Adult education and lifelong learning orientations in the organisation: are adult learners ready?

by alison

According to the dominant discourse in Human Resource Development (HRD), much organisational learning and change seems to hinge heavily on individuals’ abilities to continually learn and improve (and share with one another—networked learning/collaboration would seem to fit in here). This improvement then leads to innovation and lends a competitive advantage to the organisation. Aside from the need for this culture to be modeled and reinforced by leadership in order to become ingrained in a firm, I wonder how this considers adults’ readiness to learn and the ability to self-reflect in order to know how and what to self-improve? How many adults are lifelong learners? According to Jocelyn K. Glei in a recent article on self-improvement on one of my favourite cultural blogs (for creatives!) organised by Bēhance, the 99%, we tend to learn enough to become proficient and then we stop there. In fact, a former coworker of mine remarked to me recently that the idea of learning, beyond training courses, is not worthwhile in her view; she’s more concerned with keeping up with daily life and raising a child and doesn’t see the need for continuous learning. I doubt she’s alone in that perception.

When most of us learn a new skill, we work to get just “good enough” and then we go on autopilot.

I’m not sure that I’ve seen much that addresses learning orientation in HRD and I think the reason for this is due to the fact that adult learning is generally not well considered by the field. I thought I’d share a little segue of some previous reading and writing I’ve done about how the two do intersect, mostly to suggest that readiness is likely best addressed by adult education.  According to Yang (2004) (sorry, not accessible by Google Scholar), the varied philosophical orientations to adult education—humanism, liberalism, behaviourism, progressivism, radicalism—only differ with HRD’s human capitalism through how each perceive the purpose of learning (HRD situates learning in psychology, which comes with a certain set of—my words—incomplete assumptions about knowing/learning).  Yang posits that the emphasis on rational, cognitive processes from the liberal view and learning through practical experience from the progressive position are a point of overlap between HRD and adult education due to “…each of the fields [valuing] both ideas and experiences” (2004, p. 136).  Humanists aim to support individual learners to facilitate individual self-actualization, while critical/radicalism’s aim is to remove oppressive structural barriers so to allow for individual development.  Human capitalism in contrast, values individual development to leverage individual and organizational productivity.  Yang (2004) also identifies similarities within the seemingly disparate perspectives of critical/radicalism and human capitalism:

…human capitalism emphasizes the role of learning in improving individual and organizational performance.  It often draws on the economic side of learning outcomes.  In contrast, radicalism assumes that most social and institutional efforts of organized learning tend to reinforce and perpetuate the status quo.  It thus believes that most social and organizational systems have constrained the potential development of their members.  Consequently, radicalism shares with human capitalism a belief of social implications of learning.  (p. 138)

Through these connections between HRD and adult learning philosophies, Yang clearly situates (2004) the various theories of adult education within HRD theory and practices.  He points to the adult learning theories of self-directed learning, critical/radical pedagogy and transformational learning as evidence that adult learning theory is capable of enhancing individual and organizational learning; he suggests that adult education, with its expertise in adult learning, is in a unique position to leverage HRD’s goals of learning, performance and change in the workplace.

So adult education can provide an important role in furthering HRD’s organisational ambitions. Interesting, no? So back to individual readiness. If we want to encourage individuals in the organisation to continuously learn and improve what are we doing to foster this sort of environment and how do we help to encourage this sort of orientation? Juergen Juffa, in the article I reblogged last week, suggested 10 ways that self-directed learning can ingrain this sort of culture. But how does one learn—as an adult in an organisation—how to continuously learn? What is the incentive and where does this orientation come from? It seems as though it has to become somewhat intrinsic and it seems as though there needs to be some sort of shift that will allow space to learn/try things out. Glei observes the following about those who go beyond the status quo:

1. Experts tend to operate outside their comfort zone and study themselves failing.

2. Experts will try to walk in the shoes of someone who’s more competent than them.

3. Experts crave and thrive on immediate and constant feedback.

4. Experts treat what they do like a science. They collect data, they analyze data, they create theories, and they test them.

She notes that self-control, determination and self-analysis play a big role in higher achievement. But self-analysis is not easy. Coaching can assist here for individual activities, but as Mezirow suggests, in any major shift in (cognitive) thinking, an individual must be ready to be uncomfortable. And I’m not sure that this readiness is easily predictable due to gender differences, culture, emotion and other ways of knowing also being in the mix.

So… how can readiness be fostered through an organisational climate? Can we safely assume that everyone is ready to learn continuously with the ‘right’ environment?