In a skype conversation with Tony Karrer last week, our attention turned to change. Specifically, what is it that is changing in society? With technology? How do these changes impact corporate learning? Or higher education?
Given the breadth of change, is it possible to find a metaphor that can readily be used to capture not only what has changed but what we (as individuals and as organizations) are becoming?
I’m generally fairly cynical about catch-phrase metaphors such as “flat world”, “long tail”, “tipping point”, “[anything]2.0″ and so on. These phrases fail to capture the full complexity of the change they are trying to define. However, as models (and any model is at best a simplified abstraction of the phenomenon they intend to represent), catch phrases serve as initiation devices. It is a far easier to sit down with someone who has not been following technological developments and express change through terms like “web 2.0″ than it is to do a quick review of the history of the web, limitations of early web-based models (one-way flow) and the recent return to read-write web models, crowd sourcing, etc.
What is changing…
Rather than offering a metaphor – largely due to the fact that I haven’t yet discovered one that captures what I want it to – I’ll quickly run through meadows of change and describe what I think exists. This process of trying to define “what is the fundamental nature of change” is one that I have to pathologically tackle annually. In 2006, in Knowing Knowledge (.pdf here), I listed a series of seven broad change factors:
Change is shaping a new reality under the fabric of our daily lives. Seven broad societal trends are changing the environment in which knowledge exists:
1. The rise of the individual: Individuals have more control, more capacity to create and to connect than in any era in history.
Relationships are defined by convenience and interest not geography. We can work wherever and whenever. Time and space no longer limit global conversations.
People are able to connect, share, and create. We are co-creators, not knowledge consumers. Content generation is in the hands of the many. Co-creation is an expression of self…a sense of identity…ownership. We own who we are by the contributions we make.
2. Increased connectedness: Connections raise the potential for adaptation. The power of the human brain is derived from the capacity of each neuron to form many connections. Entities capable of connection forming are capable of adapting. The greater the number of connections possible, the more adaptive the organization.
We are being remade by our connectivity. As everything becomes connected, everything becomes transparent. Technology illuminates what was not discernable to the human eye.
3. Immediacy and now: Everything is now. Knowledge flows in real time. Global conversations are no longer restricted by physical space. The world has become immediate. New information changes markets in minutes. New programs are written in hours, building on the openness and work of others. Leaders must know what happened five minutes ago, not only what happened yesterday. Our filters of information and knowledge assume delays and stopping points, so we can assess implications.
4. Breakdown and repackaging: It is all in pieces. Knowledge is unmoored. The selection, flow, and discussion of knowledge have all moved from controlled spaces (at the point of creation or filtering) to the domain of the consumer. We take small pieces. We mix them. We create personal understandings.
Shared understandings happen only when we absorb similar patterns as others…or when we create shared patterns. Today, we receive our news, our entertainment, our learning, from distributed means. Two people in the same household stitch together different understandings based on the pieces each used.
5. Prominence of the conduit: Connection-forming tools will always create content, but their value lies in our ability to reflect on, dialogue about, and internalize content in order to learn. Content is knowledge frozen at a certain time (a magazine article), whereas a connection is a pipeline to continue to flow new knowledge.
6. Global socialization: We are now able to socialize our activities to an unprecedented level. Technology is opening doors to conversation. Every nuance, every characteristic, can be dissected and represented in multiple ways and perspectives. The notion of what is known is confused with limitless viewpoints. Certainty is clouded by multiplicity.
7. Blurring worlds of physical and virtual: We blend our virtual interactions with face-to-face. Our water cooler conversations driven by last night’s newscast, the comic strip in the morning paper, are replaced with discussions of video logs, or content presented online (personalizing the internet with our views). The creator, the consumer have become one.
The membrane between real and virtual is thinning.
We are starting to exist simultaneously in each.
And eight broad trends influencing our relationship to knowledge:
1. Abundance: Knowledge depreciates rapidly when new knowledge is constantly being created. The life-span of knowledge is shrinking. An expectancy of relevance and currency of knowledge, for a cycle of years and decades, has now been reduced to months and years for many disciplines. Fifty years ago, education prepared an individual for a life-long career in a particular field.
2. Capacity for recombination: The ability to connect, recombine, and recreate are hallmarks of knowledge today. Small pieces, which stand on their own, can be recreated in different media, contexts, and used to create more personalized, complex structures. The material used to build a car must be put together in a precise manner in order for the vehicle to function. Knowledge can be woven, connected, and recombined in limitless ways…creating the possibility of personalized networks of knowledge.
3. Certainty…for now: Knowledge is not directly related to certainty. We think that “to know” means to abolish doubt. But knowledge is often more about knowing that we do not know…where not knowing is held in context.
Certain things we can know for certainty, but only for now. The pressures of change form quickly from non-traditional corners. Developing countries, the masses, the oppressed—all can be partakers in shaping the direction the wind of knowledge blows.
4. Pace of development: Books take years to publish. Conferences take months to plan. Magazines take weeks to write. TV newscasts take hours to produce. End user created media takes minutes to produce and circulate.
The filter of time, to take the edge off of reactionism, is torn away. Events are deciphered in real time. The ferocity of responses, views, and dissemination walks a path of passion, not cold reason.
5. Representation through media: Ours is a world shaped by diversity—text, video, audio, games, and simulations represent ideas, concepts, and emotions. The power of text fails to cast its shadow as broadly as previously. The creators of knowledge do well to think beyond text. The passivity of text is disturbed by media.
Images, video, and audio now communicate the breadth of our experience with emotion and life. A picture released by an observer in a disaster zone (war, hurricane, earthquake) is worth many times more than the commentary of an expert. An image sears the brain, “lending immediacy to images of disaster” .
6. Flow: Feedback shapes original knowledge sources. We have moved from hierarchical to network. It is end user driven. A right decision today may not be right tomorrow.
In a knowledge economy, the flow of knowledge is the equivalent of the oil pipe in an industrial economy. Creating, preserving, and utilizing knowledge flow should be a key organizational activity.
Knowledge flow can be likened to a river that meanders through the ecology of an organization. In certain areas, the river pools and in other areas it ebbs. The health of the learning ecology of the organization depends on effective nurturing of flow.
7. Spaces and structures of knowledge organization and dissemination: Spaces and structures are the organizational elements of society. We dialogue and function within these elements. Spaces—schools, online, museums, corporate boardrooms—provide the environment in which we do our conversing, meeting, knowledge sharing, and dialoguing. Structures—classification systems, hierarchies, command and control, libraries, government—provide the process and manner in which decisions are made, knowledge flows, and things get done.
Structures and spaces direct affordances. New structural approaches permit the formation of organizations prepared to manage diverse and rapid knowledge growth. Building a baseball diamond enables competitive baseball (or an impromptu soccer game). Creating a concert hall permits performances and concerts.
8. Decentralization: Aggregation of knowledge/information sources has really changed over the last few years. Until recently, most of our information was delivered through a centering agent—a television, newspaper, magazine, or radio. In this model, our primary task was to absorb or consume the structure of information created by a third party.
The centering agents have come undone. Knowledge agents continue to connect and form, but not according to the views of others. We have become active organizers of individual agents. We weave our networks.
Earlier this year, Peter Tittenberger and I listed a series of change pressures influencing the future of education in our Handbook of Emerging Technologies for Learning (.pdf). These change pressures were grouped into four categories: global, social/political, technological, and educational (social learning theory in particular).
Everyone is trying to give voice to change
Popular literature and media demonstrates an obsession with trying to define what is changing in society: Friedman’s World is Flat, Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous, YouTube videos (Machine is Us/ing Us, Did You Know?), and numerous sites (trendwatching) and organizations (World Future Society).
Society and its institutions are fixated with understanding the nature of change. And they should be: successful organizations will ones that are capable of sensing, responding, and adapting to trends.
Prominent expressions of change
Given the discussion of change above, what types of trends should trainers, leaders, and educators be aware of? Well, for starters, we really need to do away with traditional planning models (i.e. rigid multi-year plans) and instead adopt a futures thinking model. Futures thinking is concerned with defining current trends and creating multiple potential future scenarios. Both strategy and planning should be done in an iterative manner (see Should you Build Strategy Like you Build Software?). After all, the reality of change is quite simple: rapid change reduces the ability of an organization to control outcomes, requiring smaller planning stages to be initiated so that adaptability (i.e. responding to trends) is increased.
Finding our way…
How are leaders to make sense of trends? I’ll suggest a five stage process:
- Become adept at change observation – note trends, reflect on potential disruption of sustained trends on existing organizational processes
- Identify trends of relevance – which trends have “life”? Which trends are more than an anomaly? Begin to aggressively track these trends and engage in conversations with co-workers, industry, and fields experiencing similar challenges
- Plan a small-step response: Experiment. Pursue those experiments that show promise.
- If trends are pronounced and a fundamental alteration to the existing field is noted, involve others in futures thinking, exploring scenarios, and planning responses. The best way to lead is still to get in front of a parade . The key focus at this stage is to consider implementation responses to trends that have demonstrated themselves to be resilient and sustained.
- Repeat steps 1-4 until you retire
What does this look like in practice?
Change is a constant (go Heraclitus!). Numerous change pundits suggest any combination of the following changes that will influence society in the next several decades:
- Workforce change: aging workforce, different mindsets and expectations of younger generation, work-at-home, outsourcing, insourcing, whatever-else-sourcing, developing world will contribute substantially to future workforce, immigration will continue to grow to developed countries to replace reduced population due to smaller families, etc. New fields, new careers, and new corporate models (i.e. the “uncorporation”) will develop.
- Globalization will continue to influence society and the renegotiation of values and world views: rise of extremism, tourism with grow, we’ll continue to buy the newest stuff (causing increased conflict between a society organized to serve consumerist needs with those seeking spiritual basis of life).
- Environmental concerns: sustainability becomes a growing concern (cynic in me: due largely to the ability of governments and organizations to transition the capital and financial benefits to a green economy), greater pressure on travel reduction, water shortage concerns, human impact on planet continues to drive extreme sub-culture groups in society (of a growing militant nature)
- Technology: more, better, faster. And a growing debate to what it means to be human. Military use of drones and development of robotics for household use will increase. Consumer devices will continue to be defined by social purposes (communicating and connecting) but will be amplified with greater touch-focus and location-awareness. RFID and surveillance cameras will raise concerns of individual rights and privacy. The things we share through Twitter, Facebook, and other tools will begin to influence simple things such as house insurance (”I’m going to Bahamas today” is an open invite for burglary) and even personal insurance. Legal systems will face an unprecedented role in redefining personal, government, and corporate rights.
- Knowledge remains king. Societies around the world will continue to compete for the gains of a knowledge economy. University systems will become more prominent and important. As will corporate research initiatives. Public/corporate intellectual property will be a fun fight to watch. Research in universities will continue to be under pressure for open access. No so with corporate research. Patents and intellectual property will make life suck, because things will get more absurd before they get better.
- Everything digital. Business meetings, publications (newspapers, books) and information in general will continue to be digitized. Once RFID tags are prominent in all information and physical products, the internet of things will blend the digital with the physical. Digital is not simply an add-on to physical. It’s a separate world (see next point)
- Cyber-security. Governments and corporations become increasingly concerned with security. Digital information is technically accessible from anywhere. Credit cards, health records, research, and roughly any other data of value needs to be protected. Cyber-security wars will become a real concern.
- Multinations. Big companies will get bigger. And more integrated. Corporations, not powerful governments, are the new hegemonic agents in promoting globalization. While some suggest transparency (through social media and ability of consumers to quickly organize) can play a role in keeping these organizations accountable, I’m less optimistic. Ultimately, any time a group of people get together, they will create entities to extend the reach of power in pursuit of their ideals: religion, government, corporations. This is the century of corporate power.
- Economic shifts. The economic development of China, India, parts of Africa, and parts of South America will produce a capital (and thereby power) shift: north to south, west to east. Capitalism is far from dead, in spite of those who eagerly declare it so after the 2008 crash.
- Education. Complex integrated societies and an economy based on knowledge will require continued education. Lifelong learning – touted for decades – is quickly becoming a reality for many individuals. Education will become more specialized, raising the importance of cross-discipline conversations and information sharing. (remember a few decades ago when “the computer guy” did everything technology-related in your organization?)
- New sciences. Development in nano and neuro technology (blended with techno-biology) will force a rethinking of the human species in terms of free will (does a brain lesion that influences a persons disposition to violence=free choice?). New sciences will arise to dig more deeply into fields that are only being explored at a surface level today. Biology, for its amazing advances, is still a relatively young field. Greater computational power will provide new research opportunities and advances. For that matter, robots and technology will become active researchers (outside of full human control…we may not call this autonomy as some programming will be required).
- Advanced research in the field of change. Behavioral economics, decision making theory, and game theory will provide insights into how people make decisions and change. Marketers will quite enjoy this. Change as a discipline of study will develop. Why do companies change? What are the primary principles of change? Does environmental change provide any insight into how markets change? Or how companies compete and innovate?
- Demographics. Cities will continue to grow in size, population growth will continue (9+ billion by 2050), people will live longer (except, some developed countries may experience a drop in life expectancy due to obesity and diabetes). Apparently, location still matters even in a digital world, even if only to foster creativity (i.e. Richard Florida)
- Amount of information. I don’t really need to provide evidence for this. Go check your inbox. Or your “to read” list. The impact of information abundance, however, is the real area of attention. As PW Anderson stated, more is different. Rapid growth of information requires organizations think of new ways to cope, compete, and cooperate.
Many more elements of change can be considered, but, for now, the above list provides a bit of an indication of what’s happening. For educators, trainers, and others somehow involved in the field of learning, the big questions boils down to: so what? We know things are changing. What does it mean? What should I as an academic or learning and development leader do with the list you’ve provided? What is the core, the central element of change (assuming one even exists)? What does it mean?
That’s where I’m stuck, and it brings me to the start of this post: What possible metaphor can capture the impact of these many change elements on education? On learning and development? How should organizational leaders respond?
Responding to change is much easier when the nature of the change is understood (duh). Are we at a point now where the world economy is resetting, similar to what occurred during the industrial revolution? There isn’t much of a point in talking about how to respond when we aren’t really clear on the change itself.
Resources to consider:
Shift Index (.pdf)
World Future Society (including special report of 55 trends shaping tomorrow’s world)
Trends in Global Higher Education (.pdf)
My delicious tag on trends
Ontario in the Creative Age
Global Trends 2025: A transformed world (.pdf)
Learning in Tough Times (Conference Board of Canada – for purchase, though Canadians can get it for free)