Thinking about Goals

In our charting work, goals have always been somewhat problematic, and it’s been easy to leave the issues untouched and unexplored. In preparation for a first proper implementation pilot with these tools, I have started to do some reading and thinking. What follows are some ideas, documented before I disappear on holiday for  a couple of weeks. I’ll come back to the topic at the start of July to try and dig in to the academic literature.

We talk about goals, and we always mean ‘learning goals’ [example: I’d like to improve my bid-writing skills], yet we are making some big assumptions – do knowledge workers actually ever articulate learning goals? Can they? Would they want to? Would they benefit from articulating learning goals.  For a knowledge worker, goals are more often expressed in terms of:

  • performance –  most knowledge workers articulate their goals during (or in preparation for) annual performance review. Although much is made of the need to make such goals SMART (Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic and Time-Bound), this can actually make them somewhat artificial. performance goals can tend to be quite global reflecting the ‘essence of the job*’ [ex. support the development of new teachers across the institution].
  • tasks – [ex: design a new course]. Goals which relate to a specific task are often easier to formulate as they reflect work activity. Granularity can be a problem here – too big and they end up just describing the different activities a worker is undertaking, too small, and they becomes little more than todo list items: Charting isn’t about task management. | On the other hand, one benefit of task-based goals is that (as knowledge work is often collaborative) these goals often naturally represent shared goals.
  • outputs – [produce a briefing paper about wind farms in local region] have the advantage that they are probably at the right level of granularity and represent  discrete activities which are relevant to work.
But these goal types all reflect business’s focus on achievement, and sit at odds with learning goals which should focus on creating capacity for achievement in the future but may not pay immediate measurable dividends.
In addition to the types described above, we can think of goals in other ways. Some might find it useful to thinnk in terms of short and long term goals to get round the granulairty problem. In TenCompetence**, they discuss proximal and ordinate goals, relating to how an overall learning goal can be achieved through a series of actionable ‘proximal goals’.
Learning goals are all too common from formal education – linked to learning outcomes/learning objectives etc. In the workplace, there may be a tendency to see them in tandem with formal training provision (ex: learn to program in python … TR101: Programming Python.) Yet we know that much of the learning which occurs in the workplace occurs outside the classroom. Would learning goals articulated in such a way that they elaborated how the individual might achieve their goal be more use.

Our test implementation for the prototype charting tools will be a small community of PhD researchers. Although the primary focus of our research is learning in the workplace, I see the learning which occurs during PhD study as being a very special type of workplace learning. Although a formal qualification is gained at the end of the study, the activities undertaken during their study are pretty typical of knowledge workers.

One of the interesting things about PhD study is that it allows us to think about learning from two different perspectives, the learner and the policymaker.  PhD students have a core goal in mind (gaining their doctorate), but this exists within the wider aim of ‘becoming a researcher’ which is an essential component of the PhD process. How do the goals formulated by PhD students reflect the core and wider goals they have? Through the JSS, and more recently, the RDF we have a list of attributes which we expect PhD students to develop during their studentship. To what extent is there a match between the goals students formulate, and these skills?

(to be continued after the holidays …).

* Four types of employee performance goals

** TenCompetence deliverable 8.2

***Joint Skills Statement

****Researcher Development Framework




Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

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