We’re living in incredibly turbulent times. Many business people admit to a pervasive feeling of uncertainty and confusion about their businesses. The well-spring of this uncertainty lies in one of the unique characteristics of the times in which we live – rapid change.
The pace of change in our economy, in our culture, in our institutions, and in our industries and businesses is unprecedented in human history. There has never been a time in which the world around us has changed as rapidly as it does today. Business people are in the middle of this tidal wave of turbulence and are daily being buffeted by this increasingly rapid rate of change.
Driving this unprecedented pace of change is the expansion in the amount of information we create. Consider this. In 1900, the total amount of knowledge available to mankind was doubling about every 500 years. That meant that in our great grandparents’ lifetime, things changed slowly. Our great grandparents lived in the same type of houses, worked in the same kind of jobs, and interacted with the same kind of social structures as their parents. In the year 2000, that same measurement — the quantity of information — was doubling about every two years. Today, according to some, the rate of change is doubling every 30 days!
As information grows, it seeps into every aspect of our industries, our companies, our society, and our lives, and it causes change.
Imagine the implications of that kind of increase in the rate of change! It means new products, new regulations, new market configurations, new customers, and new technology in almost every industry. It’s no wonder that we’re confused and uncertain about what to do.
And the growth of that knowledge continues at an expanding rate. One futurist predicts that today’s high school students will have to absorb more information in their senior year alone than their grandparents did in their entire lifetime. That incredibly rapid pace of new knowledge is driving the forces of change at an unprecedented rate. That rate of change is continuing to accelerate. The effect of that snowballing rate of change on our businesses and our jobs can be cataclysmic. It’s almost as if a malevolent spirit were stalking our economy, rendering all the wisdom of the past useless, and casting a spell of confusion and uncertainty over the land.
The indications are that this rapid state of change will not be a temporary phenomenon we all must live through. Rather, it will be the permanent condition we must accept for the foreseeable future. Rapid change is not a phase we’re passing through; it’s a phenomenon that characterizes our times.
Rapid change is not a phase we’re passing through; it is a phenomenon that characterizes our times.
That means it is likely that the conclusions, paradigms, and core beliefs upon which we based our decisions just two or three years ago are likely to be obsolete today. Even more sobering, the conclusions and strategies which we develop today will be obsolete in a couple of years. We can count on this continuing obsolescence of our best ideas and strategies to be the constant state of affairs.
One of my clients recently told his employees, “The only thing you can count on is that you won’t be doing this job in three years.” His point was that the job will change in that period of time to such a degree that it’ll be a different job. The technology used will likely change, as will the customers, the systems, and the focus of the job. The insightful person will accept that rapid change is now a defining characteristic of our economy and plan to deal with it effectively on an ongoing basis. Our ability to change ourselves and our organizations at least as rapidly as the world is changing around us will be the single greatest challenge of our professional careers.
Our ability to change ourselves and our organizations at least as rapidly as the world is changing around us will be the single greatest challenge of our professional careers.
Instead of thinking we should just persevere until it’s behind us, we should prepare for rapid change to be a way of life. What’s the best way to go forward in the light of this rapid change? What mindsets can we adopt that will equip us to survive and prosper in turbulent times? What disciplines do we need to develop to enable us to cope? What skills do we need to survive and prosper in the information age?
I believe there is one core skill that will define the most successful individuals and organizations. It’s the ability and propensity to engage in purposeful, self-directed learning. The only sustainable effective response to a rapidly changing world is cultivating the ability to positively transform ourselves and our organizations. That’s the function of purposeful, self-directed learning.
The only sustainable effective response to a rapidly changing world is cultivating the ability to positively transform ourselves and our organizations.
In the face of a world that is different from one week to the next, our most powerful positive response is to cultivate the ability to learn. By “learning,” I don’t mean just the acquisition of new information, although that is a prerequisite. Rather, I mean the kind of “learning” that requires one to change behavior on the basis of an ever-changing understanding of the world. Learning without behavior change is impotent.
The individuals who become disciplined, systematic, and purposeful self-directed learners will be the success stories of the new economy. Likewise, those organizations which become learning organizations will have the best chance of surviving and prospering.
Read what others have said about it:
“…the key thing as we go forward is the ability to learn. You can not arrest the pace of development in the marketplace, in the world, socially and technologically. It is coming at an increasing rate. You’ve got to be able to learn and adapt…” Beale.
Because of the forces surging through our economy, it’s safe to say that tomorrow will be significantly different from today. It will be more complex and somehow significantly changed. That will be true of all the tomorrows in the foreseeable future.
The most skilled entrepreneurs, executives, and employees, therefore, will be the ones who can continually access the changing facts and growing complexity of their jobs, and then change appropriately.
“We understand that the only competitive advantage the company of the future will have is its managers’ ability to learn faster than their competitors.” Arie P. DeGeus
In a world that is rapidly changing, today’s hot new product is tomorrow’s obsolete dinosaur. More important than any one product is the ability to continually create new products. Today’s strongest employee could very well be tomorrow’s employment problem. More important than any one employee is the ability to find and maintain employees who are constantly growing. Today’s closest customers could be out of business tomorrow. More important than any one customer is the ability to attract and retain customers.
All of these are applications of the ultimate competitive advantage — the ability to learn faster than your competitors.
“In fact, I would argue that the rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage.” Ray Stata