What should learning look like in an era of disruptive change?

A disruptive era

We live in an age of ‘Digital Darwinism’ (Evan Schwartz, 1999). This term describes an era in which “technology and society are evolving faster than businesses can naturally adapt.” New digital platforms are disrupting traditional markets overnight and globalisation is rapidly changing customer needs and expectations. In order for organisations to survive in the current climate, they must be able to anticipate and respond to these external changes.

Despite 90% of organisations expecting their industry to be disrupted by digital trends (according to a study by MIT), many are failing to meet the challenge. Michael Chavez (CEO of Duke Corporate Education) argues that businesses are failing because they were built upon the assumption of a linear world, “with neat boxes, hierarchies and reporting lines; but today’s context demands agility, adaptability and innovation. Today’s organisations are suffering from a severe case of structural lag, where their internal time clocks are increasingly out of pace with the external pace of change.” The implication is that dealing with a disruptive context requires an entirely different business mindset.

man playing chess with a robot

What types of learning do we need to be applying?

Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University addresses the ‘learning challenge’ by distinguishing between ‘adaptive’ and ‘technical’ approaches to problems. Adaptive approaches are required to solve problems for which there are no simple solutions. These problems will demand innovation and learning. Technical problems, on the other hand, are solved by applying knowledge already “digested and put in the form of a legitimised set of known organisational procedures guiding what to do.” In simple terms, adaptive approaches are designed to tackle new problems requiring fresh ways of thinking, where technical problems use pre-existing knowledge.

One may also conceive of this distinction in terms of ‘productive’ and ‘generative’ learning. Productive learning is concerned with tasks we already know how to do with the goal of improving productivity, while generative learning focuses on innovation. Kapp and O’Driscoll explain: “productive learning serves to maintain the status quo […], while generative learning involves […] creating new solutions to unanticipated problems.”

Much of traditional learning has focused on technical problems and productive learning. In these highly dynamic times, however, we must move towards generative learning and adopt an adaptive approach.

Similarly, we must move the focus on learning away from the individual and towards the team or organisation as a whole. The greatest performance shifts appear to happen when learning is focused on developing a collective point of view and enabling an organisation to anticipate change as a united body.


CRF has designed a Learning Matrix to help understand and visualise these distinctions. We find learning functions tend today to focus their energy in the bottom-left box (individual/productive). However, growth and innovation tend to arise from the top-right box (organisational/generative), so it is imperative for businesses whose strategy relies on growth and innovation to focus more of their effort there. Businesses must reshape themselves to respond to external changes, and the learning function must follow.

This may require learning professionals to develop a new set of skills around helping teams develop, shape and operationalise new ideas, facilitating conversations, helping in the application of strategic concepts to real business situations, and extending the learning experience into the implementation of new ideas in the workplace. Businesses themselves must become agile, learning continuously from successful and unsuccessful experiments, and sharing learned information with relevant parts of the organisation in order to make learning a source of continuous improvement.

In sum, it is not enough for an organisation to host occasional off-sites or off-the-job learning events. Rather, learning must become a constant: an active and practiced part of everyday work.

This piece is extracted from CRF’s 2017 research report ‘Learning – the foundation for agility and sustainable performance.’ For more information email gillian@crforum.co.uk or go to www.crforum.co.uk.

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