Critique of Two Chapters on Work-Related Learning

Part of my job entails the responsibility of training fellow Learning Design staff members on the course technologies and administrative systems used to deliver World Campus courses. I use a multifaceted approach: conducting group face-to-face training, creating online learning materials, creating documentation, sending staff alerts and updates, and providing one-on-one assistance. Because of my personal involvement with workplace learning as both a learner and a teacher, I have chosen to focus on Part One: Adult Education and Work in the Cervero & Wilson (2001) text. Specifically, I will discuss how elements of Chapter 3: Silent Power by Schied, Carter and Howell, and Chapter 4: The Power of Discourse by Elaine Butler, relate to my understanding of workplace learning as it’s been shaped by my experience. I’ll also offer a critique of these chapters based on my experience and on other writings in the adult education field.[MT1] 

Silent Power: HRD and the Management of Learning in the Workplace

This chapter focuses on the role that formal human resource development (HRD) plays in reinforcing normative power in the workplace. Specifically, Schied, Carter and Howell posit that the training programs typically developed and offered by HRD professionals effectively do little more than ensure that workers understand their subordinate place in the workplace and that they can demonstrate proficiency in the skills that management (rather than the workers themselves) has deemed necessary for their success. The real learning needs and aspirations of workers, though certainly espoused and paid lip service to by HRD professionals, are usually overlooked. Employees often feel intimidated, rather than empowered, by the HRD training events to which they are exposed. HRD, according to the authors, is instead mostly a tool for management to exercise power. The HRD profession carries the weight of an inherent contradiction: “HRD cannot really uncover its contradictory situatedness between human agency and transformation and organizational dominance and rhetoric.”[MT2]  Worst of all, it is easy for HRD to justify its existence to management, since workers often appear assimilated as a result of their programs, yet “conflict might exist even if it is not directly observable.” In other words, because they are made to feel intimidated, workers remain silent about any negative feedback they may have about HRD programs. The case that the authors used to illustrate their criticism of HRD involved one worker who did speak negatively about management within one HRD training program. The worker subsequently experienced harsh rebukes from management and was subject to sanctions and “re-training” as a result of his speaking out.

I will not argue Shied, Carter, and Howell’s analysis based on my own experience as a learner taking part in formal HRD programs which were “strongly encouraged” by upper management in the workplace. My own and my colleagues’ experiences have shown me that all too often, employees will put on their best face and make a good effort to attend and participate in these HRD offerings, but like Stewart in the chapter who was told to engage in “cheerleading” (p. 45) favorable to management, the sense of being coerced to participate leads to considerable dampening of any positive effects that the HRD offerings might have.

My own experience as a trainer has sometimes given me the view from the other side of the type of unfavorable relationship I described above. The training I conduct largely focuses on the IT back-end behind World Campus courses – the administrative systems and technologies necessary to produce online courses. What fundamentally struck me in the Schied, Carter and Howell chapter is the concept of worker choice – that is, the ability (or inability) of workers to control their stake in their own learning in the workplace. A problematic viewpoint that is often all too easy to fall back on in developing IT training is to take a deficit view of the learners – that is, to assume that the learners are lacking in some knowledge and that the trainer is there to fill in the gap.

The problem[MT3]  with the Schied, Carter and Howell chapter is that it offers only weak advice for workers in oppressive situations with HRD, for example suggesting that they “challenge the costing structures of HRD courses” (p. 57), or that they work to “assure that discussions in the HRD classroom remain confidential.” This may be sound advice for workers as it addresses the low-level procedural issues that are easiest to change, as opposed to procedural or structural/cultural, which are the hardest types of changes to make in organizations (Hanna, 2007). However, nothing is offered for the people who arguably have more power, for better or for worse, to make these more difficult changes – the HRD professionals or trainers.[MT4]  Essentially, the chapter frames the worker’s struggle and names the “silent power” that led to this struggle, and it does these things well, but it offers little for people at any place in the power spectrum (either worker or HRD professional or manager) to act on.

The Power of Discourse: Work-Related Learning in the “Learning Age”

The Butler chapter offers a view of workplace learning discourse at the institutional and public policy level, and offers just as strong a critique as the Schied, Carter, and Howell chapter. “The discursive framing for this transformation [to commodified, globalized approaches to workplace learning] is that of the pervasive rhetoric of lifelong learning, designed to simultaneously seduce and command compliant disembodied citizen-learner-workers to willingly accept responsibility for the ongoing development of their personal exploitable capacities” (p. 65). [MT5] Terms like “empowerment” and “personal accountability” and other such buzz words within “neoliberal policy discourse” are designed to seduce the adult learner into accepting the burden of the responsibility for their own learning.

At first glance, it would seem that this rhetoric is supportive of core adult learning principles – that adults are in charge of their own learning interests and are thus “empowered”. But in reality, there is a persistent and insidious pressure coming often from management, but also pervasive in the rhetoric at the institutional level, to participate in “learning opportunities” that serve ulitimately to support a economic globalization agenda.

Essentially, the Butler chapter suggests in the end that we work to change this insidious learning culture by working to change its rhetoric.[MT7] This chapter was directed more towards adult educators though its audience could just as easily be workers, managers, or policy makers. This conclusion sits a little better with me as a viable and more universally applicable solution, since institutional change can come about by change in the “spontaneous order” – change due to actions by individuals unintentionally and incrementally changing the institution[MT8]  (Voss, 2001).

Conclusion

In essence, both of the chapters I’ve critiqued offer small, incremental behavioral or operational changes in the workplace in order to change the workplace culture. It can be discouraging to be at any place within a power spectrum in which certain parties are in some way disadvantaged, and I have certainly observed the behaviors and rhetoric that these chapters describe in my own workplace. But it can be heartening to imagine that small, incremental solutions such as the ones described can have a viable positive impact on the workplace learning culture.


References

Butler, E. (2001). The Power of Discourse: Work-Related Learning in the “Learning Age”. In R. M. Cervero & A. L. Wilson (Eds.), Power in Practice: Adult Education and the Struggle for Knowledge and Power in Society (pp. 60-82). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hanna, D. E. (2007). Organizational Change in Higher Distance Education. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of Distance Education (2nd ed., pp. 501-514). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Schied, F. M., Carter, V. K., & Howell, S. L. (2001). Silent Power: HRD and the Management of Learning in the Workplace. In R. M. Cervero & A. L. Wilson (Eds.), Power in Practice: Adult Education and the Struggle for Knowledge and Power in Society (pp. 42-59). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Voss, T. R. (2001). Institutions. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (pp. 7561-7566). Exeter: Elsevier.