the literacy of the 21st century

Work is learning, and learning is the work. I have repeated this hundreds of times over the past six years and I know some people may think it is a trite statement. But the fact that learning is usually supported by an organizational department that has less influence than sales, marketing, operations, or information technology, shows that learning is not a priority in most enterprises. It’s often bolted on after the major decisions have been made. Several times on consulting engagements I have been perceived as ‘the learning guy’ dealing with a minor aspect of the ‘real’ project.

As I have noted before, as standardized work keeps getting automated, the only work left for people will be complex and creative. This type of work requires a culture of continuous learning. Imagine going to work where people cannot speak, read, or write. It would be impossible to run an organization if this were the case. We are moving into an era where it will be impossible to run a company where everyone is not constantly learning. This does not mean everyone will be on a training course. The network era workplace will require constant independent and interdependent learning by doing. In the very near future, those who cannot learn will miss out on employment opportunities and will be ineffective in self-employment.

The good news is that everyone can learn. The bad news is that many have forgotten how. Learning is the key requirement in dealing with complexity, because you first have to try something new, and then learn from the experiment. Emergent practices have to be developed, as it is too late to find out what has already worked for other companies (best practices), and your context will not be the same anyway.

The writing is on the wall, as this report on how innovation happens today shows, with examples from:

  • Adobe –  “the challenge of creating a culture that supports experimentation”
  • Etsy – “Innovation is a process of continuous learning and improvement.”
  • WonderSpark – “While founders have a tolerance for failure, most employees don’t.”
  • Intercom – “one of the biggest challenges to innovating is simply getting started”
  • Comcast – “connect the dots between established processes and new opportunities”

“The untold story behind today’s most innovative brands, however, is what happens behind the scenes. While success stories are plentiful, what most people don’t see is the amount of trial, error, and learning that goes into setting up workflows, empowering employees, and figuring out initiatives to prioritize. Regardless of whether you’re a part of an established company or two-person startup, the task of bringing new ideas to market is hard.” – The Next Web

Developing a do-it-yourself learning discipline is the core of personal knowledge mastery. Organizations that do not actively support something like the PKM framework are seriously limiting new insights that feed innovation. Larger organizations, with training departments, have to move their focus to social learning. They cannot keep up with rapid change by waiting to do a training needs analysis. Learning is the literacy of the 21st century.

working out loud

9 Responses to “the literacy of the 21st century”

  1. Jay Cross

    I couldn’t agree more. After all, nearly ten years ago I wrote “In a knowledge society, learning is the work and the work is learning. There is no separate reality in a classroom outside of the workplace” in Informal Learning.

    • Harold Jarche

      I remember the Informal Learning Unworkshops we did in 2006-07, just as your book was being published, Jay. Probably the craziest thing we did was use a different (new) web platform for each workshop. What could go wrong with that? 😉

  2. Jay Cross

    Yes, using a variety of free software was walking the high wire without a net. The amount of learning — for you, for me, for our colleagues with patience — was immense. Some people still don’t appreciate how easy it is to get your hands burned.


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