Human Capital Theory and Critiques

Human capital theory and the Human Resource Management (HRM) approach (often referred to as Taylorism) were originally developed within the secondary economic sector and have roots in the Industrial Revolution (Spencer, 2006). Workers are seen as cogs in a machine; bodies that keep the assembly lines running. Learning in the workplace meets the needs only of the corporation deeming it necessary. Industrial efficiency is the ultimate goal. The growth of the tertiary sector, or service sector, over the last century has seen little change overall in this approach. Corporate interests are forefront; corporate HRD seeks to “harness intellectual capital, align training with strategy, and attain optimal performance of employees” (Bierema, 2000). In a competitive free-market economy in the context of globalization, maximizing profit while minimizing waste are seen as paramount goals of modern corporations. Thus, workplace learning must not be sidetracked from its purpose of giving the corporation a globally competitive advantage. Today’s adult educator may feel pressured to join the “modern-day, entrepreneurial, and gray-suited ranks” (Heaney, 2005) of fellow educators who have bought into this paradigm. Yet the the thoughtful and responsible educator will consider critiques of this approach, and take into account much more than just overtly stated corporate needs. The educator will consider workers’ struggle to find meaning and purpose in their jobs, will attempt to create learning that is meaningful and transferable on the job, and will consider the sources of conflict and resistance to change within the workplace (Fenwick, 2000).

One shortcoming that scholars and practitioners often see with the traditional HRM approach is that it places the locus of control with the organization, whereas in liberal adult education, the locus of control is placed in the hands of the learner (Bierema, 2000). Advocates for change in the HRM approach would bring these two apparently disparate loci of control together to create meaningful and effective learning experiences. What we know about adult education theory can be brought to the fore in developing meaningful workplace education programs that go beyond the banal technical-rational tradition advocated in the Tyler rationale (Sork, 2000). This technical-rational tradition is unfortunately what underlies much of workforce education today. It advocates a prescribed system of learning and assessment that places the individual learner out of context. Learners are unable to validate their learning through connection with other learners and too often do not find their learning applicable to their lives or their work. We know from studies of informal learning at work (Boud & Middleton, 2002; Boud & Solomon, 2003; Solomon, Boud & Rooney, 2006) that a great deal of learning experiences take place informally in the workplace through social networks and in such banal learning spaces as the lunchroom, the car during daily shared commutes, or by the water cooler. Implied in these studies is that the reason such informal learning is so common is that the learner is central in deciding what is important. How can the needs of learners be incorporated into workplace training? How can we avoid the “power differential” between learner and educator so that learners feel comfortable challenging norms and creating their own meaning from learning (Sparks & Peterson, 2000)? Thinking about workplace learning has slowly been changing. Manuals published in the 1990’s on workforce training emphasize the involvement of the learner before, during, and after training (Bingman & Bell, 1995; Taylor, 1998). More recently, it has been suggested that indeed, it is exactly the spirit of collaboration and innovation implied in and encouraged by these new pedagogies that tomorrow’s workplace will value (Philip, 2007). Interestingly, an example of collaborative workplace learning on the topic of collaborative workplace learning can be found on the World Campus Instructional Design & Development blog: posters describe new pedagogies and connect them to what tomorrow’s workplace will demand (Leitzel et al., 2007). No doubt, however, that critics will view this “new workplace” as just a form of “post-modern Taylorism”: “A declaration that a company is seeking to establish a learning environment and to empower workers does not necessarily mean that workers will enjoy a more culturally enriched and educationally developed work experience” (Spencer, 2006).

Nonetheless, there is still a job to be done. Adult education is cheapened by being considered only within the realm of workforce development, and workforce development/HRM stands to gain much by incorporating elements of adult learning theory such as participatory, situated, informal and collaborative learning. Adult education includes any education undertaken by adults, be it formal, non-formal or informal in nature. Apart from work-related goals such as better job performance or career advancement, adults seek learning opportunities to feel personally fulfilled, to become better parents or community members, or even to stave off cognitive decline associated with aging (Stein, 2005; Williams, 2006). Assuming financial and political support (which in reality is usually weak), adult educators and learners can carve out as-yet unforeseen niches in the field. The adult educator’s responsibility, even in the face of adversity, is to go beyond being technically capable, and consider the sociopolitical and ethical domains of their profession (Sork, 2000).



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