The future of management

by Jay Cross on February 14, 2008

fom.jpg“If you’ve spent any time inside large organizations, you know that expecting them to be strategically nimble, restlessly innovative, or highly engaging place to work–or anything else than merely efficient–is like expecting a dog to do the tango,” writes Gary Hamel in his new book, The Future of Management.

People inevitably shortchange the future by investing all of their energy in the present. Take the practice of management; it’s whirling around in a squirrel cage, running hard and going nowhere. Management values (e.g., control, precision, stability, discipline, and reliability) have not changed in a century. Business has streamlined strategy, production, services, and operations. We’ve cut the inefficiencies from every business process but the most important: management itself.

Managers are in denial about this. Their people are naturally innovative and flexible; the organizations they work for are not. A handful of companies “get it.” Look at the Whole Foods Declaration of Interdependence. or the corporate culture of W. L. Gore & Associates or Google’s philosophy of doing business. These organizations trust their employees to do the right thing; they give them room to maneuver; and the employees excel with gusto. Why not you?

Business hierarchies focus so hard on the top as to blind themselves to opportunities bubbling up from the bottom. It’s a new ball game. Instead of maximizing efficiency and avoiding irregularities, managers must create organizations that are limber, feisty, and fully human.

What to do? Hamel and i agree: you must embrace what I’ve been calling internet values. These include giving everyone a voice, experiment often, power comes from below, communities are self-defining, decisions are peer-based, and just about everything is decentralized. If you’re wondering how to implement this, buy the book.

Changes in management mandate changes for learning professionals. At the dawn of the network age, managers enjoyed the luxury of annual planning. With objectives fully in mind, managers communicated the firm’s goals to the training department, which in turn translated those goals into workshops, learning management systems, and so forth. Back then, the past resembled the future closely enough that driving by the rearview mirror was feasible. Today’s rapid changes require responsive driving skills. The road is being built a little way ahead and may take a turn we don’t expect.


Today’s managers work with scenarios and possibilities, not single-track plans. Handing off this bundle of uncertainties to training departments requires new models. Instructional design works best when performance gaps are apparent; ISD lacks the framework to invent non-learning solutions. Meta-learning and flexible infrastructure are becoming more important than individual topics.

Some instructional designers will become learnscape architects; others will champion networks and foster professional communities. Learning-to-be will supplant learning-to-know.

Internet Time Group is convening a network to come up with ways managers and learning professionals can prosper in this ambiguous new environment.


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