Changing the Discourse in Human Resource Development

As a young scholar, I get hard copies of the academic journals I subscribe to. I like to read through the articles and get a better grasp of what’s going on in the literature. One of these journals is the Human Resource Development Review (HRDR), edited by Julia Storberg-Walker of George Washington University. My friend and fellow doctoral student is the managing editor. HRDR’s articles tend to be more conceptual and theoretical than empirical. The June 2015 issue focuses on Critical HRD, which challenges dominant ideas in our field such as the notion that HRD is primarily about supporting the bottom line.

Human Resource Development ReviewLaura Bierma of the University of Georgia (a veritable giant in HRD) wrote the guest editorial of this issue and highlights three themes of the issue, the second of which – “Changing the Discourse” – really stuck with me as I read. Here’s what she had to say:

“We talk HRD into being. How we speak about things is discourse. Perry (1992) suggested theories do not simply exist in the abstract until they happen to be scientifically discovered. Rather, theories are social constructions created between people as a means of making meaning about the world. Humans create shared interpretations that shape how they perceive, experience, and understand the world. People socially construct and share meaning through discourse.”

And to connect this to critical theory, she goes on to write, “Discourse is not a neutral, common understanding of social phenomena, but typically a byproduct of the assumptions and worldviews of the most privileged and dominant members of the society or social group.”

She gave the example of “work-life balance” (a phrase I often use). This is a phrase likely invented by Americans in the wake of the age of overworking. And Bierma argues it is no coincidence that “work” comes before “life” in that phrase. Instead, Bierma advocates the use of “life balance.” To most, this might seem like a petty detail with no significance. But then again, most people aren’t critical theorists.

For me, the takeaway is in the importance of mindful discourse. My program at GW chooses to use “Human and Organizational Learning” as the title of the program instead of Human Resource Development for this very reason. Should we regard human beings as “resources” that need to be “developed”? That’s a conversation for another time perhaps. In the meantime, I am seeking to be mindful of the messages that words and language convey.

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