Corporate training is outdated. Uncertainty and change in today’s business environment mean that the model employed by many learning organizations to push out pre-built training is increasingly obsolete.
“Training programs are less and less relevant,” said author and consultant John Hagel. “It’s anticipating in advance what people are going to need when they’re going to need it. It tends to focus on knowledge that is already explicit and codified.”
Hagel is the co-author, along with John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion. The book describes the ongoing shift in power from institutions to individuals through what the authors call “pull,” a mechanism that allows people to find and access relevant resources at the point of need. Hagel said the dominant model for institutions today is one that pushes, rather than pulls.
“Virtually everyone operates on the model that says that your first challenge is to forecast or predict demand and then to organize to make sure all the right people and right resources are in the right place to meet demand,” he said.
That model requires a tightly integrated and executed system, increasingly difficult to maintain in a rapidly changing environment.
“For a variety of reasons having to do with long-term trends playing out in the world, the ability to predict and forecast is more and more challenged and there’s a need … to think about pull platforms, which allow you to draw out the right people and right resources wherever they’re needed, whenever they’re needed,” he said.
In a pull platform, talent development emphasizes on-the-job learning and informal structures rather than a formal training program. Pull learning gives people the ability to confront challenges and draw out the resources needed to develop solutions.
“The learning is actually a byproduct of facing unexpected challenges and ever-increasing performance requirements,” Hagel said. “If you really took that seriously, you would end up rethinking all aspects of the company from operations, how you design the organization, even what kind of business strategy you would pursue, and certainly what kind of technology platforms you would use to support them in their work environments.”
In addition to developing learning platforms that enable flexible learning, moving to a pull mindset requires redefining leadership. In a push world, leadership means developing a program and enlisting others to follow it.
“In a world of pull, it’s about helping people to develop the capabilities to become leaders in their own context so when they’re confronting an unexpected challenge they have the initiative and the questing disposition that will make them want to embrace that challenge and find creative ways of overcoming it and addressing it, and in the process learning from that experience,” Hagel said.
Hagel said two factors are largely responsible for the evolution of pull: digital technology and economic liberalization. The continued flourishing of technology shows no sign of slowing, driving more capability and uncertainty in the process. More liberal economic regimes increase the ability to move products, capital, ideas and people across geographic and industrial boundaries, thereby removing barriers to competition.
“Everything accelerates in terms of the change rate,” he said. “The uncertainty increases because new participants come in from out of nowhere and build scale very quickly, so it becomes a more challenging environment in terms of mounting competitive intensity, but also changing the basis of competition.”
For proof of the shift from push to pull, Hagel points to the long-term decline of return on assets for public companies in the U.S. Since 1965, return has gone down 75 percent and shows no sign of stabilizing, let alone turning around.
“That’s a huge red flag saying that the old world of push is more and more challenged,” he said. “We continue to hold on to the practices and institutions of push, but it’s yielding diminishing performance.”
Cultivating a proprietary knowledge stock is bound for failure. Instead, organizations should focus on creating effective knowledge flows that allow people to learn faster and replenish knowledge stocks at an accelerating rate.
“Anything we know at any point in time becomes more and more rapidly obsolete given the changing circumstances and conditions,” he said. “If all you do is hold on to what you already know and try to defend that and extract value from it, that’s a losing proposition. In this kind of world, it’s essential to really find ways to participate in a more diverse and expanding array of knowledge flows.”
External relationships may hold the key. Hagel said some of the most profound learning opportunities are not actually within the company, but at the edges — through partners, distribution channels and suppliers.
“It’s not just about talent within your own organization. It’s how do you connect relevant talent wherever it is and build the relationships where you’re going to learn faster together,” he said.
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