Article by Matthieu Fouquet
Proving that learning has become a key part of professional life, the next generation of employees is demanding continuing professional development.
“The SMS generation is bored at work.” That’s how Michel Serres describes the perceptions of the younger generation in his recent book. Studies have made it clear: employees today feel that “learning new things” at work is almost as important as “making money” or “feeling useful,” and even more important than “contributing to a collective goal.”
Did the New World create this new generation? Are they the ones shaping the world in their image? Uncertainty, adaptation and innovation are their keystones. From now on, learning and collective knowledge could be the competitive strengths that determine a company’s survival.
Continuous learning: employees’ firm expectation
Recent CEGOS surveys on professional training have revealed a misunderstanding between employees and managers. Managers think that employees want to be trained in order to get a promotion or a raise. Conversely, employees primarily say that they want to receive training in order to develop both personally and professionally—evidence that learning has become an essential and intrinsic expectation of employee life.
While previous generations focused on the job and the position, the younger generation is now consciously striving to improve their employability. In fact, 35.1% believe that “professional training will, above all, ensure their employability.” The issue of massive unemployment—which today affects almost one in four young people under the age of 25—is forcing them to have a more dynamic vision of their skills. A diploma is not always enough, and they know it.
The next generation has a new concept of work. “They have a great culture of sharing and dream of courteous behavior. As an antidote to the hostile world and an inadequate paternalistic culture, they’re in favor of social regulation through solidarity and sharing. These are the children of peer-to-peer and the culture of sharing,” explains Monique Dagnaud, a sociologist at the CNRS [French National Center for Scientific Research]. Young talent is willing to stay in the system if connection with others and continuous learning are permitted.
Yet neither the law nor companies are sufficiently meeting this demand for continuous learning. The former DIF (the “individual right to training”) had mixed results: 50% of employees never used it, the majority of short-term training programs didn’t qualify, and it was easier to use for managers of large companies than for employees and workers.
The educational institutions themselves tend to centralize and control the concepts of learning and knowledge. And yet, nowadays knowledge is expected everywhere, at all times. As the business world becomes increasingly unstable and less predictable, learning is no longer about cramming in masses of forgettable facts—it’s about learning to analyze and find some certainties.
The knowledge revolution is here
Many innovations have already radically changed teaching. Social networks provide an unprecedented ability to monitor and network. And the development of MOOCs and online courses at the most prestigious universities like MIT and Stanford has revolutionized our relationship to knowledge. Accessibility, sharing, participation—MIT president Susan Hockfield has called it “the single biggest change in education since the printing press.”
E-learning enables a company to meet the new expectations of its employees. Knowledge is accessible anytime, anywhere. It comes in targeted formats that are increasingly shorter: in just a few years, sessions have dropped from 40 to 15 minutes, on average. Thanks to these new formats, the user is responsible, independent and more creative with respect to knowledge.
Tomorrow’s innovations are already being tried out today. At BMW, some maintenance technicians are now equipped with internet-connected glasses. It’s the concept of augmented reality: to solve problems, employees have direct access to accurate and useful knowledge.
As for emerging trends, they tend toward a more individualized form of learning and greater participation. Serious games are already largely foreshadowing these developments. For Steve Wheeler, “Learning needs to be personal, social and global, all of which can be mediated through technology.”
Toward a new model: the learning organization
According to David Garvin, a learning company is a complex system that is continuously adapting and is “an organization skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying its behavior to reflect new knowledge.” Clark Quinn explains in simple terms the advent of this model: “The recognition that learning is 80% informal suggests that we need to support natural connections between people who can help one another.” Faced with a problem or a goal, employees then have the ability to go grab a specific piece of knowledge at the exact moment that they need it.
Jack Welch (former head of GE) says that the “ability to learn . . . is the ultimate competitive advantage.” That’s why it’s imperative that companies invest time and money in building communities. The existence of these sharing structures is even more important than the content that’s being shared: above all, it’s an investment in our future collective knowledge.
The future of the learning company
If the future of business lies in learning organizations, what’s in store for them? To Bill Taylor, tomorrow’s companies are teachers. They share the knowledge that they create with everyone involved: their clients, but also the competition. This step isn’t very intuitive, because our attitudes have been heavily influenced by the economy of material goods.
In this kind of economy, sharing leads to a drop in value. However, the economy of immaterial goods follows a different paradigm and revitalizes the gift economy. Free software is an excellent example. The gift economy, described by Marcel Mauss, creates gratitude, debt, and a bond between individuals.
By sharing knowledge, a company creates value. A teaching company first creates a community of interested people, which makes it more attractive and strengthens its brand promise. Ultimately, this spreading of knowledge helps make the company appear as a thought leader in its industry, creating greater visibility and professional credibility.
Lastly, because the sharing of information reduces its competitive edge, the teaching company requires the entire organization to constantly learn in order to get back in the lead. According to Jeff Immelt (GE), the company that spreads new knowledge can gradually steer its entire ecosystem around its core strengths.
The emergence of a third managerial dimension centered on people
The learning company requires, alongside the traditional hierarchy and horizontal dimension of project management, the emergence of a third cross-functional managerial dimension—that of communities. With the help of new technology (business social networks, wikis, blogs, microblogging, etc.), they can “lower the center of gravity of the company” (Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM).
Communities are both agile and fragile. And, more than the other two dimensions, communities go beyond company boundaries through partnerships with other institutions (schools, universities, other professional communities) and extend interaction into employees’ spare time.
Communities strengthen a key element of leadership: employees’ confidence in themselves and in other members of their community. Confidence is now the ultimate condition for collective action.
We can meet this new demand for education by creating a learning company that dedicates greater resources toward learning. The company makes no demands, but instead supports the process. It’s the people who will provide the impetus and take charge of their own learning. Learning is everywhere—it’s the new standard.
The learning company allows for the growth of individuals, their freedom and their desire for independence: “The central change with Enterprise 2.0 [is] not managing knowledge anymore—get out of the way, let people do what they want to do, and harvest the stuff that emerges from it because good stuff will emerge” (Andy McAfee). This way, we can gradually move from a business model based on competitive advantages to one based on adaptive advantages.