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Talent Development in the Post-Truth Age

Post-truth: Adjective, relating to or denoting circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The Oxford Dictionary has proclaimed “post-truth” the 2016 Word of the Year. Their website reported that post-truth could be one of “the defining words of our time.”

The term emerged during the U.S. election campaign and its use has intensified in the early days of the new administration. The thinking behind the term has been growing for a while--consider the interview with British politician Michael Gove back in June of 2016, when he said: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.”

In the past, we could take for granted a core element of talent development: that we share facts that can be learned and used to lead organizations, solve problems, and accomplish work. Our curricula dominated what employees had to learn from. Now we live in a time of “alternate facts,” when people feel free to bypass the traditional structures for learning and decision making.

We aren’t the thought police.

So, what can we do? We can’t erase the huge volume of alternative sources for information. We can’t control when and how our employees get “facts.” But we can accept a greater obligation to make clear in what we teach the most fundamental precepts of our organization.

The post-truth world of development alternatives demands a deeper understanding of the values, culture, and direction of the organization. When we can’t control the narrative, it becomes critical for us to reinforce the context.

That means understanding how what we learn and the way we learn it supports our organizational culture. If working in teams is a fundamental value of the culture, learning in teams is critical. If service is basic to the culture, then the tools for learning any number of skills for any number of roles must reflect a commitment to service. If inclusion, a global mindset, or innovation are deeply important to the company, then the approach to learning and the primary resources that support learning must reflect those concerns. I call this consistency with purpose.

Consistency with purpose also demands that we have a clear understanding of the organization’s beliefs about employee development:

  • Is development regarded as an investment, a cost, or even a competitive advantage?
  • Is development a separate activity or embedded in the workplace?
  • What kinds of self-development are encouraged, discouraged, rewarded, punished or ignored?
  • Are development resources used proactively or in reaction to problems?
  • What are the spoken and unspoken obligations of employees and managers when it comes to development?
  • Are development opportunities made widely available or are they closely controlled?
  • How is development connected to business planning and to budgeting?
  • Is training shared with customers, partners or suppliers?

Our newest challenge

How an organization approaches development may provide the greatest window into its values and culture; it demonstrates via actions what the truth of the organization really is. So, the leaders of talent development must be the champions of organizational culture. Entire books have been filled with approaches to understanding organizational culture. I won’t try to replicate them here.

But whatever approach we choose, we are going to have to get much better. We have become the most critical component in communicating the truth of the organizations we serve. Fortunately, our profession equips us with the skills we need.

We need only to decide to accept this new responsibility in the post-truth world.

John Coné is the chair of i4cp's Chief Learning & Talent Officer Board, and former Chief Learning Officer of Dell.