Scalable learning and what it means for you

I am currently reading a book called The Technology Fallacy: How People Are the Real Key to Digital Transformation by a team of researchers at MIT and Deloitte. As you can tell, it is the sort of book that puts its main argument in the title, but I think it is a good argument and would highly recommend the book. It is based of four years of surveys and interviews on the subject of digital disruption, although they prefer the term ‘digital maturity’. They open with the dramatic finding that, whereas 87% of their respondents recognise that digital disruption is very real in their industry, only 44% think that their organisation is doing enough to respond to it. A sobering gap for anyone running a business, or indeed a business unit.
However, the main idea I wanted to highlight in this post is one they draw from the work of John Hagel, a highly respected management consultant and co-founder of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge. To summarise (there is more detail in an interview with Forbes here), Hagel argues that the emergence of large companies over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was driven by a need for ‘scalable efficiency’. It was simply more efficient to have large numbers of people and machines working together in a co-ordinated fashion than spread across different organisations, and to some extent it still is.
However, there are signs that, as communication technology has advanced, this is becoming less important (as the authors note elsewhere in the book, the drive for efficiency matters, but is subject to diminishing returns over time, whereas the returns from innovation can be exponential). Scalable efficiency is being replaced is being replaced as a rationale for growth with ‘scalable learning’. Large organisations may have an advantage over smaller ones if they use their size to provide more learning opportunities for their employees and in capturing and building on that learning. This will enable them to attract the brightest and best and so continue the cycle.
Large organisations may have an advantage, but then again they may not. It could be that they provide greater support for employees to learn, use their resources to support experiments and innovations that may or may not work and encourage sharing of perspectives and ideas. Then again, the opposite is also possible, particularly if the organisation’s overriding goal is still scalable efficiency. It may well be that the weight of bureaucracy and top-down decision-making stifles risk-taking and innovation, and breeds a compliance mindset where employees do as they are told and are not especially encouraged or supported in their learning. Of course, small organisations are not immune from top-down decision-making and risk aversion either, but it is at least possible that smaller organisations will have some advantages here, which in turn could lead to entire industries being reshaped.
This idea really resonates with me. If I consider why I left certain jobs in the past, it was often because I really didn’t think I was learning very much in them. I’ve always felt that a good test of the mantra that “people are our greatest asset” is how far an organisation commits resources and priority to giving its employees opportunities for learning and development. So, if there is anything at all in this idea then there is a major challenge for both employers and individuals. For employers, rather than being a nice-to-have, learning needs to be a central plank of strategy and drive decision-making. For individuals, the challenge is to ensure that they are constantly learning and improving skills and knowledge, whether through formal training, informal exploration or in the nature of the job. If Hagel is right, and I suspect he is, the future belongs to organisations and individuals who can get this right.