What are the ethics of L&D?

As our news headlines trumpet questions about ethics in workplace behavior and government, it sparks reflection on our own industry. What are our responsibilities? What behaviors should we practice, or avoid?

There are several stakeholders we have to keep in mind. First, there are our learners. They are in our hands and we need to do right by them. At an equal level are our organizations; they employ us to do the right things. We also have our colleagues, with whom we learn together, both inside and outside the organization. Finally, we have responsibilities to ourselves.

Here’re some thoughts on each. I ask you to think through your own ideas first, then compare. I’ve avoided things not specific to our field, assuming you recognize we should not engage in nor promote beliefs like bullying, harassment, racism, or sexism. Here I talk about the practices that are specific to what we do, even if they might reflect the professionalism we’d expect in any field.

Our learners
The first thing that springs to mind is the necessity of good design. There’s a reason the Serious eLearning Manifesto was written: there’s not enough good eLearning being done! Those eight values and research-based principles provide some guidance.

This includes focusing on the right objectives from the get go. If someone not in learning says “we need a course on X”, you need to validate that rather than accept it as true. There are lots of reasons people think that a course is needed, because they don’t know better. You should. This is the role of performance consulting and it keeps you from wasting learners’ time.

We also need to ensure that the learning experience itself is optimized. It should have sufficient relevant practice, valuable models and examples, and be as minimal as possible while achieving that goal. There shouldn’t be unnecessary content, trivial interactions, or poorly produced media.

Another way to put it is that you should engage learners. You should discover the intrinsic interest, and leverage that to make the learning meaningful. Frankly, learners shouldn’t be bored!

There’s no excuse for content dump, either for learning or engagement sake.

On the flip side, there’s a need to avoid gratuitous engagement. Extraneous media can interfere with learning! You can use gamification when appropriate, but you should ascertain that you really need the extra motivation on top of what’s inherently important.

In short, we shouldn’t abuse our learners, but use the best methods to help them learn. We can’t be accused of wasting their time, abusing their brains, nor subjecting them to unnecessary activities. Learning, properly, can and should be ‘hard fun’.

And you need to not assume that what you do is sufficient. You need to formatively test what you do and validate it’s hitting the right marks on impact and engagement. Or refine it until it does. There’s too often a belief that ‘if we follow the process, it is good’. Which is not the case!

This is being responsible and recognizing the complexity of what we do. The brain is (arguably) the most complex thing in the known universe; we shouldn’t assume a simple approach will work.

Our organizations
This brings up the issue of money. Doing the above may take more resources than you’re currently expending. How does that fit with the organization? They expect you to operate on a fiscally sound basis. Yet not doing the above is far more fraught with potential to be wasting money.

The right thing to do is to only do courses when courses make sense, and then do them right. As indicated above, we need to validate that a course makes sense. However, there are things we can do to support organizational success beyond the course. We can and should be looking at performance support tools (job aids like lookup tables, decision support, and the like) when possible to avoid the need for courses. It’s better to put the solution in the world instead of in the head when we can, as it’s much easier!

And we should be able to demonstrate the impact of our work. We should be measuring that our efforts are affecting organizational business metrics. We should be starting with these measures as the driving factor behind all we do.

This means that we have to understand the organization. We need to know the business goals and strategy for the units we support and in the context of the whole organization. We can’t operate in ignorance, or our efforts won’t be aligned. It’s possible, yet very undesirable, to be expending resources on things that don’t matter, which means we have to be professional about what we do. We need to know the tools we have, the problems they solve, and apply them appropriately. We need to own learning in the business. We can’t let executives or experts tell us how to do things.

We need to be the leaders in our area. We need to understand learning, advocate for it, and do it responsibly. This is why we should be able to push back about expending more to do learning right. It’s because we know any other approach isn’t being responsible to the organization, which also means we need to continually develop ourselves in our profession. We need to continually experiment, try new things, and be willing to fail as long as we learn from it. And we need to keep up with what others learn. Part of taking ownership is knowing the foundations of our practices.

Our colleagues
Thus, we have a mutual stake in our colleague’s success. We need to learn with them. This means communicating and collaborating as members of a community. This includes both within and without the organization.

We need to listen to what our colleagues share, and share our reactions. We need to actively process what’s being said (including this piece) and interpret it in terms our own situations. Then, if we can’t see how it makes sense, or have a different interpretation, we should engage. We must be active participants in our ongoing meaning-making.

Similarly, we should share our own thoughts and learnings. We can’t share our organizational secrets, but we should share the learnings, even if we have to anonymize specifics. To the extent we can, however, we should work out loud and show our work. Also, we need to annotate it with the underlying thinking. And, of course, we should respond constructively to feedback.

We need to behave as professional members of a community. That means we practice ethically, and responsibly. We want to collectively determine what that means, and act accordingly. And we must call out bad practices or beliefs. We need to address the learning myths that plague our field, be skeptical optimists about the latest claims, and continue to improve our collective understanding.

Ourselves
Ultimately, we owe it to ourselves to be professional in what we do. We need to know what leads to  learning, and what inhibits it. More broadly, we need to know what leads to performance and what  inhibits it, and be there to facilitate all the ways we can. This goes to informal learning as well, facilitating innovation.

Our learners need us to be their advocates. We must be willing to take up metaphorical arms to do what’s right for our stakeholders. We must improve organizational performance by developing the individuals and their methods. And do it right.

We must practice what we preach. We must be continual learners ourselves. We must know and practice meta-learning (learning to learn) so as to facilitate it for others and the organization. In short, we must continue to experiment and improve ourselves.

This seems to me to express the overall parameters under which I think we should operate. I’ve shared my thoughts; now, I hope you share yours.