Monday, May 17, 2010

Automation is out; Innovation is in! How will L&D address this?


Dan Pink, Harold Jarche, Dave Snowden, Jay Cross, Jane Hart, Shawn Callahan, Howard Gardner, et al. have been talking about it, writing about it, warning folks to take heed. Giving organizations the wake up call!

Writing about the changing face of the workplace, the changing nature of the work we do in the Concept Age, about the need for creativity, innovation, collaboration, connection, about the rise of complexity and chaos, about the failures of yesterday's best practices in today's world, about automation and Asia, and the impact of these on how people learn in today's world.

Automation is out; innovation is in

I have tried to summarize my understanding of the interconnections between Cynefin, rise of complexity and chaos, Concept Age, workplace learning in the networked era, information explosion and the need to change how we learn and train, how we perceive organizational performance and training, and the very nature of learning itself.

Cynefin is a very useful framework that helps us to understand the "the evolutionary nature of complex systems, including their inherent uncertainty". Taken from the Welsh word meaning "habitat" or "place" and applied to today's corporate context by Dave Snowden to explain the relationship between human beings and context, this framework is a succinct and effective way of capturing the impact of rising complexity in the workplace.

The diagram below is the classic one showing the different stages of an organization's growth and the applicability of good and best practices vis a vis the need to develop emergent and novel practices.

Now, take a look at the diagram below. It's the same one but with certain additions by Harold Jarche. It is easy to see the kind of work that can be automated and the kind that can be outsourced.

And what is alarming is that even today, most (read almost all) organizations still focus on training people to do what can so easily be automated or even outsourced. Again, I have used Harold Jarche's version of the diagram to show where there is a gap.

Dan Pink, in his seminal and now famous book, A Whole New Mind, warned organizations about the need to pay heed to work that cannot be reduced to a step-list, that requires creativity, is complex in nature and are the ones that will eventually keep organizations afloat, will be the differentiators between the winners and the losers.

What is disturbing and worrisome is that organizations are still turning a blind eye to this phenomenon. The measure of effectiveness and efficiency continues to be "productivity," "ability to adhere to set processes," "ability to create step-lists that can automate essentially creative work." The result of course is mediocrity, confusion, lack of job satisfaction, loss of ideas, and general ennui.

One reason could be (probably is) that creativity and innovation seem heretical, unmanageable and un-measurable, a manager's nightmare. It is easy to ask someone to write x lines of code in 8 hours. How do you ask someone to be creative to x degree??? in 8 hours. Sounds stupid to say the least!!

What the business world needs to understand and accept is that the measuring of productivity by hours is a thing of the past. It worked perfectly fine in the Industrial Era, in the Manufacturing Age, when work meant "leaving one's mind behind and doing what one was asked to do". It was a manager's haven; it was all about managing cost, resources, and time effectively. It was an era of the carrot and stick, of following orders and processes, of doing the same thing in the same way. It was the age of proven and best practices. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, ruled.

That was then and this is Now!

The changing face of L&D and training 

What worked in a process driven, sane world won't work in a world hit by the tsunami of information, social media, hyperlinks, user-generated content, automation and outsourcing, and many more similar evils. We have reached one of those turning points in history that rarely occur in one's lifetime, and when it does, we are fortunate, yes fortunate, to be caught in the maelstrom and experience the violence of the change. This is how humanity has evolved. This is what Charles Darwin meant by Survival of the Fittest. Today, those who can think on their feet, question the established ways of doing things, take the lead, be fearless in the face of criticism, be ready to fail but not give in to failure, be passionate about and believe in what they do, are the survivors.

Sounds idealistic? Maybe. But I believe this is the truth, this is today's reality. And sooner we, who represent the L&D arm of organizations understand this, the better for us and for those we serve.

And maybe 1000s of years from now, the image below will also contain the the "hyperlinked humans".

Sadly, the L&D department is still being given the dictate to help people acquire the best practices, ensure people know about processes, and such other routine requirements. However, as Charles Jennings has so aptly pointed out, both organizations and L&Ds would do better to enable people to:
"Being able to find just the right information or source of knowledge at the just right time in the just right context is far more useful than recalling something we’ve learned some time ago and hoping it is still relevant and 'right'."

Apart from the tidal wave of social media that washed away many of the old ways of communication, of interacting, the rise of globalization and automation, and the Web 2.0 phenomenon that gives everyone the power to create and disseminate content, have essentially broken down all set parameters. The hyperlinked world has no hierarchy; but more importantly, the hyperlinked world is constantly communicating and creating, changing the rules, creating new ones and upsetting the balance. The tidal wave of information is only going to rise. Given this situation, what can the training department to do to truly impact not only individual performance but also organizational growth?

They have to focus on meta-learning. The table below from Charles Jennings post, Less is more: A different approach to L&D in a world awash with information, shows some of the core skills required by today's workforce to perform on the job. This in turn will not only lead to organizational growth but also personal satisfaction, and hopefully will increase intrinsic motivation too.

Search and 'find' skillsTo find the right information when it's needed
Critical thinking skillsTo extract meaning and significance
Creative thinking skillsTo generate new ideas about, and ways of, using the information
Analytical skillsTo visualise, articulate and solve complex problems and concepts, and make decisions that make sense based on the available information
Networking skillsTo identify and build relationships with others who are potential sources of knowledge and expertise, within and outside the organisation
People skillsTo build trust and productive relationships that are mutually beneficial for information sharing
LogicTo apply reason and argument to extract meaning and significance
A solid understanding of research methodologyTo validate data and the underlying assumptions on which information and knowledge is based

I will end this post here.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this...

Related readings, videos, presentations (by no means an exhaustive list)

  1. Work Shift

  2. Automated and Outsourced

  3. Less is more: A different approach to L&D in a world awash with information

  4.  Workscape evolution

  5.  Drive: Key Points Captured in a Video

  6. Cynefin

  7. Cynefin Framework

  8. 5 Stages of Workplace Learning  

  9. When should we collaborate?

  10.  Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future

  11.  Social Learning Strategies, Models, and Roles

  12. Five Minds for the Future 

  13. Complex adaptive system



  1. Thanks for the post! This type of post is a great prompt for my self-education.
    First, contemplating your post, I began thinking of the Cynefin framework as a dynamic matrix ( it sort of looks like a matrix) instead of a simple 4 way domain classification scheme (5 way if you count disorder). It seems to me that new practices tend to begin from the left side, mostly near the upper left quadrant. New practices are often a response to disorder and tend to seem more complex just because we have less understanding of the new as it arises from disorder.
    Second, I think the work of education / training / performance support is to move practice in such a matrix toward the right and bottom over time, simpler and better understood. I don't think this means that we are pushing everything toward automation / outsourcing, which only happens far to the right and bottom.
    An example: research finds that a lack of communication in surgical teams is an important cause for surgical errors. The team implements a pre-surgery checklist that includes introductions for the assembled team and time to state the potential concerns of each team member so there is better understanding as the procedure progresses. This introduces a bit of standardization into the process making it simpler, allows people to focus their (limited) cognition for complexity on other parts of the surgical procedure, and improves performance without expecting them to be some sort of super team. If we expect everyone to work near the upper left quadrant, we may limit who is able to perform and how well they can perform.
    I'm still thinking this out myself so any ideas are welcome and I think I'll address this on my blog as it congeals better.

  2. Howard,

    Thank you very much for the comment.

    I think you are spot on when you mention that it is a dynamic matrix. It is definitely dynamic in more ways than one, especially if I think that what is novel today, will become emergent tomorrow and so on.

    You have added a different dimension to my thinking of Cynefin with respect to training/education/PS.

    It is true that when novel practices emerge out of disorder, they seem confusing because they are new, untried, untested. Once they become emergent, and people begin to "practice" them, they move to the next quadrant.

    From these arise certain rules and "good practices" and so on. And this is a constantly moving matrix with practices moving from good to best to obsolete, and new ones emerging out of the chaos of the unknown once again...

    Training would aim to codify/formalize the emergent and turn these into good practices for as long as they work...

    I would love to hear more of your thoughts on the same...


Thank you for visiting my blog and for taking the time to post your thoughts.

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