Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
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Evidence Please

24th Jul 2014
Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International | Senior Consultant, Learnworks Ltd
Columnist
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I’ve been asked to Chair the World of Learning Conference this year.  It’s a great honour and I’m very excited about the prospect of meeting so many people and hearing stories about what’s happening in learning and development.  I always try to keep up to date with new trends, but being Chair of a conference which has always been founded on innovation has lent a special urgency to the need to stay informed.

Imagine my delight, therefore, when I was invited to download a white paper about staying ahead of training trends this week.  I was especially pleased that the first statement on this paper was about statistics.  I have long been a critic of wild assertions being used in L&D circles.  Evidence based approaches work best and we should be able to gather data to support and validate our arguments.

My cup almost overflowed when I read the first assertion on page 2 of the download: “For the first time in Modern History, there are four generations at work.”

Hallelujah! My own book – Complete Training – is sub-titled ‘from recruitment to retirement’.  I have led webinars and written extensively about the need to ensure training reaches everyone – including the over 50’s who are now more numerous than ever in our workforce.  It has, on occasions, seemed like I was a lone voice but now someone else has cottoned on.  That’s worth celebrating.

And then the author (whom I have elected not to name) chose to characterise those four generations. 

The first is the Silent Generation – born before 1945.  They are – according to this white paper – “all about hierarchy”.  If these septuagenarians are in senior management roles and you bring a problem to them, their first response will be “Have you talked to your direct manager about this?” 

Apart from the startlingly obvious comment that that is precisely what a senior manager should always say – regardless of age – the idea that we can characterise this whole group as being all about hierarchy seems based on no other insight apart from that they ‘may in fact have served in World War II’.  (As this would make them in their 90s this seems a particularly pointless observation unless the author is exclusively talking about the training trends for the judiciary.)

Amongst this so-called ‘Silent Generation’ we have Mick Jagger, born 1943; Vivienne Westwood, born 1941; John Lennon, 1940 (not forgetting Yoko Ono, born 1933), Winnie Mandela (1936) and Martin Luther King (1929).  I think we can all see how this group’s deep respect for hierarchy and ‘adhering to the chain of responsibility’ is their primary, defining characteristic!

The next group are the Baby Boomers, of whom I am one.  Apparently I am ‘free-form’, ‘individualistic’ and ‘socially conscious’ yet ‘quite change averse’.  This ‘free-form’ yet ‘change averse’ group include engineering innovator James Dyson and Camila Batmanghelidjh, Iranian born founder of Kids Company.  Not that keen on change there, then!

Those aged between 30 and 40 are members of Generation X. All of them are (apparently) independent. They saw the ‘invention and implementation of the internet’ (good job it wasn’t left to that change resistant Baby Boomer, Tim Berners-Lee).  They get things done ‘in a number of different ways’ and ‘value autonomy’ while being ‘committed to teams’.  This generation, according to the white paper, focus on ‘self-sacrifice’ and ‘getting work done’.  However, a quick search on the web sees this group characterized as ‘slackers’, ‘disenfranchised’ and ‘the lost generation.’  These more negative views are not considered. One wonders why.  After all, so far it’s been a coruscating insight into generational difference.  Why not roll out another stereotype?

Finally, we have the Millennials.  Born in the latter two decades of the 20th century, we learn that this group is into ‘collaborative problem solving’ who ‘grew up getting a badge, trophy or award for everything they did.’  I wonder if the white paper goes on to include a reference to gamification? We learn that they like structure, technology and relationships and are ‘the force driving Facebook and other social media tools’. 

A much repeated idea but one which is, sadly, not true.  As the Pew Research Centre’s statistical analysis has shown, 73% of all adults over 18 are using social networks and when we compare that figure with the single most numerous group of over 18s, those aged between 50 and 64 (our baby boomers) we see that the proportion is as high as 65%.  CIPD research into the use of social media at work, published in December 2013, showed that 53% of senior managers were users of social media at work, compared to just 42% of 18 – 24 year olds.  Whether it fits our prejudices or not, social media use is cross generational.

I know it’s pretty easy to simply pull apart someone else’s white paper and have a good old snarky rant about how inaccurate it is, but this stuff matters.

Imagine for a moment that these sweeping characterisations were not attributed to different generations but attributed to different races, or to men and women or to those of different sexuality?  Would it be OK to make such comments in a white paper distributed by a reputable company? 

Of course it wouldn’t. 

Wouldn’t it be better if we segmented our workforce on the basis of their starsign?  That would at least give us 12 categories – an improvement of 300%.

Is it sensible to base a discussion of workforce needs on these such narrow definitions and characteristics? According to the Office of National Statistics, Baby Boomers represented over one quarter of the workforce in 2013.  This group number around 11million in the UK and are over-represented in the working population. Should we be comfortable with so-called research which dismisses them all as ‘change averse’?

To quote Oscar Wilde: “All generalisations are wrong, including this one”.  Sloppy generalisations are not the basis for thinking intelligently about the future trends in workforce development. Outlining a group of under-researched and unsupportable beliefs in order to provide some kind of justification for your future predictions undermines whatever follows (which I have to admit, so underwhelmed am I by the opening paragraphs that I haven’t bothered to read further in any detail.)

As an L&D industry we have spent too long accepting unsupported assertions.  Where initial research findings are released, we are happy to over-state the case being made. Where conceptual models are proposed, they are rapidly perpetuated as being based in fact.  Where research raises questions about accepted wisdom it is played down or waved away. 

It is essential that we get back to evidence based practice.  We must question the basis for projections about future trends. If the L&D industry relies on nothing more than flaky thinking and prejudice then we have a clear future trend.  Increasingly – and rightly – we will be ignored!

That’s one reason why I’m so looking forward to chairing this year’s World of Learning conference.  As a delegate you may not have the opportunity or the confidence to question the assumptions and the beliefs which underpin the presentations you see.  You may not feel you can share your own research or experiences if they differ from those being discussed.  But as Chair, I can and I promise you I will.

I look forward to you joining me to participate in the lively and – I sincerely hope – evidence based debates that our great industry desperately needs.

Robin Hoyle is the author of Complete Training – from recruitment to retirementHe has been a trainer, learning designer and consultant for the past 28 years.  He is the Chair of the World of Learning Conference, September 30th to October 1st at the NEC, Birmingham. Book for the conference before 30th August for a 30% discount on booking fees.

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