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The Technology Crutch and Crossing the Cultural Learning Chasm

  • Bill Schmarzo 

“The future is already here. It is just unevenly distributed.” – William Gibson

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) released research showing that while 94% of companies have big aspirations to deliver substantial impact via digital transformation, the majority of these digital transformations will fail.  Their research highlighted five challenges that organizations must address to successfully execute their digital transformation (Figure 1):

  1. Making the right choices among disruptive technologies, with the top three disruptive technologies being advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI), blockchain, and IoT
  2. Reaching scale fast with new digital solutions
  3. Recruiting digital talent with the top three hires being in advanced tech, software engineers, and data scientists
  4. Prioritizing investment and development
  5. Managing the cost and uncertainty of return on investment

Figure 1: BCG “Mind the Tech Gap” Research

Useful list but misses the most important transformation necessary to an organization’s digital transformation aspirations – cultural learning transformation!

To quote my colleague Henrik Göthberg, “The cycle for each technology revolution has shortened. We are now in a state where it is not meaningful to describe it as a revolution anymore. Instead, we are now in a state of continuous learning and adaptability.”

And this state of continuous learning and adapting is driven by the Law of Accelerating Returns.

Law of Accelerating Returns states that the human and cultural learnings from technology advancements feed on themselves, thereby accelerating the rate of advancements and pushing the overall technology advancements well past the linear extrapolation of current progress.

The rate of progress of an evolutionary process increases exponentially as the culture of an organization continuously learns and adapts to the practical, real-world application of the technology advancements. Yes, mastering the “Economies of Learning” are mandatory in a world of constant technology, society, environmental, economic, and political disruption.

Economies of Learning measures organization’s value creation effectiveness from continuously learning and adapting of the organization’s human and analytics assets from operational interactions

So, 1) given the importance of economies of learning in a world of constant change, and 2) given how important creating a culture of continuous learning and adapting is for exploiting the economies of learning, why then, is it so hard to get organizations to prioritize cultural learning transformation? Let’s explore that question.

Crossing the Cultural Learning Chasm

I think it’s easy for senior management to get sucked into the potential of tech.  Nearly every business executive gets excited about the business potential of AI to create semi-autonomous products and processes, Blockchain to accelerate point-to-point commerce, and Quantum Computing to solve previously unsolvable operational problems.  Heck, it’s the stuff of movies!

But addressing cultural learning transformation requires senior management to actually change their management and leadership behaviors, and that’s the challenge.  Here is a list of actions that senior management can take today to start to cross that Cultural Learning Chasm.

1) Empower Everyone in the Organization

Crossing the Cultural Learning Chasm starts by creating and empowering agile teams founded around common language and mission to accelerate learning and adapting in fluid operational situations.  That requires leadership to push authority and responsibility down to the points in the organization where the decisions get made.  And that means giving up the traditional command and control management structures.

As I discussed in “5 Ways to Empower Your Team and Scale Innovation”, from Lord Nelson’s stunning defeat of the French-Spanish Armada at the Battle of the Trafalgar to the lessons from General Stanley McChrystal must read book “Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World”, sustainable game-changing performance can only be attained when senior leadership is willing to empower the “front-lines” with the responsibility AND authority to make real-time decisions at the edges of organizational engagement (Figure 2).


Figure 2: Empowerment led to the Stunning Defeat of Napoleon’s French-Spanish Armada

2) Nurture Organizational Improvisation

Like great sports teams and jazz quartets, successful organizations exhibit organizational “improvisation” in their ability to shuffle team members between teams depending upon situational needs while maintaining operational integrity. 

Instead of command-and-control organizational structures putting people into fixed “boxes”, organizations can create improv “swirls” where employees can move between projects based upon skill sets, needs of that project, and urgency of the situation.

Organizational improvisation requires senior management to commit to preparing and empowering everyone to lead. That means nurturing facilitation skills that can embrace, blend, and synergize across a diverse set of perspectives to address wicked business, operational, and organizational challenges.  And in the process, enabling the transition of group problem solving from compromising on the “Least Worst” option to synergizing as a team to reach the “Best Best” Option (Figure 3).


Figure 3:  Organizational Improvisation: From “Least Worst” to “Best Best” Option

3) Learning and Growing Through Failure

“I haven’t failed, I’ve found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” -Thomas Edison.

This may be the area where senior management has the most trouble, accepting the importance of failing. Failing is a natural way to learn. To develop great products and services, you cannot be afraid to fail. If you aren’t failing enough, then you’re not pushing the edges of learning enough.

This is where leading organizations are embracing design thinking as a cultural mindset to accelerate experimentation and learning throughout the organization; to empower those at the front-lines of the operations to try, fail, unlearn, learn, and try again (Figure 4).


Figure 4:  Design Thinking Humanizes Data Science

4) Mastering Unlearning

“You can’t climb a ladder if you’re not willing to let go of the rung below you.”

A corollary to “Learning and Growing Through Failure” is “Mastering Unlearning”.  Unlearning is the ability to discard something learned (e.g., outdated processes, guidelines, or rules of thumbs). Unlearning is especially hard if you have spent a lifetime perfecting something.

It takes years – sometimes a lifetime – to perfect certain skills. And once we get comfortable with those skills, we become reluctant to change. Sometimes, it is harder to un-wire those synoptic nerve endings and deep memories than it was to wire them in the first place.

Dan Evert shared the following historical quotes about the power of unlearning:

  • Rumi – “Recognize that unlearning is the highest form of learning.”
  • Thoreau – “When any real progress is made, we unlearn and learn anew what we thought we knew before.”
  • Darwin – “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
  • Toffler “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Summary: Crossing the Cultural Learning Chasm

Being able to capitalize on the economic potential of new technologies requires building an organizational culture of continuous learning and adapting. This requires exploiting the Law of Accelerating Returns and mastering the Economies of Learning to cross the Cultural Learning Chasm (Figure 5).


Figure 5: Data & Analytics Business Model Maturity Index Inflection Points

The Cultural Learning Chasm is a third inflection point on the Data & Analytics Business Model Maturity Index – a benchmark and guide to help organizations become more effective at leveraging data and analytics to power their business and operational models.  The three inflection points are:

  1. Crossing the Analytics Chasm.  Leveraging value engineering, nanoeconomics, and the “Thinking Like a Data Scientist” methodology to drive the business and technology collaboration around the business and operational use cases necessary to cross the analytics chasm and create “value” for the organization.
  2. Insights Monetization.  Productizing the customer, product, service, and operational insights (behavioral and performance predicted propensities) uncovered in the Business Insights and Business Optimization stages to create Data Products and AI Apps that derive and drive new sources of value.
  3. Cultural Learning Transformation.  Empower your stakeholders (internal and external) to master the economies of learning – both machine and human learning – and foster a culture of continuous learning and adapting to leap over the Cultural Learning Chasm in exploiting new technology, economic, market, environmental, and societal changes.

Believe me when I say that we have just started this conversation!