New technologies are driving an age of disruption, where established businesses are dislodged overnight by digital startups or tech savvier competitors.
Living with constant fluctuation and ambiguity, as we all do today, requires a different approach to continuous learning that embraces shades of gray. It’s up to forward-thinking leaders to instill a strategy of full stack learning within their organizations, to both protect against disruption and embolden innovation in a hyper-creative marketplace.
Just as “full stack” software development revolutionized the integration of engineering across all aspects of product and software development, from the front end of identifying user needs and UI design to the back end development including network and server architecture, data warehousing, and security, full stack learning asks leaders to thread learning through out all aspects of work in a blended, cohesive, and strategic way.
Gone are the days when the learning agenda could be relegated to a mid-level, HR staffing function with a predetermined set of learning objectives and outcomes. In these dynamic times, the learning agenda is the strategic agenda, supported and scaled through carefully considered strategic choices. Learning fuels clarity about our changing context, collaboration with diverse and global networks, conversations that spark new ideas and innovation, and deep connections that foster resilience and regeneration.
But figuring out what to learn, and how to implement effective learning at scale isn’t easy. Learning is not a single strategy, but rather exists among emerging paradoxes that inform a range of choices.
Learning is both fast and slow. Today, learning is immediate and urgent. It’s delivered in nano-seconds through instantaneous searches and just-in-time bots. We hunt for updates on the hottest technological breakthrough, the latest product offering or pricing, the newest competitors, the most recent market activity. And yet, learning also requires that we slow down and invest in skills that take a lifetime to master, like empathy, curiosity, sense-making, deliberate communication and storytelling among others. Whereas we once received most of our education before we started our careers, we now are expected to develop skills over a lifetime to succeed in times of increasing complexity and change.
Learning is both collaborative and individual. We develop better insights and skills through conversation and exchanges with people of diverse geographic, cultural and educational backgrounds and viewpoints. At the same time, successful learning requires deep reflection and an almost spiritual approach. We do our best learning when we allow ourselves time for pause to help us stay centered and aware of our intrapersonal feelings, biases and connections.
Learning is both episodic and ubiquitous. We learn in order to improve acute gaps in our knowledge, understanding, and abilities. With a simple online search, we can find courses or videos on nearly anything, earning micro-credentials and badges. But learning shouldn’t just happen when we’re in a deficit of knowledge or when we feel like we need to show proof of our skills. Learning is and should be ongoing. We should seek daily opportunities to inform, spark and deepen new ideas and connections. At its best, learning is pervasive, ongoing and always present, whether we’re paying attention or not.
Learning is both intentional and emergent. We need to approach our ongoing education with the intention of enhancing both knowledge and skills. Learning requires purpose, investment and direction, and can be motivated by obtaining a degree, credential or certificate. Yet learning is also organic, evolving, improvised, unexpected and often co-created. It requires space and time for pause, cross-pollination, recombination, meditation, doodling and daydreaming.
Learning is enhanced by AI and other emerging technologies, but must be in the service of IA. The technological change driving the need for constant learning can also be learning’s greatest asset. Automatic algorithms, pattern recognition and machine learning facilitate the understanding of huge data sets, enabling quicker and more complex decision-making. However, AI needs to serve intelligent augmentation (IA), extending and amplifying the innate intelligence of uniquely human skills, such as envisioning new futures and collaborating with others. Technology is a tool through which we can improve our own human judgment expertise, and awareness of our own biases.
So, what are the direct implications of these paradoxes for leaders and their organizations?
1. We will see a new breed of “Full Stack” Learning Organizations. Peter Senge famously coined the turn “The Learning Organization” more than thirty years ago to describe companies that utilized systems thinking for continuous improvement. These days, organizations that learn fastest from systems inside and outside of their organization — and utilize that learning to support ongoing value creation — will outperform competitors that trade off learning for short-term performance and execution. These organizations will utilize business processes such as design thinking and lean methods not just to fuel innovation and new product development, but also to enhance learning and resilience throughout the organization.
2. Leaders of organizations across all sectors will model and support lifelong learning as a strategic capability. Leaders must demonstrate a willingness to learn new things and embody a growth mindset not just for themselves, but on behalf of the teams and the people they serve. This will include fostering new connections between and among all of their employees, partners, and customers to foster genuine curiosity and learning serendipity. This will require a willingness to “unlearn” more traditional command-and-control management styles and instead lean into more collaborative and facilitated approaches. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella resolved to move his company from a “know it all culture” to a “learn it all culture,” and that motto should be at the forefront of every leader’s agenda for transformation.
3. The best performers across the organization will be the best learners. Increasingly, employees will be evaluated on their ability to learn. As learning modes and models become increasingly dynamic and fluid, successful contributors will be more curious, flexible, generative and resilient thinkers and doers. And, they will sponsor and cultivate more diverse networks, conversations and collaborations that create, capture and scale value across multiple organizational dimensions more quickly. This may lead to new holistic talent metrics that capture and measure attitudes and aptitude for learning, ultimately influencing how companies recruit, hire, and grow their talent.
4. Technology will continue to support not just intelligence augmentation but “talent augmentation.” Future leaders will understand that the goal of technology is not to replace human employees but to enhance and amplify their best talents, thereby fostering a multiplicity of “intelligence augmentation” capabilities fueled by the possibilities of AI and connectivity. Companies like Airbnb are reimagining the more traditional role of organizational design to be focused instead on talent design, understanding that technology should unleash the full potential of all workers — flexible, contingent workers and even the AI bots that assist them.
5. Organizational design and culture must be centered around learning. We will see a new type of Chief Learning Officer (perhaps a Chief Multiplier Officer?) who is given the authority and accountability to move beyond linear and outcome-based learning. This new CLO will also influence the design of physical space, culture, team formulation strategies, reporting and incentive structures, formal and informal collaborations, ecosystems and the supporting digital infrastructure.
Simply put, leaders must be learners, and they must build a learning culture by modeling, enabling and rewarding that behavior. It’s time for learning to be an urgent priority for all leaders, across all functions, and especially at the most senior levels. Leaders who embrace the new paradoxes of learning — and their implications — will design flexible organizations that recruit and develop the best talent, are able to seize new opportunities more quickly, and are resilient in the face of unpredictable change.
Special thank you to Nancy Murphy, Denise Brosseau, Chris Pirie and Bonnie Kay for inspiring me as learning leaders and for their contributions and edits to this article.