Thursday, December 01, 2005

Training - Profession or Occupation?

Whenever I use the terms “training profession” or “training professionals” I do so apologetically. I use those labels as an expedient shortcut to describe those involved in facilitating corporate learning, be they trainers, managers, instructional designers, or consultants. But I am not comfortable with all of the implications of the word “professional.”

The debate as to whether or not trainers or instructional designers are really professionals raises its head from time to time, and while some see it as irrelevant semantics, many get rather passionate about the subject.

To some, if you make your living from it and you are pretty good at what you do, you can wear the label of professional with pride. To them, professionalism is a state of mind, an attitude to achieving results, quality and customer satisfaction that raises one above the hacks, charlatans and well-meaning-but-inept people that so often infiltrate the field.

To the purists, a profession involves lengthy academic education, proven expertise in practice, and formal accreditation by an acknowledged association of your peers. It may also involve being licensed via some formal, non-trivial process, adherence to a set of standards, behaviors and ethics, and a commitment to a continuous education process that keeps your license current. Typically, a profession has a body of peers that oversees the interests and the reputation of its members. When you tell a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant that you are a professional, this is what they expect to be behind your assertion.

True, trainer certification is available from various vendors, but passing such exams is hardly a guarantee of any breadth or depth of competence. I know many people who call themselves trainers or instructional designers who are extensively certified but incompetent, and many who are outstanding in their roles but have no formal qualification behind them. Most people in the field fall somewhere in the middle.

Getting a certification may help you get a job interview, if that is one of the filters employers use to short-list applicants. There is certainly no harm in taking a certification program such as the CTP or CeLP or the CPLP that is provided by the American Society for Training and Development, particularly if you are relatively new to the field. But I am not a great believer in the value of formal certification processes, largely because those that I have seen (or, in moments of weakness, have been involved in creating) are trivial – commercial opportunism thinly disguised as rigorous training and evaluation.

So, by the empirical standards of the purists, I fail the professionalism test. But (dammit) I am a professional – I have the experience, knowledge, reputation, competence, body of work, attitudes and integrity that collectively make me very comfortable with that label. The key question, however, is this: if the field in which you operate is not a profession, how can you call yourself a professional?

I don’t think that there is much question that training is not (yet) a profession, simply because it does not have the formal underpinnings of other professions. Training industry bodies, where they exist, do not fulfill the same role as say the General Medical Council or the Legal Bar. For that matter, there is no industry association, at least not one that has an omnipotent purview that even approaches those in the medical or legal fields. Training associations are more akin to trade associations, providing primarily the ability to network and in turn exploiting their internal market to sell publications, courses and conferences.

There is much apathetic complaining about training associations treating training as an occupation or vocation and failing to elevate the field as a profession. But it is the members themselves, the trainers, instructional designers, and managers who should determine how their representative body behaves, instead of complaining impotently about their association as though it were an independent entity. (There are parallels here with the way trainers view the senior management of their companies – we yearn for “a seat at the table” without ever expecting to have to make that happen ourselves.)

We need to stand up and make a little noise. If we insist on certification, we need a really “professional” certification process, involving education, training, experience, referrals, rigorous testing of knowledge and performance, managed by a truly dynamic and credible training association. In addition to being expensive, it would be elitist and exclusionary, both politically incorrect, but that does not seem to phase doctors or accountants. I would be willing to get involved in creating something like that, and in promoting it.

Until that happens, you can keep your token certifications. I’m happy to be a self-satisfied self-certified professional.


Anonymous said...

Note to the purists:

A profession gets its tag because of the advanced learning involved or acquisition of a particular skill. Every academic discipline has a history. History shows that these disciplines at some point of time emerged from another. Their roots can be traced back to religion or philosophy. Every discipline evolves or grows. The boundaries become clearer and a concise body of knowledge develops.
ID is relatively very young and has a long way to go. I agree that the certifications available are not (in most cases) effective. But in a few years ID would have its own academic structure that would ensure “a set of standards, behaviors and ethics”. It’s already happening….ID designs the courseware for almost all the so called “professions”. I think the people involved deserve some recognition!

mlk said...

The following brought a few ideas to mind:
"To some, if you make your living from it and you are pretty good at what you do, you can wear the label of professional with pride. To them, professionalism is a state of mind, an attitude to achieving results, quality and customer satisfaction that raises one above the hacks, charlatans and well-meaning-but-inept people that so often infiltrate the field."

(After almost 15 years of teaching, mostly upper elementary and middle-school, I left to become an instructional designer for a well-known educational software company.)

Many times in my career I was witness to those "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed" newbies that were convinced that they would be the ones to change the world. And why not? Surely passing "Media in the Classroom 101" and creating interactive bulletin boards during student teaching would prepare them for the battle ahead.

In defense of the purists, formal certification and adherence to standards is important, as in teaching. But does that make one a good or even acceptable teacher?

Effective teaching/training is an art that is hard to define at times. Proof is in the fact that two different trainers presenting the same content may result in totally different outcomes.

I would say that the term "professional" will continue to be used very loosely in the field of education for years to come. If a doctor is "well-meaning-but-inept", there usually isn't a problem with pushing them out the door. But until there is an agreed concensus as to how excellent teaching can be qualified/quantified, it will be hard to convince anyone that educators, whether it be in the public school or corporate arena, are true professionals.