As the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton
School of Business, and Director of Wharton’s Center for Human
Resources, Peter Cappelli is deeply knowledgeable about how the
world is changing for employers and employees alike. In his many
well-received books and articles, Cappelli charges directly into
the New Economy storm, and is one of the leading authorities alerting
the rest of us to the conditions ahead.
LiNE Zine enjoyed
a recent conversation with Cappelli, who shared his views of the
new world of work, and what the intersection of technology and
learning means for employers, employees and companies. A pragmatic,
hard hitting, “let’s deal with the here and now” approach infuses
his work. In person, he is warm, intuitive, and the ultimate humanist.
The combinations of his determined realism with his concern for
the human experience make for an interesting perspective. Enjoy.
Zine: In your work you talk about what is going on in the
business world that really requires us to learn a new way of working.
What changes is learning, and particularly the intersection of
technology and learning, bringing to the world of work?
The first thing that strikes me is that organization learning
has developed a big constituency. It’s one of these wonderful
topics that everybody agrees is really important—partly because
everyone has something really different in mind when they use
the term! For example, the education community thinks that organization
learning means the business community has discovered that education
is important. The training industry thinks it means that everyone
recognizes that traditional training is important. If you talk
to the people who study organization learning, they’re talking
about how organizations learn from their decisions and their mistakes,
and linking it to how CEOs think about strategy.
Zine: What is the real meaning that most people are missing?
I think it has nothing to do with employees getting more education
and nothing to do with training. I think it has something to do
with how organizations learn from each other and from their experiences.
More importantly, it’s about how people inside organizations learn
how to do their work.
interesting, and what is not reported very much, is that implementing
this requires fundamentally different ways of operating the organization.
That is, it requires that the organizations themselves manage
work in a different way so people can interact and share information
and ideas. It requires that decisions get made in new ways. It
really requires fundamental changes in the organization.
lot of people, even those who are sophisticated about this, think
there is something called organization learning that you can simply
drop into a company. But that “drop in” program doesn’t exist.
All these things involve the way the organization manages its
employees and the way it does business. That simply requires bigger,
Zine: So what has to happen inside organizations in order
to make these fundamental changes?
are really two issues. First, information has to get around the
organization in a way that it does not right now. There may be
multiple ways to do that, but it requires a different kind of
social architecture so that people have more opportunities to
talk informally and share information. For example, the British
teatime created a social environment in organizations where people
had to come and talk to each other and share information
in a random way. Other companies build it into the organization
formally with structured meetings or IT arrangements that move
information around the organization.
second issue is the organization learning paradigm is primarily
about a different way of thinking about knowledge. Organization
learning has been about experimenting, trying things, seeing what
works. As a result, companies have to let people experiment more,
and in particular, debrief their successes and their failures.
a nutshell, companies have to
Distribute information around the organization,
Allow people to experiment more, and
Evaluate what happened.
These are relatively simple objectives. Yet they cut against the
way a lot of organizations run. More typical is the organization
that’s secretive about information, that doesn’t empower people
to make decisions, and that quickly covers up mistakes.
Zine: Your premise makes a strong argument for technology-delivered
solutions to help extend the way we work and learn. If the issues
are distributing the information, evaluating, and debriefing,
then we can imagine software development people saying, “That
means you need a better groupware system, a better email system,
and a collaborative system built around some databases where people
could get online and talk about what happened.” Do you agree?
a great believer that technology, per se, does nothing. It’s only
if organizations find ways to engage people in the particular
technology that you’re actually going to get anywhere. But you
can easily imagine organizations without any technology at all
finding ways to just share information.
was a recent story1 in the Wall Street Journal about the very
idiosyncratic science and art form of building an atomic bomb.
The older generation of people who do it are retiring. The younger
generation not only does not have the knowledge that the older
guys have, but they’re not testing many bombs now. So, somehow,
they have to transfer this information into the hands of the younger
folks. The story is about the debate over an effort to build all
of this knowledge into software, versus the older people who believe
there’s no way to do that. The older guys learned through apprenticeships
and through hanging out with their elders.
If I had to bet right now, and it was between trying to embed
this expertise in software versus hanging out with the older guys,
I’d bet on hanging out with the older guys. So there may be more
than one way to do this.
Zine: To play devil’s advocate, it may be that learning and
social style come into play here. Some people have an interest
and proclivity toward social engagements, but other people may
not particularly care to work within groups. They might prefer
to have it embedded in software.
without some effort to engage people in the technology is not
going to get you very far. Embedding knowledge in technology is
useless unless you do other things along with it. It might be
that doing the other things would mean that the embedded in software
model might, in certain circumstances, work better than the English
tea model. But if you have a bunch of geeky engineers who would
rather just view their screen than sit and talk to anybody, you
still have to create the right environment where they can read
the software and respond to questions. It takes a lot of time
to do it that way, and it’s much more extensive that just a simple
technological fix. When dealing with people you have to deal with
social architecture too.
Zine: Do you think employers are recognizing that? If so,
what are some successful ways they’re bridging that gap?
think companies are having a hard time with this, and they aren’t
having much success. It fundamentally changes the way they have
to operate, so they find it tough. I think companies are much
happier with programs they can just drop in, parachute in, to
what they are already doing, without having to deal with all the
other messy issues and cultural changes required. Those drop in
programs don’t work very well, but it’s much easier to do it that
One byproduct we’re beginning to see is the return of offsite
meetings, which had largely disappeared for a while. I’m not so
sure the resurgence is a consciously articulated strategy of pumping
up organization learning, but companies are realizing it is important
to get people to talk to each other and learn from each other.
They can do this without having to change the culture and the
work systems and many other elements.
I think there was a moment where internal benchmarking became
quite important as a learning vehicle. Banc One was particularly
good at forcing people to use the same internal accounting system,
and disseminating information around about how individual banks
were doing compared to the other banks. They then pushed the local
banks to talk to the better performing banks and learn from them.
That was one of the best organization I had seen in terms of internal
learning because they had clear metrics so you could compare apples
other manifestation I’m seeing that gives some evidence that companies
are taking learning seriously, is they are getting much less willing
to share information with competitors. I think that’s some indication
that they understand their knowledge is competitive advantage.
Zine: You have an interesting perspective on how the nature
of the relationship and expectations between employees and employers
has changed. In the past, organizations have often come from two
different perspectives. They either view the employees as loyal
friends (believing these friends will always be around so there’s
little need to share what they know) or they view employees as
expendable resources who will soon leave. In the latter case,
organizations tend to restrict employee access to information,
a lack of access that may hinder how well they can do their job.
an interesting dichotomy between assuming that you own the human
capital, the intellectual capital, and assuming that you don’t
at all. I think the more sophisticated employers are beginning
to understand that reality falls somewhere in between. It's not
that people are all independent cowboys you hire to do a job,
and then expect them to move on. Nor is it the case that you own
everything your people know. That’s partly why we have an organization
learning problem. If you assume the relationship is somewhere
in between, which I think is probably right, then the issue is
can you figure a way to share knowledge. It’s a challenge because
the folks in the organization could share the knowledge if the
environment was right, but they don’t have to.
Zine: Do you have any suggestions for ways our readers or
their employers or employees can look at where learning fits in
with their relationship to their company?
think there is clearly a difference now in that employees are
expecting something different of the relationship. They are expecting
to learn things. They recognize that it’s important to learn because
if they don’t, they’re not going to be marketable, and aren’t
going to have jobs and make money. I think people understand that
it’s their own human capital that matters and they’ve got to keep
it up to date. To some extent this is good news for organization
learning because if employees are in an organization where they’re
not learning anything they feel like it’s time to get out. So
learning is both a retention device and a development device.
long as the organization pays some attention to work systems that
encourage organization learning (things like teamwork, mentoring,
various arrangements that encourage people to make presentations,
share knowledge) the employees themselves are happier. They learn
more, they become more marketable, they stay longer, and the organization
benefits. This is a nice coming together of these two interests—the
employee’s interest in their own skills and employability, and
the organization’s interest in trying to improve employee skills
Zine: In keeping with the theme of this edition, are there
specific things you don’t hear people talking about when
it comes to employees, business success or learning, that you
think should be hot topics?
surprised at the extent to which employers still don’t pay very
much attention to organization dynamics, to culture issues, to
internal management issues, to issues associated with how people
actually interact with each other and do the work.
I think there are two reasons for that. One, this stuff is reasonably
squishy and hard to get your hands around. It’s not like just
dropping a program in place as I said before. They’d be much happier
putting in a new accounting system than they would be trying to
set up a new way for people to interact with each other because
it doesn’t fit the paradigm quite so neatly.
The second reason is for that most of the last 30 years this just
didn’t matter because we had periods of really slack labor markets,
unemployment at 8% or so, and companies mainly worried about getting
rid of people. You could get the employees to do more or less
whatever you wanted them to do just by telling them to do it.
They were all scared to death.
The big change I’m seeing is that companies, particularly the
senior executives, are still expecting these old patterns. Things
are different and they’re not sure what to do about it except
get angry. There is an enormous amount of resentment targeted
at employees who are leaving, and particularly at the new generation
of employees who come in demanding different things. They demand
things like opportunities to learn and performance management
(which is really another learning device, a way of telling them
how they’re doing).
companies can find a way to tackle the so-called squishy issues
like culture and organization dynamics, and really helping people
learn, the organizations will be much healthier, happier, and
productive in the long run.
1 See Wall Street Journal, “Los Alamos Lab Tries to
Stem The Decline of Bomb Know-How,” John Fialka, Aug 2,2000. Viewing
privileges by subscription only.
is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton
School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the Director of the
Center for Human Resources at Wharton and Co-Director of the U.S.
Department of Education National Center on the Educational Quality
of the Workforce. You can tap into his interesting insights and
knowledge by contacting him email@example.com
Beth Garlington Scofield is Managing Editor of LiNE Zine. She
is always seeking new ways to make working life better for herself
and others. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright (c) 2000-2004 LiNE Zine (www.linezine.com)