When I speak with my peers in the field of organizational learning and performance, either in person or virtually, I'm always amazed at the amount of time we spend discussing, debating, and examining the language of our profession.
Language is a fascinating thing: It's how we communicate our thoughts and develop relationships, but used ineffectively, it can also bog down the same relationships we're trying to build. For instance, I can't tell you how often I hear things like:
“Executives don’t care about ROI; they care about ROE”
Here's a situation where language muddies things up. The problem I see with many of these statements is that they place too much emphasis on the label, and not enough emphasis on the meaning. First, 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 problem starts.
Language depends on context. When I speak with a colleague in the learning field, I can use terms like training, learning, performance, design, e-learning, and many others, and expect that my colleague will understand the subtle difference between those words. We're all part of the same community of professionals, so the words and usage have a generally agreed-upon meaning, adding value to the overall discussion.
In many organizations, business leaders are not part 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.
For years, when I have heard debates about the language of learning, it’s been about the labels – more specifically, incorrect labels (usually applied by people outside the learning profession). Someone gets described as a trainer, and then that person spends 15 minutes explaining why that’s the wrong label to use.
Again, the problem is the label, not the meaning.
Here’s a non-learning example: When people describe my eating habits, they may say, “David is a vegetarian." Technically, that isn't correct. 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 whether people call me a "vegetarian" or a "lacto-ovo-vegetarian." 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 idea applies to organizational learning and performance; don’t focus too much on the labels. If the CEO calls it training, don't try to have them re-label it as corporate learning, performance, or something else. It's more important that you change the way the organization views and defines what you do.
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'm trying to do, and that we agree on what's truly important about the outcomes, and that I have support on the path we choose to get there.
Do we need to change the language of Employee Learning and Performance? I think in many 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, change the way people define "training." When you change that, actually changing the labels becomes easy.
David Kelly is the director of training at Carver Federal Savings Bank and member of the ASTD National Advisors for Chapters. He is also the author of the blog Misadventures in Learning, where he discusses the future of the learning field and curates the backchannel of learning conferences.
Image used under Creative Commons by Flickr user greeblie.