Before I Forget Some Thoughts on Professional Experience in HRD
Jeffrey W. Flesher
Job announcements for faculty in Human Resources Development [HRD] seem increasingly to include a preferred, if not required, period of professional experience as a trainer or training manager. As the academic discipline continues to grow, it is not unusual to see this additional background requirement included in faculty search announcements. Many current tenure-line faculty members have extensive experience as consultants or researchers and actively follow the developments in, and requirements for, successful practice in the field. However, it is also not unusual for most current faculty to lack experience as a trainer or training manager. Having recently returned to an academic position from two years in training management, I am inclined to reflect on the value which that experience may bring to my current assignment and which the increasing requirements for such experience in faculty might bring to our discipline.
Of course, my discussion is based only on the tasks and challenges of my own experience. However, even though my points are based on a non-generalizable reflective case study of one, I think there is some value in using this forum to initiate a dialog on the requirements for the HRD faculty of the future.
Some years ago, when I was faced with a faculty job search for which I lacked the direct background requested, I recall wondering if these work experience requirements would add significant value. I had observed that my mentors and colleagues, who appeared to be completely credible and skilled, often had backgrounds from vocational teaching and little full-time employment outside of academia. Thus, when I was at the point of completing my advanced degree, I was confident that I had been well prepared.
It certainly is difficult to capture the true value of experience, because it is tends to be very context dependent. The background of many graduate students (potential faculty members) probably includes key elements of skill sets needed for the field, but these skills were acquired from experience in other areas or seemingly unrelated jobs. Given the organizational variability inherent in HRD jobs, it is difficult to describe the typical work experience. Some trainers are stand-up presenters only, whereas others manage large staffs and rarely fill instructional roles. An approach often used to describe our work is the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) Models for HRD Practice (McLagan & Suhadolnik, 1989). It is not difficult to see the close parallels between many of the skill sets and activities included in vocational or technical education and in business or psychology. It is also clear that the roles of researcher, consultant, instructor, and theoretician (to name a few) are directly related to the regular experience of many faculty members, with or without professional field experience.
As I reflect on the critical skills needed by the staff in the department I managed, I believe that the foundation of basics provided in most HRD academic programs would have been sufficient for our tasks. Even more fundamentally, however, the ability to communicate, organize, multi-task, and interact with all levels of employees was more critical to performance than the knowledge of exactly what model or tool to use. This observation, of course, reflects the function of my particular company and department, which was more often involved in design projects, initiative work, and evaluation efforts. My personal window of professional work experience placed less emphasis on conducting instruction than on managing it.
There are a few points that my recent work experience has caused me to see somewhat differently. I think this shift indicates a growth in my personal understanding more than that something was lacking in my coursework. Perhaps the greatest discontinuity between academia and the working world is the seeming halo put around the profession by those of us who teach. As outside observers, we see the positive side more than the challenges. This occurs because consultants are usually well treated, enjoy lunch, and then get to go home.
I found the issues created by value clashes between well-intentioned but conflicting points of view to be particularly interesting. I think we need to continue to discuss the underlying philosophy and values associated with HRD and the related effects on the profession and the workplace. Some of these issues have been described in The Journal of Industrial Technology Education by Lewis and Peasah (1998) and have been debated by Gray (1997) and myself (Flesher, 1998). One of the most intriguing value issues alluded to by Lewis and Peasah (1998) was the difficulty in overcoming the legends from practice that our professional students adhere to (been there, done that) and bring into their faculty roles from the "real world." Based on my experience, I am now less sure that there is a "real world" somewhere in a context outside of academia. We enjoy as much political intrigue, self-imposed stress, and opportunity for personal growth as do any of our colleagues in business. Additionally, well-grounded academic skills do have application in practice. As Lewis and Peasah (1998) found, many vendor-supported or popular adult-learning theory approaches have limited proven results. Of course, that may be the one big lesson: that there really is little difference between faculty with and without work experience, that I was in fact well prepared, and that those who can't do aren't always teachers.
So, although I wouldn't argue with the value of experience and I certainly agree that some credibility comes from titles and years in the trenches, I still think that willing and knowledgeable hard work generates its own credibility, which becomes readily apparent. It may also be true that our experience is as limiting as it is enlightening, and that someone who needs to discover a broader truth about the world could be more instructive than someone who know all the answers. I would hope that as we write position announcements in the future, we would be open to preferred, but not required.
Flesher is an Assistant Professor in the Training and Development Program at Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois.
McLagan, P. A., & Suhadolnik, D. (1989). Models for HRD practice: The research report. Alexandria, VA: American Society for Training and Development.