The Emerging Learning Society
By Brigadier K. Harikumar*
The human mind is professing beyond the old perception of the meaning of business. There is a silent revolution in our way of thinking. Business could play an important role as a bridge between the old and the new thought and thus contribute to a less traumatic and reasonably smooth transition. The old thought based on materialistic norms must give way to the new order based on the human perspective. As long as there is a gap between what people perceive as meaningful work and what organisations perceive as meaningful business, it is of no use stating that employees are the most important resources of a company. One of the areas to focus our attention is the aspects of creativity and innovation. Empowerment has become the new buzzword in business. This is a concept giving workers and employees freedom to innovate, and the power to take decisions that affect their work lives. Another significant transition is the network organisation. Openness is encouraged not only in its internal workings but also in its relations with the external environment. In order to postpone the possible skill obsolescence, companies will have to evolve new strategies to train, retain, and sustain the learning process. Total Quality Management has emerged as the managerial imperative of the decade. Building a quality culture involves a fundamental transformation of organisations and of the nature of work and employment.
A new economy is emerging out of the transition. The industry, the academic institutions, and the government in a facilitating role could form the knowledge triad’ and promote the emerging learning society through interactive learning, training, and development in a continuous process to fully harness the present and future potential of the system in its entirety.
One of the interesting paradoxes of the present globalisation of the economy and the ongoing trend of economic liberalisation in India is the apparent shift in the Power Centre itself – from an economic power to a brain power. All eyes are now focused on India. The world bodies who control the global economy, the industrialised nations confronting a possible recession, the technology leaders Worldwide, the NRIs are all watching with eagerness and concern. An opportunity for our only national asset – the people – is emerging and it is entirely up to us to seize the opportunity. Our human resources have been tried and tested worldwide and have already established their credentials in a variety of vocations. And yet, back home in the domestic environment, these assets have not yet been developed and channelised in a meaningful manner. Managing transition in India will, therefore, need more of a human resource response than a technology oriented response.
The Power Shift
Regardless of where and under what circumstances the new economic order emerges in our country, there are sufficient indications to assume that economic issues will not be of paramount importance in our future societies. This Power Shift’ as Alvin Toffler calls it is perhaps inevitable in the long run as the basic raw materials which form the core input to any economic activity are depleted over time, thanks to the visible increase in their consumption levels. The national economy which rests on a fragile structure created by indebtedness, speculation and a long period of high interest rates cannot withstand the tremors for a long time. In fact the fault lines are already visible in the general trend which permits the flow of money from a poor country like ours to rich countries and from our poor people for generations to come to the giant fortunes of the so called “capital collectors” in the developed countries. The exit route to such a disturbing phenomena is in a paradigm shift in the power centre itself to convert the areas of concern to areas of influence, if we have to survive in future.
Empires of the Future
Empires of the future are empires of the mind. The human mind is progressing, thanks to the emerging technologies, beyond the old perception of the meaning of business. Individuals are no longer trying to survive, but rather live, and by a continuous development, each their full potential. This change is not small. It is much more profound and revolutionary than we can imagine. It implies a silent revolution in our way of thinking, a revolution that turns upside down our deeply ingrained conceptions about human beings and about life in general. This change is strong, rapid and cannot be halted or wished away. This shift in thinking affects all parts of our very existence. Do we succumb to it or do we exploit the opportunity for growth.
Alvin Toffler in his monumental masterpiece “The Power Shift’ listed various elements that may constitute tomorrow’s wealth. Some of these are :
(a) An accelerated system of wealth creation, dependent on the exchange of data, information and knowledge.
(b) A change from mass production to flexible and customized production
(c) Symbolic knowledge replacing conventional physical factors of production.
(d) Electronic Information becoming the true medium of exchange.
(e) Goods and services getting modularised and configured into systems.
(f) Slow-moving bureaucracies replaced by small work units.
(g) Workers becoming less and less interchangeable and often irreplaceable.
(h) The emergence of the global village
(i) A circular process of production ,and
(j) A fusion of the producer and consumer to what he calls a “Prosumer”
The above elements of the accelerating economy are interrelated and will mutually reinforce the role of data, information, and knowledge throughout the economy of a nation. They will define the revolutionary system of high-tech wealth creation.
Business by its very nature, has an inherent capability to respond quickly to any such change. Indian Business. therefore, could play an important role as a bridge between the old and the new thought and thus contribute to a less traumatic and reasonably smooth transition. The old thought based on materialistic norms must give way to the new order based on the human perspective. At the core of the new thought is the concept that life is given to each of us for the sake of our personal and human development. Everything else – meaning all outer results – is secondary to the process this development constitutes. Our Industry and Business establishments now face what may well be their greatest challenge ever, to serve as the instruments of this process.
The emergence of Professionalism
In recent years, Indian business and Industry has started focusing more and more on the human mind and its resources. There is also a growing understanding that human capacity and human creativity are much greater than was previously imagined. Professional specialists seemingly derive their rewards from inward standards of excellence, from their professional societies, the intrinsic satisfaction of their task. In fact, they are committed to their task, not the job; to their standards, not their boss. And because they have degrees, they travel. When there is harmony between the two, they stay on otherwise they leave looking for greener pastures. This mobility of the brainware is very discernible in the current national business setting. People no longer seek work based on possible earnings, position or power. They demand arenas in which there are opportunities to develop their inner resources.
As long as there is a gap between what people perceive as meaningful work and what organisations perceive as meaningful business, it is of no use stating that employees are the most important resources of a Company. The big challenge for Indian Companies now is to become aware of this alienation and change the ground rules of business so that they can correspond to the new thought, the new human mind and the brand new personalities with their change to job-invention and shift to self-reliance often referred by Tom Peters in his much publicized seminars. The purpose and meaning of companies must be re-defined and brought into harmony with the thinking of the so-called Knowledge Management or Brain trust. This does not mean that a business concern should not be profitable. They must continue to generate the profits needed for survival. However, the focus is shifted from profitability to human development which then becomes the new route not only to survival but to future growth. Organisations must become “Process Oriented” instead of result oriented. Thus, the primary purpose or mission of a company becomes to serve as an ARENA or platform for the PERSONAL AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT. Training and Development and in a wider sense Human Resources Development and Management thus becomes a resource by which the management uses its Organisational manpower to achieve its goals. There is therefore, a need to be fully aware of the proper relationship and linkage between the Learning Processes and the Organisational Achievement and Effectiveness.
Creativity and Innovation
One of the areas to focus our attention is the aspects of creativity and innovation among the workers. employee or for that matter of managers at the functional, directional or the corporate level. Creativity means to meet challenges, solve problems and accept failures, thereby obtaining new knowledge and new insights. The development of our creativity presupposes that we test our capacity. Usually, there is little inclination to offer real challenges to employees in the lower levels of business hierarchies. It would require some freedom to meet those challenges, and someone higher up would have to relinquish some control. Company managers are beginning to see the importance of creativity in the workplace. They have begun to question the hierarchical system and have started flattening out their organisations. In practice, this essentially means we cut down on middle management levels and retain the basic structure. This may temporarily help, but in the long run we rarely accomplish anything, except perhaps, lowering wage costs. What is really needed is a change in our hierarchical way of thinking. The decisive difference lies here in the way leaders are appointed. Leadership in the new thought is formed by mutual consent. Individuals are called upon by colleagues to serve them as leaders of their operations or assignments, and they accept or reject those responsibilities. The leadership functions are thus performed by a new breed of co-ordinators.
A lot of companies spend fortunes on innovation but what they normally produce is the nth variety of the same old staple product. Innovation is a very tough thing for organisations to get their mind around because they cannot perceive a definite return on its investment. Tom Peters has stated that the history of commerce sadly suggests that market leadership nearly always reduced a company to conservatism. If a company wants to continue to command the heights, they must keep on creating, and innovating, and this is possible only through human endeavour and intervention. The ideas on creativity only innovation as a new business strategy thus goes far beyond the assumptions of the human relations model where employees were made to feel important. Now, they are acknowledged truly as IMPORTANT.
Empowerment has become the new buzzword in business. This is a concept giving workers and employees freedom to innovate, and the power to take decisions that affect their work lives. Effective managers empower their organisations because they believe in the innate potential of people to innovate and add value. To unleash this type of potential, senior managers must give up control over many kinds of decisions and allow employees at lower levels of the organisation to act independently and at many a time even entrepreneurially
A functional problem that may confront managers of an empowered organisation could be how to exercise adequate control in a set up that demands flexibility, innovation and creativity. Competitive business with demanding and informed customers must rely on employee initiative to seek out opportunities and respond to customer needs. But pursuing some opportunities can expose business houses to excessive risk to invite behaviours that can damage a company’s integrity. Robert Simons, a Harvard Business School Professor has prescribed a new business strategy for Empowered Organisations based on four levels of control as under:-
a) Belief systems communicating core values and mission of the Organisation
b) Boundary systems specifying and enforcing rules of the game.
c) Diagnostic control systems building and supporting clear targets, and
d) Interactive control systems opening organisational dialogue to encourage learning
The Network Organisation
Another significant transition is the Network Organisation. What keeps such an organisation is not an all powerful board or executive management team but the commons: shared vision. Rolf Osterberg in his book “The Corporate Renaissance defines the new company as an open company with no secrets. Openness in the new company is encouraged not only in its internal workings but also in its relations with the external environment. The network thus functions effectively as part of the larger societal network in total harmony. In the new organisation, there is a continuous and flexible process in which people and activities are consistently grouped and regrouped to provide the best possibilities for creative work.
Peter Senge in his Fifth Discipline Field Book has enunciated five core learning disciplines for a Learning Organisation. These are:-
a) Personal Mastery. Learning to expand our personal capacity to create the results we desire, and creating an organisational environment which encourages all its members to develop themselves towards the goal and purposes they choose.
b) Mental Models. Reflecting upon, continually clarifying, and improving our internal pictures of the World, and seeing how they shape our actions and decisions.
(c) Shared Vision. Building a sense of commitment in a group, by developing shared images of the future we seek to create, and the principles and guiding practices by which we hope to get there.
d) Team Learning. Transforming conversational and collective thinking skills, so that groups of people can reliably develop intelligence and ability greater than the sum of individual member’s talents.
e) Systems Thinking. A way of thinking about, and a language for describing and understanding the forces and interrelationship that shape the behaviour of systems. This discipline helps us see how to change systems more effectively, and to act more in tune with the larger processes of the natural and economic World.
The concept of Lifelong learning as against the conventional ideas of training and education is an important factor of the Transition. In order to postpone the possible skill obsolescence, companies will have to evolve new strategies to train, retrain and sustain the learning process. Customised training programmes through the philosophy of “Just-in time” modular training programmes as and when needed will become the order of the day. “In house” facilities will have to be created where feasible to maintain the desired organisational culture. This can be augmented by training through contracts to absorb and diffuse the current levels of technology in a cost effective manner.
Considering the various types of courses presently offered by the training institutions in our country viss-vis the chaining scenario in industry, the role of the technical institution demands not only to impart technical knowledge to the student, but also the skills and attitudes for a job in industry. This needs constant interaction between our technical institutions and the industry for the desired connectivity and synergy. Some of the possible areas of interaction could be in the area of joint Selection Process, Development of training programmes, Research and Development, Training of the Trainers, Faculty Exchange Programmes, Seminars, Conferences, Joint Projects and Joint advisory boards and committees.
The Quality Path
Total Quality Management (TQM) has emerged as the managerial imperative of the decade. There is considerably more to the production of quality goods and services than doing the job correctly, or satisfying an audit, important though these objectives may be. Building a quality culture involves a fundamental transformation of organisations and of the nature of work and employment. Developing TQM is like planting a garden, says Helga Drummond, in the book The TQM Movement”. And creating a garden requires vision, planning, and the disciplined application of skill and effort of all human resources at the disposal of an organisation. Like a garden, TQM is never finished. Continuous improvement is a fundamental tenet of TQM Philosophy and there lies its relevance and linkage with the “Leverage of Knowledge”.
A new economy is emerging out of the transition. The Central institutions of his new power centre will not be confederations of business or trade unions, nor banks or large corporations. Rather, they will be knowledge centres of different kinds. They will be the Learning societies of the future. Those who can fathom this change now will survive to see those who perish in the transition process. In the new scenario, there is immense scope for an interdependent and synergic partnership to create a “Knowledge Trust” in our country to absorb the changes of the power equation into our bloodstream. The Industry, the academic institutions and government in a facilitating role could form the “Knowledge Triad” and promote the emerging Learning Society through Interactive Learning, Training and Development in a continuous Process to fully harness the present and future potential of the system in its entirety.
1. Corporate Renaissance by Rolf Osterberg.
2. Powershift by Alvin Toffler.
3. The Tom Peters Seminar by Tom Peters.
4. The Pursuit of Wow by Tom Peters
5. The TOM Movement by Helga Drummond
6. The Fifth Discipline FieldBook by Peter Senge
7. Control in an Age of Empowerment – An Article of Robert Simons in HBR Mar-Apr 95.