These days, you don’t need to go the wrong way to fail—standing still is all that is required. In times of rapid change, it is said, the edge comes to you.
Never has this been more true than in the field of corporate learning. Economic stability has been replaced by adaptability as the new benchmark of corporate competitiveness. Knowledge is increasingly being recast, not as a stable library of proven solutions, but as an instantly available, strategy-driven, situation-specific and personalized commodity. Enterprise knowledge is emerging as a critical ingredient for corporate success and an important lever for competitive strategy.
None of the old skills are sufficient to turn the corner, and many are actually counterproductive. Incremental growth is no longer the answer. A new way of thinking about learning and knowledge is required. But in too many cases, what is called thinking “out of the box” is simply thinking inside a bigger box.
The changes that are redefining the basic precepts of our field are a subset of a larger phenomenon, the epicenter of which may be found at the convergence of increasing globalization and the exponential growth of technology.
In his book, “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman points to that convergence as empowering the world’s two most populous nations—India and China—with a huge new stake in the success of globalization. “The dawning ‘flat world’—a level playing field—is a jungle…where economic stability is not going to be a feature and the weak will fall farther behind. Rugged, adaptable entrepreneurs, by contrast, will be empowered.” The strong and the weak are being redefined on the basis of how well companies can leverage the skills and technologies that, until now, have given them an advantage in the marketplace. But that advantage is not automatically vested in developed countries and is far from permanent.
As corporate learning becomes more central to organizational strategy and competitiveness, rugged adaptable entrepreneurial behaviors will be rewarded, and some truly revolutionary behaviors will win. The developing Third World has no reason to behave by old rules, and in fact, has every reason to take risks that offer transcendent rewards.
China, India and other countries have already demonstrated their ability to rapidly reverse their economic and technological polarity. In the span of just a few years, millions of Chinese who had never before seen any kind of telephone suddenly found themselves using the world’s most sophisticated wireless phones as they rode their bicycles through the streets of Beijing. The Chinese leapfrogged over the West in large part because they had little investment in the status quo. What would have been a risky decision for a developed nation carried little risk for a country with little existing infrastructure. It is that anchoring that keeps many of us locked into yesterday’s solutions and causes a flattening of the global marketplace.
In a classical Clayton Christensen model of “disruptive innovation,” India and other developing economies have been expanding their online learning value proposition, snatching the initiative from developed Western economies. “Disruption inevitably leads to growth,” Christensen argues, “you just need to be on the right side of the disruptive path in order to capture it.” Starting out with seemingly unprofitable customer segments, such developments eventually evolve to take over the marketplace.
This reality provides a compass for today’s CLOs to provide leverage. New economic incentives are driving the implementation of a new paradigm in corporate learning, where knowledge resources are a key factor in strategic execution of complex competitive business objectives. There is a growing C-level comprehension of the power of a strategy-driven knowledge infrastructure.
Sustainable solutions require us to deal with the reality that a new paradigm resets everything to zero. The game starts anew—level playing field, flat world—and we can fall off the edge. But the same set of circumstances also allows us to stand on the edge, and lead.
Jonathon Levy is senior learning strategist at Monitor Group and former vice president for online learning solutions at Harvard Business School Publishing. He can be reached at email@example.com.