Change or die

by Jay Cross on January 13, 2011

LX Briefing

Mixing case studies, stories, and actionable recommendations together with humor and easy-to-understand language, Jay Cross provides much more than buzzwords and back-patting, or so says his bio. He also has some very strong opinions on the future of workplace learning. A Harvard MBA and Princeton undergrad, he has been improving business processes since developing the first business curriculum for the University of Phoenix three decades ago. Jay covers topics from 50,000 feet to ground level, depending on audience and need. He has spoken with executives, marketers, entrepreneurs, chief learning officers, sales staff, instructional designers, HR directors, bankers, and academics. He has keynoted conferences in the United States, Canada, Austria, the United Kingdom, Germany, Taiwan, Australia, Portugal, Monaco, and Abu Dhabi. He travels the world, but increasingly delivers presentations and events in real time over the web. He took a few moments to answer some of our questions.

Learning Executives Briefing: Performance is a wonderful yardstick, and the world is still somewhat governed by accountants. As the economic environment improves, will the fear factor fade a bit and send organizations back to their old ways of relying mostly on numbers?

Jay Cross: Those who follow the old ways will die. This isn’t just a bend in the road or some sort of bounce in a cyclical trend. This is a total phase change. (Author and co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge) John Seely Brown would call this “the Big Switch.” We are going from throwing off the yoke of the industrial age, when you had one class of people telling another class of people what to do, into a network age, where if you don’t empower the people of your organization, the people are going to leave. That is the defining characteristic of this new way of looking at the world. No more efficiency models, and no more Six Sigma. Forget that. We aren’t in a stable environment and won’t be in a stable environment. We have to have our people go out and experiment, innovate, and invent. Job descriptions, competency management systems, and all that legacy stuff are needless baggage.

LXB: In The Working Smarter Fieldbook, you and your co-authors suggest that invisible assets, such as relationships and know-how, count for more market value than visible assets such as plants and equipment. How does that manifest itself in the new world?

Cross: If I am a financial analyst looking at a public corporation, I can figure out what the valuation stands for—the fixed assets, money in the bank, and all of that. We used to call it net worth. Then I look at the value over and above net worth. I look at Google and see that they have $8 billion in fancy kitchen equipment and server farms, and the stock market values the company at $157 billion—so where is that other $150 billion? It is in know-how, intellectual property, and the relationships. It’s all of this stuff that is in the mind of the investor. They think these guys have the secret sauce and they are going to keep churning out future earnings, so I am going to keep investing in them. That’s the proof. And maybe that is something that people in training don’t often get—the value of a company is more than what the accounts add up [to be] on the balance sheet. LXB: How does that differentiate a new-era organization such as Google from a company such as Buggy Whips International? Cross: Even Buggy Whips International these days has more value in its intangible assets— its knowledge and relationships—than it does in plant and equipment.

LXB: Do you still believe, as you have said many times before, that learning is too important to be left to the training department?

Cross: Training departments should just be blown up. They perpetuate old thinking instead of looking at new ways. They are afraid to give power to people to do their own thing. That is a lot different from companies that have drunk the Web 2.0 Kool-Aid and say we’ll take ideas from wherever they come. Everyone is involved, including the customers. We are transparent. If I compare that to companies that play it too close to the vest and are afraid to even give their employees Internet access, it seems silly. If you have high expectations of your people, they will live up to them. If you have low expectations of your people, they will live down to them.

LXB: Why hasn’t it happened in a big way yet? Or has it happened, and the training department has just been given different tasks?

Cross: It’s spotty. We are in a time of transition. People of our generation are holding things back. But that is always the case. People get a little power, and they try to hold on to it. There are some companies that haven’t changed their core philosophies and management practices in 100 years and they never will. There are others that are hiring new kinds of leaders, and they are changing in a big way. There is going to be a bloodbath with the companies that dig in their heels and say we are going to do things the way we have always done them before. Well, “before” is over. We are in a rapidly changing, mind-blowing overly complex world out there today. It is a different world, and the old ways of prospering are a formula for disaster.

LXB: Again, you and your co-authors write: “Management itself, the art of planning, organizing, deciding, and controlling, will fall by the wayside.” If so, what replaces it?

Cross: I am not giving up on managing, organizing, and controlling. But it is going to be more of a shared responsibility. And it is going to be shared with workers and this group of people we don’t have a name for—the people who used to be on the payroll: outsourced, or consultants, or some other thing. And customers are going to be involved. A company that doesn’t involve its customers in its product planning is missing the boat. Procter & Gamble is a good example. They are the West Point of brand management. They now crowdsource 50 percent of their innovation. Talk about opening the door. I thought it was more than a little striking that P&G traded workers with Google. Google wanted to understand how old-style companies (worked) and P&G wanted to know how new-style companies could turn on a dime.

LXB: If training becomes obsolete because, as you note, “it deals with a past that won’t be repeated,” doesn’t some baseline learning still need to exist?

Cross: I don’t spend a lot of time talking about it, but if you have an employee who is entering a new area, such as being posed to China or being involved in programming, whatever it is, if it is new to them and they have no framework, then formal learning is the way to get them up to speed—to learn the lay of the land, the technique, and the structure. But as soon as you form a complete tableau in your mind of that domain, then you are empowered to go out and fill in the pieces. It has context. As it starts out, it needs to be very formal. Formal and informal never exist in isolation.

LXB: You have mentioned Daniel Pink in some of your writing and his notion that we are in a new conceptual age. Do you think the rewiring of our brain is still going on?

Cross: Yes, I do. When I talk to people today in a lot of different contexts, it is only a matter of time before they say the word design. They never used to say design, but now it pops up all the time. For me, that is code for getting the right side of the brain working. This country has missed one of the best opportunities for employee development and worker fulfillment by not asking the employee her life aspirations. Once you identify that and let the people you work with know that, you plan together to make it happen. If the employer has a spot for someone with your particular interests, then they have created an employee for life, and one who will work his butt off for you to make things happen. People talk about work-life balance, and I think that era is over—it is going to be just life. Period.

LXB: Come next year, what trend or advice should the CLO ignore at his peril?

Cross: The biggest thing for the CLO to do is to stop focusing on programs. Don’t kid yourself that your learning needs are just going to take care of themselves. You need to get in there and make things work better. Unless you establish an environment for learning—where you can focus specifically on your learning ecology and what will make it healthy and grow—it won’t ever get better. It involves making it easy to access expertise. Who knows what around here, and do we have a culture for sharing? This involves making mentoring and coaching de rigueur. If you have a manager who isn’t willing to participate in making people better, then throw him out the door. Focus on the platform. The program stuff will get what they need if they have the right platform and things are hooked up. I call it the workscape.

In some ways I am talking about expanding the training department to locate it with everything the business does.

Read excerpts from The Working Smarter Fieldbook by Jay Cross, Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, Charles Jennings, and Clark Quinn. Join the discussion on Facebook.

Jay Cross was interviewed by Learning Executives Briefing editor Rex Davenport.

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