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Highlight Round table: Theory, policy and practice in lifelong learning

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Subject Relation between lifelong learning and HRD
Context The discussion summarised below is related to the statements made by the panel group (see proceedings).
Discussion Participants: Bob Hamlin UK [BH], Winfried Heidemann DE [WH], Peter Kuchinke US [PK], Jim McGoldrick UK [JM], Darlene Russ-Eft US [DR], Jim Stewart UK [JiS], William Venables US [WV], Jean Woodall UK [JeW]

[PK] I would be interested in the panel's view on what are the distinguishing characteristics between lifelong learning and HRD, because it's fuzzy in my mind. I'm living in a country with a much different, or some would say non-existent, model of social partnership. Winfried talked about the role of organisations in lifelong learning; that is close to what concerns HRD. Are there other aspects that lifelong learning has, that supersede perhaps HRD? So what is it exactly? 

[JM] Let me kick off by bringing together two strands of an argument here. There is an undertone of the prototype that is agreeable to competitive advantage in a knowledge economy. Then there is a competitive advantage to be gained by having smart people, or people who are better trained, or adaptable and ready to learn. If you are moving from manufacturing to service economy that may be a very important thing. I come from a fairly small country which is trying to say that one of the greatest resources it has are its people, with a very sophisticated system of further and higher education to serve a highly educated population, relative to some other countries. 
    What we've also got is lifelong learning as a construct to carry too much. So there's the whole competitive advantage of nations linked with it. There is also the thing about citizenship and community, because some of the contradictions of advanced economies is that there are some places you would not want to live in. So I would part with Peter that it's fuzzy. I think that one of the risks is to try and nail it down and make it clear, because lifelong learning is so ambiguous in terms of its meaning that it fits perfectly with the ambiguity of what HRD means.

[PK] Yet you describe it in terms of country level and development rather that organisation and specific institutional level -

[JM] I was only making that point that in a small country of 5 Mill. people the feeling among the government is that it can be done, because there are 20 higher education institutions that can talk to each other, there are only a dozen enterprise companies, there is not a big manufacturing base any more. ... I still think that it has been asked to carry too much weight.

[WH] Sabine has made the point in her brief presentation that lifelong learning is viewed from the side of the individual - lifelong learning of human beings, and HRD is a collectivist view from the organisation. Organisations aim at certain outcomes, in their view human beings are human resources. If we speak of the policy of lifelong learning, this is a point to organise, to develop structures which are able to learn. I think the two sides, lifelong learning of human beings and HRD as a collectivist view, have to be brought together.

[JeW] I wonder whether there are any contributions that are more concrete, which people would like to take up. There is an issue of principle, there is also an issue of implementation and practice, and I think that's what are the real problems. We have so many aspirations around HRD and what it could possibly be, yet we are faced with evidence of that contradiction.

[JiS] Just a point to help out Peter’s understanding. In our European research we viewed HRD as primarily an organisation function contributing, or not, to facilitating, supporting and promoting lifelong learning. So, societies want their individual citizens to be lifelong learners and HRD can have a role in achieving that.

[JM] It's a very astute observation. There is a point that Sally Sambrook once made about the fact that we talked HRD into existence y having meetings like this. It doesn't exist in a concrete form, it has different meanings depending on where you are. Monica (Lee) has made a few theses to define it and wins prizes for so doing. I think the European government has much gone to the idea of lifelong learning as being somehow important, without being able to capture what the essence of that importance is. If you talk about company based programmes of development, you've got to look alongside the idea that there is no job for life, the flexicurity, the bits that Winfried had raised in his contribution. I think that's devastating; the natural order of things is tension and paradox. That's my worry, a point to be controversial, that it gets into the policy machine, and then resources go into it, and we still don't know what it really is.

[BH] It seems to me there is one word that can be used to sum it all up: performance. We have been talking about what a nation is; one can think of a nation essentially as  being made up of organisations: public, private and not for profit. Ideally all should be high performing, with the profit making organisations capable of competing effectively in the global economy; but high performing organisations are made up of high performing teams and groups; ideally these are made up of high performing individuals who subscribe to the goals of the organisation, and therefore engage in lifelong learning that helps them perform and maximise their contribution to achieving the aims of their organisation. The challenge for HRD  is to help everyone see the connection between learning and high performance.

[DR] One controversy is whether the focus of HRD is performance or learning. Although some researchers concentrate on one or the other, both are important to organisations. The second issue is whether we – the research community – have talked HRD into existence. Frankly, there are other fields that have been talked into existence: These include many of the social sciences -- psychology being one, sociology being another. So what's wrong with talking into existence HRD?

[JM] I wasn't making a critical comment. I think that one of the things we tried to articulate is to define that space. I am a sociologist originally, and I remember a really great conference where the British Sociological Association presented this argument which was called 'space for sociology', because it was a new field which had to make its way. I think it's when we make exclusive claims to knowledge rights, that raises questions.

[WV] I would like to come back to Darlene's question: it's learning; lifelong learning is for the individual, HRD is for the organisation; so it's learning for the individual, it's performance for the organisation. We have to have learning in order to have performance. But I think, basically, it's more about cultural constructs going back to Hofstede, and time perspective. HRD that leads to a crude performance today or making a profit today, can also lead to shortcuts in terms of performance. If you have a longer perspective, the thing that really matters is that specific performance requires learning. It's the learning that leads to viable, longer term investment in individuals and groups, and that is increasing the technical performance today, but focusing always on learning, in terms of development both for the organisation and the individual.

[JM] I agree with a lot of that. It strikes me that there is almost a dialectic: there is episodic learning, at schools, colleges etc, programmes that we do to advance specific skills; and there is experiential or personal learning, which is about learning that we do by living; that's about ourselves as persons; whether we are motivated to do or not, we learn every day. What we are trying to bring into one is the properties of the other. Sometimes you think about what episodic learning would I need that would be about enhancing my capability to make a living. I think that, because we learn stronger in the other domain, the employers are trying to get that. This is a very complex interplay that, when you provide people the opportunity to do something creative it's not always going to be for the organisation.

[WV] And just in time training, that never leads to high performance, since everything needs a specific context, a process. 

Source Recording of the discussion at the final session (plenary round table) of the HRD conference in Toulouse, May 2003 (see proceedings).
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Editor: Sabine Manning  © WIFO