I’ve long been a contrarian regarding our current view of learning in our work environments. I’ve come to believe that it is a growing barrier to progress. If we’re going to prosper and flourish, we need to embrace a very different approach to learning, one that is much more consistent with our humanity.
Skills versus capabilities
When I talk to leaders about learning, their focus is on learning “new” skills. They are concerned that, in a rapidly changing world, many skills are becoming obsolete. If workers are going to continue to be productive, they need to learn “new” skills. These skills aren’t really new, they’re just skills that most workers haven’t yet acquired. They need to be taught the skills.
Here’s where I start to be a contrarian. I challenge our narrow focus on skills and believe we need to expand our focus in learning to include capabilities. What’s the distinction? Skills are very valuable in a specific context – for example, how to operate a machine or how to use certain applications on a computer. Capabilities, in contrast, are valuable in all contexts – examples include curiosity, imagination and creativity. I’ve written extensively about this distinction here (pdf).
Connecting capabilities to support a new form of learning
Of course, some leaders are beginning to pay attention to capabilities, but they tend to approach them in isolation. We’ve all seen creativity workshops or imagination exercises. What’s missing is the need to connect capabilities. While each capability has some value on its own, the real potential comes when capabilities are combined.
Think about it. Curiosity is about exploration, venturing out into areas that have yet to be understood. But curiosity alone has only limited value. We need to cultivate connection and empathy so that we can form deeper and broader relationships with others. Exploring in isolation is much less rewarding than exploration with others. As we explore, we need imagination to come up with new ideas regarding how to create more value from the areas we are exploring. And ideas alone are not that helpful. We need creativity to help us develop and deploy approaches to help us to actually create the value that our imagination suggested we could pursue.
Done right, connecting these capabilities can unleash a virtuous cycle of learning. As we develop and deploy approaches to creating value with our creativity, our curiosity will gain come into play as we explore the impact that we have achieved. We can come together to imagine even more promising approaches and create even more value.
But this learning is very different from the learning that consumes the attention of most leaders today. When leaders talk about learning, they almost without exception are talking about learning in the form of sharing existing knowledge. This learning occurs in training rooms or through online video courses.
While not dismissing that form of learning, I again want to be a contrarian and suggest there’s a very different form of learning that is becoming much more necessary and valuable. It’s learning in the form of creating entirely new knowledge that never existed before. That form of learning occurs in the workplace, pursued by people who come together and take action as they cultivate the capabilities just described and address previously unseen opportunities to create more value.
While most leaders would acknowledge that this form of learning is important, they tend to confine it to small parts of the organization – research departments and/or innovation centers.
So, if capabilities are so important, how do we cultivate them? Here’s the good news. These capabilities are all innate within us. You don’t believe me? Let’s go to a playground and look at children 5 or 6 years old. Show me one that doesn’t have these capabilities as they play.
Unfortunately, our schools and our work environments have sought to crush these capabilities. We are taught to simply follow detailed instructions, reliably and efficiently, without asking too many questions or deviating from the assigned tasks. This is the key to success in the scalable efficiency institutions that dominate our world today.
Those capabilities may be hidden for many of us, but they are still there, waiting to be drawn out. How can we draw them out? It will be challenging because it will require very different work environments. We need work environments that will cultivate a very specific form of passion – the passion of the explorer (pdf).
The passion of the explorer has three components. People with this passion are committed to, and excited about, achieving more and more impact that is meaningful in a specific domain. When confronted with unexpected challenges, they become excited about the opportunity to achieve even greater impact. Finally, their first instinct when confronted with an unexpected challenge is how to connect with others who can help them get to a better answer faster.
People with this passion are driven to draw out and cultivate the capabilities I discussed earlier. They are excited about the opportunity to learn in the form of creating new knowledge. Curiosity, connection, imagination and creativity are essential for this kind of learning and they deeply value all these capabilities. They understand that these capabilities are deeply connected and should not be viewed in isolation.
But, here’s the problem. Our work environments today are deeply suspicious of people with the passion of the explorer. These people ask too many questions, they take too many risks, and they deviate from the process manual. That’s why, based on my research (pdf), only about 14% of US workers have this form of passion in their work.
Unleashing passion and capabilities
So, how do we change this? It won’t be easy. It will require us to transform the institutional models that shape all large institutions around the world. As I’ve written about here (pdf), the prevailing institutional model is scalable efficiency where the key to success to do things faster and cheaper at scale. This model has driven the growth of large institutions over the past century but, in the Big Shift, the paradox is that scalable efficiency is becoming less and less efficient because it has a hard time dealing with the accelerating pace of change.
We need to make a shift from the institutional model of scalable efficiency to a model of scalable learning. As already discussed, the focus of this new institutional model is on learning in the form of creating new knowledge by mobilizing people throughout an organization to come together and address unseen problems and opportunities to create more value. These models can scale even further by building networks of relationships among people that extend far beyond a single institution.
The scalable learning model focuses on cultivating the capabilities already discussed and recognizes that the passion of the explorer is the most powerful motivator for people to draw out and exercise these capabilities. It encourages everyone to find and pursue their passion of the explorer.
The scalable learning model challenges virtually all the beliefs and practices that prevail in our existing scalable efficiency models. For this reason, it will be very challenging for existing large institutions to make the transition. As I’ve written about here (pdf), the most effective way for large institutions to transition will be to scale the edge, rather than pursuing “big bang” top-down change programs that seek transform the core of the institution.
As challenging as it might be, the transition will be deeply rewarding. At its best, the scalable efficiency model is a diminishing returns model – the more efficient we become, the longer and harder we have to work to achieve the next increment of efficiency. In contrast, the scalable learning model is an increasing returns model where value can grow exponentially as learning expands its horizons and accelerates.
We live in a rapidly changing world where the most valuable and necessary learning for everyone is learning in the form of creating new knowledge. This form of learning requires a combination of uniquely human capabilities – curiosity, connection, imagination and creativity. People who find and pursue the passion of the explorer are powerfully motivated to develop these capabilities. If we all are going to embrace the passion of the explorer, we need to transform our institutions. It won’t be easy, but the rewards will be enormous. Let’s get started.