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More than 500 years ago, the explorer Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain in search of an overseas trade route to India, which could have meant untold riches for his royal patrons.
He never quite arrived at his intended destination, but he did return with one verifiable fact: the world is round.
Last year, esteemed journalist and political observer Thomas Friedman took temporary leave from his job writing columns for the New York Times, traveled to India (unlike Columbus, Friedman did arrive) and spent time observing scores of highly educated Indians in gleaming buildings writing software and designing systems to run the back offices of major international corporations located thousands of miles away. Friedman came to a conclusion a bit different than Columbus's: the world is flat.
Flat, as in: people and companies anywhere in the world able to compete more equally for jobs and market share. Flat, as in: traditional economic and national advantages can no longer be taken for granted. Flat, as in: "Hold on, we're in for a ride." Indeed, after reading Friedman's book of that name (The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century), it's difficult to decide whether the subtitle should actually be, "Opportunities in the Global Knowledge Economy" or, "Be Afraid … Be Very Afraid." One of Friedman's clear intents with this book is to light a fire under the rear ends of western nations whose unevenly-educated citizens have grown complacent about their superior place in the global economic pecking order.
From an organizational perspective, the "horizontalization" of the world presents new challenges in ensuring the optimal flow of intellectual energy and, therefore, of value throughout an organization and its stakeholders. We don't always think of it this way, but that really is how value is created in any organization under any historical circumstances: energy flows among the people of a company; it comes into an organization through innovation, goes out to customers in the form of products and services, and returns as revenue; it goes out to stakeholders as dividends and returns as additional investments.
Making this flattened structure work consistently and predictably, however, is almost inconceivably hard at this point because there are so few successful models to follow. It is all well and good to talk about how corporate energy will flow horizontally instead of vertically in this new world—from managers in New York or London to workers who could be located anywhere from Bangalore to Manila to Atchison, Topeka or Santa Fe. But someone (or someones) has to make that happen: not only put in place the physical network that enables that kind of work, but also to optimize the flow of energy.
Here are four specific areas that show why I believe the capabilities of learning, knowledge management, collaboration and performance support are critical to the success of companies in a flattened world, especially during the next decade or so of transition to a new way of working.
1. Learning as the "relay" of corporate intellectual energy and performance
2. Learning that connects the nodes with knowledge
3. Learning that contextualizes and harvests the fruits of collaboration
4. Ensuring excellence at every node
In transforming possible economic pain into economic opportunity, corporate learning is now on the critical path. Indeed, as part of the ongoing maturation of corporate learning, we must be prepared for a much more expansive, even aggressive, understanding of its scope: what used to be simply a "training" organization now has a profound strategic role to play in the flat world.
"Learning" develops and deepens the skills of all nodes of an organization—all workers and stakeholders, internal and external—thereby directing performance more powerfully toward business need; it is concerned with the general growth and availability of knowledge throughout an organization; it seeks to package knowledge and learning not only in ways that prepare workers to perform, but that also supports real-time performance needs; it supports focused collaboration, contextualizing it in the broader domain of learning and knowledge sharing; and it helps to harvest the innovations of knowledge sharing and performance-focused collaboration so that the organization is continuously capable of excellence and growth.
This is a big scope, to be sure. But none of the points seems unnatural or extraordinary. Indeed, this is part of the natural evolution and convergence of these learning and business functions, the inter-relations of which we are now able to understand as part of the urgency of living and working in a flat world.
August 1, 2007
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