You say Tomato and I say Tomatoe…

Yesterday started well.  Any day when I’m working from home to catch up with my design and development work (as my time at work is taken up by unproductive meetings and various interruptions) is good.  However this feeling was short-lived when I received a phone call from one of the business analysts whom I’m working with on a project.  It was late Friday afternoon and my mind was wondering about the upcoming weekend.  The call  went something like this…

“Hi Helen. Just called up to ask you when you’ll be delivering the training next week for the three pieces of work for the XYZ team.”

“Excuse me?” I nearly choked on my tea.

“I’ve got on my project plan that they need training.”

“Hang on, hang on,” I stopped him.  “Last time we spoke, you mentioned that you hadn’t decided what additional processes this team will need to do under the new structure; and that you hadn’t identified any SMEs who know these new skills who can coach the team. Has that changed?”

“No,” he said.

“So let me get this right. You don’t know what they will need to do but you don’t have a SME either and yet you want me to design, develop and deliver training to the team next week.”

“Yes, because it’s on my project plan.  Besides I think we have a SME in mind but haven’t spoken to him yet.”

(#$%$%^^&&&*&^%$#@##$%^&& WTF?WTF?) was going through my head but I kept calm.

“Here’s an idea.  Why don’t you set up a meeting with that SME so we can find out more about the subject.  In the meantime, figure out what you want the team to do – and no, training will NOT occur next week because I cannot deliver you something, anything just to tick it off on your project plan.  I suggest you change your project plan dates AFTER we have done all that needs to be done.”

“Oh. Umm. Okay then,” he sounded shocked.

I think I was being nice to him. I could have used much more colourful language but the deed was done. My Friday had been destroyed by yet another misunderstanding of what Learning and Development is about and how training doesn’t JUST happen.

In my frustration, I immediately logged off my computer and hit the shops using the opportunity for a change of scenery to reflect on how people in this world simply don’t understand each other – how we have different perceptions, understandings, experiences – and how much nicer this world would be if we knew what each other was talking about.

So it’s not even other languages that creates the barriers for us – it’s the words within our OWN language that have different meanings, connotations, contexts to every person!

Some years ago, my brother enrolled into postgraduate studies in International Relations. With a keen interest and passion in this topic, he thought that he could fire up his interest by completing a formal qualification in the subject.  Before the course, he was excited that he was going back to university and that this potentially could set him off onto a new path outside of electrical engineering.  Over time, we had a chance to speak and I saw that he wasn’t as excited as he was initially and I asked why.

“My lecturer and I have different understandings of some of the words that he uses in his subject,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well as you know, we’ve got a Greek background.  I know ancient Greek and many of the words he uses all stem from ancient Greek.  In our language, the word means so much more – you can literally translate it to mean something a lot more than the English language can describe.  When I read the word, I take it to mean something a lot bigger than it is and as a result, the lecturer is becoming irritated with me when I point this out in class.  I simply cannot overwrite what I have learned, what is ingrained in me through my culture and upbringing, and re-define the word to what the lecturer wants me to think it means – it is simply wrong.”

I understood exactly what he meant.

The result was that he completed a few months of the course but could not continue because it went against everything his values, his knowledge – and simply, he could not accept the wrong definition as being right just so he can get a qualification.  So much so, he had never returned to the subject again and focussed his efforts on music instead learning to play the cello.

Then last night, I saw a tweet by @DonaldHTaylor referring to a post written by Harold Jarche on his blog and mentioned that we must read the comments.

The post was called, “It Starts with Capturing Knowledge”  and the comments, I believe, stemmed from a different use and understanding of the word “knowledge”.  The first thing that popped into my mind, was “here we go again!” and the second was, “hey,Tasmania was mentioned!”

My understanding of the comments is we will always come up against words that by their definition, doesn’t make sense in the context that we use them in.  The reader was saying, ‘we can’t capture knowledge’ but the author was not conveying that in the literal sense of the word.

In my years in Learning and Development, if only I could count the hours wasted on quibbling over the definition of a word and how people can have different interpretations and understandings of it.

Recently at a LearnX Conference in Melbourne, one of the sessions was a panel that I was looking forward to hearing their views and unfortunately, we spent most of the time talking about whether we should use the terms, ‘education’ and ‘training’ in business.  The ex-teachers in the audience were irate that the terms were considered taboo in business and for me, I was annoyed that we had used this forum to rehash the same old argument again that really had no place or value in the context of that session.

But I’m not saying I’m a saint either.  I’m in that same predicament.  If I hear or see the word, “Unlearn” or “Unlearning”, the hairs on my arms stand on end. For some reason, this term creates a physical reaction in me.  I think, by the actual definition of learning – how can we unlearn? Are we just learning something new to overwrite what we had learned in the past?

Some time ago at a #lrnchat this was the topic of the conversation and I simply had to leave the chat because I couldn’t get past the definition.  So yes, I’m pedantic too.

So with all these words and definitions with different contexts of how they’re used in our field, is it really THAT important?  Do I stand staunchly or continually argue against the sea of people who have a different interpretation of that word?

For me – it’s grey.  There’s no right or wrong but I do know that if I stand resolute and argue at every point, I’m going to come across as a curmudgeon – and when some Learning and Development teams already have a reputation in business for this, I don’t want to cement this reputation.

So the word, ‘unlearn’ is my problem.  It’s my own reaction and I must control how I respond to it.  It’s not a ‘deal breaker’ for me – that is, one that goes against my values.  I simply have to learn that we don’t take words literally sometimes because we’d never get far.  I also believe it’s because the English word simply doesn’t have the full richness of definition which then allows it to be open to interpretation.

But I’m sure that you’ve come across some words that create such a passionate response in people in your field.

What would be yours?

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About Activate Learning Solutions

Helen Blunden is the founder of Activate Learning Solutions and Third Place. She has over 20 years of experience within learning and development across private, public and not-for-profit organisations. With a specialty in performance consulting and networked learning, Helen believes that workplace learning is integral to business success. She has a passion for enabling people to learn beyond the classroom and believes in the power of networks and communities to drive collaboration and meaning within the organisation. From facilitator-led instruction, online and blended, Helen deploys social and informal learning such as enterprise social networking, collaboration tools and emerging technologies that have been proven successful and embedded workplace change.
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