The Learning Organisation 4.0 – Humans repurposed
Today, organisations find themselves in a situation where past successes are no longer indicative of future success. The ‘synthetic certainty’ of the industrial era has given way to increasing volatility and uncertainty.
This article explores the implications this has on learning and learning professionals.
A brief history of mankind
To fully appreciate where the world of learning is heading, we need to (briefly) look at mankind’s primary operating models across all time.
Learning 1.0 – As hunter gatherers we operated in the harshest of conditions. The focus was on basic needs and survival. Living long enough to create the next generation was not a given. Learning was highly experiential in that hunting and gathering skills were acquired through doing. Often learning had fatal consequences. Eventually stories and pictures were used to shorten the ‘time to experience’ and to minimise the ‘body count’.
Learning 2.0 – Domesticating animals and seed enabled us to think beyond today’s needs. Acts of God aside, there was some degree of predictability in respect of the seasons and thus birthing, planting and harvesting. As the techniques and tools evolved, the need to develop workers and future leaders became important. Farms became enterprises and so process became important. It’s not that process wasn’t important during the hunter gatherer period, it is just that creativity and situational awareness were also significant considerations.
Learning 3.0 – The arrival of the factories saw the suppression of the need for situational awareness and creativity in most of the workforce. Process ruled. Humans had a role to play, only because technology was not yet sufficiently mature to handle every aspect of the factory. Thus, humans were technology placeholders, or ‘biological cogs in the machine’. Thus, learning became training. This is what we need you to do and this is how you do it. The emergence of job specifications / skills profiles turned the Learning and Development (L&D) function into a training brokerage.
Learning 4.0 – We are now leaving the industrial era. Globalisation and technology have given rise to rapidly increasing volatility and uncertainty. The future is unknowable. Consequently, such industrial era notions as career, strategy and retirement are no longer fit for purpose. Because adaptability is now key, situational awareness and creativity are again critical characteristics of digital age organisations. Enterprise learning needs to reflect this new reality. The remaining part of this article will explore this further.
A lot of organisations are trapped in industrial era models and are thus focusing on a Learning 3.0 approach. Many established organisations, whose roots lie in the industrial era, see digital as simply an enabler of a faster, smarter and / or cheaper version of the existing business model. But a faster, smarter and cheaper Titanic is still the Titanic. And even if it can detect icebergs, it will struggle to compete with more modern transportation methods.
So, the digital age is not simply the industrial era ‘amped up on tech steroids’ (AI, Blockchain and IoT come to mind). More significantly, it is not the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). It is much more profound than that. The digital age can be considered as mankind’s return to its true nature after 300 years of having our natural anthropological drivers suppressed by the factory model. Humans are wired to be curious, creative, social, mobile and so on. The vines of nature have pushed through the concrete factory floor and essentially nature, supported by new technology, is enabling us to return to our true nature.
This is great news if you are prepared to be human. But for some of us the idea of having to bring our cognitive capacity to bear on a daily basis will seem too much like hard work. But if we are to add value beyond that of an algorithm or robot, this is the price we must pay to remain economically relevant.
This has profound implications in respect of how we develop our people and our leaders.
You may possibly agree with my perspective, yet think that the challenge for the learning and development function is to simply find the suppliers of ‘enlightened’ people development services and continue to chug along under the protective umbrella of the HR function.
It’s a little more complicated because:
- The power axis is shifting from the employer to the talent because there is not enough of this digital age talent to meet demand.
- Most industrial era organisations will comprise largely of process workers who do not see the digital tsunami coming their way.
- The ‘learn then earn’ model of education generally does not work for what is increasingly becoming a gig-based economy.
- Traditional qualifications such as degrees and MBAs can only guarantee student debt, rather than employment.
- In a very uncertain world, adaptable generalists are more valuable than deep specialists. Whilst skills will remain important, the talent management process can no longer be skills-centric.
- Business success will be increasingly transient. So, the idea of finding a successful formula and enjoying the spoils for several years / decades is over. Therefore, talent management will need to operate at a much faster clock-speed.
- The emerging business model for the digital age put people at the centre. This will require the HR function and thus L&D to reinvent itself and step up. In turn, business leaders need to configure their leadership team accordingly.
- The culture of industrial era organisations, with its focus on process engineering, is generally disdainful of failure and so tends to view experimentation as bad. This requires a major mind-shift, one that must start with the leadership team.
- Your organisation might be doing very well today, so there may be no push for transformation amongst the leadership team. But keep in mind that the Blackberry continued to be a commercial success, despite the arrival of the iPhone. For a while at least. Today threats and opportunities are no longer conveniently recognisable. That stated, your business model may have many years left in it. But no one knows for sure, and that is where your organisation’s existential risk lies.
The problem with academe
The problem with primary and secondary education is that they were constructed to deliver compliant process workers for factories, including the furnished ones more commonly known today as offices. Conformity is more valued than creativity. In the industrial era, this made sense given that the role of the human in the factory was one of a ‘cog in the machine’.
Tertiary education is gamed to reward research paper proliferation. Student education is perceived as a tax the academics must pay in order to pursue their research. More often than not, vocational syllabuses lag the current market needs by one or more economic eras. Students are increasingly recognising that the degree ‘value proposition’ does not stack up.
MBAS also need to be revisited. Being a Master of Administration made sense for industrial era ‘factory’ business models. The transition from industrial to digital age and the associated switch from process to innovation makes the pursuit of administrative excellence obsolete. The MBA schools appear to be less interested in market needs and more focused on arbitrary ranking systems resulting in increasing homogenisation of MBA education. Consequently, students become victims of the MBA ecosystem, rather than the beneficiaries. In fairness there is value in respect of the networking opportunities and in some cases the brand association. But these benefits do not ensure a return on the time, cognitive and financial investment required by an MBA programme.
This gap between what the market needs and what the universities deliver places a greater burden on the L&D function in respect of reducing the employee’s time-to-value. With a rapidly increasing market clock-speed, at some point this reparative burden becomes too costly. Employers are starting to wake up to this.
Learning 4.0 in action
This article has been largely focused on the problem. The reason being that many of those who are part of the wider educational ecosystem are too busy delivering to recognise that the world is changing and learning itself requires transformation.
So, let’s look at a possible way forward. The first step is to recognise that an organisation’s value proposition is increasingly defined by its ability to innovate. For the next decade at least, that innovation is going to emerge from humans, particularly humans capable of cultivating ideas that give rise to market-pleasing products, services and experiences.
So, the primary activity of an organisation optimised to thrive in the digital age is to acquire the best talent and manage the associated cognitive capital with great care. This impacts the following:
- Talent development
- Talent remuneration
- Environmental conditions.
The first four are obvious. Environmental conditions cover the plugging of cognitive leaks around the organisation. Cognitive leakage, for example, can include poor workplace design or obstructive IT systems. For organisations that were ‘built digital’, having plugged all their cognitive leaks, they will be focused on cognitive gains.
A key point is that cognitive capital is a new asset class. Your leadership needs to understand that, as do your people.
With that in mind, I have developed an education service to help leaders understand what is happening as a we transition to the digital age and how they can turn the increasing volatility and uncertainty into market value.
But a fired-up ‘digitally ready’ leadership will not get far without their people being onboard with this renewed mission. Thus, the service I have developed has a programme for your talent as well.
The digital age would be better labelled the human age. As such, we are entering a golden era for those professionally aligned to cognitive capital management. This is great news for us, but even greater news for the workforce.
The sooner your people can be shown that there is a positive way forward, the sooner the chronic anxiety your people are experiencing in respect of their economic-future can be channelled into market-pleasing customer experiences.