Work, Learning, Inequality and the Academy
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This paper will look at the connections between work, learning and inequality and apply these understandings to the academy as a worksite. (Theorizing from the literature) Introduction The connection between “work and learning” and human resource management (HRM) as a management control mechanism have been discussed previously. In this paper we want to link these arguments more closely to issues of inequality, (linking to the debates about the “Dominance of the 1%” and “Occupy Wall Street”) and finally to the structural and cultural practices of the Academy as a work-site that mirrors mainstream society. Both authors have written previously, and separately, about the key issues referred to above but have not brought the analysis together to focus on inequality and how that plays out in work and learning literature and the academy as a worksite. The Purpose of this Exploration/Argument Any argument about “work and learning” in the present context should take account of, or at least acknowledge, the major changes that have resulted from the rise in the global importance of financial capital and the resulting crisis of 2008 (Nolan, 2011) and its after-shocks in European countries such as Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Italy. It can be argued that “workplace learning” as essentially an offshoot of Human Resource Management (HRM) is therefore a party to the current economic crisis. Management education in general may be more to blame for the unquestioning acceptance of hegemonic neo-liberal economic ideas but mainstream work and learning practice, teaching and scholarship has also been complicit. It has been argued that “it is an inconvenient truth that many of those implicated in the disasters that have beset Wall Street and the world’s other financial centres are MBA graduates” (Currie, Knights and Starkey, 2010, p.1-2) and we would add ditto for scholars of work and learning and indeed of the academy in general who refuse to question shifts towards corporatization and neo-liberal values that are mimicked in so many of our institutions. With reference to the HRM-workplace learning nexus, perhaps the fear is that this acknowledgement of complicity will reveal that there really is no new supportive arguments for the claimed emancipatory effect after all — what we have is not so much a new ‘progressive’ HRM and semi-autonomous phenomena of workplace learning, but a new variant on an old theme of workplace social relations: boss and worker; human resource manager and human resources; employer and employee; supervisor and supervised; and workplace coaches or leaders and workplace learners. These are a set of social relations that sustains massive inequality – the dominance of the 1% as exposed by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and in our view is mirrored within university culture. Fields of Study, Literature and Perspectives This presentation will draw on adult education literature and perspectives as well as relevant literature from other fields including a critical cultural studies perspective. It also requires some understanding of what we can call “the HRM paradigm” explained below. For nearly three decades, the term “human resource management” (HRM) has been used to describe the management of the employment relationship and is often contrasted to the early terminology of “personnel management.” The mainstream HRM discourse views the workforce as the most important asset for generating value, increasingly through the creation of knowledge, which gives organizations either a potential, sustainable competitive advantage -- perhaps through investments in enhanced “human capital” or through offering superior services (perhaps achieved via exploiting workers’ “emotional labour”). Starting from this premise, HRM decisions and practices are said to impact on strategic goals and need to be integrated into the organization’s strategy. Arguably, one of the most powerful HRM-related discourses is one that holds, “In the information age, flexible learning has become a central feature of national education policies around the globe… the ultimate value to the organization of an employee is their ability to apply their knowledge” (Garrick and Jakupec, 2000, p.1). In recent years, there has been pressure to evaluate the contribution of HRM to the corporate ‘bottom line’ (Purcell and Kinnie, 2008) resulting in a growing body of research that seeks to measure the HRM–performance relationship. The restructuring of work and work systems is intertwined with processes of globalization, including pressure to create more sustainable work systems, which increasingly define late modernity (Bratton and Gold, 2012). Most mainstream HRM textbooks describe a range of HR practices used to attract, motivate, develop and maximize the inherent potential of workers. Finally, HRM has become the favoured discourse to frame developments in globalized employment and HR practices. For an example of this paradigm, making the case for improving Canadian productivity, the 2007 Conference Board of Canada publication, Learning and Development Outlook: Are We Learning Enough? (Hughes & Grant), argues: Canada’s productivity is lagging behind that of its competitors. One strategy Canadian organizations are using to meet these challenges is the renewal and upgrading of their workers’ skills. By spending on TLD to build workers’ skills, organizations seek to create enough additional human capital to make themselves more competitive. (p. 1) (But they also report low spending rates on training, learning, and development (TLD) by Canadian organizations because most companies’ training needs are modest — which is a reflection of the nature of most work and capital investment in Canada: few skilled workers need apply.) Implications for Adult Education Theory and Practice We think the implications for adult education theory will flow naturally from the analysis but we want to also focus on our practice as educators in our institutions and hopefully provoke a discussion around a critical evaluation of our relationship to the academy as a work-site drawing on understandings of mimicked neo-liberal practices and arguments for equity.