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[WebDebate #4 summary] Can diplomacy be learned on-the-job only?

Published on 11 July 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

Our July WebDebate focused on the question whether diplomacy could be learned through on the job training alone, and the dynamics between traditional training for diplomats and workplace learning. Our speakers, Dr Cecilia Mornata, from the University of Geneva, and Mr Dejan Dincic, DiploFoundation’s former technical director, explored possibilities and best practices in on-the-job training and highlighted the best avenues for preparing diplomats for the globalised, connected, and accelerated world they are facing.

Dr Mornata started the discussion by explaining the benefits of learning in the workplace, highlighting that it is not sufficient. Workplaces are not always organised to improve learning, and it doesn’t always fulfill the essential condition to learning – being free to be wrong. Therefore, the workplace and formal training should be complementary when learning a profession. The key question is how to optimise work environments to make them safe, effective, and efficient learning environments, and how to combine those environments with more formal training.


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The issue of workplace learning for diplomacy is how to train people in three different stages of their career: initially, when they enter the diplomatic profession, then to improve the capacity of those who are already in service; and finally, to train experienced diplomats to become trainers and teachers. According to Dr. Mornata, learning is a construction of a new procedural and declarative knowledge, and a routinisation and repetition of such knowledge. When we think of training of diplomacy on-the-job, we have to think about how to facilitate and support the construction of the routinisation of newly acquired knowledge. There are several major learning modalities in the workplace: imitation, observation, experience, verbal transmission, and reflective thinking, and we should support and facilitate these kinds of modalities.

There are three basic ingredients to workplace learning: affordances (all the resources that the workplace can offer to a person – environment, work activities, guidance), individual engagement, and access to learning resources. We should ask to what extent the learner’s work environment provides learning opportunities (affordances); to what extent the learner is engaged in training in the workplace; and to what extent the learner has access to learning opportunities. Dr. Mornata highlighted one more important condition – psychological safety. Errors, failures, questions and doubts can be a major source of learning in the workplace, only if we can speak about them, share and reflect about them, and this is quite problematic in the workplace because there are real costs of errors and consequences. This psychological safety to learn is difficult to ensure in the workplace.

Mr Dincic started by mentioning that over the time, the learning ‘fashion’ has changed several times, from connected learning, to network learning and flexible learning, etc. The driving forces behind these changes in education were often military and political. Many forms of training that we use today have been inherited from the industrial age, although the circumstances have now changed. Therefore, every change in the dominant learning approach suggests there is a background to this need for change. According the Mr. Dincic, the starting point in exploring any particular approach to learning, would be to look at the learning objectives, audience, broader context, learning materials, and to analyse them before making a decision which approach to take. There are many tools that can help in doing this analysis (Bloom’s taxonomy of learning). There are different types of knowledge, and for each type of knowledge that we aim to acquire there will be different activities and different pedagogies applied.

According to his experience in managing training programmes for diplomats for DiploFoundation, the most frequently used format for working adults is blended learning (combination of face-to-face and online learning). The type of training that Diplo provides is collaborative – people study in groups of 12-25 people in an online classroom – the courses are facilitated (tutor, lecturer), and they are highly interactive, as they require real participation and engagement. Most of the participants are already working diplomats. According to his experience, the blend of face-to face and online learning works well, because online courses last longer, and they can be conducted while working, as you are at your desk, dealing with everyday problems, and you can bring these problems to the classroom, discuss them with your peers and lecturers, and contextualise them. The effect of having a long engagement compared to a short-term face-to-face workshop on site gives a significant difference. He also mentioned the concept of situated, socially constructed learning [1]. This approach moved from purely theoretical training to learning from social context.

During the debate, the audience posed many questions, and some of the reflections were sent beforehand. Amb. Kishan S. Rana brought up a few aspects on on-the-job learning in the diplomatic context. According to him, the on-job experience is not enough by way of diplomatic education, which now shifts to workplace learning in an increasing number of countries, curtailing the length of formal entry training. He also mentioned that the UK’s Diplomatic Academy works on the distance method, but with a twist. Officials are required to run their own training cycle, at a pace they prefer, while working fairly autonomously for group work. Its courses are divided into ‘foundation, practitioner and expert’. Amb. Christopher Lamb pointed out that there is one important distinction to be drawn between those who are recruited young, and those recruited mid-career in the relevance and effectiveness of the training format.

One of the questions posed was whether the recruitment of diplomatic candidates could be influenced by the kind of the training they would receive, and Dr. Mornata explained that there shouldn’t be just one solution for different kind of experienced people. One cannot propose the same training to very experienced people, and to those that are less experienced or do not have the same degree.

The audience engaged in the lively discussion and a lot of interesting questions were raised – whether participants should be rewarded (in terms of career) in order to promote individual engagement, the question of the continuous education on-the-job, for the more experienced diplomats, and how could we can systematise learning on-the-job . The answers were provided also by some of the experienced people in the audience.

Dr Mornata and Mr Dincic continued to discuss the benefits and challenges of using experienced diplomats in training junior diplomats. Senior diplomats could be trained to become mentors and trainers, although Dr Mornata noted that experience does not necessarily lead to good teaching skills.

Mr Dincic also answered the question whether new technologies could simulate the workplace environment and generate on-the-job experience. He explained that in the modern world, lots of organisations and diplomatic services are distributed abroad, and the communication with the ‘base’ is through the electronic means. So if you organise training that is situated in the working practice, but mediated by learning – then it’s not a simulation, it’s a real thing.

The resonating message of this debate was that on-the-job training is important, but it needs to be combined with other types of learning formats, in a matter that takes into account the context of the job and the participants. In a case-by-case way, we need to pick a mix of different formats that could form the perfect formula for learning, depending on the different needs of the participant and the professional environment.

[1] During his presentation Mr Dincic made a reference to a book: Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives), by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Cambridge University Press 1991

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