New models of the workplace include far more decision-making at the level of the work, and far more freedom for the individual and teams to behave entrepreneurially, failing their way to successes, learning as they go, continually improving processes and responsiveness to customers. More freedom to initiate change (and sometimes fail) requires a radical upgrade of our education and training. All businesses, even service businesses, will increasingly demand greater technical skills˜almost everyone will have to be computer literate, for instance. A new level of human and business skills will be demanded of self-managing employees˜skills to quickly learn and improve a particular assigned operation, as well as the widely applicable skills of collaboration, teamwork and whole business judgment.
The freedom inherent in “knowledge work” which includes most of the best jobs of the future˜brings with it the responsibility for continuous learning to remain knowledgeable, including experience in acting on judgments that correspond to reality. Despite the static nature of the term, “knowledge work” is about changing knowledge, where speed of learning and application is the competitive edge. We have some venerable models to inspire us: IBM kept its edge for many decades with continuous employee learning, everyone changing themselves with training and education all the time, so, they said, the challenges of changing systems and technology almost seemed easy.
Japanese knowledge work has been called (by Ezra Vogel in Japan as Number One: Lessons for America) a “group-directed quest of knowledge” focused, I add, on the changing ways and means of serving customers. The common task in all the specifics of knowledge work is using new knowledge to innovate. People will be productively employed in our more democratic “knowledge-questing” organizations of the future to the extent they can keep learning to learn, overcome the anxiety inherent in change, continuously deepen their knowledge, and develop a battery of flexible skills for collaboration over diverse and widening systems.
Only an educated and trained work force will be widely capable of taking responsibility for the fate of one’s customers, one’s fellows, and the workplace. To boost workplace productivity as well as create good new jobs, we are facing the urgent need for increased investment in capital equipment, bringing us to the issue of increased government role through incentives or more direct investment. An equally critical issue to face is the need for “capital” investment in our undereducated workers, suggesting funding and incentives for education and training of our present and future workers, in new and traditional institutions, in workplace groups, as well as support for on the job apprenticeships.
We will have to face our self-destructive elitism in our educational investments in our people, in schools and workplaces. Much of the attention, support, training and pay go to upper management in the US. Not surprisingly, we have created a glut of managerial specialists; and their jobs, ironically, are threatened exactly to the extent we have not focused attention, support, training and pay on the other greater fraction of our workplaces. Unskilled employees and layers of managers are increasingly unnecessary. The bulk of employees with good jobs will be skilled professionals and paraprofessionals working effectively in teams. As we progress further beyond hierarchy toward team work and self organization, we will eradicate the bias towards investing in education largely for management, and pour on training for everyone.
Lester Thurow predicts in his recent book Head to Head that high-tech, low-tech and service businesses will increasingly use high tech processes. For example, many of the jobs in formerly low tech businesses such as banking or railroads are now high tech jobs in computers and telecommunication. What we used to call the “bottom” half of the organization will have in their hands the high tech processes that can provide the competitive edge˜if they are well educated. Without a base of workers who understand math, for instance, it matters little what our PhD’s in the R & D labs invent˜we will be unable to staff the high-tech processes for continuous innovation to build, sell and distribute products cheaply and cleanly.
Only with education˜radically better education prior to and concurrent with employment˜will we escape the conflict and economic decline resulting from establishing a disenfranchised underclass, too poorly educated to be allowed to work. We need better schools, especially schools where children learn to learn and love to learn as individuals and in groups. Learning shuts down under too much control, which maintains the status quo; learners need freedom to practice thinking for themselves, to experience learning from an actual production process, to experience team learning and production and learning from each other. Learners need the freedom to make mistakes within secure limits. The quality of the important decisions and choices made by employees will depend on the quality of education, both in school and on the job.
We can learn from the growing number of conversions to worker owned cooperative workplaces: the most successful have depended on extensive and continuing education, geared specifically to prepare everyone for more democratic and widely responsible behaviors. For example, 10% of the net profit of the successful and trend-setting Mondragon cooperatives in Spain was put back into education. Continual on the job training is the standard choice where workers-owners call the shots, and the profitability of these companies tends to be high. The parallel transition in our businesses to more widespread democracy and responsibility will depend on a stepped up investment in cross-disciplinary education, so that self-managing employees will understand their part in the whole.
Freer organizations require more responsible, versatile and flexible employees, with wide understanding of the systems we are in and the long term consequences of our actions. Fortunately, working within the freer systems of distributed leadership and more democratic management enhances learning. The potential of mutual support within democratic work groups can enormously energize our work. When our colleagues are counting on our participation, we are motivated to learn widely about the business we share and how to make it better for everyone. When we share in making decisions and then live with the consequences, wisdom begins to grow in us all. When we take risks and achieve things we never thought we could, we are more willing to embrace and learn from the next challenge. Taking responsibility for the quality of our mutual output enhances self-esteem, and positive self-esteem facilitates learning. The more the system gives practice in empowered teamwork, with wise guidance and feedback that corresponds to reality, the more worthy of further empowerment its members become. The systems people call this a positive feedback loop.
Taking the risk to invest in empowering education for all our people assumes that we believe in our people, and the inherent value of freedom and democracy. For instance, mastering rigorous math, science and technical skills, teaching them widely, and understanding them in whole-system contexts that include the long-term effects of our technology on people and the planet, is a lot of trouble, and could be beyond our capability as a nation without radical shifts in values. The gap is enormous between our current educational quality and productivity and our actual needs. Yet the concept of an industrial machine as immense as ours, flying blind and in disrepair, too weak to care about the families and communities aboard or the surrounding ecosystem, mandates that shift in values. We need to begin a revolution on behalf of our national education and training. It is time we once again prove the power of the people, the real wealth of our nation, more so as our wealth in natural resources has hit the limit.
The US achieved its economic leadership position in this century not just by the abundant resources pressed into service by the settlers but also by the leadership role our antecedents took in establishing compulsory education, even for the new immigrants. The successes in innovation and technical entrepreneurship grew from this platform, boosted by the GI bill educating millions and funding a college boom. Although we seem less and less able to translate our creativity into jobs, we still have many fine schools and colleges, and excel in advanced university education and research. We are not alone in our fortunate history of widespread education˜Japan was another forerunner in compulsory education, long before many European countries, beginning in the 1870’s. Their single-minded focus on education reaped rapid development results before the war, and drove the economic growth again in the half century after the war. Recently Japan has succeeded in graduating a higher portion of its youth from high school than we do; and they are more widely competent in at least certain technical areas, after attending about a third more school days per year, the equivalent of four more years of college by the end of high school. The Japanese continue to focus on education in the university years and beyond more than we do. Germany, another industrial peer, has a superior technical education track, while the US has reduced much of its technical education to backwater storage for underachievers.
One the positive side, North Americans have unique contributions on many measures of value, such as originating many new ways to educate people and bring out their best among them. We continue to offer consumer innovations for the world to imitate, perhaps at some risk to our own productive integrity. In fact, we have been led to believe that our unparalleled consumption would alone drive our economy. Sometimes it seems our kids have gotten the message that their job in school is to learn to become better consumers of the good material life. But without skills and habits of productivity there is no good life.
Sadly, our public educational institutions are crumbling into bureaucratic inefficiency and deficient quality in imparting literacy, basic communication skills, math and science skills, more essential than ever in the coming years. And then there are the skills we are increasingly calling on employees to use that most schools fail to promote, and often discourage, such as team-based innovation and problem solving; democratic group decision making; wide-system interdependencies and how to effect systemic change; and environmentally and socially responsible practices. Lost are the incubators for the old fashioned virtues of hand-on ingenuity and productive self-support, while our kids watch dozens of hours of television a week. Gone are most of the small farms and tinker’s backyards that trained the last generation of managers in entrepreneurship, creative problem-solving, systems thinking, and the distinctive American “can do” attitude.
We have been able to compensate for some of the skills needed for business leadership with high-level executive training, that has typically included everything from basic training in the humanities and sciences to an Outward-Bound type expedition into team problem solving and shared risk. As organizations disperse decision making along a more nearly horizontal grid, these same skills will be essential throughout the organization. In fact, one CEO (a woman) says that her job, and to an extent everyone else’s in her organization, is that of an educator, and she is right. Even those who hand widgets off a line work with process innovation “quality” teams, mutually educating each other from diverse roles and functions to create together the whole-systems intelligence that gets a continually better job done. Mentoring and facilitating others, while going on working and learning oneself, is near the core of every job description of the next century.
Leadership must trust the people far more than anyone has ever experienced. It would be foolish to push autonomy on people without trust in their capabilities, yet their capabilities can only be demonstrated by letting go of the reins, and giving out challenges and continuous educational and collaborative support. Education and training, backed up with principles such as fairness and mutual support, are the surest routes to more trustworthy interdependencies.
We are in the middle of a national debate about the extent to which our government has responsibility for helping our people have the skills to participate in the market and helping our businesses maintain and expand a base of good jobs. Our tradition of universal public education has this intent, but has failed to evolve along with the changes in the workplace. Many years ago, reading the Tofflers’ book Future Shock, I was profoundly struck with their description of the early role of public education: training a farm population in punctuality, the ability to sit still all day, and the ability to do rote work obediently˜necessary skills for early industrial production, and of inadequate value today.
In the current crisis of confidence in our economic future, we agree we need a massive infusion of capital to improve pay and employment opportunities, and such a substantial investment will take time. Investing directly in people, wherever we can, could give quick results to build the possibility of more investment. Those who remember the Second World War tell us of miraculous jumps in productivity unheard of now, occurring after simple changes such as providing day care for women newly employed as shipbuilders. Although supporting education is less popular than more direct economic manipulation, as long-term issues such as children and the environment always are, a quality revolution in our public education, that would include turning schools over to enhancing the families and community as well, could infuse strong values of productivity, education, initiative, responsibility, and innovation into the majority of families, and spill over into the workplaces as these values are affirmed. Revolution is not too strong a word, because the changes in power, responsibility and decision making needed in the workplace must happen in parallel, and to some extent first, in the schools.
For instance, creativity for continuous innovation, whether at the “floors” of production and customer contact, or in any other process in the organization, is facilitated by the amount of decision making available. We are just beginning to widen the base of decision making in large organizations, and have scarcely begun in the administration and classrooms of our schools. Without the right to make decisions in collaboration with other team members and sponsors, you can not bring your judgment to bear, make choices, and learn from the consequences.
Research has accumulated for many decades that those who directly run the work processes are the best source of wisdom about changes needed in the process˜and that people do the best quality work when they are empowered to make the decisions at the level of their work. It is not just the local or detail decisions that can only be made intelligently by those who do the work; the large business changes work best when people from every function and level impacted are involved in a democratic design process. Especially with limited resources, the process of deciding when to pour on the resources you have, or when to pull back or fold altogether, is best left to those who are in the business. Education has failed to prepare is to make and live with our decisions.
In our traditional educational preparation for the workplace, skills in teamwork, creativity, leadership and responsible decision making are often ignored, both in the administration and with the young people, and compliance with the accepted knowledge and wisdom˜students call it regurgitation˜is rewarded. Education is often offered as something to consume; our challenge is to turn the whole framework of learning around to that of productivity. Thousands of courageous educators are breaking away from the old practices and conducting experiments in progressive high quality education, where children learn to learn and think for themselves, and experience a good part of their education in a productive and relevant context. They deserve our nation’s support, as the forefront of the next revolution in American democracy.
Most of our best organizations are getting the training bug, and our future depends on that trend increasing and diving deeper into the organizations. Bureaucracies divided the tasks into minute and unchanging chunks to make it possible to put industrially unskilled people to work with a minimum of education. Now that we want people to think for themselves, education will take more time, and continue throughout life. The most rewarding career paths will allow us to develop flexible skills in an organization or network in which we are learning collaborative control, and let the control we exert reflect our best values. This sounds wonderful, and we have all experienced moments of great collaborative innovation in some area of our lives, but the organizations we work in, and the harried lives we lead, seem to leave little time for learning and innovation. Nonetheless, we are coming to agree that time has run out for the status quo. We must invest in high quality education, focused on the future needs, for all, if we are to preserve our communities, their job bases, and our democratic privileges. A free market is only free with education and apprenticeships available to all.
Widespread higher quality education, geared as much to values and citizenship as knowledge and skills, is the single most important factor in the quality of life we will enjoy, as a nation and planet. Investing as well in infrastructure, families, wellness, and a healthy planet for future generations, are essential for the quality of the future for our offspring. Nevertheless, the core investment in our future is the population engaged in lifetime learning with enough freedom, and in a trustworthy principled system, to apply the lessons to the long term benefit of our organizations, customers, and shared communities.