Sunday, September 20, 2009

How Organizational Learning May Change in the Post-Recession World

I am as optimistic as ever that we shall emerge out of this recession soon. Whoever I tell this reminds me that the party is not going to start anytime soon, though, they agree, that the worst may be behind us. But, as long as we look forward rather than back, new things will happen and new possibilities will emerge. And, besides, after all this pain of the Great Recession, who wants to return to partying as usual.

This recession, however, will have two long term impacts. While this crisis undermined the moral force of the theory that the market gets it right all the time, it has also severely undermined the governments' ability to bail us out of any future crisis. The pendulum seems to have run its full course, over thirty years, where we have moved from public spending to fiscal responsibility back to public spending again. So, in the coming years, we may go back to the old days of fighting inflation and high taxes and interest rates, as capital will become scarce in general. And, therefore, innovation and entrepreneurship will count more than ever, and every organization will need new ideas about what they do and how they do it - as arbitrage in the market becomes limited and every penny will need to be competed for.

In this context, the first impact of party getting over will be a return to the large paternalistic organization. Funny that I say this, with the backdrop of job cuts and redundancies. But the crisis will redefine some of the ways we look at employment. For example, bonus will attract people less and less, not just because of the apparently difficult economic climate, but also the new realization on part of the employers how bonus may have an adverse impact on long term value creation. And, indeed, we will come to realize that if employees and employers are interested in long term [which, one would guess will come hand in hand with higher cost of capital and limited number of opportunities to make a fast buck], one way to do so is to align the relationship to long term: by bringing back the out of fashion concepts of 'job security' and 'commitment'.

Second, the crisis will also highlight the need to have a 'discipline' than just a job for all those who work and bring back in fashion a professional identity before the work identity. Going retro again, it will be important for a person to achieve mastery over a professional area of work, and work continuously towards perfection and development just as a workman of old time would have done. So, while the old fashioned long term job contracts may make a comeback, the company man may need to reinvent himself as a master of a discipline rather than hide behind his company identity.

Apart from this change of heart due to economic realities, the next few years will also herald a demographic shift of the workplace. Consider this: By 2012, most people entering work would have been born around 1990, and gone to high school during the time of Internet boom; it will be expected that they would have encountered Internet in school, and conducted their lives on chat, email and increasingly, on Google, digital music and DVD. They will expect ubiquitous connectivity as a given and transactions online far less sinister than our generation did. This will mean an enormous shift, as this generation takes over professional work in the organizations and starts businesses. The balance will tip sometime between 2012 and 2015 to the Internet generation, people who were born after 1985 and entered college around the turn of the millennium and 9/11, who will ascend to leadership positions in most organizations.

These changes may seem paradoxical, but only if one is using history as a frame of reference and not looking forward. There is nothing paradoxical about an organization, with a millennial at the leadership position, looking for inspiration at the post-war models of paternalistic organizations in the middle of post-recession ruins. There is nothing confusing about an organization trading off longer term commitments to employees against longer term commitments from employees, and yet, employees developing their own individual entities, skills and disciplines at the same time as committing themselves. History actually is some guide: we have indeed moved from tribalism [which was too narrow] to chaos [where nothing was fixed and identities were trade-able] to citizenship [where we agreed to adhere to fixed laws and commitments against individual freedom].

In the context of this changing landscape in terms of what an organization stands for and its relationship with its employees, the particular area I am interested in, organizational learning, is set to change profoundly and irreversibly. Currently, this is all about command-and-control, a specialist function run by people who know best and controls the budget. The learning function is seen as a cost centre, often non-strategic, and treated as anything between a-good-thing-to-have and an-unnecessary-trouble. It is also, in my view, one of the most 'socialist' function of an capitalist enterprise, where most employees do not have much say on what they need to learn. Clearly at odds with whatever is happening at other parts of the organization, most L&D chiefs are terrified by technology and in denial of the fact that their profession is set to change beyond recognition in the next five years. Further, most L&D education, tools, research and new development point at an even more command-and-control structure. In fact, the holy grail of the profession today is to align their efforts to competencies, bits of personality and skills of the employees seen through the organizational prism, and to measure ROI, somehow proving that the money spent on learning getting some buzz for every buck. Indeed, everywhere 'we know best' assumption prevails, alongside a narrow, exclusively internal view of resources and skills available, and the prevailing theoretical orthodoxy of seeing the employees in the context of their professional half-lives.

While this is what it is today, this will come under tremendous pressure in the next few years. The ongoing tussle for budgets will intensify, as organizations experience a capital scarcity but the need to compete intensify. The command-and-control system will weaken with the realization of no-one-knows-anything, and the mystic of ROI will stand severely compromised when it becomes clear, in the context of colossal failure of mathematical modelling in the Wall Street, that certain things, like risks and motivations, can not be quantified. The new style of Corporate Citizenship will demand individuals to be treated as just that, individuals, free to pursue their 'discipline' while carrying out their responsibilities to their community. Competencies, necessarily constructed on a static understanding of the organization's business and a spatial view of what skills and abilities of an individual actually mean, will prove out of step with a far more uncertain, 'retro' world. And, indeed, a new paradigm will be needed to develop a learning organization.

This is what I am trying to study about. In my mind, I see organizational learning in a shifting paradigm, from where organization came first to where individuals will come first. This is a future where learning agenda will become less prescriptive and more guided/ facilitated, and the competency-based framework will give way to a collaborative, developmental framework. Compare this, if you like, with the education provisions of a community rather than the military training, which, incidentally, is the model most L&D professionals are so reverential of. [But, even Military Training is changing, from that of an army mainly made of conscripts to the needs of an all volunteer army!]

I am not suggesting that all the last century ideas, training needs analysis, feedback sessions, training ROI, are going to go away all at instant. But, I think they will all be subsumed in the new paradigm of learner first paradigm. For example, we will have collaborative career planning and TNA will come in this context. The participation in learning will become more voluntary and feedback will automatically come from learner participation. The ROI thinking will shift from measurement at a central level, where L&D professionals try to determine whether they are using money effectively, to the continuous measurement at the level of an individual learner, where each individual will have a certain pot of money to use for their own development, learning vouchers, let us say, which they will utilize to further their career goals and to serve the needs of the organization. So, a more open, cafeteria model of corporate learning is what I vote for.

I have shifted my focus of study on organizational learning and I wish to specialize on this going forward. The essay above was a compendium of my initial thoughts, and I am trying to gather inputs from the people I know. So, in case you cared to read through to the end, I would love to hear from you. You can tell me why I may be wrong, or, where I am stating the obvious. One thing for sure: All feedback will be extremely helpful and will help shape my work going forward. So, thanks in advance for helping me out.

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