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Learning for the 21st Century
December 17th, 2008 | general

Unprecedented changes in the role of the worker, the nature of business, the pace of innovation, the
importance of intangibles, the explosion of information, and the shift from a manufacturing to a
service economy have rendered traditional corporate learning obsolete. Jay Cross exposes the
inadequacies of traditional learning and discusses a new paradigm for learning in the 21st Century.

Learning is the process of figuring out how the world works. Neurons in the minds of learners forge
pathways and form patterns that convert the booming, buzzing cacophony bombarding our senses
into the simple vista we call reality. Learning develops new capacities, skills, values, understanding,
and preferences. Organisms only stop learning when they die.

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Learning for the 21st Century — Informal Learning Blog

Learning is not one activity. It’s a dog’s breakfast of acquiring skills, information, knowledge, savoir
faire, and more. Its dimensions are emotional, cognitive, physical, sensory, and social. The common
denominator is that learning enables the learner to function better in his or her environment. The
measure of learning is performance at one’s calling and fulfillment in life.

Most organisational learning is built on nineteenth-century principles, and these days that’s a formula
for disaster.

In the days of textile factories in Manchester, railroads criss-crossing continents, and assembly lines
mass- producing automobiles, most work was physical. Training consisted of supervisors showing
workers how to run things. Workers were then expected to do them; the less variation, the better.
Innovation was not a worker’s responsibility. In fact, Frederick Taylor told workers, ‘You’re not paid to

Along came knowledge work. In the sixty years between 1947 and 2007, America shifted from a
manufacturing economy to a service economy. The trend has swept the globe, and the service sector
is outstripping the industrial sector in every country. What’s a service? It’s a product that is created
and consumed as it is delivered. The worker is part of the deliverable.

A parallel and not un-related shift occurred in the valuation of corporations. Between 1982 and 1999,
intangibles (things like intellectual capital) surpassed tangibles (e.g. plant and equipment) in the
market valuation of public American companies. Shareholders placed their bets on soft assets like
customer relationships, know- how, and a track record of innovation. In a knowledge company, you
are paid to think; that’s where intangible assets come from. Networks subvert hierarchy. Workers
today demand autonomy in decision-making and they get it. Re-engineering and downsizing
eliminated entire layers of middle managers who told workers how to do their work. Increasingly,
workers are boss- less. They make their own decisions. There’s no one to check with. There’s no
policy for unprecedented issues. Faced with a stream of novel situations, work becomes

Corporations often confuse learning with schooling. This is why most senior executives think learning
unimportant. Schooling is a crummy model for the sort of learning that’s required by corporations.

In school you learn to do your ABCs, speak French, recite poems, dissect frogs, complete geometry
proofs, write essays, and explain the significance of 1776, 1789, and 3.1416. For extra credit, you
learn to play team sports, flirt with the opposite sex, drink beer, take tests, and butter up teachers.

Students do not see the relevance of the subjects taught at school. By and large, they’re right. At
work, you probably don’t spend much time speaking Latin or calculating the length of the hypotenuse
of a right angled triangle. Even if this sort of knowledge was worth knowing, waiting two decades
between learning it and applying it erases the memory banks. I asked Father Guido Sarducci where
he got the idea for his Five Minute University, where you learn in five minutes as much as the
average college graduate remembers after five years. “It’s all true, man,” he told me.

The best learning is self-motivated. You learn something because you feel the need to know it, not
because someone told you to. Most of the time, you reinforce the lesson immediately by putting it to
work. Youï’re interested because you chose what to learn, not told to by some authority figure. You
remember because you put it into action on the spot.

School is plagued by yet another wrongheaded conception, namely, that people learn in isolation.
Throughout school, people study on their own, struggling to cram facts into their heads. Superior

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academic performance is rewarded with grades. Amazingly, grades correlate with nothing outside of
the school system. The person who almost flunked out will end up just as wealthy, powerful, and
happy as the straight-A student. How can this be? It’s because working with others is the pathway to
life’s rewards. In school, it’s called cheating.

People, ideas, computers, processes, and media are all connected in networks, and interconnections
among them are mushrooming. The denser a network’s connections, the faster its cycle time. The
pace of our lives is faster, faster, faster. Can’t you feel it? Scientist/inventor Ray Kurzweil suggests
that in the twenty-first century, instead of living a hundred twentieth-century years, we’ll experience
20,000 of them.

The story goes that when a reporter asked Albert Einstein for his phone number, the physicist looked
it up in the phone directory, explaining “Why should I memorise something when I know where to find
it?” Zoom forward in time, and Google puts such a staggering array of information in front of us that it
becomes confusing to figure out what pupils need to memorise in school. Or trainees need to learn in
workshops and events at work.

A well-read citizen in the eighteenth century read fewer words in her lifetime than appear in a single
edition of the Sunday New York Times. Today it’s common for office workers to spend two hours a
day reading email.

There are more bits of digital information out there than stars in the universe, and their number is
projected to grow ten-fold in the next five years. Moreover, as the boundaries between disciplines
erode, it’s no longer viable to be the specialist who knows more and more about less and less.

Not so long ago, the logic of cause and effect could explain how the world worked. Other things being
equal, if you did X, you received Y as a result. However, other things are never equal because
nothing exists in a vacuum. The butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil contributes to the birth of a
hurricane that destroys the south coast of Texas. Matter is a particle or a wave, depending on how
you look at it. Reality emerges from the interplay of complex adaptive systems. The world is no longer

A superlative industrial worker was 25% more productive than average. An exemplary knowledge
worker can be 200x more productive than average. The former worked better within the system; the
latter re-invents the system.

So in addition to the baggage we inherit from schools, we inhabit an unpredictable world of rampant
change, ambient information, disruptive volatility, and digital overload. Deloitte’s Center for Edge
Innovation says:

As we look to the future, the digital infrastructure that surrounds and connects our world
continues to advance with no sign of stabilising. Excelling in this environment requires a
different kind of learning, one that emphasises knowledge creation in addition to
knowledge transfer, reflection as well as commentary, and new degrees of openness with
fewer constraints.

Back in the days when change was glacial, what worked for your grandfather would work for you, so
learning what had worked in his day was enough to get you by. Past principles and practices were
captured in books, stored in the library, and described in lectures. You could pilot your learning by
looking in the rear-view mirror.

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The only certainty about the future from here on out is that it won’t resemble the past. Instructional
designers no longer have time to develop formal courses. Survival requires people who can navigate
a rapidly-changing maze at high speed. They need to find their own curriculum, figure out an
appropriate way to learn it, and get on with it. It’s cliché to say that people have to learn how to learn

They will also have to be their own instructional designers, selecting the best methods of learning.
Furthermore, given the increasingly reciprocal nature of knowledge work, they will have to know how
to teach. Each one-teach-one is at the heart of invent-as-you-go learning.

Until recently, knowledge itself was thought to reside in people’s heads. The new view is that
knowledge is collective intelligence, a shared consensual reality that lives among us rather than
inside our individual heads. We aren’t mere consumers of knowledge; we’re contributors as well.
Increasingly, we co- create knowledge in the course of collaboration and work.

When you run the numbers, you discover that plain old learning in corporate workshops and courses
is not cost- effective, even if you had the lead time to do it.

What’ s the impact of learning on overall corporate performance? Rummler and Brache suggest that
learning accounts for perhaps 10% of the overall influence a corporation can bring to bear to change
employee behaviour. Other factors are things like job descriptions, performance support, incentives,
and so on.

Most of the learning going on is informal. The bulk of the way people learn their jobs is through
watching others, asking questions, trying and failing, listening to the grapevine, and ponying up to the
bar. Study after study pegs the formal proportion of learning at around 20%. Now we are working with
10% of 20%, about 2% of the potential influence on behaviour.

Brinkerhoff and others find that only 15% to 20% of what’s learned in a corporate training event
shows up on the job. The fall-off is attributable to irrelevant content and delivery too far in advance of
need. Now we’re dealing with 20% of 2%, less than half a percent of the potential behaviour change
in the organisation. That’s insufficient to capture the attention of a senior executive for one floor of an
elevator pitch.

Knowledge work has so many options that there’s always a better way to do a job; learning stretches
minds to cope with new situations. Successful knowledge workers are rewarded for innovation and
ingenuity. In other words, learning is the work and the work is learning.

To think about re-framing corporate learning for the twenty-first century, let’s go back to the outcomes
we are seeking: solid performance on the job and fulfilment in work.

The key to performance has shifted from replaying what worked in the past to adapting rapidly to
surprises that pop up in the future. The goal of learning shifts from acquiring skills to doing whatever
it takes to prosper in one’s evolving ecosystem. Learning must be non-stop. It needs a proper home.

Getting to the new promised land requires working at the process level. John Seely Brown and Paul
Duguid encouraged this approach nearly a decade ago in Stolen Knowledge:

“… the best way to support learning is from the demand side rather than the supply side.
That is, rather than deciding ahead of time what a learner needs to know and making this
explicitly available to the exclusion of everything else, designers and instructors need to
make available as much as possible the whole rich web of practice-explicit and implicit-

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allowing the learner to call upon aspects of practice, latent in the periphery, as they are

Industrial age workers created value in factories. Where do knowledge workers create value? I will
call the knowledge-age factory floor a learnscape. Learnscapes are the platforms where knowledge
workers collaborate, solve problems, converse, share ideas, brainstorm, learn, explain, communicate,
conceptualise, tell stories, help one another, teach, serve customers, keep up to date, forge
partnerships, build communities, and distribute information. Learnscapes define where and how
modern work is performed. Training programs are events; learnscapes are longterm processes.

Every organisation has learnscapes. Trouble was, happenstance learning platforms were as water to
the fish: too close to be seen. No one noticed that the parts didn’t mesh, work was fragmented,
learning was separate from doing, and everything was ad hoc. A learnscape approach brings these
things into focus and integrates them into a whole.

A well thought-out learnscape is a flexible, loosely-coupled framework that sets the boundaries within
which workers are free to learn as they choose.

Courses end; learnscapes persist. Organisations and their members are living things, and the
landscape/learnscape analogy invites us to consider nature, symbiosis, interconnections, genetic
makeup, adaptation, the change of seasons and life cycles. Life is for learning.

Jay Cross is a strategist, speaker, consultant, and designer of corporate learning and performance
systems. Jay will be speaking at the Learning Technologies 2009 Conference and can be contacted


#1 Harold Jarche on 12.17.08 at 6:55 pm

So why do you only have partial feeds? So I’ll visit your site? You know I read everything you
write anyway :-)

#2 Peter Isackson on 12.17.08 at 11:09 pm

OK for focusing on need. Amazingly, the one thing that nobody tries to teach us is how to
recognize what we need to know (or know how to do). That may well be the crux of the
problem, if only because of the truism that we can’t fulfill needs we aren’t aware of. Add to that
the fact that in our consumer culture the very notion of need is impoverished and the situation
begins to look desperate. We tend to see needs as a list of things to consume. Maslow -
followed by the manufacturing and advertising industries - unfortunately steered us in the wrong
direction on that one.

I suspect the real reason why we don’t know how to recognize or discover our real needs is that
the different authorities who have the power to tell us what tasks we’re expected to do (and that
is the reality of professional as well as educational organization) want to be the ones to decide
for us what our needs are. Some of it may be unconscious, the defensive reflex of authority.
They probably sense that it’s the key to making us feel dependent on them. And therein lies my
own pessimism: I don’t see them seeking to transfer that power any time soon even if it makes
economic sense to do so. Remember, Jay, culture is inertia and professional culture - where
money, personal prestige and image are at stake - has greater inertia than even education!
(Actually culture is creative inertia, which means there is always hope, but the more material the

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idea of culture is the more inertia trumps creativity).

Conclusion: it’s not just a matter of “learning to learn”, which is of course vital. There’s the risk
of begging the upstream question about “learning to identify need’, which we have consistently
been told is the responsibility of our superiors.

I have another suggestion, which nobody is likely to act on even though it’s perfectly logical and
a real source of economy. We should replace entire training programs by a single course
followed by the requirement to form communities of practice. The title of that course would be
“how to recognize your knowledge, performance, professional and personal needs”. There
wouldn’t be a lot of teaching in the course, but there would be a lot of things to accomplish. And
the final “assignment” or task would be the following:

Read this sentence written by Jay Cross: “Learning’s dimensions are emotional, cognitive,
physical, sensory, and social.” Every day for 5 minutes over the next 30 years explore each of
those dimensions to see what you have been learning and discover what you next need to

And of course we wouldn’t have to “teach” people to share their thoughts about these things in
their communities of practice. They would do it on their own.

The savings would be tremendous. The benefits incalculable (and of course intangible!). And so
utopia would be just around the corner.

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