Go to Fast Company Magazine online
Read Webber’s backgrounder
Trust in the Future. When it comes to brand management, Kevin Roberts says that only two things are wrong: brands and management. A. Webber, Sept 2000
Why Can't We Get Anything Done? Stanford B-school professor Jeffrey Pfeffer has a question: If we're so smart, why can't we get anything done? Here are 16 rules to help you make things happen in your organization. A. Webber, June 2000
Wealth of Ideas. Who wants to be a millionaire? Everybody does! But the logic of wealth has changed. A new book argues that three forces are making us rethink the nature of value. And you can take that to the bank. A. Webber, April 2000
New Math for a New Economy.What's wrong with the 500-year-old way in which all companies keep their books? Just about everything, says Baruch Lev, who has proposed a new method for determining the value of the intangible assets that are at the heart of the new economy. A. Webber, Feb 2000
Learning for a Change.Ten years ago, Peter Senge introduced the idea of the "learning organization." Now he says that for big companies to change, we need to stop thinking like mechanics and to start acting like gardeners. A. Webber, May 1999
Are You on Digital Time? Nearly 10 years ago, George Stalk Jr. literally wrote the book on how companies can compete on speed. Today, he says, time is still the ultimate competitive weapon -but by going digital, you can make your company even faster and even more competitive. A. Webber, Feb 1999
Are You a Star at Work? In other fields, there's very little doubt over what it takes to be a star. But do you know what it takes to be one at work? Robert E. Kelley has the answer. A. Webber, June 1998
Are You Deciding On Purpose? Counselor and author Richard Leider explains his laws for finding purpose in your work and life. A. Webber, Feb 1998
Is Your Job Your Calling? Two Harvard Business School psychologists offer advice on career choices that provide success and satisfaction. A. Webber, Feb 1998
What Great Brands Do. Scott Bedbury knows brands. The man who gave the world 'Just Do It' and Frappuccino shares his eight-point program to turn anything--from sneakers to coffee to You--into a great brand. A. Webber, Aug 1997
Think You're Smarter Than Your Computer? Think again. In his new book, James Bailey describes the third revolution in human thought and what it means for the future of business. A. Webber, Oct 1996
XBS Learns to Grow. Chris Turner is the 'Learning Person' for Xerox Business Services and the impresario of a dazzling array of events that offer XBSers the learning skills they need to keep the organization growing at 40% a year. A. Webber, Oct 1996
Destiny and the Job of the Leader. Joe Jaworski's leadership search began with Watergate and took him to Royal Dutch/Shell. A. Webber, June 1996
Going Global: Four Entrepreneurs Map the New World Marketplace. W. Taylor, A Webber, Penguin 1997.
All Hat and No Cattle: Tales of a Corporate Outlaw, Shaking up the System and Making a Difference at Work. C. Turner, A. Webber (forward). October 1999.
Natural Productivity: Working Naturally, A New Way to Maximize Individual and Organizational Effectiveness. R. Leider, A. Webber (forward). July 2000.
If it’s New Economy you want, why not go to the intellectual epicenter of thinking about that earthquake—Fast Company magazine’s founding co-editor, Alan Webber? Since starting the magazine in 1996, Alan has interviewed the thought leaders, written about the themes, and generally been a major shaper of the debate about the nature of the New Economy—a big piece of which has been the growing importance of knowledge, learning, and technology to today’s business imperatives. Who better than Alan to help us think about learning in these last few years, where we’re headed with it, and what “white spaces” the New Economy is opening up as elearning evolves. Following are excerpts of a wide-ranging conversation he and I enjoyed in his brick-lined, book-stacked office late in July.
Manville: We’d like to hear some of your ideas about the future of elearning—what lies ahead, and what still remains to be known as the drama unfolds. Let’s begin by looking back. As you reflect on this New Economy, how has our understanding of the general domain of learning, and its importance, evolved or changed?
Webber: One of the core premises of the New Economy is that “Work is personal.” People do want to learn new things. They do want to stay engaged in their work in a way that takes them beyond just performing a function. Today’s workers are more deeply into discovering new skills, new ways to contribute, and new ways to grow. So, what does that mean for organizations?
Unfortunately, the track record of businesses to date is pretty bad. Most approaches to learning follow the model of schools—and we’ve all had experiences in school that are painful, unpleasant, and rote-based. So if you say to somebody, “Hi, I’m from Human Resources. I’m here to help you learn,” they’re going to make the sign of the cross in front of you, hold up garlic and attempt to make you go away. You’re not a welcome partner.
There are better ways. Innovators are beginning to discover the power of fundamental truths and going back to basics about how people really learn and what good learning feels like. They’re focusing on things like: under what conditions the best learning takes place; how learning is best achieved, not effortlessly, but painlessly and in a way that makes people feel like they’re genuinely doing something that matters to them and that will lead to an improved performance. The best cases combine and offer both a sense of personal satisfaction and professional gain. If there is economic gain, personal gain, and a sense of growth and development—then the effort is worth the trouble. The learning approach of the future will have both good theory and good technology—but most important it will be practical, pragmatic and have a real appreciation for human beings.
Manville: Okay, it all sounds very reasonable and right—but how would you translate that into design?
Webber: The strategy needs to start with a clean sheet of paper. Begin with the premise that your company and its people are going to be much better off if you can make learning a valued experience. Start, then with the basics. Ask what things your people would really like to learn? What would help them perform better, not just in theory but on a day-to-day basis? Think about it in a systematic, organized way. Begin with, How do we treat people on their first day on the job? Or even as we first start to recruit them? What are the kinds of messages you send to them? What are the kinds of tools you make available to them?
Let me share a lesson from our own shop here at Fast Company magazine. About a year ago, a bunch of our people hijacked the company. They basically said to Bill and me, “You guys are missing a real opportunity for learning on day #1 when someone joins. There’s a history here, and people joining us need to understand it to help assimilate into the culture. We’re going to do a video history and profile of Fast Company for new recruits.” They went off and made a terrific video.
The project actually started because they wanted to do something cool; but in the process they created a wonderful learning and recruiting tool. We constantly need to communicate what we think about ourselves, how we talk about ourselves, how we tell our own stories—and for recruits or our new employees that’s so much more exciting and effective than just doing a job interview. Begin with the question, “How do people like to learn, what works best for what you’re trying to accomplish? Surprisenot everybody learns by reading a pamphlet or a brochure or having a one-on-one interview.
I know this sounds obvious, but a lot of people don’t ask these questions. And they also don’t think about how a particular learning approach imparts knowledge to the learner and might improve the overall environment of the company. In the case of the video, the project also helped communicate that ours is an environment where learning happens all the time. It paid extra dividends to the people who work here by letting them watch something pleasurable and which many of them had a hand in creating. Involving people in developing learning creates a sense of pride, a sense of connectedness, a sense of involvement, a sense that, “I’m not stupid. I have something to contribute."
These kinds of second-order effects of learning design are often not considered. We’re all still too focused on college-style lectures and note-taking as a format—and you know how ineffective that can be. The numbers always tell how many corporate training dollars are wasted. I’ll be blunt; the 75% that’s wasted is lost not because the learners are stupid, but because the training approach is stupid. Force-feeding on the basis of “It’s good for you so you need to do it” is stupid.
Manville: But what should we do about it?
Webber: Suppose you were to treat your “learning customers” like the buying customers for your company’s products. You would start with a simultaneously idealistic and practical approach. Idealistic because you assume that people will want this if they understand why it’s good for them and practical because you realize that you can’t make them do something just because it’s good for them.
Manville: Have you seen any companies that you think have really got it right? That really treat the learner as customer?
Webber: I’m not an expert on this, but I think people like John Cone at Dell, Tom Kelly at Cisco, the folks at Motorola all pretty much get it; first and foremost they understand people.
At a dinner party the other night we played a rather revealing game. We went around the room and everybody had to say who was their favorite teacher, and why. So we heard about someone’s second grade English teacher, someone else’s fourth grade history teacher, someone else’s Ph.D. thesis advisor. What did those teachers do right?
They spoke your language. They sparked your imagination. They changed the game. I remember a teacher I had in 4th grade. We were studying Stravinsky’s Firebird and rather than just listen to the music we, as a class, made a giant mural of the firebird. Even today, when I hear the music, I can see the mural. This teacher was not going to make this a painful memorization exercise. Instead it was about entering a world of images conjured up in a young mind’s eye, translating sound into sight. How can you translate sound into sight? How do you translate sight into a group project? By changing the game. The best workplace learning does the same thing—changes the game.
Manville: Now let’s apply some of this to the future of elearning design and the trajectory of elearning looking ahead. What will elearning in, say 2010, look like?
Webber: What the web does is make a bunch of promises to the individual. It says,” The Internet offers not so much elearning as ‘me learning.’ We don’t really care about the technology per se; what we care about is you.” If the web keeps its promise, it’s going to be a whole lot about what we call here, “Unit of one.” Just as you can today go to many web sites and choose which language you want the material presented in, future elearning will let you configure the lesson or the material or the experience in a way that you are going to be most receptive to. It will be like controlling the soundboard in a recording studio. You have a hard time with those bass notes? Okay we’ll bring up the treble. You need to introduce more drums? Okay we can manipulate it or you can manipulate it to hear drums.
Manville: Let’s translate the metaphor. Sketch some specifics.
Webber: It’s all about how I learn best. So take the case of a very slow reader. The customer demands unit of one customization. “Could I possibly have a synthetic voice read this to me?” Or take the case of a really fast reader. “Instead of taking notes I would like a space where I can speak my notes and they appear as talking notes that I can refer to over and over again.” Or, “I don’t learn by hearing, I learn by interacting so let’s have an agent inside this learning space who is my co-learning partner. And as an agent, a fictive character, act like my best friend: someone who doesn’t make me feel like a fool for asking questions.” All of this ought to be configurable.
Today, as you know, things are still pretty primitive in learning—simply making a bunch of un-webified reading material electronic. But this is normal; it’s the way any new technology starts…just automating the old way of doing it. The early days of television were basically the radio format in front of a camera: people standing up reading scripts, with minimal attention to anything visual. Similarly today, what’s most of the elearning? Take a PowerPoint presentation, put it on the web and click on it. Not a big advance.
But think about the longer term future. With the web’s promise of things like self-design, self-help, timeliness of learning, specificity of learning, lack of embarrassment—the learning experience is going to be very, very different.
Manville: Let me challenge you a little here. I’m sure we’ll have lots of personalized learning in the future. How about learning from people who know more than you do? And, sometimes, self-service about what to learn or not learn isn’t going to be as effective. Where does the principle of “thou shalt” fit into the future picture?
Webber: Well you’ve got two propositions bundled together there. The first proposition is basically “no pain, no gain” and I think there’s some truth to that. But the pain shouldn’t come from the learning; it should come from the environment. The “thou shalt” needs to be driven by the understanding that we are all living in an incredibly competitive economy and I don’t see any signs of that changing. If the workplace learner doesn’t feel any sense of external urgency, having a teacher rapping his knuckles isn’t going to help any. The New Economy is painfully about “thou shalt.” But it’s also about “thou are permitted” and “thou are empowered.” It’s an environment of competitive exigency and personal self actualization.
Manville: And the second proposition implied in my question?
Webber: Well it’s really about who’s driving the sense of “thou shalt?” Is it you, the individual learner on your own, or is it the organization that’s transmitting it to you?
We did a profile of the CEO of Veraphone a few years ago which focused on his creating a sense of urgency in the organization. One of the things he did was share, via email, the information about everyone’s individual performance. And he talked about two types of people in the company: warriors who go out and conquer territory, and farmers who come in behind and cultivate the earth. He told the company, “We need more warriors and fewer farmers.” It caused a huge storm. But he did it for a very purposeful reason. He wanted to goose the sense of urgency and thus increase the performance.
Manville: So learning in this New Economy is as much about the context of leadership and the strategy that leadership sets that drives learning? The elearning debate needs to be raised above what I should be able to see on my computer screen?
Webber: Exactly right. Leaders don’t have the answers anymore. They are in charge of asking the questions. They are in charge of holding up the standards. They are in charge of creating the sense of purpose and mission. They are in charge of embodying the values and if they say, “We have to be either number one or two in our markets; that means we’re all going to get better every day. We can’t raise prices, we have to raise learning.” The leader is the chief urgency officer. And he or she is inevitably going to do some knuckle-rapping to inspire people to work harder and learn faster. People don’t want to get embarrassed by falling short; that’s still part of the equation.
eLearning is not going to eliminate the need for teachers or instructors or mentors. But the appearance and format will likely change. We’re going to see, for example, people working together to teach others. And we’re going to have much more peer-to-peer learning, in the same way that study groups in business school are a powerful force to build knowledge and confidence. “Unit of one” learning can also involve an entire community of co-learners. The technology makes that possible in a way that the standard classroom doesn’t. What better opportunity for you not only to be the learner, but in some situations also the teacher? Learning roles will become much more fluid, and technology will both mimic and facilitate different kinds of learning in different situations
Manville: Let’s take the discussion down a level. Let me ask you about the role of formal structures in the forthcoming elearning world—things like set curricula that allow you to monitor progress against learning goals, or certifications that will act like your personal portfolio of skills and competences that may follow you job to job, like a social security card or a bank account. Will these kinds of structures and processes in the learning landscape become more important?
Webber: I think there’s absolutely a place for very structured offerings, credentials and certifications. But learning managers or employers will have to be careful. It’s tempting to gravitate toward stuff which is logical, analytical and tidy—but it’s going to freak out a lot of people entering the workforce because it looks like the thing they ran away from when they left school. Just about the time they thought they were adults and capable of making their own decisions, here come the keepers of the learning-web telling them that the only way they can learn is by enrolling one more time in a highly structured, supervised, top-down learning experience.
But I don’t think it’s an either/or choice. Structure is necessary. The key will be linking it to real and very practical needs, and how it is introduced. A big part of that is going to be “just in time” and performance driven. As an analogy, say I’d like to learn how to scuba dive. I don’t want to learn it in general; I want to learn it because I’m leaving for vacation to the Caribbean and want to scuba dive. Don’t just give me theory, give me the practical stuff, and do it the week before I leave so I can practice and use it when I get there.
Same for a piece of sales knowledge; give it to me right before I go on a sales call. Please make it simple, personal, applicable and, by the way, portable because I’m in a hotel room right now, not at home with my T1. Do the same for me when you come and tell me that such and such learning will improve my certification. But first show me the money. Make sure that if I go for this special credential there’s a real payoff for me. The learning industry people just don’t get down and spend time with real mortals; they often are still pursuing all-too-lofty ideas up on Mount Olympus.
Manville: Tell us about your own learning style and approaches. You’re a guy with a New Economy job. You’re very busy, you’ve got a family, work is personal and you have other things that you’re trying to manage. How does Alan Webber do his learning?
Webber: I don’t think all our learning doors are always wide open. We’re more like hearts; sometime we’re diastolic and other time systolic. For the last few years I was probably more giving out that taking in. When Bill [Taylor] and I were starting this magazine we were learning about everything all the time! I think for a while we sort of lived off our accrued intellectual capital. But I’m stepping up my own learning now since we have to be constantly reinventing the magazine.
How do I learn? I’m a great believer in multimedia. Yes, I read magazines and look at the competition and pay attention to what they’re doing, but I am also a TV channel flipper, radio surfer in the car, and newspaper scanner in the morning. It’s environmental scanning, checking for the signals of what’s happening, how is the game changing? Bill and I scan the environment and ask the questions that people are asking in lots of places but they aren’t asking in a focused way.
We both also spend a lot of time out in the field, as the anthropologists say. Go out to a company and spend time listening to people. Conversation is still a key tool for busy business people, and is indeed a fundamental way we all learn. More than ever, we don’t have enough time to read, we don’t have enough time to reflect. We learn by having an interesting group of people or bumping into interesting people and listening to what they are telling us. Then, we need filters or screens that reflect how people are working so that we can sort the information into useful categories.
I also tend to read books more than I read magazines nowbecause I want sustained rather than spot insights. It’s a sort of corrective to all the channel flipping I do. I will pick a personal theme, sometimes even by accident, and just pursue it. It may not have anything to do with business or management. But inevitably something interesting I read helps me think about those subjects freshly. There are some real insights in the history of World War II, for example, about globalization and competition. The challenge is always to take what you’ve been learning and use it to re-examine the stuff of your day to day questions.
Manville: Let’s finish with your perspectives about learning in the future of this New Economy—elearning or otherwise. What are the likely trajectories? What things might change the game, or cause the learning business to be different than we now best guess it will be?
Webber: I can’t begin to know all the uncertainties, and as you ask this question I think about the people at Royal Dutch Shell. Those people—who brought you the technique of scenario planning—now say, “Forget about scenarios—the world is too uncertain even to predict those. Instead focus on what’s likely NOT to change.”
Manville: OK, fair enough. So what are the givens about learning and elearning that are unlikely to change as things evolve?
Webber: Well first off, we’re not going back to the old model of the workplace, with structured days and overtime pay. I don’t see a world where people are willing to go back in leg irons to the corporation of the past and say. “Please suck out my soul and lobotomize me; I would like to be the man in the grey flannel suit.” I’m planning for a future of “small d” democracy in the workplace, where each individual is a potent force in the economy and each one of us has a personal stake in our own careers and in the game of business.
I’m also planning for a future in which the technology continues to change in massively unpredictable ways but where the general trajectory is predictable: faster, cheaper, more personal, more ubiquitous, more trans-platformable, more transportable, more digital and more friendly in every conceivable way. If you can’t type, that’s fine. You can talk. If you’re not able to use a phone, that’s okay. You can use your hand-held computer, your PDA, whatever.
In terms of actual learning, I think you can say that the so-called curriculum of any traditional field of learning is going to be less relevant. The concept of curriculum will change in that it will be decoupled from specific classes or disciplines or departments within universities. The essence of what must be learned will become more important than the boundaries of disciplines.
Manville: Traditional learning structures will blur?
Webber: Yes, but in some cases the blurring will create new structures that are very recognizable. We’ll see knowledge categorized, for example, as spot learning, “need to know,” and then “nice to know.” And “nice to know” will be prone to change quickly and become “need to know” but very much based on situation. Learning will become much more situational and personal.
The importance of personal preference and even fun in learning is also going to grow. Count on the continuing generational shift (as baby boomers age) and gender shift, with women influencing, to a much greater degree, how learning is developed and delivered. The same baby boomers who built brick and mortar schools across America in the 1950s and 1960s are, with more time and disposable income in their hands, going to demand and create more virtual learning spaces for their own and children and grandchildren’s education…. Everything else? I have no idea!
Alan Webber is the founding co-editor of Fast Company Magazine where he chronicles how changing companies create and compete in the New Economy. Brook Manville is publisher of LiNE Zine and a consistent thought-leader, himself, in the pages of Fast Company Magazine. You can reach him at
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