Sustaining the corporation in the network era
by Jay Cross
July 26, 2009
In the world of business, the era of networks is crowding out the Industrial Age. Network connections are replacing rigidity with flexibility, penetrating internal boundaries and silos and obliterating the walls that have separated businesses from their customers.
Networks reduce transfer costs to zero, enabling companies to focus on what they do best while outsourcing what others can do better. Networks also speed things up, often at a terrifying rate, making the corporate world unpredictable. In sum, networks are ushering in new ways of doing business. Corporate approaches to learning have to change, as well.
Until the shift from industrial to network dominance, corporations could compensate for crummy learning by hiring experienced people and managing ingenious command-and-control structures. Like the U.S. Navy, many old-style organizations were “built by geniuses so they could be run by idiots.” Such an approach fails in the face of rampant change. Organizations that don’t learn can’t keep up. It’s learn or die.
Some cutting-edge corporations are adopting a new bundle of practices — let’s call them informal learning 2.0 — in order to improve operating efficiency by:
• Slashing time to performance.
• Increasing customer loyalty though learning.
• Replacing bureaucracy through self-service.
• Developing more informed marketing partners.
• Improving learning along the supply chain.
At the same time, the informal learning 2.0 approach sets the stage for broad cultural changes that strengthen the organization for the long term by enabling it to:
• Maintain flexibility in the face of incessant change.
• Respond rapidly to competitive threats.
• Put innovation on everyone’s to-do list.
• Enable workers to be all that they can be.
• Establish frameworks for continuous improvement.
In a networked corporation, there is scant difference between knowledge work and learning. Workers become problem solvers and innovators instead of cogs in the machine. Their objective is ingenuity, not conformity. Business success depends on them working together rather than as individuals. Collaboration rules. They work and learn in what I call a “learnscape.”
Learnscapes are the factory floor of knowledge organizations. The “scape” part underscores the need to deal at the level of the learning environment or ecology. The old focus on events such as workshops won’t cut it in the ever-changing swirl produced by networks. The “learn” part highlights the importance of baking the principles of sound learning into that environment rather than leaving it to chance.
A modern learning ecology embraces departments and disciplines that were once considered separate functions: training, independent study, collaboration, knowledge management, corporate communications, organizational development, communities of practice, leadership development, expertise location and social media. The corporation’s values, standards and investments define the structure of the ecology within which people are granted the freedom to act.
Corporations can create superior learnscapes by injecting practices that foster optimal learning: drip-feeding, interaction, ease of access, timely reinforcement, peer coaching, respect for reflection, setting standards, cognitive apprenticeship and so on.
Learning is formal when someone other than the learner sets curriculum. Typically, it’s an event, on a schedule and completion is generally recognized with a symbol, such as a grade, gold star, certificate or check mark in a learning management system. Formal learning is pushed on learners.
By contrast, informal learners usually set their own learning objectives. They learn when they feel a need to know. The proof of their learning is their ability to do something they could not do before. Informal learning often is a pastiche of small chunks of observing how others do things, asking questions, trial and error, sharing stories with others and casual conversation. Learners are pulled to informal learning.
Industrial-age training required flocks of instructional designers to develop training programs and instructors to deliver them. In a networked learning environment, self-service learning replaces many programs, so fewer instructors are required. The pull approach provides more bang for the buck, enabling corporations to get more results while simultaneously cutting costs.
Developing and nurturing learnscapes is not just something to keep a chief learning officer occupied. It’s a top executive responsibility. It’s the ultimate key performance indicator.
Isn’t it time to get everyone in the corporation involved in learning?