Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Metaphor in learning and development

Have you ever stopped to count the metaphors we use routinely in learning and development and wonder why they come from where they do?

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that many of them derive from the industrial age, and reflect the activities that people seemed to value in an industrial setting. Thus we speak of workshops and of benchmarking, and use this sort of language so much that many of us will not stop to think that these are, in fact, metaphors and not literal expressions for what we’re doing.

What’s interesting about e-learning is that the metaphors are different, perhaps reflecting our move away from the industrial age to the information or digital age. Thus we have portals, platforms and even passwords. This seems to me a good thing, as instead of dwelling on the past, we are looking ahead, and many of the new metaphors are about rising, or opening up, or reaching for something new. If this encourages a more positive, creative outlook, that has to be of value.

Now just don’t get me into the ball-park of sporting metaphor: I’d hate to sound like I’m not a team player, but everyone wants to hit a home run, right?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Intellectual Capital

Intellectual capital seems to be making a comeback. It features as the cover story of the current issue of People Management, and the expression, dormant for a while, seems to be in use again. For me, this is a welcome development.

It first emerged in the 1990s, and was a vogue expression, along with knowledge management, in the most swollen state of the dot com bubble. When that bubble burst, the expressions went out of fashion, but that always struck me as unfair, as the underlying principles were sound.
Tom Stewart’s Intellectual Capital, the seminal text on the subject, is one of the best books I have ever read, and more than ten years from its publication still seems very profound.

What I like about the concept is it explains hidden assets, intangible capital, and value that doesn’t appear on balance sheets. This is important for advocates of learning and development: we see spend on learning as valuable investment in human capital; accountants tend to see it as just running-cost expenditure. If investment in learning is to be taken seriously, we need to be able to show that it adds value, and is not merely a drain on expenditure.

Tom Stewart argues that the most important measures of value in a business are its knowledge assets, and that strategic development and deployment of these assets is the key to lasting competitive advantage, now and in the future. Stewart caricatures the work of corporate accountants as counting the bottles rather than describing the wine, and insists that it’s the latter sort of value that is the hidden gold of organisations.

Knowledge assets are developed through the efforts of people, who work, learn, research, develop, and create and refine knowledge. Organisations need to recognise that investment in learning and development leads to increased intellectual capital, which in turn leads to business growth and improved profitability.