Awards? Who needs them?

Now before you start thinking this post is going to be full of sour grapes, let me explain that I’m quite happy with the awards Saffron has won in the past. I’m also looking forward to pitching along with our client to win an LPI 2012 award for which we’ve just been short-listed. And that’s enough self-congratulation too.

The question I really want to address is: in what way – if at all – do our learners (and yours) benefit from industry awards? I’m aware of the usual pieties: awards help to set and raise standards, awards force us to continue to innovate, awards help to build a sense of pride for the L&D community, blah di blah. Some of this may indeed be true (particularly the last one), but look how little connection there is between the workplace learner and these justifications for awards.

That doesn’t mean I have some kind of vox pop voting scheme in mind either. The lines are open, so please dial or text in your vote. That’s just pseudo-democratic and unrepresentative for all the usual reasons.

What do learners want that would make our learning interventions award-worthy in their eyes? It’s perhaps easier to say what they don’t want: they don’t want to be patronised or disrespected or bored with irrelevancies. Fancy submitting your work for an award called “Least patronising training intervention” or “Least time wasted in alleged e-learning (but actually just e-telling)”?

OK, I’ll get to the point. Within the L&D profession, we use the term ‘learners’ – not ‘developers’ – though this isn’t, of course, how people necessarily see themselves (and I don’t have a better term at the moment). So they’re not necessarily asking for innovation in learning or the other categories and criteria that we reward. There’s a consensus within the profession that the pace of change in the modern world means that people should constantly be on the look-out to increase and improve their skills and know-how. But I’m by no means convinced that there’s such a consensus in the workforce at large.

If the organisation where they work doesn’t have a learning culture where individuals take responsibility for their personal development, then that’s a change management challenge for their HR and L&D departments, and management in general to address. The usual change management rules come into play: if you want the change to happen, you need to (a) express, (b) model and (c) reinforce. In other words, (a) clarify the performance improvement or behavioural changes you want, in everyday language, (b) show you mean it by acting as a role model, and (c) provide incentives so that positive behaviour is encouraged and negative behaviour is discouraged.

So what contribution can we, as L&D professionals, make and not just towards an individual training exercise but also towards the overall goal of promoting a learning culture in the workplace? The answer is by delivering learning interventions that take the leaner’s side. We should explicitly articulate the learner’s questions (Why? What’s in it for me? Do I really need to do that?) and provide adequate responses.

As I’ve argued recently at a Learning and Skills Group webinar, there’s much we can take from the Assessment for Learning programme. In his recent book, Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan William sets out five principles of the programme, one of which is “Activating learners as the owners of their own learning”. Sound familiar? It’s by providing constructive learner-focused feedback, wherever possible down to the individual learner, that we’ll promote a culture of learning.

Can we do all this within the framework of existing award categories? Let’s try. We should also be encouraging the awarding bodies to shift the award criteria so they’re a little less L&D-centred and a little more focused on the expectations found in the workplace. That way, everyone’s a winner. “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” – The Dodo was right all along!

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Nick Simons - Leadership
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