About the Learning Economy

If you could understand how routinely to refresh and optimise the mix of minds and intelligence at work in your organisation, and to direct what they focus on in pursuit of superior customer experience (CX), how would that change the future for your business?

Depending on what you read, we are now on the lip of either the third* or fourth, industrial revolution.

Yet, whichever is true, this is a new and fully networked, digital age in which knowledge, its fast transmission and sharing is the dominant characteristic of its work.

Even the shock of coronavirus aside, this is also a world in which no company yet has ever traded, and, essentially, businesses that don’t find purposeful methods of learning in driving their transformations to adapt to its new, digital ways of competing will fail.

Indeed, any serious business faces peril if it fails to pay attention to capturing and developing in full the potential of the intelligence, understanding, insight and experience it contains to prepare, evolve and transform it to compete in the CX, knowledge and data-driven digital age.

The mechanism to address many of the unfolding era’s organisational and knowledge challenges is now already with us, obvious, and staring us in the face.

The critical learning and knowledge resource is now present at every desktop

Post-Facebook, across every business now exists pervasive “internet social literacy,” the most powerful and most unanticipated naturally occurring management tool ever discovered.

Previously, it used to be hard, if not impossible, to capture and transform into usable information the knowledge and insights of those across an organisation.

Yet, as our use of and familiarity with using the social internet grows, we have reached an age of unprecedented opportunity in making the best use of intelligence across the web-age business.

In the wake of Facebook, everybody now knows how to use social media to write online, upload and share material and to make comments about those items uploaded by others.

And when such communications are in writing and captured by the mirroring, private, Facebook-like technologies now available within every business, workplace knowledge, insight and learning that was once out of reach is no longer beyond our grasp.

Through it, management can now tap into diverse perspectives and intelligence that was previously both unknown and unreachable.

Through the precise data it can drill down on, it also has access to a bottomless, renewable resource – an inexhaustible source for possible business and CX-improving investigation – whose creativity may be limited only by its imagination in what it asks for.

That knowledge and insight can now be applied to identifying and finding new ideas to address the problems and challenges in whichever business or society managers work.

In short, every company needs a plan to get smarter, quicker, relative to its competitors.

And, whatever other choices it makes in its organisational development activities, each business must find a way to organise and make accessible its knowledge as a vehicle for learning and growth.

The better and more usably they bring order to its content, the more quickly they can advance their transformations to the detriment of their rivals, and the more readily each can determine the way it transforms its literacy into fully fledged, organised workplace social internet productivity.

For survivors, the result of this growing pressure will prove defining because it will refocus how each delivers its increasingly critical CX and knowledge-creating employee experience (EX).

The eternal challenge of external change

For any business to compete in this world, the ability to focus its native knowledge better than rivals will continue to be a defining workplace characteristic, especially in the face of its teams’ established forms of collaboration being disrupted by members being forced to work off-site and remotely from home.

The current dilemma presents two clear and immediate priorities to which every business must attend.

First, as most vividly illustrated by the damage caused by COVID-19 to the under-prepared society external to the organisation, every business must learn to orchestrate its intellects to preserve its own continuity.

No matter how smart they are, against the complexities of adjusting to a pandemic at the same time as addressing the possible new competitive demands of the accelerating digital age, it may simply be beyond the bandwidth of any individual or cohort of executives to identify or contemplate the full range of possible externalities – or ideas and opportunities to do new things – their business can generate.

For survival against current and future threats, each business therefore needs to become increasingly self-aware, mentally agile, adaptable and resilient against the risks and threats of unforeseen and discontinuous external change, such as (coronavirus aside) the emergence of unpredicted competitors or substitutes for what it offers.

Second, in pursuit and retention of new customers, to thrive, each must find ways to learn to offer superior CX that can build market share by engaging the creativity, imagination and learning capacity of its minds in catching off guard those rivals less well prepared for this new competitive reality.

The network multiplies the competitive potential for organisational learning

The most powerful force for business transformation is now that socially internet literate, connected, post-Facebook workplace mind, organised for purpose.

Through its direction, network-driven organisational learning is a force that will change the world, because when their knowledge is not joined up, weaker companies leak competitiveness, reputation, opportunity, knowledge, people, investors and money.

Yet, that now wholly connected intelligence can now be applied to identifying and planning to find new ideas to address the problems and challenges in whichever business or society managers work, and this may be most needed when their teams are forced to work offsite.

This is why this mix of technology and technique is so threatening to those businesses which have no agenda, understanding or strategy for how to use it for this purpose.

Against them, if your company can be first in its market to articulate, exercise and share an effective, understood and steadily developing knowledge transformation strategy – and within it you know exactly which levers to pull repeatedly to make your business smarter by getting and being able to grow the knowledge you need when you need it – you will find yourself a long way ahead of rivals that haven’t yet even attempted to figure this out.

In this context, organisational learning also bears little relation to training, which typically focuses on building accepted skills of known, identifiable individuals in familiar, understood roles, with a recognised application that can be validated through experience.

By contrast, true learning for the emerging, wholly digital economy is an undertaking altogether more existentially exacting and unrelenting as it requires an entity constantly to identify and imagine what it must become and do next to survive in a context in which no company or its managers yet has any experience.

And, as much as the future may be built on increased workplace automation, in the immediately foreseeable future, work is still likely to be driven by smart teams of humans collaborating with other humans to design work for machines.

For investors, the coming era demands better organisational intellectual hygiene

The Learning Economy may sound like a benign and productive, progressive place of great promise for all those that participate in it, but little could be further from that illusion.

Instead, as we make the transition into a new and wholly unfamiliar digitised global economy, the constant, discontinuous and disruptive potentials it augurs will have no patience for businesses geared best to compete using only today’s workplace practices, rather than those of tomorrow.

Put simply, to compete globally, Australia’s companies must adapt, at minimum, in step with, and ideally, ahead of, the trend towards broad-based, networked, distributed, intellectually planned collaborative working.

Facing the new economy, and the far smarter, better-adjusted competitors that will be its natives, whether or not to participate in it by undergoing learning-propelled digital transformation isn’t something about which there is a choice for any business wanting a future.

For investors, knowing what a company’s minds are capable of in its preparation for this “third industrial revolution” is simple organisational intellectual hygiene.

Those with a stake should now be reading especially carefully for learning-propelled undertakings and preparations most of today’s ASX incumbents’ annual reports don’t even mention.

In most businesses’ work patterns, the notion of collaborative organisational learning may also not yet even be familiar. This suggests the need for a new mindset and a new pattern for seeking out, organising and building existing workplace knowledge.

What is the organisational mindset needed for the Learning Economy?

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, refers to people who view talent as a quality they either possess or lack as having a “fixed mindset.” People with a “growth mindset,” in contrast, she writes, enjoy challenges, strive to learn, and consistently see potential to develop new skills.

Dweck’s research suggests that when it comes to being successful, some companies appear also to believe their people have a certain finite amount of talent, and that they really can’t do much to change it, indicating they have a predominantly fixed mindset.

The opposite, found in companies that believe their talent can rise to the new challenges of competing in a world of complete and learning-driven digitisation, suggests those businesses possess a growth mindset.

Whatever its nature, the prevailing organisational mindset will influence workers’ satisfaction and their perceptions of their organisation’s culture. Further, the nature of that mindset is likely to determine the organisation’s levels and quality of collaboration, innovation, and ethical behavior, and how it affects supervisors’ views of employees.

Dweck says, “In broad strokes, we learned that in each company, there was a real consensus about the mindset [and] a whole constellation of characteristics went with each mindset.”

Employees at companies with a fixed mindset, she found, often said that just a small handful of “star” workers were highly valued. They worried about failing and so pursued fewer innovative projects, and in them employees were less committed than employees at growth-mindset companies. Fixed-mindset businesses regularly kept secrets, cut corners, and cheated to try to get ahead.

However, when the growth-mindset organisation’s practices become common currency as the driver of desirable learning-driven agility, responsiveness and intellectual workplace change, proven, effective broad-based collaboration of the kind now needed for survival that propels repeated learning and discovery will change forever the competitive dynamic of the digitising marketplace.

It will also transform the competencies of the companies competing in it into which shareholders plough their investments.  

As businesses simply can’t survive in this emerging environment without engaging and transforming all of the intelligence to which they have access, their capacity to learn as teams will most likely be the only thing that can keep them out of trouble. Or at least, for those willing to try, it will offer their best bet.

Whatever their strategy, better, deliberate and, most likely, collaborative experimentation and organisational learning appears to offer the only possible path to survival in what lies ahead.

Graham Lauren

* Jeremy Rivkin, The Third Industrial Revolution; How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).