Organizations that don’t embrace new ways of operating and radically different approaches to corporate learning will not survive for three reasons:
1. We’re witnessing a dizzying rate of change. Business people are being overwhelmed by the pace of progress and the explosion of knowledge.
2. There are denser and denser interconnections afoot. Everything is getting hooked up to everything else. This increases complexity and makes business unpredictable.
3. Intangibles are becoming the prime source of value. Social capital and know-how have replaced plant and equipment as economic value creators.
Companies that fail to take these things into account are headed for the scrap heap. Don’t believe me? Ask somebody in the newspaper business — The New York Times and USA Today are doing better than their peers — they lost only 80 percent of their value in the past decade. Or look at the music business — remember record stores?
Change rips people out of their comfort zones, and the inertia that often follows is huge. Maintaining control was the bedrock of 20th century thinking — avoiding surprises, keeping things in line, being efficient, reducing exceptions, doing the same thing over and over, planning your work and working your plan — but these are yesterday’s practices. When we put new practices in place, we need to be explicit about what obsolete practices they are replacing so employees can unlearn them.
Today’s prime directive is sharing control among all stakeholders — discern the underlying pattern and take action. Act responsibly. Do what’s right. Follow your heart. I found an artifact from the 20th century on the walkway outside my cottage recently: a time card. It had a single entry: eight hours for the first day of the week. Probably some 21st century guy recognized it for the 20th century relic it was and refused to go along, hence it was discarded.
Time cards were once a mainstay of industrial life. You clocked in; you clocked out. When work was physical, time was a reliable measure of production. The fastest manual laborer was maybe 20 percent faster than the average. It’s different with concept work. The top concept worker creates new business models, wins patents, brings in major clients and cuts the deals that make the enterprise. A manager who monitors who is at her desk early and which cars are last to leave the parking lot must unlearn clock-watching and look at time through a new lens.
A quarter century ago, Stan Davis wrote in Future Perfect that the fundamentals of the universe, and therefore business, are time, space and matter. The derivatives of time, space and matter are the universal variables that impact all business: speed, connectivity and intangibles.
Leaders talk about speed but they don’t take advantage of it. Take revenue. It’s expressed as revenue per quarter. Shouldn’t they flip the fraction upside down and talk about decreasing the time it takes to bring the revenue in? Time-to-completion is the appropriate metric. Value network analysis quantifies the value created through better linkages. Relationships like supply chain are the tip of the iceberg.
Businesses must also focus on increasing the value of relationships with customers and partners. Improving network effectiveness improves business. And as for intangibles, it’s high time to replace 20th century scorecards and surveys that assess capabilities, competencies and intangibles. The narrow focus on what’s easy to count stifles business creativity. What we can’t see has become more important than what we can.
Choosing the right feedback to listen to and responding to it is the key to optimizing speed, connections and intangibles. Honest, rigorous feedback can identify dead wood that has outlived its usefulness. When a practice is not producing results, it’s time to unlearn it.
Once upon a time, feedback from the boss was sufficient: “That’s what I’m paid to do.”
Twenty-first century leaders must shoulder responsibility for delighting customers and making the organization better. In a business world characterized by speed, connections and intangibles, that means paying attention to the right signals. Is that on your corporate learning agenda?
Jay Cross is CEO of Internet Time Group and a thought leader in informal learning and organizational performance. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.
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