We’re living in incredibly turbulent times. In spite of newspaper headlines proclaiming growing employment and a slowly growing economy, many business people admit to a pervasive feeling of uncertainty and confusion about their businesses.
The wellspring of this uncertainty lies in one of the characteristics of the newly arrived information age. Business people are being buffeted by an increasingly rapid rate of change. Consider this. In 1900, the total amount of knowledge available to mankind was doubling about every 500 years. In the year 2000, it was doubling about every two years. Today, according to some, the rate of change is doubling every 30 days!
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 temporary phenomena 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 process in which we’re engaged.
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. 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 skills do we need to survive and prosper in the information age?
I believe there is one core skill which will define the most successful individuals. It’s the ability and propensity to engage in 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 definition of self-directed learning.
In the face of a world that is different 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 necessary 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 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 employees, therefore, will be the ones who can continually access the changing facts and growing complexity of their jobs, and then change appropriately.
That’s “self-directed learning.”
“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
As the economy becomes more and more global, competition will increase. Few businesses will enjoy a secure market position. The quality of competition will also improve as competitors strive to out-do one another in providing customer service and value-added products and services. In this new economy, those who survive and prosper will be those who know how to learn, and who do so faster and more systematically than their competitors.
Those organizations which become learning organizations will be those who fill themselves with people who regularly engage in self-directed learning. How, then, do you instill this “self-directed learning” in your organization? Here are three tactics to begin the process.
- Wipe the Slate Clean.
Imagine that you have written the history of your company or your career on a blackboard. You have every decision, every strategy, every success and every failure noted in detail. The sum of this experience provides the rationale for why and how you do everything that you now do.Now, take a wet towel, and wipe the board clean. Erase the past. As you do so, you eliminate the unspoken acceptance of the way things are and replace it with the new understanding that things may not be the way they should be. Just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be. The reason you started doing something may no longer exist. Remember, with a world turning over more or less completely every two to three years, any decision or procedure which had its roots in a situation which is three or more years old may not be justified today.
This little exercise provides a mental image for a change in thinking that needs to take place if you’re going to become a learning organization. You must begin to think about things that you do, not on the basis of the past (three or more years ago), but rather on the basis of the present and the future.
It’s a way of eliminating one of the biggest barriers to learning and changing. That barrier is the mental obstacles that we put in our own way. Here’s an example. One of my clients was frustrated with his continuing inability to motivate his sales force. He spent much of his mental energy and financial resources attempting to get his force of largely independent agents to spend more time with his product. Yet he never thought about going to market in ways other than through his traditional methods. When we broke down that barrier of relying on the past and wiped the slate clean, we discovered a marketing method which holds tremendous potential for his business. However, it took a change in thinking, a thought process that wasn’t tied to his past to look at the situation on the basis of the present and the future rather than the past.
That principle can be applied in every area of your business, from something so fundamental and important as your method of reaching your customers, to something as mundane as the way you answer the phone or fill out a receiving document.
- Give Learning a Strategic Emphasis.
Build in the need to become a learning organization in the most fundamental building blocks of your business.
Write it into your mission statement. Get the board to pass a resolution advocating it. Display your commitment to it predominantly in your personnel manual.
Talk about it at your employee meetings. Make it an agenda item for your executive meetings. Articulate it as an initiative in your strategic planning sessions.
And, begin to model learning behavior yourself.
- Make self-directed learning a part of everyone’s job description.
Begin to create learning expectations for yourself and all your employees. Talk about their need to learn and grow. Include it as an item on every job description.
Then encourage, develop and support learning opportunities throughout your organization. Here’s what some things other organizations have done:
- Require every employee to attend a certain number of outside seminars, internet-based courses or other learning events per year.
- Reward the effective application of learning. In other words, when someone finds an effective way to change things, reward them. One of my clients holds a monthly employee meeting, where the employee who has made the biggest positive change in the way things are done is rewarded with $150.00 cash bonus.
Begin to implement these strategies, and you’ll take the first steps to transforming your organization into a learning organization. You’ll begin the process of mastering the ultimate skill for the new economy.