Who owns the truth? In a world of self publication and social media, how do you know that what you’re learning is ‘true’?

I was in Starbucks this morning, my favourite place to settle for some writing, when i saw they had a book for sale. ‘How Stuarbucks fought for it’s life without losing it’s soul’ (http://www.starbucks.com/onward). It’s a book by Howard Schultz, founder and chairman. In 2008, with his business in crisis, he stepped down from the Chairman role, like a crusader in coffee coloured armour, picked up the reigns of CEO and saved the business. It’s a heroic story on a small stage, but with big budgets. The story of how Schultz returned, like King Arthur with an apron, pulled the sword from the stone and led the revolt.

It’s a great tale and may, indeed, be true. It’s certainly positioned in the Amazon Business Best Seller chart as such, and it’s very presence in print gives it an authority that few would challenge. But is it really true?

I’m not that interested in whether Schultz really did save the day, but i am interested in what it means for a story to be true, especially when that story is positioned by Publishers Weekly as ‘a must-read for anyone interested in leadership, management, or the quest to connect a brand with the consumer.’ (http://www.amazon.com/Onward-Starbucks-Fought-without-Losing/dp/1605292885)

As i said, i’m a fan of Starbucks, not because it’s small and homely, but because i love how it’s so utterly fake. The way that the decor is distilled from a hundred influences, tempered down to the essence of ‘homely’, from the colour of the walls, to the posters, to the shape of the armchairs, to the little shelf/table they serve the drinks on. I love how that table is held in place by a bracket that must have been designed for the job. I’ve never seen a table like that anywhere. Someone sat down and designed it as a ‘starbucks serving table’. It’s totally commercial, yet presented as the corner coffee shop that it once, many years ago, actually was.

I like the fact that Schultz saved the day, but how is the truth constructed? For a start, he co-wrote the book, so it’s hardly objective, and he owns and runs the 7,100 branches of Starbucks that it’s distributed through in the USA (plus however many more there are around the world. So he controls the media and the message. In this instance it’s fairly easy to determine that the book is, at best, opinion, and indeed the reviews show that this is how it’s taken. “I am embarrassed for the author that he had the need to devote an entire book to saluting himself” (Amazon Review). But in general, the question of authority is significant.

Much of what we train is business is barely more authoritative than this, but it’s often presented as bold fact. Within higher education, there is usually at least an effort to encourage the use of a range of sources and to make value judgements on each of them, but this is rarely the case in business. Stories are usually presented as ‘fact’, and assessment is conducted against these ‘facts’. There is usually an underlying assumption that the story is true, and an active attempt to restrict people from questioning the narrative.

The truth, certainly in a historical perspective, is always relative, but is often taken as ‘fact’. Many of the management theories and concepts that we train are, at best, opinion, but are similarly presented as ‘true’. We have a duty to consider how we can incorporate this debate into the design of learning, allowing learners to question authority, providing different sources, and encouraging the development of analytical skills, which, ultimately, are the most powerful of all.

Notions of truth and authority are easily influenced through powerful media. I find that i do this with papers or news channels all the time. The BBC or the Times is judged to be ‘true’, whilst, for me. the Daily Mail or Sky News is somehow less authoritative. These are learnt validations and not necessarily backed up by evidence, but the point is that i do at least consider the authority of sources, something that is not often explicit in training.

With so much material so readily available, issues of validity and truth will only become more prominent. For now, i’ll sit with my latte and leave Howard to his dreams.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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