Restoring Credibility in Professional Learning & Development: Dilemmas & Questions

Most people are trainers and coaches (business, life, leadership) today, than never before. Why? What results or transformative value has these training and coaching engagements brought to individuals, organizations, and societies? I might be wrong, but it seems the more we get these so called ‘trainers and coaches’ the more decay we see in individuals, families, teams, organizations, and societies. In the spirit of progress and cumulative knowledge development, I guess its fine to passionately question the philosophical orientation and transformative value of most training and development engagements. Without sounding too scientific, the learning and development field can only generate transformative value and sustain credibility of the field, if those who commit to the field clearly define their positions in terms of training & development: ontology, epistemology, methodology, and methods. Can’t universities and business schools be the champions and advocates of learning and development industry? Are the trainers teaching sacred concepts from ‘mars or another planet’ or they are grounded in the universals and particulars that everybody can access? This article seeks to explore contracting essentials in learning and development through pin-pointing some dilemmas and questions that can help in reassuring transformative value through learning and development engagements. But first, here are some of the reasons why most people are calling themselves trainers and coaches:

• Advancing scholarship of discovery, application, integration, teaching and practice

• Genuine concern for development at individual, family, team, and organizational levels

• Professional instrumentalism – it’s all about money because opportunities are vast in this field.

• Rising unemployment levels leading to this form of professional entrepreneurial proclivity.

• Self-branding and normalization of academic credentials.

The key concern for this article is the realization that the learning and development field is facing alarming credibility challenge. However exciting, some training programmes are filled with trainer’s dream-phase concepts that have not be tested, verified, or subjected to critical thought and review by other practitioners and as such have no transformative value. Though the field has a long tradition of relying on certain accreditation bodies for recognition, accreditation, and/or endorsement, there seem to be an increase in rubber-stamping accreditations who are driven by the rampant commercialization of accreditations, endorsements and recognitions.

The upsurge of the noble professional learning and development training is facilitated by the need to bridge the drawbacks of the academe-practitioner divide. The structure of most academic curriculum and the methods of delivery and assessment are predominantly inclined towards accumulation of information and knowledge from books or advancing scientific theories. In terms of scholarship, these learning models prioritize the scholarship of discovery, scholarship of teaching, and to some extent scholarship of integration. It is evident in most graduates today, that such models of education offers a subtle form of escape from ourselves, yet inevitably creating increasing misery, conflict and confusion. Without downgrading their relevance or advocating for the abolishing of such education, it is important to recognize that such conventional learning models overemphasize the learning of some technique in order to earn a livelihood. However, corporate results have proven that the mere cultivation of technique does not bring about creative understanding and an integrated individual. What we call education today has merely produced economists, engineers, doctors, ‘entrepreneurs’, mathematicians, without nurturing the creative impulse that is required to build great teams and great organizations. There seem to be a ‘spill-over effect’ of such traditions into the professional development field – the boundary-line needs to be clearly defined understanding that these two dimensions are not only cumulative but complementary to each other.

The professional learning and development dimension brings about the much needed elements of scholarship: the scholarship of application and scholarship of practice. However, this does not mean to say that all professional learning and development programmes are valuable and transformational – even though participants can give ‘positive reviews’ after the session. In the same vein, some academic institutions have reframed their curriculum to incorporate the professional learning and development dimension. The inclusion of scholarship of application and scholarship of practice in professional learning and development addresses the dilemma of developing specialists and idealists with mere technical knowledge and scientific knowledge. Due to the easy entry into the Learning & Development Industry, there is an upsurge of the so-called ‘professional trainers’, especially fellow doctorate graduates or candidates, whose self-expansive ambitions are premised on some exciting scientific knowledge which does not bring real transformation to individuals, teams, organizations and societies. Most of these ‘train-for-a-living professional trainers’ lack the particulars that form the basis for true knowledge and understanding.

Here are some of the normalized dilemmas being brought about by the upsurge of professional learning and development programmes:

• Certification – the value of certificates has been reduced to mere pieces of paper that any Jack & Jill can offer, with payment of fees and mere participation being the determinants for getting the ‘certificate of completion’. In some instances payment of fees and a Whatsapp message of non-attendance due to other pressing issues, can still earn you the same ‘professional certificate’. Like never before, it is now possible to get a certificate every week from the same trainer or training institutions. All you need is time and money to attend their workshops every week. Professional trainers need to revisit their certification schemes and annotate the value of the certificate, on both certificate of attendants and certificate of completion.

• Contamination of the labor market with inexperienced professionals who attend short courses and acquire mere knowledge of the primary factors. Those in the Learning & Development field should eloquently clarify the standards of practice in a particular field and emphasize the need for participants to embrace a holistic view of their field rather that boast for understanding first causes. After a training session, professional trainers should map a roadmap for participants to further develop their knowledge, craft, and experience.

• Disregard of the conventional learning approaches as a result of the false hopes and comfort derived from the so-called professional certifications. The entrepreneurial proclivity among the ‘professional trainers’ mislead people into believing that the one-week professional certificate is better that the 4-years undergraduate programme, as the trainers do use such magic words as transformational, results-oriented, and so on to lure their prey.

Key questions to consider when contracting for learning and development programme.

• What is the depth of customization in the structure, materials, and delivery of the programme?

This question seeks to address the tendency of ‘professional trainers’ to bring conventional classrooms to the professional learning and development field. Most training programmes are on paper professional programmes but in practice or in principle a repetition or refresher of graduate school classes, but conducted in a fancy environment with the trainer making exciting statements through integrating some nascent terms and management fads. To complement academic programmes, the depth of customization in professional learning and development programmes should shun off-the-shelf, outcomes-based methodologies towards inquiry-based methodologies that nurture the creative impulse among participants and enhance the capacity to solve real organizational or societal problems. The depth of customization should bring about an integrated professional with wisdom and practical wisdom, in Aristotle’s terms, that is, phronesis.

• How was the training programme, nature and scope, developed?

This question seeks to delve deep into the broad objective of the training through questioning the nature and scope of the programme and the trainer’s intent or underlying purpose for training. A properly framed professional learning and development programme is transformational in the sense that it will be designed to explore an otherwise equivocal subject in more concrete and precise terms with the facilitator eyeing for real transformation. Some essential considerations for those in Learning & Development include collaborative designing of the programme through: 1)the use of universals and research findings to frame and give direction to participants and organizations, 2) blending several knowledge elements, such as social science knowledge and current literature, as informing sources to frame a training programme in more bounded and specific terms, and 3) consider the organization’s strategic intent and the career aspirations of the many participants. Unless the training programme is a money making engine for the trainer and his/her associates, Participatory or collaborative methodologies such as Action Research and Appreciative Inquiry should be adopted at the design phase of the programme.

• What is the overall timeframe from design of the programme to completion of the programme?

Organizations today face complex technical and adaptive challenges that cannot be addressed through micky-mouse professional learning and development programmes. Without downgrading those who call themselves experts, most micky-mouse professional learning programmes are designed overnight through copy-paste-edit previous engagements. Such approaches contradict fundamental principles of underlying change, complexity, and chaos in social systems. Training engagements should be rigorous, reflective, research-based, and real.

• What are the delivery and assessment methodologies underlying the course?

With the professional trainer as a facilitator, professional learning and development programmes should utilize holistic delivery and assessment methodologies, some of which require a different social settings than the one provided by the training room. Though case studies are mainly used in most professional training rooms there should be contextual difference in relation to the same case study being used in an academic setting. In tackling the case studies, the professional learning and development programme should not ascend to a level of abstraction that leaves experience behind. The complexity of organizational issues cannot be reduced to a few case studies and lecture sessions conducted over 40 hours.

• What are the after-training support services?

Professional trainers are coaches and mentors whose relationship with participants is not merely transactional and ends when the training session ends. The trainer should support participants in their continuous personal and professional development. This is in recognition that the participants have unique career aspirations and the training programme had the basis of building foundation and creating career foresight for each participant. Assuming the coaching and mentorship role after the training sessions helps to build professional relationships with the participants and support them in developing specific knowledge, craft, and experience in their fields of practice. The after-training support service will require a group of professional trainers demonstrating diversity in knowledge, skills, and expertise. The after-training service can then be used as the foundation for the development of a harmonized training calendar targeted at specific fields.

Recommendations to those in the field

The professional learning and development field is a noble and exciting field. Based on the five reasons pointed above, reflect on the dominant reason for you to become part of this field. The learning and development field is a noble field and as such should uphold to specific standards of practice. Those in this field should:

• Applaud the norms of transformative practice.

• Fundamentally reorient professional learning and development.

• Establish and commit to specific policies and certification scheme.

• Adopt participatory approaches in the design and delivery of professional programmes. Embrace problem-based methodologies, dynamic collective learning, and evidence into practice approaches.

• Refrain from imposing own prejudices and hopes among participants but nurture the creative impulse.

• Focus on effectively blending knowledge, craft, and experience.

• Establish a radical circle involved in the programme; before, during, and after delivery.

• Build ties with research organizations and institutions of higher learning.

• Be actively engaged in scholar-practitioner activities around your field, and be a professional member of international bodies.

• Refrain from being a jack-of all-trades and network with other scholar-practitioners in and outside your field.

The Centre for Organization Leadership & Development (COLD) offers professional certification in Organization Leadership and Development, Director Development, and Talent Management. The programs include concrete experience, reflective observation, implementing interventions, application of best practices in today's organizations. The delivery approaches include: 1) Competency-based curriculum, 2) 10 Independent modules, 3) Cohorts of 7-10, 4) Facilitator-led learning, 5) Online & Face-to-face sessions, 6) Action Learning Projects, and 7) Social learning activities.

Dr. Justine Chinoperekweyi is an Organization-Development Scholar-Practitioner who is actively engaged in organization leadership and development, corporate governance, educational leadership, and talent management. He is the author of four books, Director & Lead Instructor at COLD, Editor-In-Chief of the Organization Leadership and Development Quarterly (OLDQ). He can be contacted at