From Required to Inspired: Education for 21st-Century Realities

Leaders and institutions that succeed going forward will not do so through 20th-century systems of coercion and motivation, but through new systems that place values at the center of an organization’s operations, leadership and culture.

Take a moment to look around an office, or better said, the physical and virtual spaces that constitute an organization. In the typical workplace, one finds a mix of employees from different age groups, diverse educational and cultural backgrounds, and varying experience levels.

Never before have companies asked so much of employees:

They need employees to partner with colleagues around the world who come from different cultures and speak different languages.

They want them to go beyond merely serving customers by creating unique and deep relationships with them.

They expect their people to do more with less.

They also expect their employees to represent the company and nurture its brand, not only when they’re on the job, but whenever they publicly express themselves in tweets, blog posts, emails or any other social or socially networked interaction.

Organizations increasingly ask their employees to go beyond continuous improvement by conceiving and implementing disruptive innovations that deliver the step changes companies need to thrive amid global competition and more frequent crises.

Leaders and institutions that succeed in inspiring these game-changing behaviors will not do so through 20th-century systems of coercion and motivation, through carrots and sticks applied against rules and policies. Such behavior will be inspired through a new system that places values and principles at the center of an organization’s operations, leadership and culture.

Learning teams need to stop developing leaders for a bygone era of stability, orderliness and command-and-control hierarchies — even the terminology here is wrong. The term talent management, for example, implies tight compliance and monitoring that actually impedes rather than encourages creativity. Efforts should center on inspiring and unleashing talent, not managing or restricting it. Progressive organizations are now focusing on how to move from required to inspired — to create corporate cultures that harness the best of people. When employees are inspired, they create intellectual capital in new and creative ways. For example, dozens of new products, many of them very substantial, have emerged from Google’s culture of ground-up innovation.

A new standard of leadership is demanded that inspires people to unleash their passion, potential and ability to connect and collaborate. This approach requires a greater pursuit of meaning in work; new, higher levels of trust and transparency; living sustainable, not situational, values rooted in deep human, social and environmental purpose; and the understanding that how companies do something today is far more important than what they do. Leadership development professionals not only need to understand these realities, they need to inspire principled performance from others and lead organizations to new levels of success and responsibility. Progressive approaches to educating the workforce and inspiring them by connecting around mission, vision and purpose are key steps in this approach.

Engage to Inspire: Moving to Inspirational Leadership

In the mid-1990s, to reach their diverse workforces, companies introduced e-learning. No longer did all employees need to meet physically in order to discuss and learn about job requirements, expectations, rules and laws. Organizations instead provided educational material through technology that was readily accessible to their entire workforce.

E-learning had its downside though — it created gaps between people and could be fatiguing. Leadership development professionals began to evolve their learning strategies and explore blended and hybrid approaches that bridge cultural gaps and counter online fatigue. They provided networks and learning forums that support learners’ on-demand access and drive for knowledge in every medium possible. With direction from corporate-hosted blogs, wikis and discussion forums, workers were encouraged to create their own user-generated content and use peer-to-peer knowledge sharing to enable personalized learning. Users could place themselves in real ethical scenarios, bringing more relevance and ownership to education programs. With this new social learning approach, collaborative learning began to replace traditional teaching in corporate culture.

Collaborative Learning Feeds a Culture

The days of watching, reading and listening to lectures are almost gone. The future is about conversation and application. The workforce is transferring more trust into peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, not top-down dissemination. Leaders are seeking to keep education fresh and to ensure great impact and adoption. Therefore, curriculum is going beyond compliance to a “roll up your sleeves” commitment. The workforce wants to experience education through working with others — through collaborative learning.

Collaborative activities also help promote cross-discipline and cross-departmental teaming, which enables healthy dialogue by breaking down silos and communication barriers that normally disrupt or challenge corporate culture. Social learning environments allow the learner to experience the scenario or risk unfolding, which can be followed by a knowledge-sharing exercise where a manager-led discussion, either live or virtual, supports peer-to-peer dialogue. As a team, participants wrestle with an ethical dilemma and formulate recommendations for solving the issue. Through this process, teams have the opportunity to process and absorb the knowledge that will guide their actions towards responsible business conduct in real-world situations. Consider adopting a collaborative learning strategy that can be integrated into the enterprise, such as in regular business processes, decision making and awareness education.

A business’ corporate culture will not change overnight. However, adopting a blended approach of learning formats can help ensure a sustained and impactful learning process. Development efforts don’t have to bog down the learner into one pattern of learning and should feature a multitiered teaching approach that copes with generational gaps in technology use and expertise. Always refresh, remind and offer encouragement. Ultimately, learning that sticks is learning that can shift behavior and reinforce and reshape your corporate culture.

David Greenberg is the executive vice president of knowledge and solutions at LRN. He can be reached at