Learning at the Speed of Change

“When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Learning to change and to keep up with change has perhaps never been more vital. But right now, organizational learning is dominated by a training mindset that is slowing us down just when we need to speed up.
In this time of profound global disruption, one of the things we are all hearing about is the accelerating pace of change. The global organizational change industry has always been in the business of ramping up and exaggerating the rhetoric around the pace of change. But it now seems to be true – and not just in reference to the COVID-19 crisis. So, what has changed about change? Simple: the exponential change in digital technology.
We’ve also heard this before, many times. When I speak to my colleagues about the law of accelerating returns (the idea that as technology improves, we create better tools to improve technology, thereby creating exponential curves), they shrug. They remind me that we still can’t get a reliable Internet connection on a train and that so-called digital assistants can’t even perform basic functions well or consistently. This is all true, but technology is getting better, which means that it is getting better faster. This is especially true of artificial intelligence/machine learning.

The Change Paradox
This presents us with a paradox: The pace of change in organizational life is increasing because of the exponential development of digital technology, yet at the same time our response to that change can be significantly improved if we utilize digital technology.
However, colleagues from across the world tell us that they are falling behind in the race to keep up with the challenges of change. The accompanying graph demonstrates this.
The problem is that as time goes by, we fall further and further behind, and the challenge becomes even more difficult and fatigue and fatalism can set in.
So, what can be done?

From Training to Learning
First, it is vital that we face reality. There is a lot to do and one of the reasons why we are not responding successfully to the pace of change is that, collectively, we are reluctant to shift our mindsets (confirmation bias, amongst several other biases, can be partly to blame for this). We all need to rethink our mental maps about how organizations now need to work.
One of the biggest mindset shifts we need to make is to update our understanding of the role of training in organizations. Because organizations can’t change unless their people learn: no learning no change. When we ask colleagues how they are trying to respond to the challenges of high-change commercial environments, they talk about recruitment, adaptability, talent, teams and training.
Perceived through a training mindset, human beings in organizations become units of labor doing jobs that can be clearly defined by processes, actions and outputs – all very 20th century. But responding to the increasing pace of change is a learning challenge, not a training challenge, and it is a mistake to try and apply a training solution to a learning problem. No learning no change, or, lots of training but no change.

The Future Is Human
Another paradox of the rise of digital technology is that it has increased the need to make our organizations more human. In the future, technology will take over functional jobs (starting with those that can be reduced to a flowchart) and it will do them far more efficiently. What’s left is all the human stuff: purpose, community, empathy, relationships, trust and more.
To learn at the speed of change, we need to stop treating people as robots and start treating them as human beings. For it is the people, not the new digital robots, that will define the purpose of an organization, that will create new products and services for other human beings, and that will foster the powerful sense of community that enables humans to perform at their best.
One of the most vital leadership challenges in this digital age is for leaders to utilize technology to make their organizations more human. This challenge must be met if organizations are going to successfully serve other humans, create value for society, and solve human problems.
In the end, all organizations are simply groups of human beings in service to other groups of human beings. Digital technology doesn’t change any of that, it just provides us with some new, game-changing tools.

No Learning, No Change
Our current training mindset makes humanizing our organizations more difficult because it instrumentalizes learning. This dominant worldview believes that learning happens in schools and training happens in organizations. It believes that training must be efficient, it must be focused on productivity improvements, it must be short and snappy (microlearning anyone?), it must be cheap (just watch the video, ok?) and it must help people do their job properly.
Of course, there is still a need for training in organizations: training in company procedures, health and safety, software, office equipment and processes, etc. But getting these things right is just table stakes.
Of course, employees should be compliant, skilled and proficient at using tools that they need to get their work done, but this is not where the competitive edge is. It isn’t where the expertise to adapt quickly to emerging business models, digital disruption and fast-moving competitors is going to come from. This expertise and competitive edge is going to come from human beings, working alongside technology, learning the human stuff: leadership, people management, coaching, collaboration, leading teams, complex problem solving, creativity, innovation, communication, empathy and social intelligence.
For example, you can’t adopt a training mindset and train someone to be a leader; it doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter how many books they read, how many experts they listen to, how many PowerPoint presentations they sit through, how many tests they take, or how well they remember what they have been told about leadership – they still won’t be a better leader. And the quality and effectiveness of leadership has never been more important to helping organizations learn at the speed of change. Our organizational leaders need to be able to lead learning. No learning, no change; no learning leadership, no change.

Updating Understanding
The problem with learning is that it’s messier than we would like it to be; it’s less clear-cut than training. It’s tough to build an input/output ROI that makes the business case for investment in learning (there we go, treating human beings like machines again). Good learning is tough to design and tough to deliver – how many truly great teachers, coaches, facilitators, mentors and learning leaders have you met recently? Furthermore, it is often perceived as expensive, which is where technology can help, but only if we use it properly.
Unfortunately, many learning technologies have been designed with a training mindset. This means that we end up using computers and phones solely as video players or text readers when they can and should be doing much more to enable learning.
Updating our understanding of how we can use technology to help human beings to learn is our best hope at being able to speed up the ability of organizations to change and close the gap with technology. We need to design learning technology that propels our people into deliberately designed learning experiences, helping them learn with and through their relationships with others.

Grahame Broadbelt is head of global communication and R&D at Impact. Email Grahame at grahame.broadbelt@impactinternational.com.

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