Human Resource Development and Adult Education

Subject: Education
Pages: 20
Words: 5246
Reading time:
19 min
Study level: Master


The fields of human resource development and adult education are closely related subjects, even though it will become apparent only on closer scrutiny. This paper is an attempt to find the relation between these two fields. The factors that relate to the two fields are discussed here first. Then the relevant theories that are pertinent to adult education are given. Only a brief review of HRD theories is given since they have been discussed largely in the previous assignment. The differences and similarities that exist between the two fields are also discussed. Unfortunately, some adult education practitioners have a comparatively poor view of human resources.

Those views and the counterarguments are also examined here. Finally, before the conclusion, the latest trends in the two fields are also discussed. In this case, the HR professional is taking a more professional view of their field (compared with the adult education professional). The conclusion section defines the relationship of the two fields as the writer perceives it, based on related literature. The writer believes that HR is not purely a sub-set of adult education as believed by certain professionals. Instead, they are related, and both can learn from each other and ultimately should form a symbiotic relationship with each other.


An analysis of two foundation theories of human resources development was done in the previous assignment. The assignment had provided scope for analyzing two theories with respect to either human resource development or adult education. The option taken for that particular assignment was HRD. Assignment 3 now provides a comparative study between the many aspects of human resources development and adult education.

A person who is not familiar with the two disciplines mentioned above may feel no real relationship between them. But once they become familiar, it can be seen that there are many similarities and differences between these subjects. The relationship is so strong that some experts argue that human resource development is a part of adult education, while others feel it is the other way around. This point of contention will be discussed later in this paper as a part of the analysis.

One important aspect of human resource development is the training and education of employees. By statute (in Canada and many other countries), it has been stipulated that only persons of eighteen years and above can be legally employed by any firm. How well this aspect is enforced in different countries is another matter altogether and does not form part of the topic of this paper. What is important is that a person of eighteen or above is considered an adult, and the training and education of employees in the field of HRD can be considered a part of adult education. This is one point that links the two fields of study. So, this paper is also an attempt to analyze the various aspects of the two.

A comparative descriptive overview, analysis, and synthesis of the key similarities and differences between the disciplines of adult education and HRD will be made here. It will also compare and contrast the characteristics, features, theoretical foundations, etc., of the two disciplines and discuss the implications for research and practice in both fields.

The relationship between human resource development and adult education

Before moving on to the comparison and analysis stage of the two disciplines, it is necessary to establish a relationship between the two. As mentioned in the introduction, there is indeed a relationship, at least concerning the age factor. This section will attempt to establish a deeper relationship by referencing other authors and experts in the field. The book titled ‘The Profession and Practice of Adult Education’ states that “few areas of practice are more directly associated with contemporary adult education than the workplace.” (Merriam & Brockett, 1997, p. 296). The fact that the workplace is an integral part of HRD needs no further clarification or explanation.

As a further endorsement, the book mentioned above quotes author J R Rachal who believes that the workplace is actually “the engine that is changing the nature of adult education.” The point of contention of which discipline is the mother discipline also comes up in this context. Sharan B Merriam et al. state that both sides claim workplace education belongs to either a part of HRD or adult education. The work by Rachal (above) was written in 1988, and hence this point of contention is more than 19 years old.

Moreover, other claimants to the ownership of workplace education also exist, especially from industrial psychology. A review of literature appears to give the view that the question is still unresolved. The authors state that the points made so far establish two statements. The first one is that there is indeed a relationship between human resource development and adult education. The second is that there are similarities and differences between the two. A review of the above concept is proposed in the coming sections of this paper.

Adult Education and related theories

It appears from a review of literature that just as in the case of HRD, no clear-cut theories exist for adult education also. Hence, only generalized theories regarding the topic can be utilized. (Franz, 2007). Some of the theories and concepts related to this field are Transformative Learning Theory, Critical Reflection Theory, the concept of Andragogy, and theories on adult learning. Moreover, some of the concepts like the human capital theory that are relevant to HRD are also of relevance in this field.

Transformative Learning Theory

This influential theory was introduced by Jack Mezirow nearly twenty years ago and is still undergoing changes and additions to date. As the name suggests, this is a transformational process and hence has a deep meaning regarding learning. During this learning process, an individual is transformed in the sense that his beliefs, values, and emotional states (referred to as ‘meaning schemes’ by Mezirow) change.

For this to happen, the person must critically reflect on past experience, ultimately leading to a transformation through learning. (Mezirow, 1991, p. 167). During this process, a perspective transformation takes place where the person becomes aware of his present constraints and will have the choice to take steps to remove them through learning. Mezirow states that the process has ten steps from the start of the learning process. The first step is for the person to face a dilemma that can cause a lot of unease. It could be the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, etc. This is followed by a self-examination which will usually result in a feeling of guilt.

The next step would be self-assessment and the assumptions made. Then the condition is shared with others which will give an insight that others too have had similar experiences. The next step is to find more about (exploration) the new role to be played, the new relationships, and the course of action to be taken. This would lead to the planning of a definitive course of action. Next is to obtain the required skills and knowledge needed for the new role.

He would then have the opportunity actually to try out the roles to be played. The final step would be the person’s reentry or reintegration into the society of which he was a part. This will be by donning the new role for which he has prepared himself through the above process. Another feature of this theory is that “Three common themes of Mezirow’s theory are the centrality of experience, critical reflection, and rational discourse in the process of meaning structure transformation.” ((n.d.), Mezirow a rational transformation: An Overview. p. 8).

As mentioned earlier, many changes and additions have been incorporated into this famous theory even though the fundamentals remain the same. There have been criticisms that rationality is given too much importance here. Every person may not be able to behave rationally, especially in times of deep dilemma. Robert Boyd was one of the persons who made valuable contributions to the transformational theory. According to him (cited from another article), “fundamental change in one’s personality involving [together] the resolution of a personal dilemma and the expansion of consciousness resulting in greater personality integration.” (Imel & Susan, 2000).

This view suggests that the transformation process while solving the dilemma will result in an ‘expansion of consciousness’ also. A process of discernment involving receptivity, recognition and grieving is also involved here. Of this, grieving is the most important thing whereby the person will realize that a change is inevitable and that the old way of life is no longer relevant or practical. Two instances of how this theory is relevant in the HRD context is given below.

A person might lose his job and his only source of income. This would result in a dilemma, and he or she should naturally take the steps mentioned above until he acquires the new skill required for a new job. He will then integrate it back into society with the new job (role). A homemaker might be in a situation where her husband dies or is incapacitated. She will face a similar situation, and here also the transformative theory is relevant. But in most other cases, the transformation process is due to the insistence of the company and not the individual (for example, a promotion with higher salary and responsibilities), and even though the person might face a dilemma, it will not be as great as the instances mentioned above.

Critical reflection theory

There are similarities between transformative learning theory and the critical reflection theory in the sense that the former has critical reflection as a part of the transformation process. But the reflection mentioned above is dependent on the person’s experience and does not involve a deep transformation as in the case of transformative theory. This critical thinking comes about due to a trigger process that is similar to transformative theory.

But this is more for gaining control of a person’s life brought about by external changes. “The practice of critical reflection requires a community of peers, uncovers commonly held and possibly false assumptions, and is dependent on context and personal experiences.” (Franz, 2007). Here also critical reflection can happen in the context of HRD. A worker might feel that being computer literate (trigger) might be needed to be able to cope with the current demands of the job. He can critically analyze and make himself computer literate. The other instances mentioned in the earlier theory can also result in critical reflection.


Pedagogy is related to teaching and educating children, whereas Andragogy is related to the teaching and educating of adults. This concept was first brought forth by Malcolm Knowles during the 1960s. The concept, according to Knowles, has five distinct assumptions, which are quite the opposite to the concepts found in pedagogy. The first assumption is that an adult learner will need to know the reason why a particular subject or topic has to be learned.

This is in contrast with the case of children where they are just taught the subject without giving any reasons. Adults are self-directed in the sense that they have the ability to be responsible for their own learning. Even if it is not the case, the adult educator has to take steps to make the learner a self-directed person. A student, on the other hand, will have to be guided during the learning process. Apart from what is being learned, adults have life experience, which can be an added help in the learning process.

Children do not have this life experience (at least to the extent of an adult). An adult learner will be more willing to learn if he knows that the topic being learned is directly related to his work or will help in solving a problem he faces. On the other hand, a student learns because he has to without really understanding that the knowledge will be helpful when they become adults. Adults are motivated more due to internal factors rather than external ones. Examples of internal motivation can be job satisfaction, improving quality of life, etc.

Knowles was initially of the opinion that both pedagogy and Andragogy are opposites but later stated that the latter is, in fact, a continuation of the former. He also said that ideas could be taken from both depending on the circumstances. He also advised educators to be more team-based with adult learners when teaching. This includes mutual planning, finding out learner interests and tastes, formulating a teaching methodology based on the above, quality evaluation, and stressing the need for continued education. (Blondy, 2007, p. 117).

Human Capital theory and adult education

It had been mentioned in Assignment 2 that one of the relevant theories with regard to HRD is the human capital theory. This theory has a certain relevance to adult education also. The human capital theory states that lifelong education, coupled with the quality and ability of an employee to learn, will result in increased wages. The common factor with HRD and adult education is education itself. As mentioned earlier, all employees are adults (legally), and lifelong education of employees as mentioned in human capital theory hence is a part of adult education also. “The stock of human capital consists of levels of education, knowledge, skills, and abilities, in this order.” (Hietala Kari, (n.d.). p. 7).

Just learning society

A factor that comes to mind when discussing a learning society is the concept of learning organization formulated by Peter Senge in his best-selling book ‘The Fifth Discipline.’ It would be difficult to explain the full meaning of the term ‘learning society.’ In a broad sense, this is a concept where society does not just provide facilities for adult education. On the other hand, once adult education becomes an element or an integral part of society, it will then transform itself into a learning society. (Smith, 2002).

This indicates that adult education will become a component just like the postal service, security service, transport service, etc., which is found in most modern societies. The concept of learning organization (which is, in fact, a part of HRD) was made famous by Dr. Peter Senge in his book. He explains the concept through five disciplines, namely personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking. The main point among the above concept is systems thinking which should consider organizations and society as dynamic systems. Hence, systems theory can be applied to both HRD and adult education also.

According to author Robert L Flood, Senge’s concepts, especially systems thinking, are, in fact, a part of the mainstream (learning) society itself. “Central to popularization is the fifth discipline itself, systemic thinking, that have otherwise struggled on the margins of the social and educational mainstream.” (Flood, 2002, p.13). A just learning society is where the concept of learning society is established without the existence of preferences, racism, or any form of discrimination.

HRD and related theories and comparison with adult education

It is proposed that only a brief overview will be given here since HRD was already described in the earlier assignment. Additionally, recent trends in the field will also be discussed here.

Like adult education, no specific theory exists relating to human resource development. According to Richard Swanson, who is one of the noted authorities on the topic, there are basically three theories that are relevant to HRD. These are the economic theories, the psychological theories, and the systems theories. Economic theories include the early theories of Frederick Taylor, John Maynard Keynes, and Karl Marx, etc.

Some related theories like the Mercantilists and Physiocrats theories were also in existence before these early theories. Other early theories include those of Malthus, David Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill. But most of these theories focused more on increasing worker efficiency and productivity rather than on the welfare aspect of the workers. Some of them also focused on the proper utilization of scarce resources. Hence these theories are not really relevant now. One of the earliest theories that gained wide acceptance was the theory propounded by Adam Smith in his book ‘Wealth of Nations.’ Among the economic theories, the relevant theories are Human Capital Theory, the Scarce Resource Theory, and the Sustainable Resources Theory.

Of the above, human capital theory, which focuses on the education and knowledge of the workers, is relevant to both HRD and adult education. Among the psychological theories, the relevant ones are the Gestalt Theory, Cognitive Theory, and Behavioral Theory. But with reference to adult education, a review of the literature shows that psychological theories (other than the ones mentioned above) are more relevant to adult learning theories. Some of the psychological adult learning theories are Experiential Learning Theory, Deep and Surface Learning Theory, and Situated Learning Theory. Andragogy is also included in this group. (Hillier, 2005, p.80).

Moreover, the theories mentioned in the adult education section can be considered to be psychological theories as well. Among the systems theories, the following three, namely: General Systems Theory, Chaos Theory, and the Futures Theory, are relevant.

Systems Theory is also relevant to adult education since society can also be considered to be an open system. Moreover, a journal article by Harbans S Bhola specifically states that Systems Theory is useful for adult educators in the field of poverty eradication (with literacy). “With systems thinking in the back of their minds, adult educators should be able to conduct political economy analyses: i.e., analyses of power relations and patterns of exclusion and inclusion that oppress the poor and privilege the powerful within the boundaries of particular systems and structures.” (Bhola, H. S., 2004, p. 15). Hence Systems Theory can be a useful tool in adult education also.

Criticism of human resource development by adult education specialists

Even though closely related, experts in the field of adult education criticize practitioners of HRD on the following grounds. It also appears that the main contention for this state of affairs is the fact that training and teaching of workers by the HR department is primarily to increase the profits of the organization and not done as an act of service to the society. It should be noted that the points given below have been denied and sometimes justified by HRD personnel and refers to these criticisms as myths surrounding HRD. (This sentence have been removed) (Bierema et al., 2001, p.51-62).

HRD professionals are supporters and sympathizers of capitalism

Critics are of the opinion that apart from being capitalist supporters and sympathizers, HRD places too much emphasis on the Human Capital Theory. Hence, the focus is only on educating the workforce so that productivity might be increased. There are many counterarguments against this view. The first is that HRD is a multi-disciplinary field. “There is considerable agreement that adult education; instructional design and performance technology; psychology; business and economics; sociology; cultural anthropology; organization theory and communications; philosophy; axiology; and human relations theories, principles, and practices have all become a visible part of the HRD milieu.” (Willis, 1996, p.31-39).

The above factors are well established, and hence the above criticism does not hold true. The involvement of so many factors (mentioned above) cannot make HRD capitalistic. Another argument is that HRD is given importance not only to profit-oriented organizations but also in not-for-profit ones and even to government departments. Moreover, the HRD department in an organization is probably the only one to support and uphold the rights and welfare of the workers.

Pavlovian Behaviorism of HRD professionals

Critics of HRD say that the training and teaching provided by the HR department are aimed at conditioning employees to act in a certain way. They equate this to the experiments undertaken by the Russian psychologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, who found that dogs could be conditioned to salivate on the happening of certain events happening. It is natural for dogs to salivate when they see or smell food. But Pavlov noticed that dogs in the laboratory salivated even when they saw persons wearing white coats.

He found that food to the dogs was supplied by personnel in white coats, and dogs associated the color of the coat with food. He successfully replicated the experiment using the sound of a bell in the place of a white coat. (Fredholm, 2008). HRD is in similar ways trying to control employee behavior and response through its training methods. The counterargument is that this criticism only looks at one angle of behavioral training while HRD uses techniques from many disciplines.

Lack of ethics

Critics often point out that there is a low level of ethics practiced in HRD circles. It is true to a certain extent since this is a relatively young field. But efforts to find a solution have been made, and certain codes of ethics have been formulated by many organizations. For example, the Academy of Human Resources Development (AHRD) formulated a code of ethics in 1999, which provides a valuable and detailed guideline for HRD professionals.

“These Standards on Ethics and Integrity for the Academy of Human Resource Development provide guidance for HRD professionals engaged in practice, research, consulting, and instruction/facilitation/teaching.” (Academy of human resource development standards on ethics and integrity: Purpose, 1999, p.1). It is also argued that it is the ethics of the HRD personnel that matter more than a published code of conduct and that they, on the whole, are people with ethics. It was also mentioned that the field of adult education does not have such a code of conduct till now.

Too many defects in actual HRD practice: It is true that HRD is a young field, and in practice, there will be deficiencies and defects. But critiques rely too much on the failed or flawed incidents and do not give due focus on where HRD practices have been successful and effective.

Not influential

Another criticism of HRD is that it is not influential enough at the top organizational level. Current literature on HRD and HRM stresses the importance of strategic partnership with the top management and other departments. Hence this criticism is beginning to lose its relevance as time passes by.

Not international in outlook and perspective

There is no international perspective and practice with regard to HRD. The counterargument is that it is no longer true. First of all, this is an interdisciplinary field, and hence the help of experts from these fields will be there. Moreover, globalization has now resulted in an exchange of ideas, practices, and suggestions across international boundaries.

HRD focuses on adult education only

The criticism is that the HR department is primarily focused on educating its workforce. But in actual practice and also, in theory, this is only one of the areas on which focus is given. HRD also focuses on, among other things, organizational development and career development. For example, “Actual titles for human resource development practitioners vary enormously, and job responsibilities are more often combinations of one or more of these three roles with other assigned personnel roles such as organization designer, personnel specialist, or employee assistance counselor.” (Watkins, 1998).

Racial, gender and class discrimination

HRD practitioners are often accused of resorting to the above-mentioned practices of discrimination. While this is true to a certain extent, this practice is not limited to the HR field alone. Moreover, steps are being taken to see that this is eliminated or reduced by forming governing bodies and a code of ethics.

A part or sub-set of adult education

This unresolved attitude is often attributed to HRD study and practice. As mentioned earlier, HR is a multi-disciplinary field. According to the book ‘Understanding Human Resource Development,’ the multi-disciplinary nature of this profession even makes it difficult to formulate a definition for it. (Stewart, McGoldrick & Watson, 2002, p.6). Even though closely related, it is not a positive sign that practitioners from both fields have these differences of opinion. Further advancement in the field of human resource development will be given in the section on current trends in HR and will refute these criticisms in a stronger way.

Recent trends in HRD and Adult education

The fields of human resource development and human resource management are increasingly getting complicated due to the culturally and socially diversified workforce seen in organizations today. This is mainly the result of increasing globalization and free trade. This has also resulted in increased competition in the marketplace. The HR manager is now a strategist as well as a spokesman for the workers. “The goals of human resource management are the more efficient and effective utilization of human resources in order to achieve the strategic objective of the organization while facilitating the accomplishment of individual goals.” (Bruno, (n.d.)).

Due to its growing importance, there has been a feeling among the practitioners (of HRD) that more professionalism should be brought in. This will result in more control, universal practices, ethics, and professional respect for the HRD practitioners. “A profession is not so much an occupation as a means of controlling an occupation. Human resource management is obviously not in this category.” (Armstrong, 2006, p. 85). For this purpose, the changes that have been brought in or proposed to be brought in are quite far-reaching. The first is the formation of professional organizations that can control or at least monitor the profession so that there will be healthy growth in the field.

Professional organizations will usually have a common body of knowledge as well common terminology that will be used in all situations. For example, project management has something called the PMBOK or Project Management Body of Knowledge. It is proposed that such a body of knowledge and common terminology be created in the field of human resources also. Another factor that determines professionalism is the existence of certification by competent controlling organizations. A person who has studied HR can be certified as an HR professional and will be provided a certificate saying that they are a certified human resource professional.

Another common feature of professional bodies and organizations is the publication of a uniform code of ethics to be practiced by them. In such a case, the controlling body or organization will also have the authority to see that such ethics are maintained. It can also control the activities of the person in case of breach of ethics through termination of membership or cancellation of certification. It should be mentioned here that the controlling organization will have the authority to accept members and also have sub-organizations. For example, there will be a national organization for HR and regional ones affiliated with it.

Members and the organization should have a common objective with regard to their work. This could even help in the formulation of a universally acceptable definition of human resource development and human resource management. The public should view the human resource manager as a professional, like in the case of a lawyer, chartered accountant, certified public accountant, etc. Only persons with the requisite knowledge in the human resource will be given membership in the organization. This applies to certification as well. The practitioners will be licenses, and if possible only licensed HR personnel is allowed to practice in the field.

Finally, a feeling of fraternity among members is also to be encouraged. (Kim & Bae, 2004, p.211). As for adult education, the concept has now moved on to lifelong learning rather than just adult education. This is mainly for the economic aspect of the employee. According to author David N Aspin “…..lifelong education is instrumental for and anterior to some more ultimate goal; and secondly, that the purpose of lifelong learning is highly job- related and economic-policy-dependent.” (Aspin et al., 2001, p.xx).

With reference to Canada, noted expert on the field (lifelong learning and adult education), Professor Malcolm Tight has the following predictions. The field becomes highly politicized, and that the basic notions will be recycled continuously. There will be differences of opinion among those who support liberal and vocational training methods. The concept of lifelong learning will gain precedence along with concepts like continuing education, learning organization, and learning society.

The concept of human and social capital will gain importance along with more studies on Andragogy. Finally, concepts like success, competency, failure, outcomes, etc., will be redefined. (Fleming, 2008, p.7). The paper adds that the participation of organizations like the World Bank, IMF, OECF countries, and private organizations is increasing in their efforts to remove illiteracy in many parts of the world, especially in developing countries.


A comprehensive study of the main theories in adult education has been made here. A brief review of HRD theories was also given. The relationship between the two was also given. It can be seen that the human capital theory is relevant to both fields. So also is the case with systems and psychological theories. The negative way certain adult education experts view HRD was also provided, though it can be seen that most of the criticisms are not relevant as the field (HRD) develops over the years. But according to the writer, HRD cannot be considered to be a sub-set of adult education. It is true that many facets can be borrowed by HRD practitioners from adult education practices.

But HRD of today is also strategic in nature and has to work closely with the top management in achieving organizational goals. Hence, with regard to human resource development, practitioners need to work in a broader framework. They have strategic responsibilities and have to be in charge of staffing and training of employees. They have to see that employees are motivated and productive. They also have to formulate just and equitable compensation and bonus plans.

They also have to chalk out welfare plans. Most importantly, they have to strike a fine balance between the demands of the workers, the welfare of the workers and match strategic organizational goals. For this, they have to see that workers are kept happy and at the same time see that costs are kept at optimum levels. Adult educators have a different set of challenges. HRD practitioners need only deal with the employees of the organization who will be motivated to cooperate with the HRD department. This is because they have a personal interest in their own welfare and, through this, the welfare of the organization. But adult educators deal not only with employees but also with the whole strata of society.

They have to deal with uneducated adults, homemakers, self-employed persons, and even persons serving sentences for crimes. In this sense, the educating part in adult education is more challenging when compared to the education part in HRD. They might find it difficult to motivate certain sections of society to take part in education when compared with education in HRD. Moreover, the management (in the case of HRD) can make it mandatory or compulsory for employees to be trained and educated. This compulsion is not possible in most cases in the field of adult education. So it can be seen that both fields are challenging and both have their disadvantages and advantages.

Taking all this into consideration, the writer is of the opinion that Human Resource Development will not fit in as a sub-set of adult education. At the most, it can be said that they share a symbiotic relationship, and both can benefit and gain value from each other. If both HRD and adult education professionals understand and form a strong symbiotic relationship, both fields will stand to gain along with the members of the society and the employees of different organizations.


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