Monday, October 22, 2018

Has L&D been hijacked by ‘identity’ politics?

I got asked an interesting question last week on a panel at an Learning and Development conference. Where is L and D? Is it advancing or regressing? Interesting question.
In many ways it has advanced by embracing technology. Few individuals or organisations of any scale ignore online solutions to deliver learning and development. There has also been some movement towards taking research more seriously. I meet far fewer people who believe in learning styles or NLP. There seems to be much more awareness of learning theory and by that I mean cognitive science.
On the other hand, these advances have been matched by a serious reversal - the swallowing, lock, stock and both barrels of ‘identity’ politics. Gone are the days when HR and L and D were at the forefront of personal development. Much ‘training’ is now targeted at protecting the organisation from their own employees. Employees are now subjected to a tsunami of compliance and identity training . Much of what is actually delivered via an LMS is actually protective training, or as almost everyone says, ‘tick-box’ training. We know it and learners know it. We have to be honest about the fact that they are often openly contemptuous about this form of ‘training’. Somewhere along the line our development agenda got hijacked.
Identity and training
Training that establishes difference also implies exclusion. Fixing favoured identity groups, seeing some as oppressed and others oppressors is a destructive force. And when HR aggressively promotes and ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture it does us all a disservice. When we become the managers and administrators of difference, serving up a never-ending diet of identity and diversity training courses, we swirl around in our own echo-chambers. We become the seekers out of ‘wrong-think’, policing ordinary people, as if they were stained by original sins. It results, not in rational consensus within an organisation, but the false exaggeration of difference.
One specific identity group that has been put on a pedestal is ‘Leaders’. We have thrown resources at Leaders and Leadership training, as elitist an approach to employee engagement as I’ve seen in my 35 years in this business. In a desperate attempt to appear legitimate we have turned ‘elitism’ into a sort of training cult. No one would seriously call themselves a ‘Leader’ without being ridiculed. This form of single  group identity is a serious distortion of real needs in organisations.
Another facet of identity politics has been the unedifying sight of organisations forcing faux values down the throats of their employees. I have values and have no interest in HR telling me what my values should be. Strangely alliterative – all starting with ‘I’ or “C’ they are abstract nouns that bear no relation to the real world or the workplace. Worse still are those values that fit some acronym, where at least some of the values have been made up to fit that word. They want to shape your identity by imposing their values on you. They are, of course, largely ignored or treated with contempt. Few can recall them, fewer still care.
The rot set in long ago, when HR thought it should take the role of therapeutic diagnosis. Myers Briggs, a flawed and crude tool, has been used to determine people’s lives. As if this weren’t enough, a slew of interrogative techniques, from learning styles (a fiction) to NLP and mindfulness, were employed to caricature, categorise and, in some cases, condemn ordinary people. There has been no end to this slicing and dicing, based on dubious diagnostic techniques. The evidence is clear. Diversity training does not work.
Unconscious bias
It has now reached surreal levels of interrogative nonsense, with courses on ‘unconscious bias’. Not satisfied with superficial courses making us consciously compliant, HR suddenly started to probe our unconscious. How did that happen? What on earth gives anyone in HR or L&D the right to even think that my unconscious is open to their investigation, something to be probed by some half-baked questionnaire that has no scientific validity? This is completely out of control. The assumption is that certain out-of-favour groups - white, male, working class - are guilty by virtue of being born, so leaden with bias that they need to be re-educated. It’s a pathological view of human nature, where minds must be interrogated and forced to admit their guilt. This was never our goal. HR and L&D is full of good people but it has been hijacked by a form of policing that has abandoned personal development for personal identity.
All of this is fuelled by so called ‘experts’ who design courses on ‘X’, train others to deliver those courses as ‘practitioners’ who sell their courses for ‘$Y’ so the Ponzi schemes begin. Rather than focus on the real needs of organisations, real knowledge, skills and competences, we have been sucked into a world of exaggerations, abstract concepts and fictions, where people have to be identified, shamed and re-educated, to be ‘correct’ and ‘compliant’. Time and time again I hear pleas for HR and L&D to be more business focussed. What we’ve done, in reality, is turn our back on real business issues, to focus on therapeutic concerns, that invade people’s privacy. So let’s get off the identity bandwagon and get back to business.

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