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Jay Cross helps people work and live smarter. Jay is the Johnny Appleseed of informal learning. He wrote the book on it. He was the first person to use the term eLearning on the web. He has challenged conventional wisdom about how adults learn since designing the first business degree program offered by the University of Phoenix.

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Learning in the 21st Century Workplace


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posted on
February 21st, 2012
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We are moving from the information age (an age of knowledge workers) to the conceptual age (an age of conceptual workers). 

Work-life was much simpler in the last century. Information work entailed following instructions and procedures, and logical analysis. Today’s concept work is improvisation. Learning leaders must deal with situations that aren’t in the rule book. Concept work relies on pattern recognition, tacit knowledge and the wisdom born of experience. You can’t pick this up in a classroom or workshop.

The workplace has changed inexorably. Business has become unpredictable. Results are asymmetric. Everyone’s connected. Value has migrated to intangibles. Organisations are becoming organic. Talent chooses where to work. Power is shifting from suppliers to customers. Learning and work are converging. Time has sped up.

Historically, most managers didn’t make time for employees to learn, grow, and develop. However now work and learning are converging into the new conceptual work. That makes life even more challenging. Conceptual work involves gaining experience, learning, developing new thoughts and new ideas, and even developing new lines of business. In this new era of work, the potential value that a worker can create is many times greater than it was, because they no longer have physical limits.

And speed is an even greater imperative. Businesses talk about speed, but they don’t take advantage of it.

Organisations 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 becoming linked 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 doomed. If you don’t believe me, then ask somebody in the newspaper business – The New York Times and USA Today are doing better than their peers –they have lost only 80% of their value in the past decade.

Or look at the music business — remember record stores?

Change tears 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 those.

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 artefact from the 20th century on the walkway outside my cottage: a time card.

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 labourer was possibly 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 does 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 of a 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.

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 20th 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 practices that have outlived their usefulness. When a practice is not producing results, it’s time to unlearn it.

Feedback also provides the incentive for adopting new practices. 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 organisation better. In a business world characterised by speed, connections, and intangibles, that means paying attention to the right signals. Is that on your corporate learning agenda?


Published as Workplace Learning: New thinking and practice, a Special Supplement to global focus, The EFMD Business Magazine, Issue 01 2012

2comments

  • Glenn Hansen - February 25, 2012 at 9:20 pm -

    Thanks, Jay, for another insightful post. It’s a pity that some of the more firmly traditional leaders will continue to dismiss and push back against the precise changes they need to embrace, right up to the point that more forward-thinking competitors take their business away. Post-industrial Darwinism, perhaps.

  • Golda Dennis - March 6, 2012 at 5:06 am -

    I am afraid that the third world is even further behind now that the world is moving into the comceptual work paradigm…we haven’t even embraced the concept of knowledge work yet.

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