"An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive business advantage."
– Jack Welch, chairman, General Electric
No technology in history has grown as quickly as the Internet. Backbone bandwidth demand has been doubling, not every 18 months (Moore’s Law) but every 3.5 months. That’s 10 times more growth or 1,000 percent a year.
With it has come a complete change in with whom we communicate, the way we communicate with them, and how and how long we work. While life here in Silicon Valley is akin to working at the edge of disaster, the rest of the country, in fact the globe, is in much the same state of chaos.
When I went to college eons ago, we sat in a classroom, listened to the instructor, took copious notes and regurgitated the information on a test. With two degrees we set forth to conquer and change the world. Unfortunately, we didn’t change the world; technology changed the world. The rapid changes in technology are so prolific that it has forced us to become life-long learners. Rather than a rigidly structured process, learning is becoming a self-directed process.
There has been more information produced in the last 10 years than during the previous 5,000 years. A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to encounter in his lifetime in the 1900s. The Internet as well as the value of and how we use information has caused this change.
To understand how quickly life has changed and continues to change for us, consider a recent study regarding e-mail conducted by Forester Research and John Carroll University, which reported the following results.
In addition, according to a recent issue of BusinessWeek, every day 10,000 new websites are added to the Internet. All of this has forced technical people to broaden their knowledge areas and forced people to deal in a rapidly changing environment of uncertainty.
Peter Drucker in his book Post Capitalism Society, notes that already an estimated 2/3 of U.S. employees work in the service sector. Knowledge is becoming one of our most important products. This calls for a different type of worker because a degree and technical experience are far less important than your current business skills.
No one can say which technology platforms will dominate the next century or what lies beyond the Web and enterprise resource planning. As a result, corporations and educational institutions must adapt their training programs to prepare workers for unseen changes. Experts who track technically based career development and training see some trends emerging including the following.
Many organizations have begun to identify core business competencies for technical professionals and make learning them mandatory. Increasingly, employees have to learn communications skills, budgeting and finance, and strategic planning as well as project and performance management. Firms are rapidly adding on-the-job training by matching people with appropriate learning tools. Online video-on-demand courses, workshops and seminars are required for people at all levels and of all disciplines. Some firms have gone so far as to establish required courses, electives and degree certificates.
While selected technical skills in almost every organization continue to be in critically short supply, organizations also understand that they must help employees comprehend larger business issues including finance and marketing. However, earlier this year, Gartner Group reported that corporate technical staff skills will shift from 65 percent technology to 65 percent business and management skills by 2002. While technical skills will continue to be important, much of that work will be outsourced and key internal personnel will be involved in business and technical management.
Because of the growing supply vs. demand problem, traditional business schools are beginning to shift to competency-based education.
For example, the governors of the 14 western states and chief executive officers of major corporations created the Western Governors University in Salt Lake City two years ago. The university enables students to earn credits toward a diploma by taking skill assessment tests rather than courses. The goal was to respond to business and industry needs by providing a means of certifying that an individual can do the job rather than simply prove that he has a diploma.
Gartner Group predicts that training delivery will shift from 25 percent technology and 75 percent instructor-based to 50–50 by 2002. Video-on-demand and Web-based training will grow rapidly over the next two years. Organizations of all sizes are beginning to view training not as a cost but rather as an investment in key members of the organization.
For many, the accelerated pace of technology change over the past 10 years is straining their ability to keep up. Fortunately, our "Generation X" workers view skill development quite differently. For them, ongoing learning is a reality and part of the cost of participating in the world. They have become very adept at gathering, processing, analyzing and interpreting information, and retaining and discarding data as needed. It is all part of the "normal" day.
Employees who are planning their future in an uncertain environment have to realize that just as they need money for food, rent/mortgage and utilities, they also need to have money for education. When firms "re-engineered" themselves to become "lean and mean" they reduced their training programs. As a result, those who plan on being productive realize that they must invest in themselves.
While some may disagree, the shift is healthy. Today, employer and employee loyalty is dead. As a result, employees don’t have to feel guilty or obligated to pay back the organization for the training since the individual is paying for tomorrow’s training himself.
As we move into the 21st century, traditional technical workers will have to expand their business skills while other office workers will have to become more proficient in their understanding and use of technology. People across the board will need to know not only how the applications work but what the data mean.
Increasingly, the lines between technology and business practices will blur.
Good management skills will be more valuable and more respected as we move into the new century because they are a combination of courage and strong, genuine care for individuals, the company, society and the customer. Good management skills are based on the individual and how he executes programs. As a result they are more difficult to acquire than course-taught capabilities.
In today’s global business environment, business skills, knowledge of your company, its mission, the industry and your competitors are becoming vital survival skills. They are skills that change with every tick of the clock.
Everyone today is under pressure to leverage knowledge and information in everything that they do. People must diligently leverage knowledge in innovative ways on an ongoing basis, and people must become a critical resource of creating, maintaining and making available knowledge and information.
About the Author
G.A. "Andy" Marken is president of Marken Communications, Inc., Santa Clara, Calif. He may be reached at [email protected]