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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
it all sounds very reasonable and right—but how would you translate
that into design?
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?
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
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.
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."
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.
But what should we do about it?
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
you seen any companies that you think have really got it right?
That really treat the learner as customer?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
translate the metaphor. Sketch some specifics.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
And the second proposition implied in my question?
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
OK, fair enough. So what are the givens about learning and elearning
that are unlikely to change as things evolve?
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.
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
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.
learning structures will blur?
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.
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!
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 email@example.com