Learning and Change

Many of us who study change management are observing the impacts of the rapid development of smart machines on workplace dynamics. These machines will increase the accuracy of prediction and spare humans from repetitive work, leading to improved efficiency and faster decision-making. Additionally, past technological shifts have shown us that with new models of production and supervision there was a rapid increase in the demand for workers who could run, repair and improve the interface between workers and their machines, and sociologists surmise that this allowed for the development of a broad-based middle class. However, throughout our economic evolution technological innovation reduced the need for human labor by displacing many activities that were once central to the labor force. Many scholars are now suggesting that within the next ten years over 30-40% of the work done by people today will be handled by smart machines.

Human beings were here before the creation of the wheel, and when we look back on our progress it’s quite impressive. The overriding reality seems to suggest that in the long run machines replace inefficient human labor while creating unemployment turmoil in the short run. As we have seen in the recent election many people without a college education are angry that their jobs have been exported or eliminated altogether. Handing a pick and shovel to someone who has just been displaced by technology as a way of solving our infrastructure and unemployment problems won’t solve either issue. The formula for addressing these concerns hasn’t changed in the last hundred and fifty years. Abraham Lincoln recognized these disparities in economic opportunities when he signed the Land Grant College Act in 1865; thereby, creating public funding for educating returning soldiers throughout the country and assisting farming communities through outreach Extension services. In hindsight, this may have been Lincoln’s greatest contribution to the future economic well-being of the country. By providing the resources to produce a steady stream of educated workers to design and manage the first wave of industrialization, Lincoln recast the problem from one of potential unemployment for returning troops to one that addressed the opportunity for developing a professional working class.

Following World War II, President Roosevelt challenged Congress to pass the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, to give those returning veterans the opportunity of resuming their education or technical training after discharge, or of taking a refresher or retraining course, tuition free with the opportunity to receive a monthly allowance while pursuing their studies. Heralded as one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever produced by the U.S. federal government, with large social, economic and political impacts, by 1956, 7.8 million of 16 million World War II veterans had participated in an education or training program. These opportunities for education and training paralleled significant technology expansion in the U.S. following the war. New inventions and the fabrication of new materials expanded the infrastructure and penetrated the marketplace. Without the training provisions for veterans to prepare them for the new work to be done, a very different scenario might have unfolded as millions of unskilled veterans flooded the marketplace unable to compete for the new jobs and activities.

The challenges we have today have their origin in the decision to institutionalize the post-secondary educational experience to one that ends upon graduation in your early twenties. With the velocity of change increasing as smart machines continue to displace large numbers of our present workforce, we should be viewing the educational process as a creative endeavor that a person pursues on a part-time basis throughout their working career. It’s our most important “infrastructure,” and it needs to be almost completely overhauled. The educational process should be incorporated into job descriptions, and the government should support that process by providing incentives for the private sector to invest in and support their employees’ pursuit a lifetime of learning and adapting to emerging opportunities. The latest version of the GI Bill, passed in 2008, gives veterans with active duty service on, or after September 11, 2001, enhanced educational benefits that cover more educational expenses, provide a living allowance, money for books and the ability to transfer unused educational benefits to spouses or children. These kinds of initiatives need to be tailored and sized to the broader community if we are to address this second industrial revolution.

So, in moving forward, our strategy should reflect what Lincoln and Roosevelt recognized as a necessity in the mid-19th and 20th centuries. By linking business, academic and governmental resources we can once more prepare a skilled workforce to match technological progress with its concomitant shifts in jobs and careers.

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Harold V. Langlois


To my recollection I don’t remember making a conscious decision to design my career with the intent of remaining relevant in the academic community while pursuing significant leadership positions in the financial industry. Given my personal preference to opt for influence over power, I developed supportive relationships with colleagues who would eventually occupy senior leadership positions in both national and regional firms. Before the role of “coach” had been coined outside of the sports world, the work that gave me the most satisfaction focused on building teams that were collaborative and driven by mutual trust.

From the outset of my academic career I had been coaching Board Chairmen, Chancellors and University Presidents well before I became immersed in the world of finance. The challenges of coaching requires one to restrain from taking a position or expressing an opinion that would insert yourself into the organization’s political arena, and thereby blur the boundaries of your responsibilities. To be effective and helpful, it’s necessary to have open and candid conversations with the leadership in order to help these decision makers reflect on their mindset by asking questions that inject alternative perspectives into the discussion. This entails learning to ask challenging questions in order to leverage their intuition. This is not about offering advice. Rather, it’s about constructing a relationship predicated on knowledge, understanding and trust.

Once in a while when I think that things are slightly out of focus I play one of those old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movies. One is quickly mesmerized by the flawless execution, complete fluidity, and their seamless performance. With all that talent in motion it’s inevitable to find yourself “Putting on the Ritz.”

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harold-01Over the past 35 years from both a consulting and teaching perspective I have observed that these two professions have altered their focus from prescriptive problem solving to one that incorporates building new skills that address the challenges of working within complex dynamic systems. With quantum increases in both the amount and velocity of information generated by new technologies, it’s become more difficult to create probability models that rely upon historical correlations. Rather than relying on prior experiences that no longer reflect conditions that have rapidly morphed, we are now designing learning approaches that foster adaption and reconfiguration.

 

When incorporating a learning model whose drivers are probing, reflecting, and adjusting, there are some counter-intuitive approaches that produce better results. The first thing to resist is becoming caught up in the frenetic activity of adapting to rapid change. Instead of speeding up in order to get out in front of what appears to be taking place, it’s important to build the discipline of slowing down in order to create the clearest picture of what you are facing. Avoid generalizations with their broad-based assumptions, and look for activities that act as outliers. This process of deconstruction allows you to work through the predisposition of relying on prior understandings of how things once worked. It avoids the tendencies to look for similarities that are reflections of previous conditions.

 

This approach rejects the traditional cyclical planning orientation of going from a stable system to one of significant organizational reconfiguration and then returning to a re-invigorated stable model. Instead, by embracing an ongoing stream of emergent opportunities that become evident as the organization maintains a constant vigilance on incorporating multiple adaptions and innovations into its core guidance system, it strives to embrace a day to day adaptive approach. Emergence is driven by engaging all of the significant players in team-driven activities that learn how to benefit from collaborating throughout the entire system. CMS is committed to helping organizations and individuals develop and refine the skill sets that are necessary to make this emergent process both successful and meaningful. This is not a process that you can roll out. Rather, it’s an orientation toward learning that incorporates the subtlety and nuances of each individual and system.

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