Learnscape Shape-shifting

by Jay Cross on October 26, 2008

Southwest Airlines and Dell (the original, not today’s flavor) executed disruptive business strategies that were successful but entailed betting the ranch. The increasingly fluid nature of business infrastructure and the opportunities it affords for asymmetrical results enable daring companies to make major, disruptive advances without placing all-or-nothing bets.

Salesforce.com is a poster child for succeeding by playing a higher-order game. By tirelessly and persuasively selling the concept of software-as-service in place of enterprise software, Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff didn’t compete with existing players so much as create a new market. Google AdSense, by targeting individual interests, and Facebook, with its open APIs, have accomplished much the same thing.

John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison call these “shaping strategies” in an article in this month’s Harvard Business Review. They write:

The historical pattern — disruption followed by stabilization — has itself been disrupted. A new kind of infrastructure is evolving, built on the sustained exponential pace of performance improvements in computing, storage, and bandwidth.

Today’s new digital infrastructure … gives relatively small actions and investments an impact disproportionate to their size. To use a boxing metaphor, companies can now punch above their weight class.

…each…company aspired to do something far bolder than simply shape the performance of its own enterprise — it strove to shape global ecosystems and thereby fundamentally alter industries and markets.

Corporate visions tend to be too narrow — they describe only the direction of the company articulating the vision. Shaping views instead start with a clear perspective on the direction of the relevant market or industry and articulate the value-creation implication for all companies involved.

I foresee the same forces at work on a lesser scale inside corporations. Learnscaping (creating networked platforms that combine work and learning) is an in-house shaping strategy for knowledge work and informal learning.

Last week, the authors of the HBR article and their peers at the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation invited me to participate in a workshop on Exponential Learning. I love their description of the “Big Shift” in the global business environment:

Stable infrastructure Dynamic infrastructure (“plasma”)
Sources of value
Knowledge stocks Knowledge flows
Consumption Creation
Mobilization Approach
Push Pull
Institutional Rationale
Scalable efficiency Scalable learning

The Center for Edge Innovation is cooking up formulas for shaping strategies for learning, but I saw only a thin slice of their thinking. Hence, I’ll use their framework as a springboard to my own take on the potential for hyper-learning.

Visionary companies will focus on developing learning platforms instead of learning content. Content has a short shelf-life. Often it’s best when spontaneously created rather than planned in advance.

Learning platforms, henceforth learnscapes, lay the framework for co-creation, innovation, and self-service learning. A platform can support limitless programs. Furthermore, a platform does not set a bar for performance; it enables creative individuals to be all that they can be.

Learnscapes yield returns far above their weight class. An investment of tens of thousands sets the stage for earnings of tens of millions. The only bet-the-ranch aspect of this is doing nothing. Not that such outsize promise has created a stampede. Three out of four companies I talk with say their current approach to learning and development is not preparing their people to deal successfully with the future. Two out of three say their organizations are slow to change, even when it would be in their best interest to do so. Duh.

Think of a learning platform as a sandbox. Kids invent new ways to play in a sandbox long after the excitement of the latest toy wears off. Consider how BarCamp evolved from dinner-table conversation to full-blown professional conference in six days. When I first heard the idea, a few hours old, my first question was, “Where’s the wiki?” The wiki was already there, with a listing of information and needs. Ideas traveled on blogs, wikis, and social networks that were part of the sandbox some of us were already playing in.

If yesterday’s disruptive strategies exemplify thinking out of the box, shaping strategies are an entirely new box. My shape-shifting strategic vision is that businesses will prosper by inviting customers to join their learnscapes to co-create better worlds. Pedestrian thinking on this is not sustainable. As the Deloitte guys say in their HBR article:

Turbulent times demand that we learn how to shape the turbulence around us by creating an effective management ensemble that moves beyond adaptation to a shaping aspiration. More fundamentally, we need to understand how we can turn the instability created by digital infrastructure to our advantage by mobilizing many other participants to shape a more rewarding future.

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