One of the most pressing forces of change in today’s world, across all aspects of society, is digital disruption. It’s not surprising that tech claims the five largest market cap companies in the world: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. But tech disruption is not just limited to the tech titans. Digital is remaking traditional industries like transportation, financial services, health care and manufacturing. Digital is massively restructuring these industries, and companies are facing huge challenges navigating the changes pulsing through them. In fact, a recent MIT and Deloitte study found that 90 percent of companies surveyed believe their core business is threatened by new digital competitors.
Learning has always been a critical enabler of strategic change within large organizations, so it is not surprising that learning leaders are increasingly being called upon to help businesses face the effects of digital disruption. But the digital challenge is unique. What’s different is the nature of the strategic changes that digital is spawning—accelerating speed, global reach and scale across organizations, shifting information flows top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top within organizations, disruption of old and creation of new business models, and more.
Dennis Baltzley, global head of leadership development for Korn Ferry Hay Group, describes the challenges facing learning organizations and businesses undergoing transformational change: “Disruption today has revealed profound shifts in how corporate learning must think about development.” Baltzley continues, “The future of leadership is Agility. Not only the resilience to handle many changes, but the agility to let go of the past and pivot to new ways of thinking and working. It was important, it’s now at the top of the list.”
And there’s another catch: corporate learning itself is not immune from change—it is facing disruptions of its own. In addition, the landscape of learning technologies has radically re-shaped over the past few years to include new categories such as learning experience, program experience, microlearning platforms, and more, according to Josh Bersin in a Forbes article. Unlike the old categories focused on process automation and content distribution, new learner-first technologies emphasize engagement and collaboration.
Some argue that learning is the most important solution to the challenges of digital disruption. In his recent book, “Thank You for Being Late,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes that we have entered a new “Age of Accelerations,” pointing to Moore’s Law – the theory postulated by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computational processing power doubles every two years – as a core foundation of technology-accelerated change in our world.
After explaining the profound impact of exponential processing power, he argues that speeding humanity’s capacity to learn is fundamental to our ability to keep pace with the accelerating rate of technology-driven change. Friedman writes that for millennia, technology advanced slowly and steadily, and people had plenty of time to adapt.
For example, it took hundreds of years for the longbow to advance from initial development to military use in Europe. But, thanks to Moore’s Law, technological change is happening much faster and is beginning to outstrip our ability to adapt. For his book, Friedman interviews Eric “Astro” Teller, the leader of Google X, who posits that the solution to speeding human adaptability to rapid, technology-driven change is 90 percent about “optimizing for learning.”
Increasing our capacity to learn as continuous, lifelong learners is the best way for us to keep up with accelerating change, in life and in business. And the new technologies and modalities of the disrupted learning sphere are enabling organizations to adapt to a changing world faster.
From Disrupted to Disruptor
A great example of modern learning changing the game for a digitally disrupted business comes from Microsoft. The company realized the disruptive potential of cloud and mobile technologies – both to its business and its customers. When Satya Nadella became CEO a few years ago, he challenged the company to be “mobile-first, cloud-first.” Microsoft’s sales and marketing readiness team knew that its sales professionals faced a steep learning curve as their customer changed from an IT buyer to a business buyer, and their offering changed from on-premise software to cloud solutions. The team envisioned the solution as a “cloud mini-MBA” series of MOOC-like learning experiences to help sales professionals master the essentials of selling cloud solutions to C-suite customers. The corporate MOOCs came into being in partnership with elite global business schools such as INSEAD, Wharton, London Business School and Kellogg, with course content tailored to the specific needs of Microsoft sales professionals, and enabling them to apply their learning to specific customer situations.
The response was, and remains several years into the program, phenomenal. Over 80 percent completion rates across rigorous business school courses; rich collaboration evidenced by high in-course discussion forum and peer review engagement; robust sales professional readiness scores as high as any other modality including face-to-face events; and business results exactly the kind you want to see from a sales program: increased sales and deals won, directly attributed to the learning from the courses. All this from programs that, due to workload and sales cycles, are entirely voluntary.
Microsoft could tell after the pilot run that they were on to something, so they kept pushing the MOOC modality to expand the social and peer-to-peer learning aspects even more, and today they are running online courses on highly varied topics: business strategy and financial acumen, business value negotiation, high-performance mindset, marketing, and yes, digital disruption!
The lesson to be learned for other organizations is that pushing the envelope with online modalities and tailoring them to your audience can help organizations lead disruption, rather than be disrupted.
Enabling Strategic Transformation at Scale
Think of your organization as a pyramid. At the very top is the C-suite, strategies are devised, executive leadership programs are launched and culture initiatives are incubated—often intended to stave off the impacts of digital disruption. But what happens to these efforts outside of episodic leadership retreats? Too often they fail to make an impact across an organization and enter the graveyard of failed corporate initiatives. One reason they aren’t successful is that while these critical initiatives are high-touch at the top of the house, cascading them throughout an organization is an after-thought at best. But what if everyone at every level of an organization could get the right training for their role, at the same time, from managers on down to the front line?
A global consumer goods manufacturing company deployed just such a cascading approach across their workforce to support their bold change transformation vision, to great success. They used high-touch, in-person workshops across the top echelon, but cascaded that same information, urgency and mindset shift through blended learning to middle managers, and pure digital learning experiences designed for the rest of the organization. This way, everyone in the company heard the same message, received the right content for them, and applied the objective of the strategic change to their specific work context. The lesson here for organizations is that you can get everyone on the same page when things change, and fast.
Yes, Even Soft Skills
The essential imperatives of digital disruption – speed, global reach, user contribution, etc. – combined with ever-more engaging technologies, mean that virtually all skills can now be trained effectively via online modalities. Fortunately for us all, because there are now compelling online learning options beyond point-and-click PowerPoint presentations, soft skills can be learned very effectively online. Which is key, because soft skills are increasingly critical to effectively leading responses to business disruption today. But they are among the hardest skills to learn, and old models have serious limitations.
Enter digitally disruptive new learning approaches. Venerable training companies such as Miller Heiman Group, VitalSmarts, Mandel Communications, and more are embracing the latest, most engaging online learning techniques to help their customers develop sophisticated interpersonal and communication skills. VitalSmarts, for example, cites advantages to online versus classroom learning, such as the opportunity for the learner to set their own pace and learn over time, the ability for moderators to provide individualized attention to learners, and enhanced collaboration between learners within a cohort of learners.
In conclusion, in this context of accelerating digital change and complexity, learning organizations are critical enablers of organizational success. Learning professionals have an incredibly important role to play helping the people they serve adapt to a changing world faster, utilizing those disruptive modern modalities and technologies to face down the challenges of organizational disruption. It’s quite an exciting time to be in learning!