As we reflected recently about our individual work with corporate leaders over the last year, it became clear to us that technology is advancing at a speed that far exceeds the rate at which many organizations are transforming. The speed and scope of digital transformation is becoming a strategic differentiator. Across industries, there are a few companies aggressively building cloud-based AI ecosystems with the belief that such systems will drive massive industry consolidation over the next decade. This would be a game changer — a real “winner-take-all” environment. We believe this is a distinct possibility. Technology will transform how every business creates value, how it operates and how it is managed.
Hyper-Learning and Collective Intelligence
Transforming large organizations is hard. In our experience, it has typically taken five to 10 years to scale a transformation. However, technology is advancing at a much faster pace than that. In today’s world, digital transformations need to be substantially accomplished much faster. This requires hyper-learning — continuous unlearning and relearning — at a rapid pace and on a large scale. And hyper-learning, in turn, requires building a learning organization with a Hyper-Learning System: the right people in the right environment using the right learning processes.
The science of adult learning is clear — individually we all are suboptimal learners, and we need others to help us optimize our learning and development. Collective intelligence is far better than sole intelligence (think of the adage “Two minds are better than one”). Optimizing collective intelligence will be a strategic necessity and, in many cases, that will require fundamental changes in human and organizational mindsets and behaviors.
A State of Flow
As technology continues to advance and takes over many of the tasks that humans now do, and as technology produces more and more data and new knowledge at ever increasing rates, hyper-learning will be a human necessity. Hyper-learning is more than fast, continuous learning. There are also quality components to it — it’s the type of learning that occurs when we are functioning at our highest cognitive and emotional levels — being in a state of psychological “flow” within ourselves and with others in the pursuit of common goals on a daily basis. Collective psychological “flow” can occur only in a workplace designed to enable such human transcendence — the transcending of our reflexive cognitive and emotional ways of being.
Hyper-learning requires a workplace community that is designed to enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance, and that means a workplace environment built upon three psychological principles: Positivity, Self-Determination Theory and Psychological Safety. The highest levels of human performance are positive, emotionally enabled experiences.
Such heightened emotional experiences involve our brain, our body and our biochemistry. And they are enhanced by positive meaningful connections cognitively and emotionally with our co-workers. We can attain “flow” — the higher levels of human engagement — in communities of co-workers with whom we feel interconnected, and with whom we share meaningful tasks and positive emotions that engender trust, caring and positive regard. Such communities are a condition precedent for collective intelligence and the higher levels of human cognition.
The Problem: Human “Machines”
That is a problem for many organizations. Most organizations strive to be rational, anti-emotional machines. By definition, organizations are designed to drive reliable, predictable and standardized results by turning human resources into human “machines.”
Digital transformations will require a new story about the purpose of an organization, the role of leaders and managers, and the role of human beings in accomplishing that purpose. The whole concept of managing others will have to change in order to produce the highest levels of human performance in concert with smart technology. Command/control and directing others will, in most cases, become obstacles to success. Hierarchy and silos will likewise be obstacles. Coercion, fear, ego, elitism, corporate politics, a zero-sum game mentality and internal competition all inhibit hyper-learning, and they must be eliminated. Mindsets and behaviors must be changed.
The Solution: Community
Like it or not, in the Age of Smart Machines, the chances are that your business will be dependent on the quality of human cognition — thinking critically, creatively or innovatively — or on the quality of human emotional engagement with other human beings in the delivery of your services or products. In that case, your success will depend in large part upon creating and scaling a new type of hyper-learning organization, one based on psychology and philosophy, not just finance or economics.
Creating that new story will need new words that emotionally connect to the human need for self-determination. Words that imply hierarchy, individualism, elitism, internal competition, dehumanization, and commanding or directing others should not be part of that story. We invite you to consider these words as the conceptual beginning of a new story:
A successful organization will become a community — a community of hyper-learners.
Leaders will become enablers — enablers of human development and communal, large-scale hyper-learning.
The Hyper-Learning Community
A Hyper-Learning Community will be a group that people choose to be part of because they feel comfortable that they will have the opportunity, with like-minded others of similar values and purpose, to become their best selves in the pursuit of their life goals, which overlap with the purposes of the Community. These Communities will be places where the “why” of work, the meaning of one’s life, and the purpose for the Community’s existence overlap in a meaningful way with the Community’s operating philosophy and its economic value-creating activities.
A Community will have three purposes: human development; the betterment of society; and creating economic value for shareholders, workers and the geographies in which they do business. Many organizations in the United States today have bought into the story that a business can have only one purpose and that purpose is the creation of shareholder value. That story is different from the story of business that existed in the United States during the Era of Great Prosperity (mid 1940s to early 1970s).
With whom will people want to do purposeful work? What type of environment enables the highest levels of human performance? What type of environment will enable the highest levels of psychological flow and collective intelligence? What type of environment will enable the highest levels of continuous hyper-learning — unlearning and relearning? We believe it will be an environment very different from the dominant organizational environments that exist today in the United States, left-over from the Industrial Revolution.
A new form of business organization, a Hyper-Learning Community, is needed for keeping pace with the transformations required by the Digital Age — a community that is more humanistic, people-centric, and designed to enable the highest levels of human cognitive and emotional performance.
That, in many cases, will require a new way of organizing, managing, leading and behaving. A caring, compassionate, emotional and yet rational — disciplined and rigorous — way of being with others.
Are you ready to transform?
Ed Hess is professor of business administration and Batten executive-in-residence at Darden Business School, and Kazimierz Gozdz is a principal of The Helix Group LLC.