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

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Subject Discourses on HRD and lifelong learning (Jim McGoldrick)*
Outline This final session is about influencing policy and practice, but I want to start out from the theoretical issues of what we have been discussing at this conference. The approach that myself, Jim (Stewart) and Sandra (Watson) have taken in what we have written on HRD theory is about theory building or even theory modelling, but what we are trying to do is to develop modes of explanation when we are talking about theorising HRD. 
    What I would try to capture now is what I have been hearing at this conference about lifelong learning. One of the things that struck me in the open plenary, and that is the first time I had experienced this in any of the HRD conferences, is that the keynote speakers have been either from small business community or from the organised employee workforce committee. I think that that is already a dimension of the ideal European partnership model.
    Also, as part of theorising HRD, we did a study a couple of years ago in the Academy of HRD conference, which was subsequently published, where we talked about some of the conceptual boundaries of HRD. It was all very clever, but we still kept coming back, as many of the debates on HRD and theorising HRD do come back, which is about its purpose. I think another dimension has come out of this conference about the purpose of HRD; some of the points Sabine (Manning) mentioned about the community learning.
    There is still that definition from Peter Jarvis, saying lifelong learning is about work life learning. I have got one or two papers at this conference, from Rona Beattie and a colleague, about community activists. That has nothing to do with work in that sense; it's about something different, a different agenda, and that I am trying to capture.
    It was Sandra (Watson) who came up with a phrase about HRD and some of the confusing language around it. HRD is characterised by what she called 'jargon ridden meaning hidden'. We do use a meta-language to describe HRD. We try to make a space for HRD, an intellectual space amongst all the competing academic subjects and academic disciplines; and part of that is about articulating a language of HRD that allows us to express what we think it means.
    What struck me about this conference from the very start was that there is a different discourse about lifelong learning, that is speaking slightly differently from what we have been used to at the more academic conferences. There has been a lot of discussion around community development, in fact societal development, but there has been as much talk about social justice as there has been about social capital. I think that is actually quite a rich idea. Also, the idea of active citizenship in the community has been as prominent a theme as some of the debates about corporate citizenship. 
    There is also a discourse on policy I hadn't been aware of until I got into that field. Embracing lifelong learning in policy terms seems to me to be fraud with difficulties, unless there is a shared understanding of what we think that it actually means. So it may well be that if the European Union would develop a framework of a European gate continent-wide for lifelong learning policy, support and resources and all the rest of it, we still don't really know what we are trying to talk around.
    Another phrase that has come up in my professional domain is what is called workforce development, with the heading 'work force development and planning'. That takes us into a whole other discourse which I would personally characterise as the dead end of planning. There is also a lot of talk on contingent: the last thing they need is detailed plans. I should quote Henry Mintzberg here who said that all planning is doomed to fail because chaos is the natural order of things. To give an example of a workforce development plan: I am going to be asked as chairman of a major corporation to sign off a plan that is predicting the number of cardiologists we may need in ten years time, and the number of allied health professionals to do the diagnostic and therapy treatment in six or seven years time, because that's how long we need to train them; and we try and forecast the numbers against the population that is ageing and has complex morbidity. This is an enormous complex world, and I think we don't have an easy plan for doing that.
    I was also taken by part of the paper that Jonathan (Winterton) and Martin (McCracken) presented, which is about lifelong learning and the Matthias Principle: 'to those that have will be given'. The people we are talking about, addressing complex development needs, these are well developed and extremely well educated people. Again, that struck a very resonant cord with me because I am engaged in a project at the moment looking at national strategies for leadership management in the national health service of Scotland. The people whose voices I am hearing loudest are doctors, nurses and managers, who are the best trained and the best educated sections of the workforce. One of the tasks that I have set myself is how we are going to explore the development and learning needs of the people who are beyond the reach of what can be done: porters, people who work in kitchens, people who do the medical records these are completely ignored.
    I find myself contributing to the development of a white paper, because we are just having an election in Scotland. What I think is coming into that is very much the idea that HRD, life learning to be, is most central to national policy. It's very difficult because there are fields where in some cases we are just beginning to map practice against the frame of what's going on. 
    There was another paper which I enjoyed very much, by John Hamblett and Denise Thursfield, about the role of interests and agency in the pursuit of HRD. The said, no the theory is all wrong, it's not about access and inclusion; there is lots of training opportunities, companies do buy activists, but individual employees are not interested, it doesn't meet their needs, not as learners, nor as employees. It's a different view on some of the same debates, raising a lot of questions. There is almost certainly an elaborate policy machine gearing up that may be trying to address a need people don't necessarily want to have filled.
    Just a couple of comments on what I think are some of the lessons for HRD and that extended domain of lifelong learning. If there is no such thing as a job for life then our idea of life learning does assume a great significance, because it's not training for a job, it's about being able to find yourself employment. There is a famous study which concludes that disillusion in school for the majority of kids was ideal preparation for the world of work. However, there are one or two positive things from my own experience. What I see in my country is labour participation in further and higher education, there are massive opportunities provided by an organisation called Learning Direct Scotland, which is actually a brokerage service. So this is a very lively and brisk agenda on learning and development. 
    What I am finding interesting from this conference is that it's not about furthering corporate advance, it's actually about communities and sometimes very local agendas. So these are some of my thoughts, and I hope that colleagues will play some resonance with them.
Note *Chairman Tayside University Hospitals NHS Trust, UK
Source Recording of the presentation made 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