Much has been said about the future of work, but it’s rarely tied to the future of learning. It should be.
This doesn’t necessarily mean blending higher education with business, or having employers compensate for what higher education doesn’t provide in terms of career preparedness. But there is a growing need for the workplace to become a place for learning in its own right, where asking questions and sharing knowledge is as much a part of the job description as clocking in.
The new knowledge economy — in which most employees moved to knowledge production from information consumption — has changed the way people learn and work, and the gap is closing between these. Employees learn whenever they Google, tweet and share in social networks, and they produce knowledge all over various digital threads, walls and streams. Yet the behaviors encouraging people to acquire knowledge often stop at the training room door, where the traditional hierarchy of trainer-knows-best prevails.
Why? Because knowledge production has historically been viewed as a hobby — a pastime, even a distraction — and not a facet of work. That’s a mistake. Employees no longer work in a world where “boss knows best.” The world is changing too fast, and the only way to keep up is to enable a culture of learning in the workplace. Companies need to think of learning as a core function on par with traditional functional units such as finance, operations and marketing.
The top-down structure of authority in the workplace is changing to reflect society’s new low-cost access to information. Virtually anyone can access information via smartphone or the Internet, meaning the corporate structure — built and dependent on executives and managers wielding ownership of information and knowledge — is now filled with employee “leaders” and teachers or mentors at every level.
Enter holacracy, a new model of corporate structure that claims to be “a complete system for self-organization.” The holacratic modelis better than experimental “flat management” models because it offers employees authority, autonomy and ownership without removing accountability or structure. In holacracy, the “authority is truly distributed and decisions are made locally by the individual closest to the front line.” Companies like Medium Yammer and Zappos are all workingwith the holacratic model.
Holacracy itself is simply a response to a widespread shift in the knowledge economy that every institution, corporation, startup or nonprofit organization is dealing with one way or another — employees are learners, investigators, questioners and decision-makers. They exhibit these things as consumers outside of work, they wanted to be these things at school, and they need to be these things at work.
Why? According to a recent studyby Instructure Inc., the learning technology company, “only 5.7 percent of former students now in the workforce believe college ‘fully prepared’ them for their career” [Editor’s note: The author works for Instructure]. For employers, this means the youngest employees show up believing they’re not prepared for work.
On the other hand, new, young workers are prepared for learning, which might require a new culture of learning to address continuous change and increasing uncertainty in the global marketplace and at work. That kind of learning — the kind that caters to individuals who are adaptable and think on their feet — will, out of necessity, occur in the workplace.
Managers are learning that vocational and skills training is not enough. It’s not enough to ask employees to take a class or a seminar, or view a tired PowerPoint so they can be better when answering the phones, closing deals or filling out forms. Corporate learning should be individualized to tap into employees’ raw potential and intellectual and creative power and into their abilities as knowledge-producers, leaders and learners.
Traditional human resources management isn’t going to fill the bill in this new paradigm. Instead, the most competitive businesses will need leaders, managers, HR teams and, most importantly, employees themselves to act as guides, mentors and teachers. The companies that will succeed in the new knowledge economy and reorient themselves as learning institutions — as well as product-makers and revenue generators — will:
- Create a working environment where managers become professionals in a collaborative community.
- Design work to involve acquisition and sharing of knowledge and information by offering employees time to do research in their fields and work.
- Provide employees opportunities to actively collaborate and learn from each other.
- Ensure the work is worth doing by emphasizing the interdependent quality of all tasks.
- Encourage employees to think about their workplace as a learning environment and, more importantly, act like it is.
Companies must become a seamless part of the learning ecosystem, one built on the same promise of schools: creating individuals who are capable of free thought, inspiring action, intelligent collaboration and creative leadership. Instead of creating lock-step working machines — a role machines now fill — we must instead look at how humans can inform organizational culture.
Daniel Pink writes in “Linchpin”: “You weren’t born to be a cog in the giant industrial machine. You were trained to become a cog.” Corporations have the opportunity to develop linchpins, not cogs, and doing so will make all the difference as the competitive pendulum continues to tilt in favor of companies that are better at teaching and learning than their competitors.