Learning at the speed of change
Organisational learning is dominated by a training mindset that is slowing us down just when we need to speed up.
“When you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail.”
Here at Impact, we’ve been to a lot of conferences, exhibitions and symposia recently, sometimes speaking on platforms, sometimes exhibiting and always listening. One of the things we are hearing (a lot) is how the pace of change is speeding up. This isn’t new of course. But what is new is that it is real. We are fond of talking about change hyperbolically; the global organisational change industry – which is huge and largely failing in our view – has always been in the business of ramping up the rhetoric around the speed of change. But listening to colleagues from across the world, it now seems to be true. What has changed about change? Simple: the exponential change in digital technology.
We’ve also heard this before, a lot. Every time I talk to my colleagues about the Law Of Accelerating Returns (the simple idea that as technology improves we create better tools to improve technology, thereby creating exponential curves) they shrug. They also remind me that we still can’t get a reliable internet connection on a train and that so-called digital assistants can’t even do basic things well or consistently. This is all true, but technology is getting better, which means that technology is getting better faster. This is especially true of artificial intelligence/machine learning.
The change paradox
This presents us with a paradox. The paradox is that the pace of change in organisational life is increasing because of the exponential development of digital technology, yet at the same time the effectiveness of our response to that change can be significantly improved if we use digital technology.
However, what we hear when we listen to colleagues from across the world is that they are falling behind in the race to keep pace with the challenges of change. Here’s what they say is happening:
The problem is that with every month that goes by we fall further behind, and the challenge becomes even more difficult and fatigue and fatalism can set in.
So what can be done?
From training to learning
In our view, it is imperative that we face reality. There is a lot to do and one of the reasons why we are not responding successfully to the pace of change is that we are collectively reluctant to shift our mindsets (confirmation bias amongst several other biases can be partly to blame). We all need to update our mental maps about how organisations now need to work.
One of the biggest mindset shifts we need to make is to update our understanding of the role of training in organisations. Why is it important? Because organisations can’t change unless their people learn. Put simply, no learning no change. When we ask colleagues in organisations how they are trying to respond to the challenges of high change commercial environments, they talk about recruitment, adaptability, talent, teams and training.
A training mindset sees a human being in an organisation as a unit of labour doing a job that can be clearly defined by processes, actions and outputs – all very 20th century. It seems to us that it is a mistake to try and apply a training solution to a learning problem – and, to be clear, responding to the increasing pace of change is a learning challenge, not a training challenge. No learning no change; or we could say, “lots of training but no change.”
The future is human
Another paradox of the arrival of digital technology is that it has increased the need to make our organisations more ‘human’. Why? Because technology will take over functional jobs (starting with all those jobs that can be reduced to a flowchart) and it will do them far more efficiently. What’s left is all the human stuff: the purpose, the community, the empathy, the relationships, the trust and more.
To successfully learn at the speed of change we need to stop treating people as robots and start treating them as human beings. It is the people, not the new digital robots, that will define the purpose of an organisation, that will create new products and services (for other human beings) and that will create the powerful sense of community that enables humans to work at their best.
One of the most important leadership challenges in this digital age is for organisational leaders to use technology to make their companies more human. This presents a profound and vital challenge to our current leaders if their organisations are going to be successful at serving other humans, creating value for society and solving human problems.
We need to remind ourselves that in the end all organisations are simply groups of human beings in service to other groups of human beings. Digital technology doesn’t change any of that, it just provides us with some new, different and game-changing tools.
No learning, no change
Our current organisational mindset around training makes humanising our companies more difficult because it instrumentalises learning. There is a dominant worldview that believes that learning happens in college and training happens in organisations. Training must be efficient, it must be focused on productivity improvements, it must be as short as possible (micro-learning anyone?), it must be cheap (just watch the video ok?) and it must help people do their job properly.
Of course, there is still a need for training in organisations: training in company procedures, health and safety, how to use software, how to fill in timesheets, how to use the photocopier, how to create a P&L etc. etc. But getting these things right for all organisations is just table stakes. Of course employees should be compliant, skilled in relevant professional disciplines and job mechanics etc. and proficient at using tools that they need to get stuff done, but this is not where the competitive edge is. It isn’t where the expertise to adapt quickly to new and emerging business models, digital disruption and fast-moving competitors is going to come from. It is going to come from human beings, working alongside technology, learning the human stuff: leadership, managing people, coaching, collaboration, leading teams, solving complex problems, creativity, innovation, communication, empathy, social intelligence and more.
We know, for example, that you can’t take a training mindset and train someone to be a leader. It doesn’t work. it doesn’t matter how many books they might read, how many subject matter experts they listen to, how many PowerPoint presentations they sit through, how many tests they take or how well they remember the things they have been told about leadership – they still won’t be a better leader. And the quality and effectiveness of leadership has never been more important to helping organisations learn at the speed of change. All our organisational leaders need to be able to lead learning. No learning, no change; no learning leadership, no change.
The problem with learning (rather than training) is that it’s a bit messier than we would like it to be. It’s tough to build an input/output ROI that makes the business case for investment (there we go, treating human beings like machines again). It’s tough to design and tough to deliver – how many great teachers, coaches, facilitators, mentors and learning leaders have we met recently? It can also be seen as expensive, which is where technology can be seen to help. But only if we use it properly.
Unfortunately, it seems to us that a training mindset has dominated the design of the majority of learning technologies. We end up using computers (including phones) just as video players or text readers when they can and should be doing much more to enable learning.
Updating our understanding of how we can use technology to help support human beings to learn with and from each other is our current best hope at being able to speed up the ability of organisations to change and close the gap with technology. We need to design learning technology that propels people into deliberately designed learning experiences to help them learn with and through their relationships with others.
In our view at Impact, a locked-in training mindset is one of the key reasons why organisations are failing to change quickly enough, and therefore to maintain their competitive edge.
Because learning at the speed of change isn’t about training us to be more robot – it is about helping us to learn to be more human.
Grahame Broadbelt is Head of Global Communication and R&D at Impact.