Saturday, May 15, 2010

Training For Reflection

My understanding of the Workplace Learning is that the practise is dominated by behaviourist paradigm. So, the key principles held dear by the workplace learning practitioners are the following:

(a) Observable behaviour change, rather than internal processes, is the key. So, the effectiveness of any training interventions should be measured or evaluated by what people do, rather than what people think, see or feel.

(b) The environment shapes one's behaviour. What one learns is determined by the environment, the design and delivery of the programme and incentives at work, and not by individual learners. So, a programme should be seen as a part of the environment, designed to enhance the experience and create a common platform of understanding so that common stimulus-response pattern can be expected.

(c) Workplace Learning should establish contiguity [how close two events must be to form a bond] and reinforcement [any means of increasing the likelihood that an event will be repeated] as central to the learning process. So, the learning, which should establish a certain way people should behave, should revolve around what leads to what, and how one must keep repeating the 'success formula'.

If the above seems obvious things to do from a workplace learning perspective, it may make sense to grasp the underlying theoretical perspective. Behaviourists are popular because their theories seem to conform to the management thinking - that there is a clear cause-effect relationship in human behaviour, and an efficient formula can lead to sure-shot business success.

However, behaviourist theories have come out of very little human research - because such research is forbidden by law and beyond professional ethics - and they were formed mostly by observing animal behaviour in controlled laboratory conditions. Best known examples of behaviourist experimentation is Pavlov's dogs, who were trained to salivate at the sound of a bell, and also Skinner's pigeons, who learnt to peck on a certain button because food pallets were to appear as a result of such a peck. However, these are hardly conditions and behaviours which will apply to humans, particularly those whose physical needs have been met and who perform complex 'knowledge work'. However, for all the refinement of models and practises, the workplace learning paradigm, primarily shaped by management dogma, remain firmly rooted in behaviourist ideas.

The behaviourist thinking has deeply influenced various aspects of workplace learning, including the whole discipline of Instructional Design, which has achieved great sophistication over the years, and the Measurement of Training Outcomes, which is becoming increasingly popular. On the other hand, though, the ideas about the organization life and management are constantly shifting. For example, management is increasingly seen as a practise more than a science, where outcome of an action is far from certain and critical reflection is seen as the key to improvement of practise. Development of abilities of a person is differently viewed, not in terms of the performance of the assigned work, like John Henry or Alexey Stakhanov, but in terms of intelligent input, innovation and continuous improvement that a person may bring. Even the identity of a person, which was defined by a sort of 'stage of life' concept in the last century, have moved on, and is increasingly seen as something to be constructed, in the social context, not unlike putting up a well planned facebook page. In this context, the current practises of workplace learning surely fall short: Leadership courses that dwell on best practises of another era, sales training that rely on a simplistic stimulus-response sequence detached from the complexities of real life, and reductionist formulas which make ceteris paribas assumptions to determine the Return on Investment of training in a still-life world, are all examples of flawed behaviourist assumptions being stretched to meet an out-of-size requirement.

If management as a discipline moves on and establishes the requirement of critical thinking and reflection in the workplace, the learning practises must follow the same. It must establish the primacy of observation alongside performance, allow reflection at work and balance 'what works' dogma with 'why it works' analysis. Most organizations are culturally ill at ease with such thinking, particularly when they are sustained by arcane power relationships and role expectations.

However, the organizations can ill afford not having an engaged and observant workforce, because such engagement is key to innovation and improvement. The combined forces of business environment, recession, shifting international power equations, technology and an emergent bottom-of-the-pyramid market, are forcing the organizations to change, and taking workplace learning with it. Training for reflection is not easy; however, the practise will hit home as the discipline must itself start reflecting on its own assumptions.

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