A survival guide to digital disruption

Reconciling the networked learner with the drive to centralise

2015 promises to be a turbulent and difficult year. Many indicators now point to the likelihood of a second financial crash and a further destruction of capital on a global scale. In part, this is because the changing technological basis of world economy is undermining the ability of inefficient (or perhaps insufficiently inspired) businesses to make profit.

What’s been called the ‘third industrial revolution’ – the digital revolution – is eliminating a reliance on production lines, rising prices and rising wages which characterised the boom years of the twentieth century. The digitisation of the economy has now entered free-fall. It will sweep away industries and employment just as it has already plunged high street retailers into crisis.

At face value, the learning and technology sector is better placed than most to benefit from digital disruption (and has been benefitting from it for the past few decades), but its acceleration also poses unique challenges. This article intends to probe further into what the third industrial revolution means: both in terms of the needs of individual learners and in terms of the profound challenges facing organisations and businesses. Each side has a different story to tell.

This revolution in production is profound. China may be the last economy to reach middle-income status by industrialising along conventional, twentieth-century lines. Now, driven by huge investment in robotics and automation, China’s biggest factories are going ‘dark’. Cheap manual labour is being replaced by expensive machinery maintained by software engineers. Just as the steam engine broke apart cottage industries and the internal combustion engine destroyed an entire industry for horse-powered transport, many will be left behind by this new revolution. The winners will be highly educated and digitally literate problem solvers. They also tend to be rather cool and respected Tweeters, activists, bloggers and forum users. The chic, it seems, will inherit the earth.

This change in economics and culture has implications for learning, performance and knowledge management. Harold Jarche predicts that we are entering an open, ‘networked era’, where:

Continuous learning will … disrupt established hierarchies as a management position will no longer imply greater knowledge or skills. Command and control will be replaced by influence and respect in order to retain creative talent. Management in networks means influencing possibilities. Rather than striving for predictability. We will have to accept that no one has definitive answers anymore, but we can use the intelligence of our networks to make sense together.

Jarche is tapping into a trend identified by other commentators and consultancies: a reliance on fluid, open networks facilitated by digital technology will start to change some of the fundamentals of the economy. The impossibility of success without networking, continuous learning and creative talent will render the Taylorist, command-and-control model for a business obsolete, they say.

But whilst Jarche is right to some degree, this is also a utopian idea. Take a walk across the eastern boundary of the City of London or a ride on the Underground. Everywhere billboards once occupied by adverts for consumer products now feature striking propaganda from Google subsidiaries. Android’s motto of ‘Be together. Not the same’ embodies a new paradigm: highly personalised services for individuals which are held ‘together’ by vast digital eco-systems under the control of a few powerful businesses. The data networks which will drive consumption in the twenty-first century are expensive, complex and centralised on a scale which dwarfs what came before.

This dichotomy is mirrored within businesses. The horizontal working environment that facilitates dispersed, continuous learning, collaboration and high performance is based on complex enterprise software and data analytics run by expensive IT teams. The software relies on high risk, make-or-break deployments which must be matched by spending cuts and tough decisions elsewhere in the value chain. As well as demanding grassroots participation and contribution, unleashing the digital business requires bold, centralised leadership – even brinkmanship.

Bersin by Deloitte’s report on ‘HR Technology for 2015: Ten Big Disruptions Ahead’ indicates that centralising learning and development should be a key priority. Reigning in local SMEs and gaining the leverage to squash unnecessary spending on classroom training, and shedding jobs in the process, is the unpleasant flip-side to justifying investment in new collaborative learning environments which will drive performance.

So there are in fact two distinct versions of the digital story – one for the learners and end-users who are already digital natives, and another for whole organisations seeking to survive this wave of digital disruption. Reconciling these stories presents both a threat and an opportunity for L&D.

On the one hand we have learners who are increasingly self-directed producers and consumers of knowledge. They are clamouring for enterprise collaboration and frustrated with existing LMS and knowledge management systems. They are bored of hour-long elearning courses and they’ll hunt down training on MOOCs and Google before they self-enrol onto your next classroom programme. To win them over, they need personalised experiences which are targeted at the point of need. It will be hard to please them with conventional, linear elearning – no matter how snazzy it is.

They also expect an inspiring set of values. The best talent has become discerning and judgemental. Many organisations are struggling to keep up with the resurgence of ideologies focussed on social justice and horizontal power structures. Simple financial incentives aren’t enough in a world of abundance for the skilled (behavioural economics suggests they never were). The new learner’s ability to perform is bound up with complementing her personal narrative of success on several levels. She craves alignment right down to her favourite memes, video-bloggers or Netflix shows.

On the other hand, we have organisations battling to survive in a here-today, gone-tomorrow economy. Embracing digitalisation is game-changing, but it’s also torturous. Consumers now expect everything to cost as little as possible, be available anywhere and all within a totally seamless user experience. But they don’t have any idea just how much this end-to-end experience costs or what must be sacrificed or gambled in order to pay for the investment required. Digital disruptors like Uber and AirBnB are rapacious, well-funded and meet with little resistance as they undermine existing industries. In turn, falling profit margins put immense pressure on employees to innovate.

It seems hard to reconcile the two stories: the situation of a business dealing with profit-warnings and painful IT overhauls with the needs of talent which demands a values-led, empowering learning and collaboration environment. So how can these two sides meet in the middle?

I think that learning technologies practitioners are more than just wedged between the two sides: we can be a key interface between them (… or, alternatively, we’ll get squeezed out altogether). On that basis, what follows is a survival guide for navigating and closing the divide which is opening up:

Make friends with IT

If your IT department is not yet a key pillar of the organisational strategy for surviving digital disruption, then it will be soon. IT commands budget and frequently embarks on programmes which require big changes in behaviour. So it should be a natural ally for L&D in the digital era. Learning professionals have an awful lot to contribute to help make those system implementations a success through user experience design (see below), as well getting involved in the bigger questions.

Context is king – seek out and support the context-makers

If subject matter experts are distinguished mainly by their ownership of content rather than their ability to boost performance or produce new insights, then you should pivot away from them and towards those who do: line managers. Social context created by connected individuals, not content itself, is now king. Good line managers are key context-makers: they are natural foot-soldiers in the battle for digital engagement with organisational strategy.

Command the space for dialogue between employees and leaders

The gap between what learners want and what leaders are faced with will only be closed by dialogue and discussion – and it’s a space L&D should seek to dominate. The insights gained from a ‘big chat’ between learners and leaders in crisis-struck organisations will demonstrate the value of collaborative technologies to your stakeholders. Taking ownership of generating new insights should be your number one priority.

Be experts in the discipline of user experience design

Making technology investments easy to use is a key part of closing the gap between learners and leaders – it’s also usually what is neglected or left to external consultants in the rush to build functionality. The intimate knowledge most learning technologists have of user experience design in the context of engagement is a key asset. You’ve already developed an intuitive grasp of what will work for your organisational audience, so recasting L&D practitioners as user experience experts is a valuable proposition.

Toby Harris

Toby is the creative lead and platform product manager at Saffron Interactive and an open source enthusiast. He likes it best when he is adding value to the elearning community, developing new thinking about how people development programmes and platforms can drive business performance and prove ROI. Toby has extensive experience with learning management systems, a frenetic devotion to social media and consequently is able to keep a keen eye on best-practices in the ever-evolving world of elearning. His role at Saffron is to ensure that our team and our clients are continually developing best-of-class learning solutions.