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  • Writer's pictureBella Trenkova

New Organizational Leadership Attitudes in the Learning Economy

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

We are no longer in the Knowledge Economy powered by the Knowledge Worker!

Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" back in 1959. At the time, it revolutionized the field of business management, changing the view of how organizations and leaders should manage, motivate and inspire knowledge workers. Back in those days, only <10% of the population 25 yo and up had a college degree. Having a college degree was the main differentiator to put someone in the "knowledge worker" category, and it lasted a lifetime.

Not so much nowadays!

Speaking of my field in IT (but I am sure others will relate too), Bachelor's degree is hardly a differentiator anymore - virtually anyone 25 yo and up looking for an IT job has one. Having a Master's degree used to be a differentiator not too long ago. But nowadays, I am hearing quite too often the "why pay for a Master's program that will teach me the skills from 3-5 yrs ago!" sentiment. Most of the brightest undergrads would rather work for a Silicon Valley unicorn, rather than pursue a Master's degree. Employers concur and they'd rather hire someone with relevant, high-quality work experience than someone with the MS degree.

Having decades of experience is hardly a differentiator either. Recently, I was asked to fill out some "gaps" in my resume for employment and education from some 20+ yrs ago. (I keep my resume short - exactly 2 pages, no fluff from more than 5 yrs ago). I was a little ticked off - how's that even relevant when 90% of knowledge that I was expected to apply on that new contract, I learned only in the past 5-6 years?! Most hiring managers hardly skim past the last 2-3 years of experience.

Some 5-10 yrs ago it was a "red flag" to see a resume of someone who changed jobs every 1-2 years, or had a non-CS degree - they were deemed as non-reliable or lacking foundational knowledge, respectively. Nowadays, employers are looking exactly for those curious and brave souls that are always in search of new knowledge and experience, bringing along what they have learned in different fields of study, industries, and organizations.

New phenomenons such as DevOps and Public Cloud revolutionized the IT field. Many of the traditional bread-and-butter IT skills are considered commodity and no longer marketable on their own. Software Developers and Systems Engineers had to learn a myriad of new skills, practically overnight, to meet the new market demands. And those new skills are being redefined on a daily basis. Cyber Security, Software Engineering, Big Data, Data Sciences, AI/ML, IoT, Blockchain - most of those terms were not even a "thing" 10 years ago, and the ones that were - were completely redefined since then.

With skills and knowledge having a shorter and shorter shelf life, possessing a particular skill or knowledge seems to be less and less relevant.

Possessing the attitude and aptitude to continuously attain new knowledge makes all the difference!

We are no longer in the Knowledge Economy powered by the Knowledge Worker!

We are currently in the Learning Economy, powered by the Learner Worker!

Starting to write this article, I was a little gleeful and giddy that I came up with this new term "Learner Worker" all on my own. A quick Google search busted my bubble. Almost immediately, I came upon this woman and her blog (there are some insightful ideas that are definitely worth the click). She is certainly not alone in evangelizing continuous learning. She and many of the forward-thinking educators, however, focus almost solely on the individual's attitude toward continuous learning. That's absolutely critical, but it is also somewhat an incomplete model.

In order to succeed, a learneprenure (now that's all mine and I claim the bragging rights!) must be in an environment promoting continuous learning - the organization they work for must have the right attitudes toward learning too.

Learning Organizations must embrace new attitudes and practices that are unconventional and may seem counter-bottom-line, but are absolutely crucial for adapting to and mastering the new Learning Economy:

  • Training budget set-asides and utilization. Good employers set aside substantial training budgets. The better employers ensure that the budgets are spent and their employees utilize the money in the most efficient ways. Learning Economy-savvy employers know that training is not only a perk they throw in a letter of employment to attract high-end talent but is also an organizational investment with substantial ROI.

  • Intentional and managed programs for continuous learning. McKinsey evangelizes the 70/20/10 learning framework, where only 10% of the learning is expected to be done through an intervention (classroom or online training) - it is expensive, hard to accommodate schedule-wise and has relatively low knowledge retention rate. In order to "stick," knowledge must be reinforced - 20% of learning coming from interactions and collaboration, and 70% by doing the job and experimenting. Employers with the right attitudes toward continuous learning invest not only in individual training classes, but also in facilitated group projects, workshops, dojos, and communities of practice.

  • Dedicated time for learning. Employers can no longer get away with the attitude of “it is the employees' responsibility to develop their skills and own their career growth.” The statement still holds true but does not represent the whole truth. And the whole truth is that learning new tools and skills is more and more becoming part of the job description rather than a pre-requisite for hiring. As such, time has to be dedicated to it as part of the regular 40-hr workweek. It is an old adage that to maintain an edge, each one of us needs to invest 5 hrs a week to reading and learning a new skill. If the responsibility is equally shared, organizations and managers have to ensure at least 2-3 hrs per week, per Learner Workers are dedicated to their core job responsibility – Learning.

  • Culture of educated risk-taking and tolerance of failure. I was really lucky that in my first managerial job I had a boss who used to say: "Bella, the only people that never make a mistake are the ones that don't do anything meaningful." Learning without taking a risk, trying new things, and occasionally failing is impossible. Conversely, a failure is only a failure when we didn't learn from it. The most innovative companies in the world not only tolerate but celebrate failure.

  • Hire for the ability to adapt and learn, not for the current knowledge and past experience. Too many recruiters and hiring managers focus on the applicant's past and present. By far, the worst practice I have seen is stacking up the candidates against a hard & fast checklist of "required skills". (A friend of mine shared a recent experience where he was rejected because "he didn't have React on his resume". The recruiter completely overlooked his many years of experience with using alternative and creating his own JavaScript-based frameworks.) Too many employers shy away from hiring junior candidates, because of "lack of experience". This is really a nearsighted view aiming to solve reactively the problems of today, instead of looking proactively to seize the opportunities of the future. I, personally, would rather hire someone fresh out of college with high GPA, and computer gaming or ML side projects in their portfolio, than someone "experienced" doing the same O&M work for the past 10 years. With the right grooming and mentoring, in only 6 mos Junior will be solving problems that Mr. O&M had never solved. Which brings me to the next point...

  • Intentional mentoring and supported career growth. This is nothing new per se, but too many executives and mid-tier managers get caught up in the spin cycle and they forget that their most precious asset and the real bottom-line they need to watch is the happiness and fulfillment of their learner workers. It is not coincidental that the #1 objective on job seekers' resumes is "seeking opportunities for learning and career growth." The leaders in the Learning Economy know that Mastery is one of the three strongest intrinsic motivators, along with Purpose and Autonomy. Acquiring Mastery is the individual's responsibility. Guiding the journeys of the ones around them is the Learning Economy Leader's privilege and responsibility. Which, in turn, brings me to my next point...

  • Performance evaluation and goal setting. Please note that I didn't say "year-end performance evaluation"! The traditional yearly goal setting and performance evaluation frameworks are outdated and don't capture the speed of change in our environment. Personnel evaluation and goal setting need to be as agile and continuous, as our Agile software delivery is. The focus should also be shifted from measuring productivity metrics (which are a lot easier and "objective") to measuring growth, potential and innovation - all linked to learning. In my last organization and last corporate exec job, my performance evaluation framework was based on 3 types of goals, all three weighted almost equally: "how well you do the things you are supposed to do?", "what you'll learn next?", and "what you'll teach others or contribute to the organization?". The exact goals and objectives were designed by the associates and their managers, depending on the context of the program's, the team's, and the individual's needs and aspirations. The program where this approach was piloted first, evolved from "sort of Agile" to "full-on DevOps on the Cloud, with exceptional program performance evaluation " program in less than 2 years.

  • Learning programs aligned to corporate strategy. Again - not an earth-shattering thought. However, I see too many organizations pursuing the development of new strategic capabilities by buying those capabilities or hiring talent. It is a great accelerator, but goes only that far unless there is an intentional and managed learning program for the rest of the workforce. The most adaptive and competitive organizations ensure strategic priorities are reflected in their training plans and learning objectives for all of their associates.

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. " Charles Darwin

Individuals and organizations that constantly adapt by adopting continuous learning, viewing it as a strategic investment, quickly-depreciating asset, and competitive advantage, will be the ones thriving in the new Learning Economy. The Knowledge Economy organizations purchasing and rewarding only current knowledge will soon end up with the dinosaurs from the Industrial Worker Economy.


Bella Trenkova

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