On what basis should organisations provide access to learning? Should it be meritocratic, whereby the most qualified and highly performing individuals get access to progressively more opportunities, advancing their way to the skills and behaviours needed in a homegrown leadership population? Or should it be on the basis of equality, where every opportunity is open to all, irrespective of performance or merit? Or something else: maybe dependant upon the needs of the organisation irrespective of the development wishes of individuals, a kind of liberal commercial standpoint whereby the needs of the business supersede the needs of the individual?
I’m speaking half in jest, but partly in seriousness, because these decisions are taken everyday and we rarely stop to consider our ethical or moral standpoint. Our education system is based on meritocracy: it aims to measure performance based on results, it promotes based on results and it provides opportunities based on results. Or maybe based on your ability to pay… you see, even here things are far from clear.
Broadly, we have a system whereby in our schooling and higher education, we judge people on their performance in tests. In theory, at least in the state and state funded majority of the higher education sector, we are meritocratic. If you work hard and get results, you can progress. Once you enter the ‘real world’ though, the picture is different. Organisations have specific requirements, people are ‘trained’ to be able to perform specific roles (and indeed will be assessed on their ability to carry out those roles), but as well as these mandated training interventions, there are many opportunities for discretionary ones: the chance to develop yourself into a management or leadership role.
Access to these opportunities is not always purely based on merit: it may be based on operational requirements e.g. we need a manger in Dublin, and you live in Dublin. Being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time may be just as important. To what extent is it down to business to champion equality in access to training, to reflect to desires of a liberal society, or to what extent is it down to business to selfishly focus on organisational performance, profit before people? Should we expect to see differences in how this is handed in the public as opposed to private sectors?
I was interested to hear an interview with the chief executive of Pret a Manger, the UK based sandwich and coffee shop, who operate a principle around recruitment whereby people are selected, go to work for a day, then the rest of the staff vote on who to give the job to. Democracy in recruitment! I am not really decided if this is a good or a bad thing: on the one hand, i like the idea of empowerment, whereby the team reinforces itself, but on the other, this runs the risk of being deeply unfair and unwise. What a team wants may not be what it needs.
But should we trial a similar principle in learning, where we vote for who gets the opportunity to participate in a particular course? I’m not saying that we should, but i do think it’s worth thinking about where opportunity lies in our own organisations, on what basis do people have access to that opportunity and to what extent we think that this is right or wrong, fair or unfair. It’s not that we need to change things, but it won’t hurt to think about what we are actually doing and decide if we are comfortable with it.