What the heck is employee engagement?

We live in the age of personal branding where everyone is trying to find their niche, make their mark, and create something never before seen. Academia is not immune to this annoying tendency. A somewhat recent trend has revolved around the idea of engagement in the workplace. It seems there is a tangled list of terms like job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and work engagement, with perhaps the most trendy being employee engagement.

In a quick search using the GW’s Library database Summon by Proquest that searches over 2 billion records, I found over 1000 peer-reviewed journal articles published in the last five years with the phrase “employee engagement” in the title alone. And the term appeared over 18,000 times in any part of a journal article since it was introduced by William Kahn in 1990.

So what the heck is employee engagement?

Two recent articles provide some much needed clarity. The first is Shuck, Osam, Zigarmi, and Nimon’s (2017) article “Definitional and conceptual muddling: Identifying the positionally of employee engagement and defining the construct” published in HRDR earlier this summer. The second – coming from the first author’s award-winning dissertation – is “Exploring different operationalizations of employee engagement and their relationships with workplace stress and burnout” published in HRDQ by Anthony-McMann, Ellinger, Astakhova, and Halbesleben (2017). Both articles provide some much-needs insight into this question and I thought I’d share some of what I learned from these articles.

As mentioned above, employee engagement comes from Kahn (1990) who described what he called personal engagement as,

“…the simultaneous employment and expression of a person’s ‘preferred self’ in task behaviors that promote connections to work and to others, personal presence (physical, cognitive, and emotional), and active full role performances” (p. 700).

Both Shuck et al. (2017) and Anthony-McMann et al. (2017) point out that various frameworks have emerged on the topic including the needs-satisfaction, burnout-antithesis, job satisfaction, and multidimensional frameworks. It would be too cumbersome to go into depth on them all in this post but I encourage you to check out Anthony-McMann et al. (2017) for a nice summary of each just mentioned.

Okay, but still, what is it?

Shuck et al. (2017) review the literature and point out that employee engagement can be defined as,

“…a positive, active, work-related psychological state operationalized by the maintenance, intensity, and direction of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral energy” (p. 269) [those are their italics, not mine].

Now we’re getting somewhere. Employee engagement involves “an active pull toward performance” involving “proactivity, focus, and initiative“; it’s more of a state than a trait; it applies to one’s work; and, it can be measured by looking at people’s thinking, emotions, and behaviors (Shuck et al., 2017, p. 265-266).

The authors go on to compare employee engagement with other “engagement-type literature” and discuss how its meaning and place in the research is different from other constructs, which I encourage you all to check out if you’re interested (Shuck et al., 2017, p. 269). It’s quite a defense of the construct.

But how is it measured?

As you can imagine, there are several ways to measure it, but Anthony-McMann et al. (2017) use the ISA Engagement Scale, which stands for the three types of engagement measured by the scale: intellectual, social, and affective engagement. In their article, the authors test to see how these three measures of engagement are related to workplace stress and burnout. They provide a lot of interesting findings on employee engagement as it relates to workplace stress and burnout, but perhaps the most fascinating to me was an implication around social engagement:

“…the most important engagement-related initiative an organization can undertake might be one in which leaders, coworkers and peers are trained on how to create and foster environments conducive to the development of positive relationships at work” (p. 189).

Terms like employee engagement easily fall prey to what Shuck et al. (2017) call “blatant misuse of terms and unwillingness of researchers to use terms in the way they were intended (and developed in seminal works)” (p. 277). Thus, it is vital that researchers continue to embed their research within operationalized constructs developed by seminal authors. Deviating from this may appear innovative or trendy but will leave readers confused as to what the heck we’re really talking about.

The mindset needed to bridge the scholar-practitioner gap

The consistently troubling thing about higher education, indeed why it has earned the name “the ivory tower,” is the disconnect between scholarship and practice. In the recent issue of Advances in Developing Human Resources (Volume 19, Number 3) published in August, Jia Wang of Texas A&M presents a collection of articles that address this research-practice gap that are worth investigating. I’ve been in the Academy of HRD for only three years and even in that short time I’ve come across this issue quite a bit. Still, I found the issue refreshing and thought-provoking.

f1-mediumWang begins with four rather personal stories including one that earned an “ouch” penciled in the margins. She recalls a story in which a Chinese CEO curtly responds to her, “You scholars live in an ivory tower. You have no idea about what the real world looks like and feels like” (p. 220).

I cannot in any meaningful way reproduce all the fascinating parts of this journal issue here but I thought I would share a few compelling things from the first article.

Penn State’s Jo A. Tyler and practitioner (and GW HOL alumna) Catherine Lombardozzi share a delightful conceptual paper about the scholar-practitioner mindset where they talk about a way of thinking, being, and doing that bridges the research-practice gap. The key to developing this mindset can be found in the trinity of being smart, brave, and generous. They write,

“As smart scholar-practitioners consider deeply the emerging dynamics of their organizations, they match these to seminal and contemporary theoretical ideas and research. In doing so, they develop the expertise that is a threshold to designing and developing innovative interventions, building solid business cases that easily support them, and implementing them in ways that are grounded, ethical, and easily communicated” (p. 234).

This ethical component shines through when they authors talk about being brave:

“Being brave sits squarely at the center of doing something different from everyone else. Being brave is undertaking interventions that match the points of an organization’s unique fingerprint even (or especially) if those interventions have never been done before. Brave HRD scholar-practitioners can find ways to help their organizations out of ‘hegemonic management practices that contradict… [HRD’s]… underlying philosophy of humanistically facilitating development and change that yields a holistic benefit’ (Bierema & Challahand, 2014, p. 3)” (p. 238).

Lastly, with regard to the third element of bridging this gap, Tyler and Lombardozzi write,

“Generous scholar-practitioners find ways to share their practice-based knowledge and insights from experience. This supports the work of other professionals and grows our body of knowledge to advance the field. They join a community of academic scholars, researchers, practitioners, and welcoming scholar-practitioners who invite them to join an ongoing conversation about innovating HRD practice through the influence of scholarship” (p. 242).

This article provides a well-thought-out reminder of the mindset required to be a compassionate, innovative, and effective scholar-practitioner. It would be great reading for either an introductory HRD course or final year seminar course. I encourage you to check out more of Tyler and Lombardozzi’s word including a second article in this Advances issue.

Building global competence at home

Most of the research out there points to spending time abroad as the best way to build global competence. What about people who don’t have the privilege to travel internationally or work abroad?

Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP talks a lot about the importance of respect, and authors of Being Global, Unruh and Gabera write that to become a global leader requires a “do-it-yourself mind-set.” So here are four ways I’m learning to help foster respect for other cultures by intentionally seeking out global experiences at home.

1. Connect with refugees in your area. After college in Spokane, WA, my housemates and I volunteered with a refugee resettlement organization and housed refugees from different countries for 1-3 months at a time. Over the course of the year we had a family from Bhutan, several individuals from Eritrea, and a man from Iran. We would pick them up from the airport, help them get settled, and teach them how to get around town. Most of them could not speak English or knew basic things about America – like that we flush our toilet paper. Still, they loved sharing their culture with us and were grateful to be in the U.S. One of the members of our house even opened a thrift store business in Spokane (Global Neighborhood Thrift) and employs dozens of immigrants from all over the world. There are powerful ways to volunteer with local refugee organizations or big IGNOs like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and it can be extremely rewarding.

2. Find a popular second language in your area and begin learning some words and phrases. For many of us in America this might be Spanish but it could also be Amharic (Ethiopia), Mandarin, French, etc. Then, when you meet someone who speaks that language, do your best to speak a few words of their native language with them. It is a humbling experience to fumble through and perhaps botch a foreign language – even just “hello” and “thank you.” I recently learned how to say “thank you very much” in Amharic (betam ameseginalehughn) considering the amount of Ethiopians in D.C. There is a community-building energy that comes with doing so, and I believe it demonstrates a level of respect that we need more of in our globalizing world.


3. Attend cultural events. I live in Washington, D.C. so there is absolutely no shortage of cultural events to attend. From the Thai Temple in Maryland (Wat Thai D.C.) to the Embassy nights and ethnic restaurants, there are many ways to engage with other cultures. This is obviously not true everywhere in the U.S. but there are more and more ways to interact with others cross-culturally popping up. In 2014, I went to the Saudi Arabian Embassy with a Saudi classmate. He has since become one of my best friends and we have had countless deep (and sometimes tough) discussions about culture, religion, and global leadership.

4. Go out to lunch, coffee, or even ask to be mentored by someone in your organization who has a different cultural upbringing than you. In Caligiuri and Tarique’s 2012 article “Dynamic cross-cultural competencies and global leadership effectiveness,” the authors discuss having a mentor from another country as one of the indicators for cross-cultural competency. I am sometimes wary of mentoring relationships because of the power distance inherent in them but I like the idea of seeking out relationships with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds in your organization. My mentor, colleague, and friend, Dr. Maria Cseh, is originally from Hungry and I’ve learned a lot about Eastern European culture (and much more!) from our many discussions.

Even if we work on global teams, have multiple international assignments, and speak other languages it does not mean that we will become globally competent. We must always push ourselves by being curious about our global surroundings wherever we are in America or abroad. It requires a humble willingness to learn and see things from other perspectives.

The reward? A certain richness and color to life – and a global sense of belonging.


Language, culture, and global teams

One of my favorite professors at Harvard was a quirky cosmopolitan named Bruno della Chiesa. Bruno, as he insisted we call him, taught a January-term course called Learning in a Globalizing World in which he investigated the nexus of educational neuroscience, language, and culture.


One thing that stuck with me – although it was not a core aspect of the course – was the idea that the main indicator for whether a person learned another language was their respect for the people group who speak that language. Without deep respect for the people and their culture, it is nearly impossible to learn the language. At the end of the day, feelings of superiority and cultural arrogance slash one’s belief that learning their language is meaningful and worthwhile. Of course, there are many other factors that go into learning a language but the extent to which you respect another’s culture is a powerful indicator. At the end of the day, language and culture are inextricably linked, and learning language can give us key insights into other cultures.

Online translation tools reinforce the narrative that meaning is just about understanding the definition of words. But there is rich culture in language. A simple example from Thai is the use of age-indicating prefixes. Thais often use the word “pee” (meaning older sibling) before someone’s name when addressing someone who is older and “nong” (meaning younger sibling) when addressing someone younger. This means my younger sister or close colleague might call me “Pee Ozzie.” Knowing these simple linguistic indicators begins to unfold the complexity around social hierarchy and power distance in Thai culture. But more than that, since “pee” and “nong” refer to siblings, using those indicator words also implies closeness and reflects the collectivism present in Thai culture. The more you embed yourself in the language, the more nuanced your cultural understanding becomes.


Ceremony at Payap University showing respect for elders

As we consider the growing presence of global teams, I think it’s important to incorporate language learning – even just elementary language learning – into our daily lives. Even those of us who think, “Oh I can never learn another language,” there are many other simple tricks to begin incorporating foreign language learning into our daily lives. One thing we can do is to begin with names. Many of my Chinese students take English nicknames because their Mandarin names are so difficult to pronounce for Americans. We can ask to learn our Chinese friends’ real names. We can also ask people from other countries (and from your own country!) about the meaning of their names. There is often so much cultural meaning embedded in names, even if we’re not aware of it. Even my name, Oliver Stephen Crocco, has a cultural story to tell. My last name is Italian as I am half Italian and my great grandparents were immigrants to the United States from Italy. My middle name is my father’s first name, which is common practice in the United States for the first-born son. And my first name is the only name my parents could agree on when I was born. Not only that, they did not like Ollie as a nickname so called me Ozzie from the womb. My name tells the story of my family’s immigration to the U.S., male-centeredness in names, and a sort of cultural individualism regarding my first name.

Language and culture are inextricably linked. Being curious to learn other languages–even just names or small phrases–can go a long way. Learning languages is not just a reflection of our level of respect for other people, I think it is also a way of fostering respect for other people. When we learn other languages we begin to learn about the meaning and intricacies of other cultures, which is vital for working effectively in global teams.



What is global leadership? Well… how do you measure it?

Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman tells a charming story about being asked the name of a bird by one of his schoolmates. He doesn’t know the name of the bird so the other boy proudly instructs him that the bird is called a Brown-Throated Thrush. Feynman goes on to explain in the video, however, that knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand that thing. Herein lies an important lesson. Knowing the names of things is useful for communicating with others but we must always push ourselves to deeper forms of knowledge and understanding.

Let’s start with definitions. Definitions have always been important for understanding the meaning of words, including tricky concepts like global leadership. But definitions are only part of the picture. Not only that, we’re not even close to having any sort of agreement in the literature on a definition for global leadership (or leadership in general for that matter).

In social science, if we really want to understand a concept like global leadership, we need to ask how the concept is measured. This, of course, is what we call operationalization, which is the break down of a concept that is not directly measurable into small, measurable chunks that together constitute the concept. Concepts that are not directly measurable (unlike height or weight) are called latent traits or latent characteristics.


Take intelligence for example. What is intelligence? You cannot look at someone and measure how intelligent they are. It’s a latent trait. You could look up a definition of intelligence, which might help you understand more what intelligence is. But we won’t really know what we mean by the term intelligence until we break down how we’re are going to assess or measure it. Then, how we measure it will in turn affect how we understand intelligence.

Therefore, if we want to understand a term like global leadership, we must think about how it is being measured.

Bird and Stevens (2013) in their book chapter on Assessing Global Leadership Competencies display many of the different ways researchers and practitioners have thought about measuring global leadership. In some ways, this can be more helpful (but far more monotonous) than reading about exemplary global leaders.

Each operationalization of global leadership in Bird and Stevens (2013) highlights different aspects of what it means to be a global leader. My personal favorite (perhaps because it fits most to my preexisting understanding) is the Global Competencies Inventory (GCI) developed by Allan Bird, Michael Stevens, Mark Mendenhall and Gary Oddou – all longtime experts in global leadership.

I want to highlight briefly the focus on perception management, which is one factor of the GCI and addresses how people approach cultural differences. The dimensions associated with perception management are nonjugmentalness (your inclination to withhold judgment when faced with differences), inquisitiveness (your desire to learn new things), tolerance of ambiguity (how you manage ambiguity in new situations), cosmopolitanism (your interest in current world events and desire to travel), and interest flexibility (the level of flexibility you have in developing new interests or hobbies). And that’s just one of the three factors in this inventory. Aren’t these fascinating?

Once we look at the dimensions, we can go a step further and look at the items for each dimensions. For example, what questions do they ask to understand one’s interest flexibility? Then, thanks to statistical techniques like factor analysis and structural equation modeling, we can understand the validity of those items and how the dimensions are related.

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Example of structural equation modeling from GW course

It is not easy to understand complex latent characteristics such as global leadership. Names, and even definitions are important places to start, but looking at how the concept is measured in the literature will give us a deeper understanding.

The next step, of course, is to look at the complex and diverse lived experiences of global leaders. Qualitative methods such as phenomenology can help us understand in more depth what it means to be a global leader. But that discussion will have to wait for another time.


How international assignments can develop global leadership capacities

In a recent post in The Economist blog Gulliver, B.R. writes that businesses should encourage young employees to take “bleisure” (blending business with pleasure) when they travel abroad, like an extra weekend on one end for personal time. The benefit being that “it might help keep employees’ enthusiasm for a life on the road kindled.” This article rather shortsightedly sees the advantage of “bleisure” simply as retention.

But what do we know about global leadership that would turn this one-sided view on its head?

If a company is sending an employee abroad, there is clearly a global element to the work of the company and thus value in developing global leadership capacity. According to The Global Leadership Challenge (2014) by Black and Morrison, key capabilities of global leaders are inquisitiveness, perspective, character, and savvy. Developing the former two capabilities requires interacting with culturally rich environments and fostering that sense of curiosity.

If this is true, i.e. that inquisitiveness and perspective are vital for global leaders, companies should encourage employees not just to spend a couple extra nights in the hotel to relax, but to get out and explore the cultural ecology of their abroad assignment.

In fact, companies could make it a lot easier to develop global leaders if they did things to foster inquisitiveness and perspective such as,

  • Provide a reading list (or better yet offer to pay for books) about the country/culture they’re working in – these could be historical, cultural, or even novels and poetry popular in that country
  • Encourage them to explore the cultural sites of the city/country
  • Offer suggestions about cross-cultural opportunities or connect them with local cultural informants who might be willing to take them out after work is finished

Alfama, Portugal

I recently returned from co-leading a short course in Lisbon, Portugal on multicultural and international issues in organizations. The course coincided with the University Forum on Human Resource Development (UFHRD) that took place at Universidade Europeia this year. To prepare, I read several academic articles on Portugal that related to the course’s materials. I also picked up a book about historical Portugese explorations entitled Conquerors: How Portugal forged the first global empire (2015) by historian Roger Crowley. While there, I stayed in a hostel, walked and took public transportation everywhere I went, and visited as many cultural sites and parts of town as I could. During this time, I also asked questions about things I saw and spoke with a variety of people I met along the way.

Was retention a benefit? Sure. I am passionate about my work at the George Washington University. But I also had an opportunity to enrich my curiosity.

In the famous 1939 essay The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, Abraham Flexner, founder of the Institute for Advanced Study near my former home in Princeton, NJ writes, “Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered” (p. 57).


Lisbon, Portugal

Companies should be encouraging workers to spend a few extra days after an assignment in the particular country abroad not just because it might help with retention, but because doing so may help employees enrich their worldviews and curiosity for the Other. It is this widening of perspectives and deepening of inquisitiveness that will propel the average worker on international assignments to become a global leader.

Social Media and HRD: Happy 15th Anniversary HRDR!

As a child, I loved getting mail from pen pals, summer camp friends, and relatives. As an adult, one of my favorite things to get in the mail is hard copies of academic journals I subscribe to, specifically Human Resource Development Review (HRDR).

HRDR is the conceptual and theoretical backbone of the Academy of HRD suite of journals. They publish exploratory conceptual models, integrative literature reviews, and papers on the construction of new theories in the field of HRD.

Thanks to HRDR, I had the honor of being the recipient of the “Think Theory, Think Social, Think HRDR” social media contest in 2016. I won the award by posting to various social media outlets during the 2016 AHRD Conference in Jacksonville and actively engaging with others about the conference, presentations, and HRD. This award allowed me to attend this year’s conference in San Antonio and build on the knowledge and relationships I started the year before.


Faculty and students from the George Washington University at the 2017 AHRD Conference

This year, I attended compelling presentations about global leadership, work-related flow in organizations, and human performance technology. I am inspired by the “relationships and rigor” I encountered in sessions, during breaks, and even after the day’s activities concluded. Being on Twitter also helped me spot our keynote speaker, Jennifer Brown, and introduce myself the evening before her talk.


Jennifer Brown’s Keynote Address

I encourage everyone, to the extent they are comfortable, to engage with the Academy and our journals over social media. Now, Human Resource Development International (HRDI) and Human Resource Development Quarterly (HRDQ) have joined HRDR on Twitter and post often about articles and events related to HRD and the Academy. Scholars and practitioners in our field such as Valerie Anderson, Jon Werner, Sarah Minnis, and Robert Yawson also often post about their diverse interests. HRDR is particularly good at posting “most-cited” articles from years past and articles that relate to current events.

There is no replacement for the experience of sitting at a scholarly conference presentation or engaging face-to-face with a colleague. That being said, connecting with people and content related to HRD and the Academy over social media has enriched my experience as a budding scholar in HRD, and I am grateful to HRDR for their leadership.

Happy 15th Anniversary, HRDR!

Controversies That Shaped the Field of Human Resource Development

The title of this post comes from a recent article by Darlene Russ-Eft at in the Association for Human Resource Development‘s (AHRD) journal Advances in Developing Human Resources, or “Advances” for short. I thought it was worth reflecting on the controversies that shaped the field of HRD because they tend to resurface throughout my reading and writing in the field. (As an aside, this issue of Advances as a whole serves as an excellent introduction to AHRD and the academic field of HRD.)

One controversy I want to bring attention to from Dr. Russ-Eft’s article is the nature of HRD. The topic of “What HRD Is, Now and Future” was discussed in the town hall forums of the AHRD conferences in 1995, 2002, 2003, 2008, and 2012 but seems to arise persistently in all kinds of articles, presentations, and books related to HRD. What does HRD mean? Is HRD the best title for this field? How should we go about thinking about and researching HRD?

At the George Washington University (GWU), the doctoral program is called Human and Organizational Learning. The main campus program emphasizes the three pillars of adult learning, organizational change, and leadership development. The Ashburn campus adds the fourth pillar of culture to the mix, while the main campus sees culture embedded in all three pillars. And the master’s program at GWU recently changed its name from HRD to Organizational Leadership and Learning.

I will not redo the efforts of Dr. Russ-Eft to summarize this controversy but I will offer a perspective on defining HRD based on the 2016 AHRD International Research Conference in Asia and Mena held in Ifrane, Morocco in October.


2016 AHRD International Conference in Asia and Mena. Photo: Dollaya Hemmapattawe

While many definitions abound in our field – and scholars like Dr. Monica Lee (2001) even argue against defining the field in general – a commonly cited definition is McLean & McLean’s (2001). They write,

“Human resource development is any process or activity that, either initially or over the long term, has the potential to develop adults’ work-based knowledge, expertise, productivity and satisfaction, whether for personal or group/team gain, or for the benefit of an organization, community, nation or, ultimately, the whole of humanity.”

In a paper presented at the 2016 AHRD International Conference in Asia and Mena, Dr. Greg Wang and colleagues reviewed existing definitions and theorized a comprehensive definition. This paper by Dr. Wang and colleagues is in press with Personnel Review (I’ve checked the journal multiple times and haven’t seen it published yet but it should be out soon). Until then, there is a draft available through Google Scholar.

Dr. Wang spoke passionately in his presentation refuting McLean and McLean’s (2001) definition and Lee (2001) not wanting to define HRD. Their paper proposed the following definition:

“Human resource development is a mechanism in shaping individual and group values and beliefs and skilling through learning-related activities to support the performance of the host-system.”

A couple interesting points: Wang et al. (in press) capture the “critical attributes” or “cores” of HRD, which they see as the idea of shaping, skilling, and host-system. Shaping refers to a sort of acculturation to the values of the host-system; skilling refers to the process of “learning/unlearning and tooling/retooling” by the host-system; and, the host-system itself refers to the organization, country, or even family that uses HRD for its decided purpose.

I will leave it up to you to read the paper judge whether you endorse their analysis.  Either way, I think this is a valuable contribution to the conversation (or controversy) and should be read in introductory courses and textbooks alongside the perspectives of Lee (2001), McLean and McLean (2001), and others.

From my standpoint, I appreciate its simplicity in describing what may be the bare-bones or “cores” of HRD. At the same time, this act of boiling down HRD to basic attributes makes me wonder about its usefulness in understanding the complexities and ever-evolving nature of those processes.

Movement is life. Running my first 50-miler.

December 19, 2016

This year I went from playing frisbee a couple times a week to running a 5o-mile race. Here’s the story along with a few reflections on the keys to discovering a love of running.

In January, I somewhat precariously decided to run a marathon as my New Year’s resolution. Knowing full well that resolutions of this kind rarely materialize, I thought now was as good a time as any to accomplish this goal. Little did I know that in that year I would end up running two marathons, two 50km races, and one 50-mile race.

I played ultimate frisbee in a league here in D.C. so I was in decent shape but couldn’t remember the last time I went out for a run. I hated running for the sake of running and preferred running as the byproduct of playing a sport like Ultimate.

IMG_1936.JPGA few weeks into January, my New Year’s resolution was beginning to fade into a fleeting desire. Then, my housemate mentioned he might be interested in running a marathon and we decided to train together. We did almost every single one of our training runs together. On May 1, his 27th birthday, we “put 26 behind us” and ran the Pittsburgh Marathon at the slow but steady time of 4:47.

During training, I picked up a dusty book about running that had been on my shelf for quite some time and decided to read it for some extra motivation. The book was Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes. For those of you who know me, when I get into something, I can become engrossed in it. I went on to read Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run and Rich Roll’s Finding Ultra. I gobbled up another half dozen books along with blogs, podcasts, and youtube videos about running. I transitioned to trails and ultrarunning, and on June 25 I ran my first 50km race: Hell Hath No Hurry.

One of the books I read was Relentless Forward Progress by Bryon Powell, which has training plans for ultras and I decided to use one to train for a 50-miler. While I hadn’t run much in the last 10 years, I was able to tap into the miles I ran in high school in track and cross-country. I began my training in Thailand and Myanmar in early July for the JFK 50-miler.

Then, just before my Comprehensive Exams for my doctoral program I ran the JFK 50-miler with a time of 9:47. Since then, I’ve taken the last month easy so my body can recover from a year of running, but I’ve already begun planning for next year with the Pittsburgh Marathon and the Oil Creek 100km race on my schedule for 2017. Anyone want to join me?

When I think back on it, the keys to discovering a love of running have been the following: IMG_0680.jpg

  • Having a training partner to help keep me accountable in the early days. Also great for conversations. Thanks, Trey!
  • Having a couple specific goal races in mind. What am I shooting for?
  • Learning about running. Reading books/blogs, listening to podcasts, watching videos.
  • Finding good shoes. I’m sure my housemates wouldn’t let me get by without adding something about shoes because I have tried a lot over this year, but the point is that finding a good pair of shoes that you enjoy running in is vital. For me, it’s the Altra Superiors and the Nike Terra Kiger 3s.
  • Running on trails. This is the biggest one for me. Nature, ups and downs, twists and turns–trails turn running into an adventure in the woods.
  • No headphones. This one is definitely not for everyone but I love being out alone in nature and becoming more mindful of my existence. I am able to connect with my body and my surroundings.

I am learning a lot from running. Here are two small lessons: Be outrageously patient. Above all, it seems, running takes patience. This was my mantra in my 50-mile race. I said it over and over. Patience has become a great source of joy for me. Movement is life. I heard this idea in a video of Bernd Heinrich on “Why We Run.” This idea has come to make a lot of sense the more I run. In many ways I agree that movement is life, and running is a wonderful way to move. Check it out:



Article Critique: Human Capital and Rates of Return: Brilliant Ideas or Ideological Dead Ends?

November 11, 2016

One of my professional memberships is to the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES), which publishes the Comparative Education Review journal. My interest in CIES stems from my research on higher education in Thailand and Southeast Asia. While international and comparative education is not directly related to my interests in human and organizational learning, I found this article to be more than relevant.

Klees, S. J. (2016). Human capital and rates of return: Brilliant ideas or ideological dead ends? Comparative Education Review60(4), 644-672.

Human capital theory and rate of return methodology have long been a dominant framework in comparative and international education and other fields. While there have been criticisms since its inception, it has been ubiquitous and widely accepted as an important mechanism for educational planning, evaluation, and policy making. In this article, I raise fundamental questions about the internal logic of this framework. In particular, I examine the problems with its two strands of empirical work, dealing with the impact of education on income and economic growth, as well as with its conceptual base. In conclusion, I briefly examine some alternatives to using a human capital framework for educational planning, evaluation, and policy making.

Klees, who was trained at Stanford and is currently at the University of Maryland, brings a voice that is nothing short of subversive to the widely accepted neoliberal paradigm on the value of education. He does a fine job setting up the arguments for the human capital approach that began with the likes of Becker and Schultz. He recognizes that the human capital approach played an important role in expanding access to education around the globe. However, Klees speaks to some of the chinks in the chain of the human capital approach summed up here as, “the meaninglessness of economists’ concept of efficiency, the fact that earnings do not reflect productivity, the fact that earnings are at best a partial measure of the benefits of education, and our inability to even get accurate estimates of the effects of education on earnings – taken together imply that the main empirical application of HCT [human capital theory], that is calculating the RORs [rates of return] to education, is fatally flawed” (p. 653-654).

This article functions as an indictment of the highly quantitative driven mentality that glosses over its own deficiencies that are now too glaring to ignore. For example, at one point Klees discusses the widespread use of regression to predict the value of education and how it fails to meet the assumptions necessary for regression analysis to be useful, i.e. that “all variables are included, measured correctly, and their functional interrelationships accurately specified” (Klees, 2016, p. 652). This can’t possibly be done well when considering the value of education in society.

Klees (2016) goes on to discuss the failure of connecting education directly to GNP and the conceptual failure of the human capital approach to capture the value of education outside of work.

He then discusses three alternatives: a human rights approach, which, let’s be honest, is not a friend to our economist friends; a human agency approach, which refers to the ability of people and groups to work towards change through social movements; and, the human capabilities approach. The last of these has been most appealing to me personally since reading Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. To quote Nussbaum (2013), “The Capabilities Approach can be provisionally defined as an approach to comparative quality-of-life assessment and to theorizing about basic social justice…[it] is concerned with entrenched social injustice and inequality, equality, especially capability failures that are the result of discrimination nation or marginalization. It ascribes an urgent task to government and public policy-namely, to improve the quality of life for all people, as defined by their capabilities.” I think this approach is a strong contender for a replacement to HCT.

This article brings up a lot of philosophical arguments that I am sure my neoliberal friends will immediately want to repudiate. We would be wise to remember that Thomas Kuhn in his classic book on the structure of scientific revolutions points out that all paradigm shifts in science begin with subversive ideas to the norm. This, I believe, falls into that category, and it is my hope that we are on the path towards a paradigm shift in our understanding of the value of education in society.


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