As we make our way out of the recent recession, it is clear that the business world has changed dramatically and there will be no going back to the way things were. Yet the training and development world remains largely stuck in dated thinking, practices, and programs that are increasingly ineffective and often irrelevant. The push to e-learning, distance learning, and a reliance on increasingly expensive learning and knowledge management systems is trendy and may help reduce training costs, but it does not address the central problems that the learning profession is facing.
Instead, it is time to look at the larger underlying issues shaping the business world and redesign our training and development programs to best prepare for this new future. This article will examine the increasingly irrelevant fundamentals of modern management, identify some new forces shaping the business world, and describe implications for the training and development profession.
Roots in the industrial era
The "era of modern management" began at the end of World War II, the high point of the industrial era. The United States was mobilized for production, and manufacturing was the driving force of its economy. Japan's economy was destroyed, and Taiichi Ohno began to build the industrial giant that is today known as Toyota.
What we now know as the Toyota Production System has driven most of the innovations that have become the mainstay of the business world over the last 60 years. What we know as the quality movement, just-in-time inventory management, Lean, and Six-Sigma, were all developed at Toyota. These processes and practices were developed to eliminate waste in an industrial world. Scrap, re-work, excess inventory, waiting, and wasted time and motion were the targets for the industrial engineers who initially developed and deployed these innovations.
Japan became the world leader in developing new ways to eliminate waste, because it was the country that could least afford such waste. Unlike the United States with its vast resources, Japan has to import most of its raw materials and is constantly on the hunt for new ways to be more efficient; naturally, Japan became a pioneer in industrial efficiency.
Much of the current crop of training and development programs are rooted in this industrial-era thinking that has dominated the United States since the end of WWII. There are any number of courses on supervision, communication, decision making, problem solving, leadership, management, Lean thinking and practice, Six-Sigma training, and all of the analysis that is derived from and central to these processes. As a result, we tend to treat training and development much like an assembly line: Take this course, add that seminar, move on down the line, and bolt on this skill. The goal is often to see how many options can be offered in the least amount of time and at the lowest cost.
While most everyone is clear that this is an outdated approach with outdated content that isn't really working, no one wants to pull the chain to "stop the line." Instead, the new trend is to try increasingly complex and expensive technological solutions such as e-learning and knowledge and learning management systems. Technology isn't the answer, because it doesn't address the real issues. Here is a look at the new driving forces in the business world and the new wastes toward which we must turn our attention.
A new era for learning
We are no longer living and working in the industrial era, so we must begin with a fundamental re-orientation toward work. In the new world, work is no longer focused on making things. Instead, it is about coordinating with others both inside and outside of a business to mobilize resources that enable the effective and efficient production of customer satisfaction.
The value generators in today's economy are what we call coordination workers. These are people who are educated, mobile, creative, and ambitious, and who generate value by effectively coordinating with each other inside of and across organizational boundaries to create customer satisfaction. The practices of agility, adaptability, flexibility, innovation, coordination, cooperation, mobilization, and trust are critical to these workers; these are the competencies they use to generate value. However, these skills are not the mainstays of our industrial era thinking, work practices, and organizational designs.
The silent killers
In the business world there will always be a need to eliminate waste, but we must set our sights on a new set of wastes that will be relevant to the next 20 years instead of the past 20 years. We call these wastes the new silent killers of productivity and profitability. As you will see, the implications of these killers affect every part of a business.
Degenerative moods. A mood is a predisposition for action. There are two types of moods - generative and degenerative. Moods generate - or do not generate - possibilities for constructive action. Too many organizations today remain within the grip of degenerative moods. A foul mixture of distrust, resentment, resignation, cynicism, arrogance, and complacency is all too often the norm. Degenerative moods are effective foundations for a wide range of unproductive behaviors. People simply cannot or will not perform to their potential when they are stuck in degenerative moods.
Degenerative moods create waste, and yet there is little in contemporary management theory that recognizes the importance of moods and their impact on productivity and profitability. Current training and development thinking has little to offer beyond work on motivation and engagement, both of which have proven to be largely ineffective. There is no structural or process change that can overcome deeply entrenched degenerative moods. Something different is required.
Lack of listening. Listening does not mean merely hearing or paying attention. It is a specific type of active interpretation that shapes our realities and drives our actions. Listening is a specific critical skill that is largely unknown and certainly unrecognized as central to the business world. By blindly creating or tolerating working conditions in which people do not and often cannot effectively speak and listen to each other - either as a result of institutionalized mistrust, resignation, or resentment (examples of degenerative moods), an addiction to email, or simple incompetence for speaking and listening - we kill productivity and profitability.
If people are not listening to each other, accomplishing anything significant becomes extremely expensive, and making effective changes becomes nearly impossible. The kind of listening we suggest cannot be achieved with tired "active listening" programs. Our new world requires new practices.
Bureaucratic styles. We interact with each other in our modern bureaucracy as if we would be better off as machines performing tasks. Bureaucracies pay attention to the correctness of their practices and adherence to their standards. Tremendous wastes are not even visible, such as repetition, unnecessary actions, obsolete actions, actions that produce a result opposite of their designers' intents, and actions that produce horrific side effects. The fall of many of our great companies - GM, Chrysler, AT&T, and a host of others - is a testimony to bureaucratic blindness.
Unfortunately, contemporary management theory offers no alternatives to this style of organizing work and designing organizational structures. Current hierarchically oriented structures and rigid processes, no matter how lean or "matrixed" are relics of the by-gone industrial era. In the new world that is emerging around us, bureaucratic practices are becoming increasingly dangerous. They not only directly kill productivity and profitability; they kill the generative moods of ambition, confidence, and trust that are essential to building consistent competitive advantage.
Worship of information. In the rush to make our enterprises more efficient, we often mistakenly orient ourselves, our actions, and our attention around information and information systems. Many organizational practices value data and measures above employees. We tolerate the illusion that the essential aspects of generating value and customer satisfaction can be invented, managed, and sustained through the creation, storage, retrieval, display, and publication of information.
Contemporary information systems are blind to many of the key drivers of productivity and have consistently failed in their quest to integrate the diverse operations of a company. Management and IT systems, processes, and products are aimed at achieving the industrial era goals of stability, predictability, and standardization as opposed to enabling the processes and practices of cooperation, collaboration, and innovation that are essential to growing a business in services-dominated era dominated. By attempting to substitute systems for people, we have also often eliminated the passion, joy, creativity, and spontaneity that are essential to generating competitive advantage.
Suppressing innovation. As a result of bureaucratic work styles and a lack of listening, we have come to tolerate ways of working in which people, ideas, and practices that are different, unusual, or new are avoided, feared, or rejected. When this happens, it becomes nearly impossible to develop flexible and new practices for dealing with a changing world. Simply put, an organization that cannot innovate is dead.
Many organizations confuse the occasional "lightning strike" of a new idea or product innovation with a culture in which innovation is developed, fostered, rewarded, and embedded into the enterprise. We must learn to innovate not only in the product arena, but also in services, processes, organizational design, marketing, leadership, and management.
Today the greatest enemy of innovation is modern management. Contemporary management practices are geared toward ensuring stability and predictability and avoiding surprises or problems. Innovation is unpredictable and disruptive and thus, in many organizations, largely suppressed. Such suppression results in terrible waste and is clearly a killer of productivity.
Modern indentured servitude. We live in a world of sharp contrasts where we have more choices, opportunities, wealth, and prosperity than at any other time in human history. Yet, we are more depressed, dissatisfied, and despondent than at any other time as well. A key contributor to this malaise is the contemporary view that work consists fundamentally of an endless series of to-dos, and that while these tasks may have commercial value for the enterprise, they produce little or no sense of value for me.
As a result of the combined effects of the above wastes, we have inadvertently created a kind of modern indentured servitude. We sell ourselves into service in exchange for money and have only fleeting "real" lives outside of work. Many people feel like victims trapped by their needs to make a living, prepare for retirement, support families, and deal with modern life. We ignore, diminish, or distort the ways that work can and does bring meaning to people's lives. For our work to be seen as nothing more than modern feudal toil saps our strength and transforms our working lives from a source of inspiration and contribution in life to a gray daily hiatus in a futile search for meaning.
Those who occupy senior management roles may have trouble seeing or identifying with this phenomenon, and we caution you against assuming it only happens in other organizations. Often the executive floors do a better job of creating relevant meaning for their occupants. At the same time, the occupants of those floors are responsible for creating meaning for the company as a whole. They are the ones who design or tolerate the practices, processes, structures, moods, and measures that create or destroy meaning within the company.
Implications for the profession
These modern wastes contribute to a significant part of the cost of running organizations today - in excess of 60 percent of the total administrative and managerial costs of the enterprise. This is a vast source of waste; no amount of Lean, Six Sigma, engagement programs, or any of our other current management practices or fads will address them.
The training and development world is faced with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Rather than make incremental improvements to programs that are outdated or find new electronic ways to deliver them, we can enter into a new era of content and context. Learning in this new world must be seen as the development of a new competence, and not merely dispensing new information. Talking about the silent killers or explaining them will not enable anyone to do anything about them. Instead we must build entirely new curriculums, training environments, and organizational cultures. There has never been a greater need to transform our organizations or a way forward via an entirely new approach to training.
An ongoing lament of the training and development world is, "No one takes us seriously; they won't listen to us, and they don't get it." If you want to be taken seriously, you can start by taking yourself seriously. It's time to close the industrial era and open the new era of coordination. It won't happen if you don't act.
Organization transformation requires focus, resources, and executive commitment. None of this will come about by issuing edicts, holding a few classes, adding a course to the corporate university, or tweaking the LMS. Instead, it requires a complete re-orientation of work, training, and development. The time to start is now!