702010 – The canary in the L&D coalmine and our escape to the surface - Dr Paul Donovan

702010 – The canary in the L&D coalmine and our escape to the surface - Dr Paul Donovan

Canaries were once used, cruelly no doubt, as a sentinel species in coalmines – warning of danger. This fragile bird was more sensitive to the poisonous gases prevalent below ground than humans. So, if a canary became ill or died in a coalmine that meant that danger for miners could soon follow. It was the signal to evacuate...

 

Author: Dr. Paul Donovan, Principal Investigator at the School of Business, Maynooth University

Canaries were once used, cruelly no doubt, as a sentinel species in coalmines – warning of danger. This fragile bird was more sensitive to the poisonous gases prevalent below ground than humans. So, if a canary became ill or died in a coalmine that meant that danger for miners could soon follow. It was the signal to evacuate. Since time began mankind has always looked for signs from nature to tell what is about to happen - gathering storm clouds warn of rain or ‘red sky at night’ spells fine weather the next day. In this piece I argue that 702010 is one such warning, telling us of a seismic shift in L&D that has already begun. This shift is shaking the foundations of the profession. But to look on the bright side, I also think there’s a fix.

Since the early 1990s, there has been a push for lifelong learning with many authors advocating for its spread throughout the globe. The onset of the knowledge society at this time called for an army of knowledge workers who would have the skills to keep industry and consumption going strong.

Lifelong learning is a duty, a moral obligation for any responsible member of society (Atkin, 2000).

In tandem with this push for lifelong learning, there has been a coincidental shift in the responsibility for learning away from the state and employers towards individuals. The implications of this statement will not be lost on individuals who will feel the pressure exerted to keep apace of their changing world. Gone is the time when the responsibility for development lay entirely with the state and the employer. The responsibility for education, training, and employment has moved on to the individual. 

The arrival of 702010 in the late 1980s and early 1990s found a welcome in the upper echelons of business and OECD policymakers. The model implied that only a small amount of learning, 10%, could be pinned to the door of the employer and even quite a bit of that 10% could be pushed back on to the employee in terms of studies carried on in the employee’s own time. New technology played a role here, with online learning facilitating the employee carrying on important learning in their own time and without interrupting the work schedule.

All of these changes have had an effect on the role of L & D in organisations. Formal interventions in organisations are fewer and that which exists is shorter and of a just in time nature. A recent study by this author carried on in 7 of our most important organisations in Ireland showed that face to face training had been reduced significantly – partly as a result of the new ‘dogma’ that stated that only a small proportion of our learning should come from formal training and education. We may be witnessing a further dilution of our influence as L&D professionals in our organisations. If our base in face to face training is shrinking, how are we to control learning that goes on out there in the workplace when much of it will be happening off the job and on smartphones? Is that even the right question any more – should we even want to control learning? Shouldn’t we be just happy to know that it is happening? Either way, however, our influence is shrinking.

I believe the upside to all this change is staring us in the face – it is a call to reinvent ourselves. The great momentous changes in policy and technology will not wait around for us nor will they provide comfortable existences for us without any change or disruption. It hasn’t been this way for any other category of employee, so why should we be any different? However, because of our learning base, I think we are better placed than most to recalibrate our roles away from course providers and event managers and towards organisational problem-solving. We need to acquire the best tools possible from behavioural science, OD, and finest management literature to create a toolbox that we can use to increase our value to the organisation. We need to glide seamlessly into the gaps that exist between the organisation and its customers, gaps between the different (sometimes warring) factions in organisations and gaps between the stages of service delivery – all places where change agents are needed to help the organisation heal, develop and grow.

The 702010 canary has signaled that the atmosphere is getting less hospitable for us. I can’t think of a group that is better positioned than L&D is, to make the transition to the surface, not only to safety but to a whole new world of opportunity.

Atkin, C. "Lifelong Learning Attitudes to Practice in the Rural Context." International Journal of Lifelong Education 19, no. 3 (May-June 2000): 253-265

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