Communication, Experiential Learning and the C21st Professional

18/12/2013 12:55 GMT | Updated 17/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Looking over my 8 year-old son's schoolbooks the other day I came across a poem he had written. It contained the line "The peaceful sun wrapped its arms around the unpeaceful clouds. " His teacher had circled "unpeaceful" and in the margin written "not a real word." The annotation instructed my son to substitute "violent" for "unpeaceful." For my part I'm unsure that violent is a pure antonym of peaceful, but let's leave that to one side for a moment. And let's park, too, the implication of Wordsworth's observation in "The Prelude" that the elm trees "bestowed composure on a neighbourhood/Unpeaceful in itself" (Book 6). For me the comments provoked wider questions about the ownership and connective power of language. Speaking to my son, although he didn't quite express it like this, he felt that his juxtaposition of "peaceful" and "unpeaceful" linked to a precise place and moment that he recalled. I was reminded of a story that broke back in November about a head teacher in the West Midlands who aims to outlaw use of local dialect in the classroom. Henceforth pupils will be required, for instance, to say "I can't" rather than "I cor" and "I didn't" rather than "I day." The Daily Mail report links to a video where locals discuss taking a "whammel" for a walk along the "cut," Black Country speak for walking the dog beside the canal. Now for me "whammel" and "cut" conjure a much more evocative and place specific image than "dog" and "canal." The Mail has the head teacher defining the children's dialect words as "wrong." It's his words against theirs.

The story sparked a debate in a Linkedin group for learning and development professionals, a surprising number of whom appear to believe in a correct and fixed form of English, and to hold that this is widely spoken by business folk, an implication I find amazing (a word, incidentally, imagined into being by Shakespeare). Anyway, the discussion is busy with familiar grumbles about declining standards, rogue apostrophes, misspellings, mispronunciations, etc., etc.. and although entitled "Diversity in diction versus social mobility," it seems to be most urgently impelled by 1) a conservative irritation with anything deviating from the norm; 2) concern about the impact of non-standard English on business efficiency. One of the contributors proposes that corporate career opportunities would be advanced if only people would capitalise on the "free American English training provided by 80% of the TV (they) watch."

One thing this overlooks is that argots persistently emerge and develop as groups define and redefine themselves in relation to the shifting social, economic and physical dimensions of their environments. In this sense dialect, groupspeak and jargon are part of the cultural ecology which enriches users' lives, allowing speakers to identify with, to shape and to inhabit their milieu. To eradicate these nuances, were that possible, would be alienating and disempowering. Indeed, one of the most exciting things about language is the way people and cultures are constantly re-imagining its possibilities. Business jargon is a great example of this. "Boardroom" didn't exist until American businessmen found they needed it in the 1880s; "internet" didn't "come on line" as a word until 1974 and - one for the L&D professionals this - "development" first found currency as a term used by Renaissance artists to describe the immanent quality of materials. Given the dynamism and flux of business, it is hardly surprising it gives rise to so many neologisms, some of them wonderfully expressive - who can resist the charms of "blamestorming"? - others less so. Whichever way you cut it, one thing which is clear is that business English is neither standard nor, in many cases, comprehensible to outsiders. And in truth, of course, there is not one but a multiplicity of business Englishes, each particular to a different sector and to a different function.

Moreover in the transition to hyper-globalization this creativity and the attendant challenges of comprehending others are set to grow rather than diminish. As Manpower Group's recent Human Age report makes plain, a combination of shifting macro-economics, global demographics and new technology is delivering a re-segmented, "bubblised" society, with a real risk that these new alignments will, "over-expose people to like-minded peers and distance them from those who think and operate differently." For the political philosopher Danielle Allen "where people 'bridge' their differences, rather than 'bond' over their similarities, the numbers of job opportunities increase." And she might have added "business opportunities."

In this effervescent new world particularised lexicons and idioms will burst to the surface with each new bubble. The most successful Twenty First Century professionals will be those best able to adapt their own linguistic register, receptors and sensitivities to connect as widely and effectively as possible. This won't happen if their starting place is to disparage the parlances of some and privilege those of others.

As learning and development professionals we have a responsibility to nurture the skills to make bridging a reality. We can start by helping people to learn and develop, not just in homogeneous flocks in isolated training rooms or the sealed environments of remote learning, but also via experiential learning that exposes them to real-life unfamiliar others. There is a compelling business case for this - few organisations can afford not to speak to or hear others. It's pretty obvious when you think about it: structuring learning around activities that dissolve internal silos and/or external membranes will deliver renewed cooperation, deeper understanding and fresh insights that lead to innovation and opportunity.

The alternative is for organisations and their people to suffocate themselves, hiding in bubbles of their own making from the seeming babble beyond. They shouldn't be so frightened - it may not be peaceful out there, but it sure ain't violent.