04/2018 - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Management development in the humanitarian and development sectors: a postscript

Published by in Reflections ·
I recently wrote a blog (and article on LinkedIn) asking the question as to whether conventional forms of management education are relevant for the humanitarian and development sector.

Coincidentally, a few days later I read an article published as part of The Guardian's Long Read programme by Martin Parker arguing that business schools should be bulldozed! The article is well worth a read, but I think it would just be worth summarising some of Martin's comments that are relevant to my own writing.

He points out that there is an overall assumption that "market managerial forms of social order or desirable", and that "capitalism is assumed to be the end of history".

Secondly, it is based on an assumption that humans behave as rational egoists, so techniques for managing them are based on that assumption.

Thirdly, business schools are "places that teach people how to get money out of the pockets of ordinary people and keep it for themselves".

So I think you can see that there are parallels between Martin's (much more informed) argument and my own.

On unicorns and training needs analyses

Published by in Training design ·
(This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article)

For centuries people were fascinated by the thought of finding a unicorn. They had many qualities: they could make poisoned water drinkable and they could heal sickness. Unfortunately, they do not exist.

I think the same about training needs analyses. They are also wondrous things: they identify effective learning interventions, they explain how new knowledge and skills will overcome great obstacles, they provide a baseline for post-delivery evaluations, and so on. The problem is, that like unicorns, they also do not seem to exist.

Well, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic. There have been some training needs analyses identified here and there. But, really, not that many. On what evidence do I make this assertion?

First, anecdotal. People I talk to in the training world say, almost without exception, that proper training needs analyses just do not take place that often. I also asked a question in the Learning, Education and Training Professionals group on LinkedIn whether training needs analyses happened, and most replies said that they were an exception rather than the norm.

Secondly, more empirical. Whenever I start a training evaluation project, my first question is about the needs analysis on which the training is based: to date, I have never seen a training needs analysis report. Instead, people explain that it was based on a decision made by someone a while back (who has often left the company) or that the decision-making involved was not documented.

Thirdly, and more rigorous, a 2003 meta-study of training design activities by Arthur et al, noted that, based on the information they were able to review, fewer than 10% of training projects were based on a thorough training needs analysis.

So given that they have wondrous qualities, why do we just not see many proper analyses done of workplace situations, which lead, logically and with justification, to effective training interventions? There are a number of possible reasons.

A thorough training needs analysis will be a fairly complex undertaking, requiring the analyst to explore and develop an understanding of the various wicked problems which are contributing to a perceived performance problem. This will therefore take time, and training managers are often under considerable pressure to deliver quickly.

Training professionals may simply not have the breadth of skills needed to be able to understand reasons for performance problems. These problems may be due to poor organisational design, group psychology issues in the workplace, ergonomic design weaknesses or just a lack of understanding of the environmental variety that staff have to deal with when they are carrying out their jobs.
It may even be unclear as to what the actual problem is. One person may say that it is due to inadequate knowledge, another person due to weaknesses in operating procedures and so on.

There is a significant lack of integrated and comprehensive tools for training needs analysis. Ideally such an analysis should take place at three separate levels: organisational, to understand the wider picture affecting performance; operational, to look at what is happening at the functional level; and personal, to understand who the affected staff are and how training can best be integrated into their working lives (Goldstein and Ford, 2001). There are, it should be noted, various tools available for helping with these levels of analysis, but they are probably not as widely known about or used as much as they should be. For example, there is Gilbert’s Behaviour Engineering Model and Mager and Pipe’s performance flowchart for functional analysis and Holton’s Learning Transfer System Inventory for the personal level of analysis.

Finally, there is the assumption that, whatever the problem is, training will provide a solution. Paradoxically, this is seen to be a valid assumption at the inception of a project, leading to a decision to implement training without thoroughly analysing the problem, but possibly not valid after delivery, when there is a demand for an evaluation and perhaps an assessment of return on investment.
Detailed guidance on how to carry out a thorough training needs analysis is beyond the scope of a short article like this, but I have two suggestions.

Firstly, involve in the analysis process the people who will receive any training. One of the less well-implemented aspects of Malcolm Knowles’ work on andragogy (1977) is that planning of any adult learning activity should be done in participation with the learner. The learner knows what operational variety they have to deal with and what gets in the way of satisfactory performance. They will also understand how informal learning channels operate, so that formal training can be designed to integrate with this. All too often the structure and content of training is decided by senior managers who feel that they know what people must know, leading to training which is content-based and trainer-centred.

Secondly, systems thinking provides a set of tools which offer an integrated approach to training needs analysis. Techniques such as the Viable Systems Model and Soft Systems Methodology make it possible to identify and engage with all performance problem stakeholders in a way which can lead to a more holistic solution.

To carry out a training needs analysis properly, the training professional has to overcome quite a few hurdles. But if it is done properly, it can have many benefits. There is a greater confidence that any training solution will have positive benefits, because it will have been designed with the right content and using appropriate delivery modalities. There should be a better return on investment (if that can actually be measured) because the right tool is being used for the right job. And other non-training interventions should have been identified, which remove obstacles to improve performance and support the successful implementation of new knowledge and skills.

So let’s put an end to the mythical nature of training needs analyses, and try to make them a reality of organisational life.

Arthur Jr, W. et al., 2003. Effectiveness of Training In Organizations: A Meta-Analysis of Design and Evaluation Features. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(2), p.242.
Goldstein & Ford, J.K., 2001. Training in Organizations (4th Edition), Cengage Learning.
Knowles, M., 1977. Adult Learning Processes: Pedagogy and Andragogy. Religious Education, 72(2), pp.202–211.

Management development in the humanitarian and development sectors: a cause for concern?

Published by in Reflections ·
(This post was originally published as a LinkedIn article)

I came across a sentence the other day which said something like an idea becomes an ideology when we forget that it is an idea. It struck me that it is a bit like a fish swimming in water, having no idea what water is and not realising that there is any alternative way of living.

This idea of there being no alternative to how things are came to me a while ago when I was doing an evaluation of a management development programme for a humanitarian organisation. My evaluation methodology draws heavily on various critical systems thinking tools, and one of the questions which comes out of this is about where the knowledge for a training programme comes from and what credentials these sources have.

So while the terms of reference just asked me to investigate what impact the programme was having within the organisation, my systems thinking sensibilities made me want to probe a little bit more deeply. After all, if people undertaking a training programme are receiving what they considered to be inappropriate knowledge and skill, then their enthusiasm for applying these new ideas will probably be somewhat diminished.

The programme I was evaluating contained modules looking at what are familiar subjects in management training courses: delegation, time management, leadership and the rest. The technical content had been provided by an American business school. I was to do some benchmarking, and so talked to people involved in management training in other humanitarian organisations and discovered a similar picture: content was being provided by institutions such as Harvard, Stanford and the like.

Prestigious institutions indeed, and certainly with good credentials for management training, but where does this thinking come from? As a humble British training consultant I have very little insight into how those ivory towers operate, but I am going to posit that their ideas about effective management come from studies of private sector, corporate culture, organisations working in a profit-driven competitive world, where effective management is geared towards efficient operation of the organisation rather than solving complex political, social and economic issues in dysfunctional or struggling societies, as are typically found in humanitarian and development contexts.

Max Weber, writing in the 1950s, provided a useful idea for thinking about management in organisations. He talked about bureaucracy as being such an efficient way of running an organisation that it created an ‘iron cage’ which led to an irreversible momentum for bureaucratisation. Bureaucracies work by creating clearly-defined structures and roles which determine in a top-down manner what is done. As a result, most organisations tend to work in similar ways. This idea was taken up and developed further by DiMaggio and Powell (1983) who explored the idea of organisational isomorphism, where entities operating within the same environment become increasingly similar in the way they work.

This process works in three ways. Coercive isomorphism results from pressures to conform due to dependency relationships. Mimetic isomorphism happens because when an organisation works in an unstable environment or its goals are ambiguous, it seeks some degree of clarity by mimicking other organisations’ ways of working. Normative isomorphism happens when professionalisation of the workforce leads to a narrowing of ideas within the workforce: people study MBAs at institutions teaching essentially the same ideas and then disperse to work in private or public sector organisations, and some of course, in the humanitarian and development sectors. Anyone who works in these sectors will surely recognise these three processes at work.

As DiMaggio and Powell (p.153) comment, isomorphism means that people “…view problems in a similar fashion, see the same policies, procedures and structures as normatively sanctioned and legitimated, and approach decisions in much the same way.”
There are justifications for this isomorphism: "It helps to have common procedures and all to be thinking in the same way", "We need to be more business-like". But we need to examine these rationalisations more carefully. Common procedures may be of some benefit but if people are all thinking in the same way, how innovative can they be, how can they expect to deal with the infinite variety of the operational environment? And what does being more 'business-like' really mean: making a greater profit, squeezing out other operational agencies?

So what are these perspectives? What is the rationale behind commonly-accepted management practices? The great systems thinker Stafford Beer said that the purpose of a system is what it does. So what do management systems do? Standard management practices have come largely out of seeking ways to help profit-seeking enterprises operate more effectively, hence their purpose is to help the organisation to survive. What it makes or sells is, in this analysis, irrelevant; survival is the primary goal. And actually, as Joseph Stiglitz has shown (2016), successful profit-seeking tends to lead to market domination and becoming a monopoly provider.
But is this what humanitarian and development agencies should be seeking to do? From my perspective they should actually be trying to promote (or stabilise) positive social and economic environments so that they work themselves out of a job, in other words become irrelevant and disappear. Instead, behaving like profit-seekers means that they prioritise survival, as shown by the recent cover-ups of exploitation and abuse stories in the sector.

So, I would suggest, slavishly following orthodox management training programmes as designed for the corporate sector carries many risks. This need to conform, to fit in with how things are done in the monopoly-power seeking private sector, makes it extremely difficult to really embrace such initiatives as Accountability to Affected Populations which rely on an inversion of power relationships.

In biological communities a small gene pool creates the risk of inbreeding, generations which lack the genetic diversity to evolve and respond effectively to environmental changes. And yet this is what we seem to be doing with management ideas, creating new generations of managers who do not have the intellectual diversity to respond to the increasing complexity of humanitarian and development realities.

I am not sure that I personally have the imagination or wisdom to come up with new paradigms for management practice. However, what I think we who work in these sectors should at least be doing is to encourage managers to critically reflect on the ideas they read in management texts and learn about in management development courses. Are these ideas really relevant for me? Do they really help me to cope with the variety of my everyday, operational life, trying to manage a refugee flow or establish an educational system in a low income country? Are there better ways we can do things?

At least to make sure we realise that they are just ideas, not established fact.

DiMaggio, P. and Powell, W. (1983), “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields”, American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1983), pp. 147-160.
Stiglitz, J. (2016), “Are markets efficient, or do they tend towards monopoly? The verdict is in”, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/05/joseph-stiglitz-are-markets-efficient-or-do-they-tend-towards-monopoly-the-verdict-is-in/, accessed 20 April, 2018.

Drawing boundaries around training content

Published by in Training design ·
The only face-to-face training I do these days is in so-called 'train the trainer' workshops, where I look to improve participants' skills in designing and delivering training.

The people in these workshops are always experts in their own particular subjects (not training), and this expertise can range from security in high-risk environments to knowledge about drought-resistant seed varieties. The common denominator amongst all of these as regards training is that, when asked to deliver a training programme, they usually proceed to try and transfer all of their knowledge to the learner.

In my courses I always cover some of the key theories about cognition, Kolb, Vygotsky and, of course, Malcolm Knowles. Knowles introduced Western thinking to the concept of andragogy, adult learning. His initial, 1977, paper on adult learning compared pedagogical and andragogical approaches, in the process outlining a number of key principles to follow in adult learning. The one which is often of interest to my participants is about planning: Knowles says that in a pedagogical approach the planning is "primarily by teacher", whereas in an andragogical approach planning is participative.

This always comes as something of a shock to subject matter experts. How can people who know nothing about a subject participate in planning? My answer is then to draw people's attention to the idea of learner-centred outcomes, what do we want people to be able to do at the end of a training session? So we then spend some time talking about Bloom's taxonomy, observable actions, three-part training objectives and so on.

And this always seems to be a real light bulb part of the course for people. Having followed a learner-centred paradigm in my practice for quite a few decades, I tend to forget how revolutionary an idea this can be.

But it is very powerful. If we think about what the learner's outcomes need to be, then we can draw boundaries around what knowledge and skills need to be transferred. Rather than everything.

70:20:10 - helpful myth or not?

Published by in Informal learning ·
I have just been reading a thought-provoking article by Toby Harris regarding 70:20:10 (and other learning and development myths), and thought that this made a lot of sense.

There is something in the idea of 70:20:10, and it has certainly captured the imagination of many organisations and raised the profile of informal learning. However, as Toby says, following the concept blindly is not helpful.

As I also mentioned in a previous blog, it is just not possible to divide up the ways in which people learn into the categories which 70:20:10 identifies. The original idea for 70:20:10 came from observations regarding leadership in American corporations made by Lombardo and Eichinger in 2000. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this was not peer-reviewed in academic literature, and so must always be a little suspect. There has then been this extrapolation from the leadership context to learning in general, which is also problematic.

What is perhaps more reliable is research carried out by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (Frazis et al, 1998) which suggested that 80% of what people learn is done informally. Broadly in line with 70:20:10, but this research did state that the distinction between formal and informal is very difficult to define.

Toby also points out the contradiction of organisations implementing 70:20:10; of course, as soon as you institute informal learning it is no longer informal. Merely setting up social learning platforms to facilitate informal learning has also been shown to be very problematic. Again, much peer-reviewed research has shown how difficult it is to set up a sustainable informal learning network (or community of practice), particularly in organisations where the culture of sharing information is limited.

True informal learning starts at an operational level and is probably largely through large numbers of small conversations. This then needs to filter back up through the organisation so that it can influence messages coming back down the organisation through the formal training process. This is all in line with what complexity theory and the edge of chaos concept suggest as a way of meeting the infinite variety of an operational environment.

The challenge, therefore, is for organisational culture to change to allow learning to move up through the levels rather than be primarily a downward process. If 'implementing 70:20:10' can achieve this, then rock on!

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