Companies and society can't forget the main ingredient of the information revolution: people.
William Rothwell may be a teacher, but he doesn't like what he sees in schools today. "The schools spend a lot of time teaching subject matter that is increasingly out of date and spend no time teaching people how to learn how to learn, which is really the key to the future," says Rothwell, a researcher and professor of workforce education at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa. And Rothwell isn't criticizing just schools. In five years of research for his book, "The Workplace Learner: How to Align Training Initiatives to Individual Learning Competencies" (2002, AMACOM), Rothwell visited many companies that dubbed themselves "learning organizations." What he saw were companies that made the right physical investments but forgot about implementation. "Most of the learning centers I have visited have been ghost towns. Nobody's in there," he says. "And the reason is that they tend to be away from the workplace, in some quiet area. Managers don't want people straying from their work site. So instead what they do is turn to the person next to them when they have a problem and say, 'What do I do?' The result is a poor learning climate despite the fact that the company has invested substantially in it." Herein lies one of the most crucial questions facing manufacturing executives and society today: Buying and implementing technology is the easy part -- but have you transformed your organization and prepared your employees to most effectively use that technology and the information it so swiftly delivers? "It is an issue of more than just how we handle the information," says Arve Sund, executive vice president in charge of extrusion for Hydro Aluminum North America, Baltimore. "We are in an information society, and if you look upon the consequences of that from an industry perspective, it has deep implications of how we run our businesses. "When you look back in history you see that information and technology was the power base of running a business. The consequence of that was that you protected information, you protected technology. If you look at it today, information and technologies are immediately available all over the world at the same time. That changes what is the key to success for businesses. It gets more and more important to look at the human resources side and people side as the key to your response." Sund, who has someone screen incoming information before he sees it, says one of the ways Hydro has responded to the information explosion and how other companies should respond is to decentralize more. So much information is pouring into companies these days that management can't review and respond quickly enough to everything. Executives and other managers should move the information to others and empower and train them to respond effectively. "Our role is changing to be a coach role," Sund says. "Traditionally you say the boss should have all the right answers. I don't think that's the role anymore. I think the boss should ask the right questions." So how can society and businesses prepare employees to handle the quicker pace and multiplying data sources of today and tomorrow? On the nitty-gritty level, simplify. The simplification movement appears to have spread from the consumer realm to the business world. David Allen, a productivity consultant and author of "Getting Things Done" (2001, Penguin Books), preaches a system of identifying and managing "next steps" for information inputs in order to increase productivity, clear the mind and relieve stress. Allen theorizes that widespread stress is suppressing a lot of great ideas and critical thinking. He says it's the No. 1 problem executives face in regards to productivity and information management. "This doesn't mean they're actively trying to stress themselves out -- just that they're willing to tolerate the unresolved dissonance in the psyche, without being motivated to change it with different and new behaviors that would keep them more on top of their commitments at all levels." Most people have become so use to stress and reactive thinking due to information overload that they no longer exist in a truly relaxed state that encourages constructive thinking and productivity, Allen says. But, he continues, this can be taught and disseminated into a culture. "Our schools and our culture have yet to provide effective training for the decision-making needed for managing input," he says. "The fundamental thinking process that is required to effectively deal with the thousands of things that yank our psychic chain is extremely simple and yet profoundly productive: What outcome am I committing to about this? What's the next action required to move it forward?" Rothwell says that in addition to training, companies need to think about and encourage learning in their cultures. The difference: Training concentrates on what is already known, but learning elicits what can be. This is a profound difference in the workplace, spawned by information technology, that the management world has yet to fully grasp. "The implications of this information explosion are clear," he says. "People could read 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, and never catch up with what is written. The world's corpus of knowledge is growing much faster than any person can keep up with it." Rothwell says companies need to hire good "workplace learners" (See On-The-Job Learning), and encourage the emergence of learning skills in all. At Hydro, the company uses "traveling experts," people who actually travel from plant to plant, spreading information on best practices, benchmarking and key performance indicators. "What we're going to compete on in the future is people," Sund explains. "Of course there will still be competition on advanced technology and R&D, but information and technology will not be what we compete on. It will be on our ability to use it, which means people, deployment of people; and participation of people in our businesses will take a totally different role. "The winners will be those that manage this structural decentralization -- the organizations that get the right people at the right spot and give them the information they need."