Do We Need to Change the Language of Employee Learning?

Language is a fascinating thing.  It is the means through which we use words to communicate our thoughts and ideas and subsequently, develop relationships.  Of course, used ineffectively, language can also damage the very relationships we are trying to build.
It’s with that background in mind that I’ve been pondering the language we use within the field of Organizational Learning and Performance, and whether or not the language needs to change.
When I speak with peers in the field, be it in person or virtually, I am always amazed at the amount of time we spend discussing, debating, and examining the language of our profession.  Here’ are just a few examples of what I mean:
“We’re in the business of Learning, not Training”
“Executives don’t care about ROI; they care about ROE”
“I hate it when people call me a ‘Trainer’”
The problem I see with many of these discussions is that they’re placing too much emphasis on the label, and not enough emphasis on the definitions.
Let me explain what I mean.  Let’s start with the definition of language according to dictionary.com:
Language: –noun  1.  a body of words and the systems for their use common to a people who are of the same community or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural tradition.
I think the most important part of that definition is ‘people who are of the same community’.  That’s where the labels we sometimes focus too much on create a problem.
It depends on context and frame of reference.  When I am speaking with a colleague of the learning field, I can use the terms training, learning, performance, design, e-learning, and many others and my counterpart will understand the subtle differences in my message.  We are all part of the same community of professionals, so the words and usage have agreed upon meaning, adding value to the overall discussion.
In many organizations, business leaders are not members of the community of learning professionals.  The same terms that added value within the community could reduce the value outside of it.  The terminology runs the risk of becoming jargon, which is a huge barrier to communication.
Last week’s #lrnchat discussion on the topic “If we could wipe the slate clean…” got me thinking about some of the mistakes we have made in our profession that have contributed to the baggage the profession carries with it today.  I think language is a big part of that.
For years, when I have heard debates about the language of learning, it’s been about the labels – more specifically, a focus on incorrect labels that are placed by non-learning professionals.  Someone describes an individual as a Trainer, and the individual spends 10-15 minutes explaining why that’s the wrong label to use.
And therein lies the problem – we’re focusing on the label instead of the definition.
Here’s a non-learning example. When people describe my eating habits, they use the phrase “David is a vegetarian”.  Technically speaking, that label is incorrect.  I am a Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian, which means I eat no meat or fish, but do eat eggs and dairy.  Ultimately I could care less what label people place on my eating habits; I’m more concerned with not creating social awkwardness by having someone serve me a plate of food I don’t eat.  If they want to label me as a vegetarian, I’m fine with that – as long as we’re defining it the same way.
The same applies to organizational learning and performance; don’t focus too much on the labels. If the CEO defines it as training, don’t try to have him or her re-label it as corporate learning, performance, or anything else.  It’s more important that you change the way the organization looks at and defines the contribution. 
I could really care less if the CEO labeled what I do as ‘Dave’s mystical, magical voodoo’, as long as the CEO understands what I am trying to do, that we agree on what  is truly important about the outcomes, and that I have support on the path we choose to get there.
In truth, that’s the way labels emerge from a community anyway.  A label is not created in advance; it’s created when something already exists.  Think about Social Learning.  No one really invented that concept; it grew organically through the technologies that enabled it.  People were learning more and more through these new social connections, the community of learning professionals noticed it, and the label ‘Social Learning’ was born.
Do we need to change the language of Employee Learning? I think in most organizations the answer would be yes – but it has to start with the definitions behind the language.  If you want to change the language and labels that are applied to learning in your organization, then change the way people define ‘Training’.  When you change that, actually changing the labels becomes easy.

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4 Responses to Do We Need to Change the Language of Employee Learning?

  1. Don Bolen February 16, 2011 at 12:30 am #

    We should be focused on performance. We help people do work, tasks and even think better. Turn the conversation to the matter or task at hand regarding performance.

  2. Bob Daumer February 16, 2011 at 4:51 pm #

    Completely agree, though it is a systemic change that needs to happen throughout all organizations. In my various job searches, my former title of instructional designer has precluded many opportunities because a recruiter or talent acquisition specialist was focused on the label, not the contributions, which for me have extended far beyond the common duties of an instructional designer. This is a necessary change for the 'training' team as well as all strategic and business partners. Excellent post and series of thoughts.

  3. Kelly February 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    Great post; very insightful. Focusing on the function and the results instead of just names is valuable advice for any profession!

  4. David Bennett February 18, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

    Quite right Dave that the label itself should be unimportant. The thing is it's not.

    People who haven't met you before may offer you fish because that fits with their personal meaning of vegetarian. Similarly, if the CEO says publicly that you do training then you'll get a budget – for more training. It creates an unneccessary situation where you'll be forever explaining that training in THIS case, ACTUALLY means learning & performance.

    If the CEO knows and likes what you do, get her to back a name change. Maybe then stakeholders will stop asking for voodoo.

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