Monday, March 28, 2011

Caste system for learning

This was my column on the date indicated above. This post is antedated.

In the interest of disclosure, I will state for the record that I am a human resource management professional who, when the opportunity presents itself and there is no conflict of interest involved, also accepts management consulting jobs including conducting training programs and seminars and speaking at various conferences and other learning forums. I have conducted training programs and workshops on leadership, communications, team building and strategic planning and thinking for various executives including local officials. I have spoken a number of times at conferences organized for barangay officials and leaders. Most of these were conducted in hotels and conference centers, some of them in resorts in Bohol, Cebu, Davao, La Union, etc.

I don’t see anything wrong when local governments bring local officials such as barangay captains to a beach resort for a training program provided they have allocated funds for the purpose, expenses are properly documented and accounted for, and the learning content of such programs have been carefully designed for optimal learning.

In short, the whole experience is meant and designed primarily as a learning experience rather than as a junket.

I find the current brouhaha over the fact that 330 officials from Pasig City’s 30 barangays recently went to Boracay to undergo a three-day training program an exercise in hypocrisy.

Some pundits pretend to be incensed at what they refer to as “ostentatious extravagance” on the part of the Pasig City government. Others said that the trip and similar activities are an “utter waste of public money.” I understand that other cities and government agencies have been dragged into the fray and are now being made to account for the training programs that they conduct out of town.

All these because someone who fancied herself a crusader for public accountability wrote a letter to the editor of another daily complaining about the fact that barangay officials from Pasig invaded Boracay early this month. The editors of that daily smelled a good story and sensationalized the whole thing. Of course I am willing to bet whatever little savings I have that employees of this daily hold their training programs in similar environments, perhaps even more expensive settings.

I will not deny that many of these “lakbay aral” (roughly, learning trips) and out of town seminars are really junkets. But it would be dangerous to generalize and categorically say that all of these training programs conducted out of town by government bodies (and even private institutions) are such. I have been in many programs conducted in some resort where the learning content was so packed the participants were only given a couple of hours to really enjoy the resort’s attractions.

So why are these programs conducted in such a setting to begin with? Simple. First, because these resorts offer packages that make it easier and more convenient for organizers to mount such training programs. Second, many of these resorts and training centers have been designed to be conducive for learning and therefore maximize the learning process. Third, believe it or not, when all the costs are accounted for, holding conferences in training centers and resorts is actually more cost-effective. Take my word for it. When one takes into account the manpower costs of running major seminars (for example those for 300 people) such as all the preparation prior to, during, and after the event as well as the administrative nightmares of arranging facilities and everything else—the costs can really be staggering.

Of course there are different types of resorts and training centers and some of them are more expensive than others. Thus, it all boils down to the budgeting process—getting the venue that fits the resources of the agency sponsoring the program.

But I find it objectionable when people suggest that we ought to have some kind of a caste system for leaning opportunities such as seminars and workshops. In this particular case, the general drift of the discussion was whether the venue was appropriate for the occasion and the participants. Let me be more blunt: Whether it was right to hold a seminar “merely” for barangay officials at a posh hotel in Boracay (it was learned later on that the seminar was held at the Boracay Regency Hotel but the participants, it turned out was billeted at a less expensive hotel). If it were for private companies would it have created such a stink? If it were for governors and mayors, would people have raised an eyebrow?

So my quick answer to the question of whether it is right to have a seminar for barangay officials conducted in a posh hotel is a vehement: Why the heck not?

Where is it written that barangay officials do not have the right to eat in five-star hotels, cannot set foot in posh surroundings, should not be entitled to training programs conducted in a nice setting?

I find it really annoying that most of us take it for granted that our senators and congressmen and generals and their families have millions of pesos at their disposal for travel and representation, travel first class, and stay at five-star hotels but we raise a stink when “lowly” barangay officials are allowed to set foot in a first-class hotel for a seminar, many of them for the first time in their lives! Why should we begrudge the three days that they spent in Boracay for a seminar on how to manage their barangays more effectively? Are we saying that our barangay officials are not worthy of going through a learning experience conducted in a nice environment?

I actually believe there is wisdom in taking participants out of their comfort zones and bringing them to a completely different environment where they can relax and focus on learning new things. This is particularly relevant for local officials, who need to see, smell, touch and taste “best practices” rather than just learn these theoretically. And when we really come to think about it, there is a lot of learning that can be derived from traveling. The problem is that many people have this paradigm that traveling is a luxury reserved only for the rich. But I guess not for “mere” barangay officials, huh?

I have been in many situations when the whole learning process was severely compromised and was practically rendered ineffective because participants could not concentrate on the learning because of so many interruptions and because everything was “business as usual.” I have learned that people often cannot do things differently when the learning process does not enable them to see things differently; and this usually means physically bringing them to a different setting where their minds can be conditioned to see things from a different perspective.

As somebody once said, if you consider training expensive, consider just how expensive ignorance is. And if anyone is going to invest in learning —they might as well go all the way and make sure that the whole process paves the way for real learning otherwise it will just be an utter waste of time.

The question that people should be asking is not whether a seminar workshop or barangay workshop had to be held at a five-star hotel in Boracay. Such a question hints at discrimination. The question should be whether they actually learned from the experience or not. We should be making people accountable for results.

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