Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On value: perceived and intrinsic

Those of you who are Facebook friends will know that I lost something during my recent holiday. It was something of no intrinsic value, and yet I treasured it enormously. It was something that has been featured on this blog before. It was the bangle my father gave to me for my 17th birthday.

It was the only truly personalised thing he ever gave me, and the only times I wasn't wearing it were the times it was broken. It occupied pride of place on my right wrist through thick and thin for about 30 years (albeit with the aid of several repair jobs). If you have met me in person, you have seen it, even if you haven't noticed it.

It has been swimming, climbing and jetskiing... and survived it all.

But one day during our holiday, my elder son playfully grabbed me by my wrists in the sea. As I felt it move on my arm, I yelled, "My bangle! My bangle!" It took my son a moment to understand the import of what I was saying, by which time the bangle had fallen off. We could see it clearly through the water, lying at my younger son's feet. In distress, I yelled at him to pick it up for me, but he couldn't see it, and - as I watched in horror - accidentally stepped on it, burying it in the sand.

Although we borrowed goggles from kindly people nearby and spent the next 40 minutes or so searching for it, we finally had to accept that it was gone.

I am unashamed to say that I wept huge, wracking sobs for the loss of it. I felt hollow. I even dreamt that night that it was returned to me. I still keep absent-mindedly trying to adjust it on my arm, and there is a faint tan line where it used to be.

Someday, maybe, someone else will find it: a badly made, shoddily repaired silver bangle cut in the shape of an unusual name not their own.... and it will have absolutely no value to them.

Will they even be able to tell that it had once had enormous value to someone else? Will they know as they hold it that there is a woman somewhere out there whose delight would know no bounds if they were to find a way to return it to her?

So it is with learning. Sometimes we share things in this space that have inspired us, or from which we have gleaned enormous value. Sometimes we wax lyrical about something we have found or made or seen... to a round of utter indifference.

And what of it? Does that diminish the value to the beholder? I certainly hope not. There is space for a wide range of value systems and measures.

As learning providers, we need to be careful not to denigrate certain resources simply because they hold no value for us. One man's meat, as the saying goes...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On enablement

I have blogged about this story before (and probably got the details wrong), but it blipped on my radar again today. It is the most standout story of Olympic 400m sprinting for me. Even though 400m was my distance, and it remains my favourite event of the Olympics, I couldn't tell you off-hand who won that year... but the name Derek Redmond stands out in my mind.

I want to draw your attention to the Dad in this video. Watch him fight his way past the officials. Watch him shoo them away so that his son can cross the finish line.

I want to be that person.

Monday, August 09, 2010

On belonging

Like most people, I have a strong need to belong. To feel accepted. Like most people, I am also picky about where it is that I am accepted and by whom.

When I originally started blogging, I stood in awe of the likes of Kathy Sierra and Stephen Downes (among others). I hovered on the sidelines of the spaces they inhabited and then grew brave enough to contribute my twopenn'orth to the conversations they were having. For different reasons, neither of these two people are particularly strong on responding to blog comments - Kathy (who no longer blogs, to my knowledge) received so many comments that she was physically unable to respond to them all; Stephen believes that his readers' comments have validity in and of themselves, without needing his affirmation or validation (or so I seem to recall from somewhere... blowed if I can find where he said it). At one point, I posted something that took an opposing stance to something Stephen had said and almost fell off my chair when he spread a little link love and referred to my post in his OLDaily the next day.

It was this kind of acceptance that made me feel as if I belonged. And social media are great for this. They are such levellers. For example, to extend the Downes story for a moment, the nature of the relationship I have with Stephen has become increasingly relaxed over the years, as we have become connected in a wider range of social media spaces, to the point where we engage on personal issues as well as shared professional interests.

Switching tack for a moment, let's look at this belonging thing from a slightly different angle:

Because of a quirk of genetics, I always found it very difficult to find clothes that fitted me. I was the woman who hated clothes shopping, because after three stores full of nothing that fitted me, I began to feel like a freak. Things that fitted here, didn't close there, and things that closed there, hung like a sack everywhere else.

Then a wonderful woman called Sarah Tremellen established Bravissimo, an outlet for... well, check it out for yourself.

I don't know who developed her marketing plan, or whether she is naturally insightful, but she has formed a community for women who - like me - had to put up with all the strife that goes with being the shape that we are: quite apart from the struggle to find decent clothing, there are the assumptions about our morals and our intelligence levels, the ribald remarks, the failed attempts to conduct professional conversations with men who later wouldn't recognise your face if their lives depended on it.

I was an early adopter of Bravissimo and am a fan of just about everything about it: the decor in the stores, the defiant quotes on the walls, the professional fitting service. But most of all, I love that I can walk out of their stores feeling like a shapely woman, rather than a freak.

Recently, I was in one of their fitting rooms, when I overheard a woman in the next cubicle make a discovery: due to significant recent weight loss, she no longer fell within Bravissimo's target audience. The store no longer catered to her. She was utterly crestfallen as she said, "It looks like I'm just not a Bravissimo girl any more."

Why do I relate this story?

Because, in spite of the fact that the woman in question had achieved goal weight and all the attendant health and aesthetic benefits, in spite of the fact that she could now buy clothing from any high street store at a significantly lower price, she had effectively ousted herself from the community, and that was causing her genuine distress. And yet, one becomes a member of the Bravissimo community in the first place as a consequence of being excluded from all manner of other communities.

The difference is that Bravissimo deliberately fosters that sense of community, that sense of belonging.

As we build our learning environments and create our communication spaces, let's look for ways to foster that same sense of being part of something that make a person feel special. Something they will be reluctant to leave.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On being powerless

For the past few weeks, I have experienced a level of powerlessness I have not known for a long time. The frustration it has caused me and my family has spilled over into other areas of my life.

It caused me to think again of the workplace learner.

My frustration started with something as pleasant as the prospect of our family holiday. We decided to go to Lanzarote, which (for those who don't know) is a Spanish territory, and therefore within the EU.

Because I am married to an EU citizen, I have never before had problems getting a visa to travel in the EU. Things were different this time. The visa service has been outsourced to an organisation which appears to have become a law unto itself.

Previously, because I was already on record at the Swedish embassy, I could apply for a visa through the mail and would receive it within seven days. No problem. This is no longer the case. The requirement now is that I should attend an interview in London and there were no available appointments until after the start of our holiday. When I contacted them to point out the problem this presented, they were utterly unsympathetic. "Reschedule your holiday," was the solution they offered, as if this were the easiest and most obvious thing in the world.

I began casting about for ways to get my visa more quickly when I came across EU directive 38/2004 article 10 which states that, as the (1) spouse of an EU citizen and (2) having indefinite leave to remain (permanent residence) in an EU member state, I am allowed to travel anywhere within the EU in the company of my husband for a period of up to 90 days.

I contacted the visa service with this information. They already knew about it, it seems, but they still insist that I need a visa and they are still unable to assist me. So much for another provision of the directive which says that the spouses of EU citizens will be given priority treatment.

I was sure that they were mistaken and tried to contact the Spanish embassy for confirmation. They never answered either their phones or their emails.

My husband and I searched online and found all manner of precedent:

The visa agency remained unmoved.

We were advised by various sources that it would be illegal to prevent me from boarding the plane and that I should take my original marriage certificate and a copy of the EU directive with me. But I had my doubts about the effectiveness of these pieces of evidence on the person on border control with no authority and a set of rules handed down from on high.

I have made a host of telephone calls and have at last been advised by the border control folks at the UK airport that they will not stop me from boarding the plane. I have also been advised by the folks in Lanzarote that they will not stop me from entering the island.

I don't think I will actually believe it until I am safely ensconced in my villa!

But this saga isn't so very different from the experience of someone trying to upskill in order to be able to do something differently or better in the workplace. We've all been there.
  • You're not eligible to attend this course. Yes, I know what the employee's handbook says, but you're still not eligible.
  • You can attend this course, but the next one is running in 6 months. You'll have to reschedule that project.
  • You need an enrollment key/password to access that material, but we aren't issuing any at the moment.
In the end, we go subversive, or we find ways around the obstacle.

Or, at least, some of us do. I have never been very good at taking no for an answer. I have pushed back all my life. It's one of my most annoying characteristics. But I have seen 'impossible' things happen. Documents that should take 12 weeks to obtain have miraculously appeared with 24 hours. Jobs that have supposedly been lost have been reinstated. Doctors who are unavailable have suddenly become available. Doors that are supposedly sealed shut have swung wide. Of course, there are times when I deem it best to cut my losses and turn away, but these are conscious choices.

But I am stubborn and bloody-minded.

What about those who are not? What about the more gentle-natured people in the organisation? When they identify a development need and are stonewalled, what are they to do? This is a surefire way to generate a team of 'jobsworths' who punch the clock and look forward to retirement.

I can't bear the thought of willingness to learn going to waste. We simply have to find ways to empower people to access the learning that they need in order to do their jobs and do them well, or to upskill to take on another role, if they so desire.

We need to prise open some creaky doors. Of course, there will be resistance, but that's why there are people like (you and) me in this field: to push back against all that 'no-ness', to ask 'why' a lot until the lack of good reason causes the obstacles to crumble.

Ugh! I'm feeling right rebellious today.