Learning in the 21st Century Workplace

Businesses talk about speed, but they don’t take advantage of it

Organizations that don’t embrace new ways of operating and radically different approaches to corporate learning will not survive for three reasons:

  1. We’re witnessing a dizzying rate of change. Business people are being overwhelmed by the pace of progress and the explosion of knowledge.
  2. There are denser and denser interconnections afoot. Everything is getting hooked up to everything else. This increases complexity and makes business unpredictable.
  3. Intangibles are the prime source of value. Social capital and know-how have replaced plant and equipment as the creators of economic value.

Companies that fail to adopt new practices that take these things into account are headed for the scrapheap. Don’t believe me? Ask somebody in the newspaper business — The New York Times and USA TOday are doing better than their peers — they lost only 80& of their value in the past decade. Or look at the music business — remember record stores?

Change rips people out of their comfort zones. Inertia is huge. Maintaining control was the bedrock of 20th century thinking — avoiding surprises, keeping things in line, being efficient, reducing exceptions, doing the same thing over and over, planning your work and working your plan — but these are yesterday’s obsolete practices. When we put new practices in place, we need to be explicit about what obsolete practices they are replacing so employees can unlearn them.

Today’s prime directive is sharing control among all stakeholders — discern the underlying pattern and take action. Act responsibly. Do what’s right. Follow your heart.

I recently found an artifact from the 20th century on the walkway outside my cottage: a time card. It had a single entry, eight hours for the first day of the week. Probably some 21st century guy recognized it for the 20th century relic it was and refused to go along. Hence, it was discarded.

Time cards were once a mainstay of industrial life. You clocked in; you clocked out. When work was physical, time was a reliable measure of production. The fastest manual laborer was maybe 20% faster than the average. It’s different with concept work. The top concept worker creates new business models, wins patents, brings in major clients, and cuts the deals that make the enterprise. A manager who monitors who is at her desk early and which cars are last to leave the parking lot must unlearn clock-watching and look at time through a new lens.

A quarter century ago, Stan Davis wrote in Future Perfect that the fundamentals of the universe, and therefore business, are time, space, and matter. The derivatives of time, space, and matter are the universal variables that impact all business:

 Fundamentals     Drivers
 Time  Speed
 Space  Connectivity
 Matter  Intangibles

Speed, connections, and intangibles each suggest levers for improving business performance. Leaders talk about speed but they don’t take advantage of it. Take revenue. It’s expressed as revenue per quarter. Shouldn’t they flip the fraction upside down and talk about decreasing the time it takes to bring the revenue in? Time-to-completion is the appropriate metric. Value network analysis quantifies the value created through better linkages. Relationships like supply chain are the tip of the iceberg.

Businesses must also focus on increasing the value of relationships with customers and partners. Improving network effectiveness improves the business. And as for intangibles, it’s high time to replace 20the century accounting with scorecards and surveys that assess the soft stuff, capabilities, competencies, and intangibles. The narrow focus on what’s easy to count stifles business creativity. What we can’t see has become more important than what we can.

Choosing the right feedback to listen to and responding to it is the key to optimizing speed, connections, and intangibles. Honest, rigorous feedback can identify dead wood that has outlived its usefulness. When a practice is not producing results, it’s time to unlearn it. Feedback also provides the incentive for adopting new practices. After-action reviews work for the military, for Israeli defense forces, for clued-in organizations. Rigorous transparency promotes agility. Feedback fuels evolution.

Once upon a time, feedback from the boss was sufficient. “That’s what I’m paid to do.” That’s no longer good enough. In the 21st century, all of us must shoulder responsibility for delighting customers and making the organization better. In a business world characterized by speed, connections, and intangibles, that means paying attentional to the right signals. Is that on your corporate learning agenda?

This column originally appeared in the December 2011 edition of CLO.



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