Learning in the 21st Century: A Brave New World

Today’s CLOs have to deal with more organizational intricacy and change than ever before. To manage this complexity, they need to come up with the right formula of methods and modalities.

Today’s CLOs have to deal with more organizational intricacy and change than ever before, and this situation isn’t getting simpler anytime soon. To manage this complexity, they need to come up with the right formula of methods and modalities.

Chief learning officers face a variety of new and traditional challenges as they explore ways to hire, train and nurture employees. Compared with CLOs in the past, today’s heads of learning are not only dealing with more organizational complexity, but, more importantly, addressing the demands of rapidly changing business environments, the complexity of skills and capabilities in demand and the globalization of work. In this new, dynamic environment, CLOs must assess and manage a dispersed workforce spread across boundaries, time zones, countries and geographies. And they must manage employees of different demographic groups, all with different needs and expectations and preferred ways of learning.

So how does today’s CLO come up with the right learning approaches and infrastructure — the right “formula” — for dealing with these variables in the 21st century organization? To help answer that question, consider the four major forces sweeping across the business world. Each of these forces are driving change in how we conduct learning.

The first force is the sheer pace of change. But there is a categorical difference in the pace of change in the 21st century compared to where it was in the 20th century. We all know that knowledge is doubling every year. We also know that entire industries have changed their complete business structures within a decade. For instance, IBM has dramatically changed as a business in the first decade of the 21st century. And therefore, learning has to respond by enabling more immediacy in how people learn.

A second critical force is the sheer complexity of the world. Many more complicated elements are involved in connecting various parts of a business’ value chain, and the technologies being created today to accomplish this task are extraordinary. People today need to know more than just one area of specialty; they now must be deep specialists in multiple areas at once.

The third force is globalization. This concept goes beyond a strategy that reorganizes a business structure country by country. A new business model is evolving around the concept of a globally integrated enterprise. What that means is business value delivered in one country will be created by people working in other countries who are part of an integrated supply chain, whether it be services, intellectual capital or technology. In this model, workers are collaborating on a day-to-day basis regardless of distance or time-zone differences. Within this concept, learning also must occur across the geographic boundaries that separate people physically when, in fact, they are working together in an integrated way.

Finally, these forces are driving a need for companies to have a fully integrated approach to how they think about their entire workforce and how they manage an employee population that spans the globe. What should the workforce look like in terms of capabilities? What are the best sources of talent? How do we develop people in an integrated way to fill the roles that are emerging worldwide?

Companies such as IBM will not just be looking at how to improve people’s skills, but also at how to enable a person to have the full set of capabilities for a brand new role in an emerging country, rather than an existing role in a mature country. This type of integrated talent management will be needed in a globally integrated enterprise. These changes are fundamental to how business is conducted and will evolve throughout the 21st century. These forces are driving transformational change in how we need to conduct learning and development in this century.

All companies should be aware of these forces because they present opportunities and challenges for every business. Every company is facing global competitors in its industry. Every part of every business value chain on this scale has players who are trying to figure out how to expand into other markets and how to determine new needs that customers may have in another country. They are preparing to seek growth in changing the way value is delivered, not only in their home country but also in other countries. Therefore, every company is facing some type of global competition. And by the same measure, every company has the opportunity to compete in this global economy.

The Role of Learning Within Globalization
Every company will have a chance to tap into these new approaches to learning now and in the immediate future. We already know, of course, that the amount of online learning content available to companies is growing. But even more importantly, network technologies that permit workers to connect to others already are becoming pervasively available to all companies. The kind of learning IBM envisions is fundamentally focused on colleagues teaching colleagues — working together to solve problems together across geographies, boundaries, time zones and even companies. These technologies exist today, and companies can tap into them.

In the past, employees who wanted to learn beyond their own company had to attend conferences or register for academic courses. Today, employees can join social networks of similar-minded people who organize themselves around subjects they care about. And if a company wants to promote this approach to learning proactively, that company can enable its employees to form networks and connect with each other within the company, as well as link to networks of people across its industries or clients they serve.

Global Technologies
In this global, networked world, several technologies, including search engines, blogs, podcasts, Web 2.0 applications and virtual worlds such as Second Life will be used for learning. Many of these technologies are readily available to companies and their employees right now, regardless of where the company may be in its approach to learning. For example, employees can tap into video or podcasts, join or author blogs and take advantage of the increasingly powerful search engines to broaden their horizons, expand their social networks and learn from others.

At IBM, the level of usage for podcasts is striking: more than 4.5 million downloads. People are obviously intellectually curious about the particular field and client industry in which they work. IBMers are hungry for the most cutting-edge knowledge, and much of that learning content can be easily and rapidly organized into a podcast. Thousands of IBMers worldwide take advantage of podcasts and learn by merely downloading and listening to them while jogging, commuting or flying.

Some of these technologies already are learning friendly, but other approaches are just beginning to reach a point where they are becoming a powerful means for learning. Virtual worlds, for example, offer an opportunity for people to connect in a brand new medium. At IBM, we look to explore the limits of any new approach that may enable people to learn from each other. It’s already clear that virtual worlds offer an opportunity for people to connect in an interesting way. And it is intriguing to see that virtual worlds are used most extensively in IBM in growth markets because there are many IBMers in places such as China or India who are looking to connect with other IBMers outside their home countries.

IBMers in China and India know the clients they serve are competing in a global world, and they know they have opportunities to learn from other IBMers, wherever those people live. So we have enabled new hires in growth markets — such as Brazil, China and the Czech Republic — to participate in an exchange with other IBMers within a virtual landscape, where people meet each other, speak with each other and learn from each other in this online world.

We know virtual worlds have a great deal of potential. I liken this technological platform to television in the early 1950s. We have not seen how we can make the most of it yet. But I am confident that the use of virtual worlds will become more powerful and that other companies will begin to adopt this technology during the next several years.

Some technologies already are working effectively, and people can tap into them. Other technologies are emerging in their maturity and effectiveness. And we can be sure that there will be other new technologies emerging in the future. The key is that all of us should be looking to see how to take advantage of anything that enables people to learn in a collaborative, networked environment.

A New Way of Learning: Networked, Collaborative and Global
The long-standing evidence suggests people learn best and retain information most effectively when they can immediately apply what they’ve learned. We also know that people have the greatest energy in learning when they learn in collaboration with others. This new approach around network-style learning is making employee development more effective, as well as more immediate. Learning is being made instantaneous, which will enable people to keep up with the rapidly changing world.

In some ways, ironically, this learning strategy harkens back to a time when there was a well-practiced approach for apprenticeship-based learning. But that approach to learning was premised on the idea that someone could be standing side by side with a skilled master printer, carpenter or electrician, for example, showing them how the job gets done.

Today, what we’re talking about is people creating new approaches together and learning instantly in a real-time, collaborative way. So we’re leveraging the best of those two fundamental ideas: that people learn most effectively when they immediately apply what they learn, and they learn with the most energy when they’re learning with others.