The Learning Economy’s culture of contribution will change your organisation’s form and behaviour forever

Put simply, all businesses will have to change the ways in which they learn if they are to survive transition into the new, wholly digital Learning Economy.

The change this “third industrial revolution” portends will overturn everything about the ways in which we live, and, at a minimum, work, study and do business. It will also change how, and in what and in whom, we invest.

The many companies not already getting busy urgently on the learning they require now will also find this transition massively disruptive. Things changing digitally also do so extremely fast and in wholly unexpected ways, as we’ve already seen in Facebook, Google, Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, and so on.

In an economy in which none of us has ever traded, its new pressures will also of necessity change organisational form, the ways in which companies use their pervasive social internet literacy to collaborate to get the most out of every available mind, and thus, who they employ.

Connected, organised minds focused on a specific learning challenge and armed with pervasive social internet literacy and appropriate workplace technologies symbolise potentially the greatest resource ever to present itself to a business.

By “learning,” here, we don’t mean training, which principally concerns getting better at things a business already knows how to do. Organisational learning is instead here about getting to grips with a future that no one knows, to which all must adapt, and that every business and institution needs to figure out.

Few businesses will survive if they can not engage and sensitise every intellect they contain across their workforce to heighten awareness of the changes possibly surrounding them in their markets. Learning organisations must of necessity be in a constant state of vigilance and “becoming.”

The workplace technologies to accelerate the process of human learning within them, and to pre-empt the change, are already here and and available via most workplace desktops. The great challenge is that not many businesses, perhaps for such reasons, have developed either yet an appetite or a recipe for organising their knowledge and using them well for this purpose.

As people-management’s industrial era disappears, what comes next?

Our understanding of the contemporary workplace is entirely framed by what we have learnt in the now fast-receding industrial age.

In it, businesses didn’t need to learn on anything like the scale or with anything like the urgency they now must.

The third, digital “industrial revolution” now upon us changes much that has become familiar about the people-management discipline.

The emerging economy demands that we reframe managerial imperatives if we are to become better informed and reflective managers in contemporary workplaces.

In this economy, often change is our only certainty, and, more challengingly, with, just as likely, discontinuity as its common and constant thread.

We now enter a period of deep institutional innovation in which many mainstream theoretical traditions of classical management, and its behavioural perspectives, may be proven, if not entirely redundant, then certainly less useful as a guide for what is coming.

This is a time for new learning across the board, in which the theory and practice of management and organisations will evolve out of shape across the workplace and the culture of work.

Agility is everything

To compete in the Learning Economy, businesses must move fast, and become constantly alert, agile, and able to drive, and respond at speed to, the diverse and shifting nature of customer demand, if they are ever to be able to anticipate and capitalise on its value.

These companies’ structures, work processes, cultures and thinking processes must now consistently meet preconditions of foresight, initiative, responsiveness, flexibility and innovation.

Agile organisations are focused on value creation by being able to understand as never before, satisfy, enrich, retain and grow the business of individual customers.

Yet, without effort applied to deliberate, focused and objective-driven learning across the enterprise, adapting to this new world is forever less likely to become a business’s native capacity.

And those investing in companies that are absent of these qualities – and maybe even those working within them – will surely lose their shirts.

A future driven by alliances

As the workplace becomes increasingly virtual and remote, the future may ever more frequently be driven not by single-entity operators, but by alliances and partnerships.

For those with the required technological abilities and imagination, one obvious response to pervasive digital change is to create value by initiating alliance-driven, virtual “white-label” businesses and sites.

The “brands” fronting them may often be built on effective, unseen, back of house value-chain coordination and resource deployment.

This model is something exemplified, at least in part, and to crushing effect, by Amazon.

By potentially dramatically reducing the cost of running and scaling up the web operations for any third party, its Amazon Web Services (AWS) underpins, among hundreds of thousands of other sites, those of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Netflix, the BBC and Adobe.

In February 2018, CNBC reported that revenue at Amazon Web Services jumped 43 per cent in 2017 to $US17.5 billion ($24.6 billion), representing about one-tenth of Amazon’s total revenue. The only publicly-traded business software companies ahead of AWS are Google, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and SAP.

Survival will be driven by sensitivity and responsiveness to change

In order to manage people in organisations effectively, we need to understand more about the context in which those businesses operate.

As appropriate to circumstance, an organisation’s strategic responses will affect its choice of people-management strategies, and how it plans recruitment and staffing to secure the best available personnel for new or vacant positions or work roles.

The fast-shifting external environment places wholly new pressures on organisations and the sense they must make of it, and will influence massively the types of decisions that are made in regard to managing people in them.

The future may be data-driven, but it is in the connections between sensors and synapses that many of the most important changes will emerge.

Against the need to speed the cycle of execution and review, all businesses must be able to develop systems that are reflexive and aware and through which they are constantly learning because of their capture of sophisticated, data-driven customer journey-mapping and profiling.

This requirement for learning through constant, 360-degree market sensitivity comes regardless of which value chain they are a constituent, or in which part of that chain they operate.

The future may be data-driven, but it is in the connections between sensors and synapses that many of the most important changes will emerge.

It will often also be complicated further by the need to execute through the necessarily project-driven work-team forms of those inter-organisational alliances.

Organisational agility may become the differentiating driving factor in delivering successful strategy, and its attainment defined strictly also by those companies’ teams’ abilities to learn at a concomitant pace.

In a significant role for workplace learning, businesses must find ways to sensitise their people to what is changing around them, and they must cede leadership wherever it appears naturally, not to where it is imposed.

This is certainly something which the collective mind can organise, learn and make sense from far faster than that of any individual.

Shifts in workplace influence and power

Much of what managers formerly did in hierarchical structures will be replaced by a more empowered, networked workforce, making the work they do and how this will now be performed new issues of focus for leaders.

The focus on leadership may be both a very old and a very new concern, but the role of leaders and from what they derive their power is evolving in highly unfamiliar ways.

All businesses sensitive to knowledge for their growth must examine power relationships and emerging fluidity of sources of power within them.

For learning, the roles of individuals in organisations will demand new understanding

Individual behaviour and motivation and how they affect responses to work are increasingly likely to be driven by the influence of personal contribution to the knowledge available and in use.

The impact positive contributors will have on the workplace, and on others around them will be profound, and not necessarily popular.

The following couple of paragraphs paraphrase both Heiman and Timms, authors of the recent New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World – and How to Make It Work for You (2018), and to some degree before them, Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison’s The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things In Motion (2010).

These writing teams, respectively, assert that old workplace power works like a currency. It is held by few, and once gained, it is jealously guarded and extremely reluctantly shared or surrendered.

Those formerly powerful in workplaces had a substantial store of it to spend. In professional circles, it was commonly driven by combinations of knowledge, perceived experience, educational attainment and longevity.

That power became closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven.

New workplace power, however, operates differently, like a current. It is based on contribution and fresh insight.

As US management academic Gary Hamel says, in The Future of Management (2007), contribution counts for more than credentials.
“When you post a video to YouTube,” Hamel writes, “no one asks you if you went to film school. When you write a blog, no one cares whether or not you have a journalism degree. Position, title, and academic degrees—none of the usual status differentiators carry much weight online. On the Web, what counts is not your resume, but what you can contribute.”

Hagel et al, meanwhile, characterise the old power as “stocks,” built as knowledge unwillingly shared, and the new power as “flows,” in which access and appropriate usage, not ownership, is most important emerging factor of influence.

The new currency, mobilised by the nature of the web, is driven by flows, is open and made by many. It is participatory and peer-driven, uploaded and distributed.

The imperative with new power, most forceful when it surges, is to channel it to where it is needed.

Once understood, from this base, we can then start to recognise, interpret and evaluate the motivations and behaviours of others in the workplace in the degree, enthusiasm, perspective and insight through which they will share or not.

The emerging nature of workplace conflict

With conflict now understood as being inevitable in any workplace, the major challenge for its managers now becomes that of differentiating between that which is functional, and possibly creative, from that which is dysfunctional and solely destructive.

Where work now happens is not necessarily a place

Since the relatively recent office design innovation of activity based working, based on the cost-cutting precedent of hot-desking, work is no longer conducted by line of site in offices reflecting the organisation chart, with the manager’s office occupying prime position as its focus.

As knowledge productivity will likely come to feature ever more prominently as a concern in office environments, better, more scientific processes will emerge for evolving their design further in alignment with the knowledge and needs of their occupiers’ workgroups and teams.

As the workplace becomes increasingly virtual and remote, workplace configuration itself must necessarily centre on the evolving design of the work the organisation must execute, but also the knowledge it must articulate, capture and share, and the tools it uses to continue to do so.

Because organisations operating in multinational dimensions face the additional challenge of managing people in cultural environments that are different to the home culture of the firm, this naturally presents a new dynamic for organisational learning.

When this happens, workers in overseas locations may suddenly find that their home-based beliefs and assumptions underpinning how best to manage people, are viewed differently by those in other cultures.

This is, then, another important learning opportunity.

In the Learning Economy, culture is one of constant change

The Learning Economy will change our understanding of the ways in which people come together to shape the dynamics of a business and the ways in which organisational culture is formed as a result.

Accompanying the conventional historical view of organisational culture as something that an organisation “has” may be another in which organisations actually may be seen as a mix of numerous localised subcultures that develop organically over time, and which, hence, may in turn be much more difficult to change.

In the fluid, dynamic universe of the Learning Economy, however, these may be superseded by a view of team-based culture being something that can be engineered and changed.

Certainly, if businesses and human resources practitioners are to learn strategically, the stages of team development, and the roles and rewards open to individuals in high performance teams, will come under new forms of scrutiny.

Diversity as normal and valuable

As established in Silicon Valley as the standout geographical cultural workplace exemplar of this age, diversity of perspective and therefore its potential for shaping learning is now held to be a strength in its forward-looking companies.

In a successful multicultural community, such as that of Australia, when project-driven teams may in any case be geographically dispersed and remote, diversity within them may just be accepted as a given.

The way “diversity” is defined and used by scholars and managers, and the changing approaches, assumptions and stereotypes that affect social relations in organisations, will adapt accordingly to address and build for individual and group differences and needs.

Training and development, too, must evolve

With the increasingly knowledge-intensive nature of production, training and development of key staff retained by the business in a learning economy will become an increasingly important ingredient in any future organisation’s competitiveness.

The ways in which many pre-Learning Economy enterprises managed the training process has often failed to elicit the potential contribution this crucial set of HRM functions can make, both to the organisation’s competitiveness and to employee satisfaction and employability.

Yet, in this new and faster-moving environment, these ingredients will constantly be subject to new design and forms of scrutiny and review, feeding inevitably into new systems informing motivation and reward.

The employment contract is also like no other business exchange, in that the employer offers the support of livelihood in exchange for the employee’s undertaking to work productively.

But, employee productivity, as all managers have previously known, depends on more than compliance with directives, and can not be induced simply by controls.

While a continuing psychological contract of involvement or commitment may continue to be required, and what motivates certain employees to remain to some degree unknown, the top performers in a learning economy business will leave little doubt as to their disproportionate contribution, or what they expect as reward.

The central riddle for managers will be how to attract and reward others of their like, while continuing to shape productive teams around the natural, meritocratic leadership of these new and influential members.

A wrap: If your business is people, your work is just beginning

In short, if you are a “people professional,” your workplace influence may be growing, but so are the outer dimensions of your role and what you will be expected to know and to be able to learn. Whatever your personal ambitions, in the Learning Economy, it is almost certain you will be challenged as never before.