The Myth of Academic Leadership Training Programmes: Do they Really Make an Impact?

ngos learning leadership training
Saturday, 4 June, 2011 - 09:40

In this article, Frank Julie, an organisational development practitioner and consultant, takes a close look at the academic leadership training programmes in South Africa. The article focuses on the shift from valuing informal learning to formal learning, from learning programmes to training programmes, and from learning in context to learning as a marketable commodity

Open up any newspaper today and you will find one or other leadership training course being offered. Many universities and other service providers are now competing with each other to offer leadership training. All of these programmes have one thing in common – they can all identify what you are going to learn even before you commence the training in neatly defined verifiable outcomes. However, the question is: do these programmes actually work and deliver the results they so readily promise?  In research I conducted in 2008, and after interviewing a cross section of leaders from the nonprofit sector representing different generations, I made some interesting findings about what factors post 1994 limit the impact of formal leadership training programmes today. Let me share only three crucial ones with you namely1:

  • A shift from valuing informal learning to formal learning;
  • A shift from learning programmes to training programmes;
  • A shift from learning in context to learning as a marketable commodity.

The shift from informal learning to formal learning:

After 1994 a clear shift from modes of informal learning in the first historical period to more formal learning in the second and third historical period. At the same time my data points to an overwhelming bias towards valuing informal learning as a dominant mode of learning to acquire leadership skills, experience and knowledge from all the respondents. There were three forms of informal learning that dominated the first historical period namely experiential learning, popular education and situated learning or learning via a community of practice. During this phase learning was closely linked to the context of struggle against an unjust system of oppression. Except for the churches that provided non-formal training programmes, there were almost no formal learning opportunities.

The valuing of informal learning within this period was not accidental. The very dynamic of struggle required an action and experiential learning approach. There was no time for training workshops since people had to think on their feet and act in very fluid situations. Incidental and tacit learning were therefore dominant at this stage.

An example of such learning is provided by respondent 4 when she states:

I got a lot of political education… I got an understanding about the broader international context… it was very valuable… in the student congress…I was representing the region/province. We learnt how to organise… you were exposed to organisational process… you mimicked what you were experiencing… e.g. mandates… there was no training session… you were disciplined when out of turn (Interview, 23 June 2008).

Experiential learning was also a dominant mode of learning during the first period. As respondent 4 stated:

There was experiential learning…the real questions that you were struggling with as a leader…yes, there was credibility and a strong foundation was laid (Interview, 12 June 2008).

Popular education was another form of experiential learning that was dominant at this stage and highly valued. The issue of power is central to this pedagogy hence its prominence during this phase. It teaches people to take collective responsibility to effect social change by addressing power imbalances in society. During this phase the focus was on building a critical consciousness to bring about structural changes that can ensure that people’s needs are fulfilled both in their daily lives and at a broader cultural level.

According to Freire (1983: 87)

Critical consciousness is brought about, not through an intellectual effort alone but through praxis – through the authentic union of action-reflection.

Respondent 1 commented about this process:

I don’t think we realise how remarkable the leadership was. There was no way of validating it. A lot of what was happening – if you go back to the days of struggle and how leaders were thinking on their feet and there was this mad craziness and everybody is being consulted… (Interview, 23 July 2008). 

During the second historical period (post 1994) a shift started to happen to more formal learning in line with the new educational regime that was established. With the establishment of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and the move towards Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL), in the second historical period, more and more leaders attended formal leadership courses to validate their experiences acquired in the first historical period. The new generations who entered the sector in the second and third period gravitated more towards formal learning as a means to facilitate their upward social mobility.

Writing from a feminist perspective, Walters (1998: 436) argues that society has a way of deciding what knowledge to value which is determined by the power relations in society. She writes:

What constitutes knowledge and for whom different kinds of knowledge are appropriate vary from age to age.

This is how respondent 1 related his experience in relation to this process:

Behind that (the move towards formal learning) for me society has a certain way of attributing value to certain things… it attributes value to formal learning but it does not attribute value to effective action (informal learning). If I led a street committee I should be the equivalent of a Masters degree plus… but society has a clever way of attributing value (Interview, 23 July 2008).

With the shift towards more formal modes of learning in the second and third period learning became more individual and more disconnected from this context. Within the macro political context the shift towards individualised learning was not contested due to a shift towards Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) that created opportunities for previously oppressed people to advance academically. There was a dominant perception that the struggle came to an end in 1994 with an expectation that the new democratic government will deliver on their promises. Understandably the focus during this phase shifted from opposition to reconstruction (Kaplan, 1994). There was a widespread assumption that the content of learning, be it through formal, non-formal or informal modes of learning should accommodate this shift from opposition and activism to reconstruction and professionalism.

With the above theme I have tried to show how there was a clear evolution from a dominant mode of informal learning within the context of activism and opposition to a more dominant mode of formal learning within a new context of professionalism and reconstruction.

Although there was a great appreciation amongst the respondents for the value of informal learning processes based on their personal experiences, they did not devalue the importance of formal learning in leadership development. On the contrary, they understood that formal learning has a major role to play. Respondent three commented:

Formal learning is important. It is like cement on bricks, what you know innately; affirming what you know. It builds and strengthens your analytical abilities, being strategic…formal learning develop these capacities…formal learning contributes to writing (Interview, 12 June 2008). 

The shift from learning programs to training programmes:

The shift in emphasis to more formal learning processes with their emphasis on accreditation, standardisation and commodification of education at the expense of the value of informal learning, also enabled a shift from learning programmes to training programmes. There was a foregrounding of leadership training programmes with their clearly defined, verifiable, predictable and predetermined outcomes acting as a substitute (and not complementary) to more comprehensive leadership learning programmes. The focus in these training programmes supported by donors and government tended to emphasise teaching and not learning.

As Kaplan (1999: 16) states:

The “teaching” aspect of a training programme should be considered a small part of the programme. It incorporates only the possibility of exposure. The real learning aspect of a training programme take place in the practice back home (his emphasis).

Respondent 4 referring to the importance of inner work for NGO leaders and the role of training instead of learning programmes commented thus:

Training is not always the answer; to create that space for people to be vulnerable; you cannot learn unless you have made yourself vulnerable. They come back (referring to staff members) and they are not able to utilise that training (my emphasis); it is clinical training; there are many other things you have to put in place; training is being used to conform… it is about conforming (Interview, 12 June 2008).

Problematic areas of the training approach (as an end in itself) are the disconnect between theory and practice, lack of context and not being embedded in real situations, lack of respect of participant’s experiences, follow up in the workplace and the importance of practicing what participants learned (Kaplan, 1999: 15-16) Commenting on this shift towards packaged training instead of holistic capacity building which is inherently a more slow process, Kaplan (1994: 10) stated:

Committees are convened and they …are serviced by packaged training courses delivered as the final answer to the capacity-building problem.

In contrast respondent 1 commented on his leadership development.
I would say experience has played a dominant role compared to training or being taught to lead. Nobody sat me down to say here is a training course…you have to take this before you can lead. So that’s very clear (Interview, 23 July 2008). 

I would argue therefore that what was transferred (content) as part of leadership development in the South African NGO sector cannot be divorced from how (methodologies/form) it was transferred. The largely technicist and academic approach (Hill, 2006) embedded in the formal learning approaches, reinforced this training paradigm. Respondent 6 put it this way:

When the lecturers explain something I can hear they lack experience. Experience comes from the heart and theory comes from the head. I can assess if they have personal experience or clinical experience, paper knowledge (Interview, 18 May 2008). 

One of the findings of Hill (2006: 12) in an investigation of development and leadership training courses at 18 higher education institutions in South Africa, is that

Most of the academic staff interviewed are not development practitioners, some have not been exposed to development at all.

The shift from learning in context to learning as a marketable commodity

Linked to the above theme pointing to a shift from learning programmes towards training programmes, another shift also occurred namely from learning in a context and learning supported by a practice towards learning converted into a marketable commodity. With the latter the context and the practice that need to support the relevance of the learning after the formal training (or transmission of ideas/teaching) (Lave, 1996: 151) becomes downplayed.

Respondent 3 relates her experience of this phenomenon in this way: 

We hear of development studies… especially if we look at the South African context…training programmes are based on imported views that have no bearing on the context in which we live (my emphasis) (Interview, 12 June 2008). 

Echoing this view Soal (2003: 8) comments: 

The development sector is teeming with people… who have their workshop “packages” that get sold all over the world…NGOs that make their reputation developing something original – then peddle it endlessly, with little regards for need and context  (my emphasis).

Linda Cooper (1998) identified a similar trend in the labour movement where she contrasts a focus on ‘workplace training’ from previously ‘workplace education’ with its emphasis on formal certification, recognition of prior learning and accreditation within a national qualifications framework. According to Cooper (1998:10), worker experience previously regarded as shared resource and guide to action’ amongst workers has been turned into a commodity which is ‘individually ‘owned’ “and can be exchanged for a qualification in order to compete with other workers on the capitalist labour market, and in a struggle for individual upward mobility and ‘career paths’  (my emphasis).

Walters and Daniels (2007: 70) commenting on the discourse around ‘short courses’ in relation to assessor training, made the following observation:

In many instances, organisers of ‘short courses’ and assessors of education and training do not see themselves primarily as educators, but rather as marketers of learning products to consumers – and this we believe is a problem.

They continue:

Providers of ‘short courses’ are often on short term contracts to deliver cost-effective products to organisations to which they have no long term affiliation. The short course is a type of commodity that is sold in the market place, with little relationship to the social practices where it is delivered (my emphasis) (Ibid: 70).

This is how respondent 1 commented about this process:

We have some serious problems of the world trying to standardise and package learning. One of the thoughts coming to my mind is how leadership has developed as an industry (Interview, 23 July 2008).

- Frank Julie is an organisational development practitioner and consultant.

[1] These findings form part of a broader research study focusing on the value of formal and informal learning in leadership continuity in the NGO sector in South Africa over 3 historical periods. The study can be accessed at (click on “Books by Frank Julie”). References to sources quoted here can also be found in this study.

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