Monday, 21 May 2012

A Tale of Two Donalds

It’s a week since I posted a comment on Donald Clark’s blog, but comments there require moderation, and so far, at least, Donald hasn’t published my comment. As I mentioned it in my last post here, this is what I said:

Insightful critique, Donald - I found myself nodding enthusiastically at many of your points. But I find your conclusions a tad harsh. The main problem with Kirkpatrick is too many people regard it as "the only game in town", when it is one (just one) of a range of models and tools that have their place in different situations.

Brinkerhoff's Success Case Method (for example) is brilliant, but I wouldn't recommend it for every situation. The same with Kirkpatrick. I don't think we have to dismiss it altogether, just put it in the toolbox alongside all the other options. And I'm not convinced we need a single new all-embracing model to replace it (not sure you are advocating that, but that's one reading of an "overhaul").

Further discussion of situational approaches here:

On checking back to Donald’s blog, I found he posted an even more devastating critique of Kirkpatrick, back in 2006 – Donald Talks Bollocks! Perhaps Donald Clark’s views have moderated a little since then? I think the problem is too many people are looking at evaluation through the prism of Kirkpatrick, and perhaps that means they need the jolt of this sort of polemic.

Further thoughts:

1. "Happy sheets" shouldn’t be primarily to test how happy learners were: they are a simple quality test, an opportunity to check that the basics of a learning initiative are working – e.g., the trainer is effective, the course materials are relevant and comprehensible, etc. I realise this example is specific to a training course – arguably the sort of application where Kirkpatrick works best.

2. I don’t agree that Kirkpatrick asks “all the wrong questions”, but I think there are plenty of other questions, and many situations where other questions are more pertinent.
3. I don’t want to seem like an apologist for Kirkpatrick, but I think his model still has its place, as long as it’s deliberately selected as the most relevant model, as an informed choice over other models. It would rarely be my first preference, but I can still see it can work for some of the people some of the time.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Theory and practice

Donald Clark’s Plan B blog is excellent, and I commend it to you.  His recent endeavour, to identify the 50 most influential theorists in the learning and development canon, and blog about each of them (in 50 days!) is unparalleled, and deserves to be published to a much wider audience.  Donald eventually blogged about 51, with 2 deletions and 3 additions from the original list, following lively debate.  The 51 included not just the usual suspects like Bloom, Kolb and Maslow, but the likes of Locke, Marx and Freud, all the way back to Socrates, Confucius and Jesus.  A veritable tour de force.

His last post, on Kirkpatrick, caught my eye.  The only evaluation theorist to make it onto Donald’s list.  And for good reason, as whatever the merits of Phillips, Brinkerhoff, Basarab and others, nobody else has enjoyed the sustained influence of Kirkpatrick and his “family business”, as Donald recently described it.

My response to Donald is on his blog, but one other comment he made rang very true for me:

"Evaluation should be done externally. The rewards to internal evaluators for producing a favourable evaluation report vastly outweigh the rewards for producing an unfavourable report”.

I have long held this to be the case, and it was my primary motivation in setting up the independent learning evaluation consultancy, Airthrey.

Monday, 14 May 2012


According to Wikipedia, the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree is “designed to introduce students to the various areas of business such as accounting, finance, marketing, human resources, operations management, etc”.  This is one design, suitable for new graduates seeking entry to a management career, but equally common is the design to validate management experience with credible accreditation, and this was my own motivation in completing, at age 40, a part-time MBA, spread over a number of years.

The MBA remains the most prestigious business/management qualification worldwide, and a focus for a lot of media attention, but its purpose and meaning remains confused.  I subscribe to Management Today, and this excellent magazine seems to carry an MBA feature in every other issue, to no greater enlightenment (it’s really just advertising).

The latest issue of Professional Manager magazine carries one of the recurring pieces questioning the value of the qualification, and as usual, there seems precious little reason for employers to fund MBAs, as the whole point seems to be for individuals to “invest in yourself”.  The survey evidence I see quoted most frequently is about salary increases post-MBA qualification, and the Professional Manager article doesn’t disappoint.  Sourced from the MBAs 2010 career survey, it claims average worldwide salary increases for MBA graduates of 33% immediately post-MBA, 92% 3-5 years post-MBA, and 151% 6-10 years post-MBA.

I wonder to what extent these figures are inflated by young graduates with little or no income suddenly getting their first big management job.  My own (i.e., my personal) experience certainly doesn’t chime with this, as immediately post-MBA my earnings actually fell, then rose by about 50% (from the baseline) in the 3-5 years range, then fell back again.

So what is the point of an MBA?  I’d be interested to hear a case for this most generic of qualifications, in preference to more specific and more targeted higher degree programmes.  In my own case, I’d probably have been better doing a Masters in management consulting, had such an option been apparent to me.  Is the widespread recognition of MBAs enough to outweigh this sort of consideration?  Especially when this recognition is often misplaced?  Do MBAs actually deliver what they promise?

Friday, 4 May 2012

Left nostril learning?

One of the key questions raised by the CIPD 2012 Learning and Talent Development Survey has been why so many favoured ideas in learning and development are so old.  Among those cited have been Belbin’s Team Roles (1981), Honey & Mumford’s Learning Styles (1970s) and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (1962).  I could add Kirkpatrick’s four levels of learning evaluation, which dates from even earlier (1950s).

But better questions might be why so few theories stand the test of time, or why more recent theories are not so well regarded.  The evidence suggests there are few popular theories in learning and development (L&D) that truly bear close scrutiny – at best many are useful constructs for opening debate about an issue, but no more.

Honey and Mumford’s learning styles theory, along with the competing theory of Colin Rose, has been widely discredited, at least in academic circles (see the range of sources here), yet remains popular.

Neuro Linguistic Programming is at best deeply flawed, if not downright fraudulent, at least in the opinion of respected commentator Donald Clark, and yet still has many vociferous adherents among L&D professionals.

And left-brain versus right-brain hocus pocus (for that’s all it is, really) is still given credence.  I can’t work out whether James Brockett was kidding in his People Management blog of 13 April, when he considered left ear versus right ear (was his tongue in his cheek, at least?)  What next – creative use of the left nostril?