L&D 2009: Survival of the fittest thinkers

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21st Jan 2009
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SuccessDespite the challenging climate, Graham O'Connell believes that we should approach the next 12 months with hope and determination - and that if we are to thrive in 2009 we will require a combination of common sense tactics and fresh thinking.

Just over a year ago I welcomed in 2008 with a half full glass of fizzing champagne. By the autumn I was fearing that I’d toast 2009 with a glass half empty, at best, and with far less fizz. But the turn of the year is a time to look forward with hope and determination.

Photo of Graham O'Connell"If you’ll forgive the slight distortion of Einstein's famous words, the thinking that got us into this mess won’t get us out of it"

I can remember earlier recessions and there is no doubt that budgets get cut: if you view learning as a non-essential activity, then this makes perfect sense - less so if you see it as an investment. I also remember coming out of these tough times with smarter ideas about what type of learning really matters and how to deliver development in more creative ways.

As well as financial changes, there is often a shift in attitudes during a recession: it is easy to assert that staff development is an investment, but with many other forms of investment failing to deliver, I wonder whether organisations will be willing to divert precious resources to speculate on future human returns.

A recent National School of Government survey revealed some interested insights into how employees are viewing learning. When asked about the uncertain times ahead, 78% of respondents said that they felt that learning new and more honed skills will be more vital, not less. Just 8% said learning is not a priority (14% were not sure).


When asked about whether it is best to go for high quality training and learning, even if that means doing less, or covering all training and learning needs, even if that means compromising on quality, the resounding result was 78% to 7% in favour of quality. This suggests to me that if we provide the right learning – that equips people to survive and thrive – and to the right standard, then there will be demand. Though, realistically, not all demand will translate into funding. And that will probably not be consistent either from one sector to another, between technical and developmental training and, possibly, even across different age groups.


So, will the world of training be just a scaled down 'business as usual' with a bit more of the 'survival of the fittest'? Probably. But I hope there will also be some creative challenge to the perceived wisdoms of the day (let's face it, if the banking sector had done a bit more of that then we might not be in this situation). I do sometimes wonder whether there is some form of collective unconscious collusion that stops us from contesting supposed best practice. If you'll forgive the slight distortion of Einstein's famous words, the thinking that got us into this mess won't get us out of it.

For example, here are some of things I'd like to see us radically re-think in 2009:

    1. Performance management, appraisal and personal development plans – rather too many systems have lost their focus and have become form-ridden rituals.

    2. Competencies – used clumsily, with highly-structured platitudes and tick boxes, they are no substitute for intelligent thought and judgement.

    3. Training – getting under the skin of what really constitutes great learning events; from the psychology to the practicalities, from the components of design to the professionalism of those who manage it.

Those who challenge the dominant thinking of the day are sometimes labelled as 'rebels'. As long as one is a skilled and constructive form of rebel, and not just argumentative, then that beats being a sheep hands down. I believe that to thrive in 2009 will require a combination of common sense tactics – delivering the right products, of the right quality, to the right people, at the right time, and doing this with renewed rigour – alongside some truly fresh thinking about what we are trying to achieve and how.

Does this mean, when I look at the future of training, I see the glass half full or half empty? Well, as an L&D consultant, I guess I should practice what I preach and look at this both practically and creatively. I want to keep the fizz but I want to lose any unnecessary structures I might otherwise take for granted. My answer, therefore, is: there is twice as much glass as is needed for the champagne it contains.

Happy New Year!

Graham O'Connell is the head of organisational learning and standards at the National School for Government. He has particular responsibility for developing and promoting best practices in learning and development

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