s being asked of us. Which are we supposed to invest our efforts in? Which are we supposed to disregard? Which are going to help our organisations move forward? Which are going to be obsolete tomorrow? And most importantly – who has the answer to any of that?

Engagement is a topic that isn’t going away any time soon. There’s a lot being said about discretionary effort, and it’s causing some people to be turned off to the concept and conversation. What happened to just treating people right and doing the right things? When did it become about policy and management and protocol?

Technology continues to progress at a greater speed than the late majority will get to grips with. Take the world of movies as an example. No-one these days sells VHS cassettes. DVDs, blurays and online streaming are the world of today. Give it a few years and DVDs will become obsolete. How do we keep up with these advancements? How do we harness what the technology enables us to do and use it to aid learners needs? Do we even know what learners needs are anymore? I’m of the growing opinion that we are becoming more clueless about what the learner needs in order to be effective in their roles we hire them for.

Social technologies in particular are causing a lot discomfort and anxiety for people who don’t know how to harness it. They can (and are) being used in all manners from learning to marketing to the glib to the insightful. And there are so many to use to connect with others, how are we supposed to navigate that? The question of need is redundant, it has to be done. The questions become centred around using them for useful and progressive purposes. Holy mama, I’m getting tired now.

The skills of the L&Der need to be more. Save a few people, most of what I heard from various speakers is that we are treading water to keep alive. We’re not allowing ourselves to thrive and act with intention and positivity. We have the opportunity to do this, but we lack the creativity to find what that means. How does this make you feel? Are you inspired to act differently? Do you want to fight about this and argue your case?

I, for one, refuse to be part of this complacency. It’s a rotten place to be.

I miss being competent

It’s worth taking some time to have a think about the role of on the job learning in the workplace and how we make this happen. A lot of what we actually learn at work is done through the day to day tasks we’re involved in. Going on training and gaining accreditations or qualifications are only a small step in the world of actually gaining realisation, or becoming proficient at a task. In L&D speak, we call this the ‘steps of competence’. It can sound slightly patronising, and once you use it, you understand that this is the way of learning in general.

We first are in state of unconscious incompetence. That is, we don’t know that we don’t know how to do something. For example, I started using Microsoft PowerPoint only when I started my first job at QVC. Those first few months were a steep learning curve in using this particular program. I didn’t know I didn’t know how to use it, because I’d never had need of it before.

We then enter into a state of conscious incompetence. That is, we become starkly aware our skills are lacking and we try and find ways to overcome these. Training, asking questions, using it, all form part of the fumbling we go through.

At some point, we gradually move into a state of conscious competence. That is, we start to use that skill quite easily and become less concerned with the mechanics of what we’re doing, and just start doing. We may still seek out information on it, but by and large we’re ok with what we’re doing.

Lastly we enter into a state of unconscious competence. That is, we start to use the skill so regularly that we forget we ever didn’t know how to use it. If others ask questions about it, we’re more than likely to know how to help, and arrive at solutions quite quickly.

Back at work, then, what often ends up happening is we simply become complacent in our learning. We seem to stop at the unconscious competence thinking we’re the kings of our respective castle and need to do no more. Which is an odd thing. How can we expect to progress, develop or fulfil our ambitions if we sit on our laurels? It’s not enough to go off an attend training, or a conference, or read a blog. You have to be actively doing something that makes you question your activity.

Complacency is evil. We’re all guilty of it, though. We find a comfortable place to operate from and decide that’s our lot. We don’t need to do any more because things are ok right now. And that’s not ok. We are so foolish, us human beings. We get to a particular point in our career and think ‘I don’t need to do anything else’. Lazy buggers (which, by the way, is a favourite saying of my eldest twin, A).

The important thing here is that we don’t dismiss the importance structuring our on the job learning. In any business there’s a lot happening and ample opportunity to keep yourself in the know. Beyond that, there’s a lot of people who can help. They’re probably sitting across the desk from you right now.