Learning something new or going through hoops – and for whose benefit?

I’m not a great believer in paperwork exercises – simply documenting something that you’d do anyway in order to gain a piece of paper seems intrinsically wrong to me. It’s a question of how much effort is necessary. When the form filling becomes too onerous, but is still only documenting what’s already been achieved, then I figure the system needs changing. Sadly though, this isn’t the way the rest of the world looks on it.

The other week, I was running a course for a health organisation. The participants had been told that they should attend. They accepted that it was necessary to refresh their skills from time-to-time and so arrived but not really expecting to learn anything. At the end of the day, two of them came up to me – when they’d introduced themselves at the outset they’d made it clear that they were both highly qualified and experienced. They both wanted to say how much they’d enjoyed the day, how they’d felt embraced by me and by involving them in the delivery of the training, they’d felt more respected than they often did at work. We had a hug, shed a little tear, agreed that the system was a little silly, and went about our ways.

Too often though, it seems to me that respect for the individual is lost by bureaucratic systems that we pretend are there to promote professionalism and protect clients and customers. It’s something I have often encountered in corporate OD (organisation development) but it seems to be particularly true in professional development arenas.

When I was 17, I’d qualified as both a swimming and lifesaving teacher, which meant that I could ‘sign off’ Duke of Edinburgh Award forms for others but because I hadn’t registered for the Award before I sat my exams (which you had to do as a swimming teacher in those days), I couldn’t get one myself. A friend and I regularly used to go on long-distance walks – including bivouacking overnight – yet, again, because we’d not registered for the Award we couldn’t include these retrospectively. Our school encouraged us to engage in ‘social action’, and yet, my many teenage hours voluntarily teaching swimming and doing Red Cross first-aid duties were not eligible because I hadn’t registered first.

The DoE system has, at last, been changed but not, I’d argue, for the better. Now, you start out by saying what you’ll do for the next few weeks (and I mean weeks), do it, and get someone to sign it off. There’s no minimum standard – you just have to say what you’ll do. So, the other day I was confronted by a mother whose child had done a fraction of the amount of work that others would do, but because the child had not said it would do anything in particular in the first place, I was expected to sign it off regardless.

The other month, I attended a “professional development day” for one of my ‘professions’. The content was interesting, though not really that developmental, and a lot of time was devoted to networking with our competitors (sorry, I mean ‘peers’) but it was all OK because we were issued with a fancy A4 certificate for our CPD records.

This kind of situation, where the bureaucracy overtakes the learning, seems to permeate quasi-professions. The real professions (medicine, law, accountancy, and architecture) have their fill of paperwork, I’m sure, but they don’t depend on the ‘apprentice’ registering first, THEN gaining experience, THEN documenting their learning, and only THEN being formally accepted. Instead they work in parallel.

A little while ago, I sat in on a course sponsored by the local government, for entrepreneurs starting up their first business. It was the main component of a package intended to boost enterprise in the local area. It involved ten sessions spread over three months with a quite detailed, though extremely inflexible and prescriptive, structured approach. (Interestingly, every page was splattered with copyright marks.) I’m far from convinced that if anyone worked religiously through the manual and course their business would be any more successful than any other. If nothing else, luck and networking – two essentials of successful enterprise – weren’t mentioned. It was run in the evening. An interesting choice – to run a course on business in the evening – which must say something about how core it was seen to running a successful enterprise and about the organisers attitude to life-work balance. Anyway, at the end of the third or fourth session, when questions were invited, someone raised their arm and asked; “Do we get a certificate at the end of the course?” I felt my heart sink, and judging from the groan around the room I wasn’t alone. But perhaps this individual had cause to enquire….?

I find myself in a strange position today, being asked to present a portfolio of my experience to an organisation simply so that they can decide whether to confer on me their ‘professional membership’, when the reality is that I’ve been an accepted and practicing member of one of their competitors for some years.

So, that’s the gripe. But the system isn’t going to change. What have I learnt along the way?

Well, if you are considering doing something developmental – such as taking even a very straightforward training course – think VERY hard beforehand and ask yourself how you intend using it well into the future. If you might conceivably want to do so for quasi-professional purposes, then do your research – find out beforehand how that discipline manages itself, whether certain activities are accepted, and whether certain providers are somehow favoured above others. Of course, it’s hard to look into the future that far, but where possible, if you’re going to spend money and invest effort you might as well make sure that you get a double- or even triple- whammy benefit.

I often counsel executives considering doing an MBA. The same argument applies. How are you expecting it to help? Does your particular profession (eg business sector) respect people with this qualification? If you see it as a building block in your career – decide on the career first, then choose the course. You might be surprised how many people see an MBA as an opportunity to create a career transition without thinking where they want to go – instead, they see it as an opportunity to stop doing what they have been doing. If it is relevant, then fine, but if there’s some doubt – do more research before signing up. If you are wanting to satisfy your own intellectual needs, then many people don’t realise just how many other options there are that they could pursue.

When choosing one provider over another, look carefully at the content and the process by which it’s delivered. If it appears to be a hoop leaping exercise rather than a genuine learning experience, ask yourself whether that’s really what you want. If the methods resonate with you, great – but if they seem more concerned with validating the provider than embedding new material in you, ask twice.

Best wishes

Dr Graham Wilson is an organisational psychotherapist and leadership confidant, who works with people in positions of power, helping them understand psycho-dynamics, politics, and behaviour, as they affect them in their day-to-day work, and navigate through them to achieve far greater things. He also provides very practical support to senior executives as they hunt for more fulfilling roles.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.