A few days ago I went to see the film “Nomadland”. Great film, and amazing performance by Frances McDormand. As the film opens it is explained that in 2011 the company US Gypsum ceased operations in the town of Empire, Nevada, with the result that the town closed down and even the ZIP Code was discontinued. The so-called ‘company town’ is an extreme example of where the corporation controls every aspect of its workers lives, where they work, where they live, who they meet, what they buy. I will come back to this concept later.
Anyway, over the years I have done a lot of reading about what can make training more effective, in the hope that the work that I do achieves better results. There is a lot of academic research into how well learning from training can transfer, in the sense of ‘generalising’ from the training activity, to ‘maintenance’, where people continue to use their new knowledge and skills.
Broadly speaking, the research that has been done explores three areas: a learner’s working environment, the quality of the learning design, and learners’ individual characteristics. A term used when talking about working environment is the ‘learning transfer climate’, and under this heading comes research into things such as the learning culture where someone works, and the support and encouragement they feel or experience from supervisors and peer groups. There is also an enormous amount of research available looking at the quality of learning design, covering everything from the philosophies of behaviourism and constructivism through to the advantages and disadvantages of detailed design issues. Individual characteristics addresses demographic questions such as age and gender, cognitive considerations such as intelligence, academic achievement and confidence, the relevance of personality characteristics, and different ideas about motivation to learn.
This last point, about motivation, raises a question which is less well discussed in the learning design world, the issue of the degree to which individuals’ values align with those of their employer. Which brings me back to “Nomadland” and the idea of the company town. In their book about organisations and systems theory, Richard Scott and Gerald Davis consider the history of the American corporation. They trace this back to the end of the 19th century, where the importance of the new railroad companies and the oil and steel industries meant that large corporations grew to be more important than the limited central government that existed in the United States at that time. This contrasted with industrial development in Europe, where countries had had various forms of central government for a long time so the impact of corporate culture and society was weaker. American corporations therefore had a profound impact on its society, and to a considerable extent the values of the corporation became the values of society. Critical organisational theorists refer to this as a unitarist perspective, and it can be seen as pervasive in popular management textbooks and lot of academic research. In this worldview, the emphasis is on how to use learning to make sure that what employees are doing is aligned with the organisation’s vision and goals.
What this perspective overlooks is that employees are human beings who have their own existence separate from the corporation, an existence which gives them their own sets of values and beliefs. We can use social identity theory to explore this pluralist perspective in more detail. Social identity theory proposes that our self-concept, who we see ourselves to be, comes from a personal identity derived from relatively fixed characteristics such as age, gender and race, a social identity which comes from the roles we hold in both our social lives, such as being a parent, a partner, a cyclist, or a supporter of a football team, and in our working lives, as an engineer (for example), or a manager, or a member of a design team. The illustration below shows how these different identities are tangled up.
Of course, juggling the values, beliefs and assumptions associated with each of these social identities is not necessarily easy, particularly if they conflict in any way. If that happens we suffer stress as a result of cognitive dissonance, where we try to hold to conflicting ideas in our head at the same time. To minimise cognitive dissonance stress, we have to minimise our belief in one of the conflicting ideas or reject it completely.
Which is where we may have a problem with learning transfer. If what we are being asked to learn by our organisation conflicts with our personal values, we may feel the need to reject it in some way. If the organisation where we work has a set of values which conflict with our own values, our commitment to learning may be seriously compromised. Although little considered from a unitarist perspective, the potential for conflict between organisational values and individual values may grow in years to come, as the challenges of social and environmental sustainability become more apparent. Some of these fault lines have become apparent in recent years, as shown by the 2018 revolt of Google staff over Project Maven, and the conflicts over domestic privacy raised by the increasing use of ‘working from home’ through the COVID-19 pandemic.
So the question we all need to ask ourselves this “How much do we believe in the values of our organisation?” That may have a lot to tell us about learning transfer.
The relationship between learning and value systems is discussed in more detail in my forthcoming book, “Learning strategies for sustainable organisations”, that will be published by Routledge in 2022. There is a little bit more information available about this on this website.