The Learning Professional And Their Four Responsibilities
I have been lucky in my job to spend time with many hundreds of Learning and Development (L&D) practitioners over the past ten years or so, in all sectors of the economy and in all parts of the world.
Almost without exception I find them to be enthusiastic, friendly, and determined to do the best possible job.
Just as consistently I find a major obstacle to them achieving their goals and providing the best possible service to their organizations. They are simply not afforded the respect that they need to function effectively as professionals, capable of using their technical expertise to solve problems in ways that are simply not available to the lay person.
Let’s take an example…
What would you do?
Your internal client, a long-serving, senior manager, calls you in for a meeting. He is looking for a training program to ease upcoming transition from Microsoft Office to Google Apps.
He suggests a suite of eLearning modules to cover each of the apps in the suite, along with an option of classroom training for those who still prefer this approach. He would like you to go off and work up a proposal with a budget and schedule.
This would not be your favored strategy for addressing the situation. What would you do?
What It Means To Be A Professional
To be a professional means a lot more than simply doing whatever the client wants. You wouldn’t hire an interior designer only to inform them that you’ve already chosen all the color schemes and furnishings; you wouldn’t engage an accountant and then explain to them the way your figures should be processed (unless of course you worked at Enron); you wouldn’t employ a fitness trainer and then tell them what to include in your workout; and you wouldn’t buy a dog and then insist that you do all the barking.
So why, then, do we continue to encounter situations in which line managers tell the guys from Learning and Development exactly what they want in terms of learning interventions, with the expectation that they’ll simply take these instructions and run with them? You’d like a six-hour eLearning package to train customer service staff to sell over the telephone? A two-day workshop to teach every detail of a new company system to all employees, regardless of whether or not they will be using it? A one-hour podcast to teach manual handling skills? No problem. That’s what we’re here for, to meet your requirements.
Hang on a minute, you’re probably thinking. This isn’t an encounter between a professional and a client, it's simply order taking.
When asked to jump, a professional does not ask “how high?”. They say, “Let’s talk about this a little, because jumping may not be the best solution for you in this situation”. And if this tactic doesn’t work and the professional is told in no uncertain terms that jumping is the only acceptable option, then he or she has two choices: Either they resign and get another job where their role as a professional is properly valued; or they agree to go ahead, but only after having expressed quite clearly in writing that jumping is against their best advice.
Learning and Development isn’t common sense; it isn't intuitive. If it was then experts wouldn’t lecture at novices for hours on end; they wouldn’t insist on passing on everything they know, however irrelevant, however incomprehensible. That’s why we have learning professionals, so they can explain, in terms that the lay person can clearly understand, how people acquire knowledge, develop skills, and adapt to new ideas, and how best to support this process. If the customer doesn’t hear this advice, they will assume that the people in Learning and Development are just the builders, not the architects; and, if no-one seems to be offering their services as architect, they’ll take on the task for themselves.
Doing No Harm To Learners
One of the key differences between professions and other forms of occupation is the fact that professionals are bound by ethical codes. If they contravene these codes they are liable to be disbarred from their profession. Doctors sign a Hippocratic oath which binds them to do no harm to their patients. Their patients’ interests take priority over those of any body which employs them or their own opportunities to make financial gains. Now we all know that, in practice, some doctors, lawyers, bankers, accountants, and other professionals do break this trust and put themselves first, but generally we are shocked when this happens and expect the transgression to be dealt with firmly.
As those responsible for managing the learning of adults in the workplace, we also like to be regarded as professionals. But you don’t become a professional just by calling yourself one. You have important responsibilities, not only to your clients but also to your learners. Doing no harm to your learners means that you don’t frazzle them with too much content, you don’t bore them, embarrass them, or try to sell them quack remedies.
Your Colleagues Need You To
Every time you act as an order taker rather than a consultant, you are letting down the whole profession. Every time you develop or deliver content without question as to its efficacy you are doing the same. Every time you promote a now discredited theory, you are doing even more damage – you are not only risking the whole profession being seen as quacks and new age romantics, you may well be harming learners.
To put it bluntly, every time you behave unprofessionally, you reinforce undesirable stereotypes and make it much harder for your colleagues to fulfill their roles as professionals.
You Are Important Too
Professional skills take time to master. To be cynical, you might say that if a doctor claimed they were ready to practice having just completed a five-day course you’d be horrified; if your electrician said they were happy to re-wire your house having attended a webinar you’d be equally astounded; but if your instructor said they were fully-equipped having attended a three-day train-the-trainer you wouldn’t be surprised at all.
Take the example of an architect. How could they function without keeping up-to-date with the latest building techniques, legislation, materials, and developments in electrics, plumbing, and lighting? Imagine a dentist who wasn’t aware of the latest treatments and equipment? They would soon be unable to provide an adequate service and would rightly be ushered out of the profession.
The idea of a technophobic architect or dentist seems ridiculous, and yet with learning professionals it is somehow the norm. And yet it takes as long to become an effective learning consultant, designer or facilitator as it does to become a skilled professional or craftsperson in other fields. Your success depends on a long apprenticeship and the most open of minds.
In Summary: Our Four Responsibilities
- As a learning professional I have a responsibility to my client to help them to achieve their goals for employee performance. Doing the best for my client will often mean suggesting a solution other than the one requested. Sometimes it will mean recommending something other than a learning intervention.
- As a learning professional I have a responsibility to the learners who participate in any learning intervention that I conceive or facilitate. I want these learners to be inspired and grow in confidence. I want to help them achieve their own goals for personal development. I want to do them no harm, by boring them, overwhelming them, embarrassing them, or peddling them untested remedies.
- As a learning professional I have a responsibility to my fellow professionals to uphold the ethics and standards of my profession, and to do nothing that would damage our collective credibility. In the work that I carry out, I want to enhance the reputation of learning professionals as trusted consultants and skilled practitioners; as people who can be relied on to put the interests of their clients and their learners first.
- Finally, as a learning professional, I have a responsibility to myself to make sure I am fully up-to-date with current best practice and evidence-based learning theory, that I am constantly reflecting upon and looking to improve my skills, and that I am conversant with the latest technologies that could enhance learning in terms of its effectiveness or efficiency.
How You Can Help
If you agree with me about the importance of the four responsibilities, I encourage you to go to the four responsibilities website where you can indicate your support. Working together we can do something positive to lift the status of learning professionals around the world and, as a result, have a much greater influence on the organizations that we represent.