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.


Stephen Downes said...

I certainly hope you make it to Lanzarote - it is spectacular. Be sure to take the volcano tour. And get a cheap rental car and explore the entire island, it is totally worth it.

My photos... http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_downes/sets/72157606136811926/

p.s. next time you show up at the visa place, show up with either (a) your lawyer, or (a) a member of the press. (That's how I operate. They escalate, you escalate. Don't be pushed around.)

The upsycho said...

@Stephen Thanks. I hope so, too. There is so much we want to see and do there.

Your photos (as ever) are spectacular, thanks for sharing.

I think you and I have a few things in common on the 'not getting pushed around' front. I did try to contact a lawyer, but they didn't return my call. My reputation must have preceded me ;o)

Christopher Wyble said...

Karen, best of luck in your travels. This post echoes what I've always felt... if those of us who are willing to speak up and fight encounter such difficulties, what of the people who won't, or can't? I'm glad you're out there, fighting.

The upsycho said...

@Christopher Thanks for your comment. A first, I think?

Since you use the pronoun 'us', I assume you're a fighter, too. Nice to know!

Norman Lamont said...

Yes, to echo what Mr Downes said, maybe a little videocam with you when you're speaking to them. As one of the 'gentle types', frequently doubling as a doormat, I admire your tenacity and when - not if - you get on this holiday it'll be well deserved!

V Yonkers said...

I think what is most relevant in this story is the fact that some people latch on to a small piece of policy/training without seeing the big picture logic. Like a child who misuses a phrase they have learned because it "fits" the basic rule they have learned (I buyed, instead of bought, for example), these organizations/students/trainees overuse a rule, not open to any exceptions.

A few years ago, I had to fly through Detroit en route to my niece's wedding. Through a series of mistakes by the airline, our plane was delayed. After an hour of being told we were going to board, then we weren't, then we were, my sister "asked permission" to go to the toilet, afraid we would miss the plane if we left. The attendant at the check-in desk told us that there would be time as they did not anticipate boarding for another 30 minutes. When we returned 10 minutes later, we were told that they had boarded the plane and closed the door.

"According to federal rules, we can't open the door after it has been closed, "she told us. "We announced the boarding." When I pointed out that she knew we had left to go to the toilet and that our luggage was still on the plane (which was also against federal rules...luggage on an airplane without the passenger...which I think took priority over the closing the door rule after the Locerbie tragedy) she replied, "Whatever."

I normally am an easy going person. But this sent me over the edge. Finally a manager stepped in and tested the PA equipment (which ended up being broken). What bothered me the most was the lack of logic used by the attendant and the expectation that we, the general public, were so stupid we wouldn't see the holes in the logic.

I have students that will latch on to one piece of information I have given them, take it out of context, and ignore all other sources of information or exceptions I present to them. "But you told us..." often is followed by one specific situation (i.e. But you told us that you wanted us to give our opinion...yes, but to back that opinion up with facts and analysis. You only gave me an opinion. Where are the facts and analysis? "But you told us you wanted our opinion and I gave you my opinion."). This is where a lack of critical thinking skills is obvious in training and in knowledge work.

The upsycho said...

@V_Yonkers Thanks, Virginia. Yes. The point is that people latch onto one thing and then will not/cannot budge from it, even in the face of all the reasons why their position is indefensible. The problem is that (as in my case) we are often at the mercy of such people, because they are the gatekeepers.

How often is the L&D department hamstrung because the IT department simply will not listen to why the use of web 2.0 learning technologies is a Good Thing? How often is the individual frustrated because the bouncers refuse him access to a piece of information that he really needs?

The reason I write posts like this is to challenge others and myself not to create or become those obstacles ourselves.

I hope that, whichever way you slice me, you will find enablement running through my core. Otherwise, there is no point to being me at all.