The assumption that a more knowledgeable workforce makes for a more competitive one seems, on its face, hard to dispute. Over the last two decades many companies have invested in software and educational programs to make their employees sharper and more competitive.
A new corporate title emerged, that of chief learning officer. The CLO is supposed to strategically guide learning for the sake of competitive advantage. Over time, case studies tend to show that when it comes to the complex tasks of product development, risk management and innovation, managers learn more from peer interaction than from enterprise learning software.
This insight leads various companies, such as Saba and Cornerstone Direct, that specialize in learning software to make their technologies more social, facilitating the work of peer networks. The challenge is that these are tools, not strategies.
They need to be embedded in a culture that can leverage these innovations. This means bringing a set of players to the table who have a holistic view of the company and a vision for how learning can inspire change.
The Flatter Workplace
Human brains are wired for a limited amount of collaboration, and, consequently, learning from each other. The technology march from email to collaborative software to social technologies has generated new opportunities for employees to interact creatively.
In the 1990s, learning systems began to proliferate. These software-based solutions are still primarily designed to standardize on-boarding and training of employees. They are now evolving to support more specialized training tasks among middle and senior management, and are increasingly evolving to enable the creation of collaborative networks across company boundaries.
This aligns with a desire that many companies have to flatten structures, ensuring the right people with the right knowledge, skills and experience are connected to get work done. While it is certainly true that a large number of companies are becoming less hierarchical and more market responsive, it would be hard to argue that this is general practice.
Most companies—as most institutions—gravitate toward structural hierarchies. “Flatness,” is really a euphemism for collaborating across institutional boundaries. It is really more of a psychological and cultural phenomenon, rather than a structural condition. If the system values and rewards working across boundaries, a lot of creativity can flow.
Enterprise collaboration and talent management technologies are really just tools. They work only as well as the corporate culture does. IBM is one good example. Once regarded as heavily centralized, over the years it has maximized the use of informal networks. Enabling technologies then facilitate the process of collaboration. One of the most recent examples is IBM Corp.’s (IW 500/10) new CEO Ginni Rometty, who solicited input from all corners of IBM to help redefine the company’s core values.
Harmonize Different Disciplines
Converting knowledge into actionable programs and products, at minimum, requires a different approach to managing functions and people.
First, most learning technologies tend to be acquired by human-resource departments based on nonfinancial metrics. It’s often difficult to assign ROI to knowledge investments. Hence, CFOs must become more active in the knowledge space. Learning and collaboration are effectively subcomponents of companywide R&D. It’s therefore possible to create metrics—such as the amount of proprietary intellectual content created, the number of patents filed and the number projects brought to market—which are quantifiable and calculated in terms of return on investment.
Gauging the value of knowledge investments should also be a top priority for CIOs. In general, IT professionals are often seen by their peers as technicians rather than strategists. Yet because of their understanding of the firm’s internal systems, they can have the best overview of the volume and type of collaborative usage of technology. This means the merging and creative tension among HR, IT and the CFO can create powerful synergies in terms of managing technology to enhance the creative performance of the firm.
The second element is to use internal surveys to understand the actual interaction of people and technology in the evolving workplace. Senior executives must recognize that the workforce has changed in terms of its relationship with enabling technologies. We now have multiple generations who have developed in the midst of a 30-year evolution of information technology and increasing levels of virtual engagement.
Yet not everyone uses social and digital technologies in the same way or for the same purpose. Younger generations, especially those coming up in business programs, are often taught in highly collaborative team settings. The emerging workforce known as digital natives, 18 to 35 years old, grew up with social networks and mobile technologies and expect to have the most advanced, yet intuitive tools to access and share information and foster real time collaboration .
Everyone at the C-level needs a proper sense of how fluid the technological environment is, and that technology policy must be highly adaptive. Social networking, cloud computing, real-time collaboration and mobile technologies do help innovation. Yet the pace of change means that companies must view investments in collaborative technologies as a part of R&D tied to specific corporate objectives. They must be much more able to jettison enterprise systems that no longer create competitive advantage.
Until recently, an investment in enterprise solutions from companies such as Oracle Corp. (IW 500/38) or SAP was like a long term marriage—difficult and painful to disconnect when the partners no longer fit together. The power of shifting to cloud-based networks should, over time, make it feasible for companies to be more experimental with the collaborative technologies they employ. It also allows top management to give managers throughout the system more of a say in optimizing technology to the way they work best, rather than be slaved to embedded technical solutions.
We are indeed in a new world of work. It is dynamic, disjointed and will require much experimentation. But finding solutions that inspire and drive creative and growth is not primarily about finding or purchasing tools. It is rather a question of adapting organizational psychology to the unstoppable dynamics of the market, and then fitting the technologies to serve the creative.
Andrew Goldberg serves as executive vice president of public relations firm Makovsky & Co. Inc.'s Corporate Advisors division,which counsels CEOs and other C-suite executives in restructuring, change management and M&A situations. Goldberg was previously the president of WPP-owned Pivot Red and chairman of the corporate practice at Burson-Marsteller. He earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University in international affairs, specializing in the psychology of decision-makers under stress.