Are You Obsolete Yet? How to Stay Smart and Survive

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What do you do if you’re the CEO of one of America’s one-time corporate giants, and you find yourself getting hammered by Google and Amazon and various upstart start-ups on a daily basis? You adapt or die. Or as AT&T’s CEO Randall Stephenson put it to his 280,000 employees: Learn faster, or become obsolete.

Smart Today, Obsolete Tomorrow

AT&T is like a lot of large companies that once looked unassailable, but now find themselves battling to survive. Think you’re on top of your game? Well, so did everyone on the scrapheap once. For proof, read Exponential Organisations – Why New Organisations Are 10x Faster, Better and Cheaper than yours (and what to do about it). It’s a sobering read for any knowledge worker or CEO:

  • The average half life of a business competency has dropped from 30 years in 1984 to 5 years in 2014
  • 89% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 were not on the list by 2014
  • The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has decreased from 67 years in 1920 to 15 years today
  • In the next 10 years, 40% of all S&P 500 companies will disappear from the list

Once AT&T owned the patent for the telephone. Now they’re chasing the tails of companies less than 10 years old. What happened? Their CEO realised that “much to his dismay, his staff was woefully unschooled for the new technology.”

The evidence shows that to adapt you have to stay on top of new developments. You need to be a quick learner. As Cal Newport, author of Deep Work puts it:

“To remain valuable in our economy, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.”

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Organisations are the sum of the competencies of their people. So if you’ve got a culture of not staying smart, well, you know where you’re going to end up. As AT&T’s CEO says: “If we can’t do it, mark my words, in three years we’ll be managing decline.”

If you do nothing other than keep moving at your current speed, you are by definition declining, as others will outpace you. And not even human others. Could a robot do your job? Can you afford to wait and find out?

Is Learning the Silver Bullet?

Are you doomed to the scrapheap? It doesn’t have to be that way. Organisations, including AT&T, are finding salvation in one thing: learning. In their case they have partnered with online course provider Udacity. They are implementing a huge retraining programme. Every employee is expected to spend 5-10 hours a week in online learning. Most are enrolled in short courses that focus on retraining from older skills into data science and other subjects. As their CEO puts it, “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop. People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology.”

Ramping up the amount of learning is a good move. But here are 3 things that AT&T – and any other organisation under threat – needs to consider when trying to keep their teams smart.

  1. Formal Training Courses Are Old News

Courses are great if you know nothing about a topic. But they won’t keep you informed. They’re out of date by the time they’re written, never mind by the time you complete them. They’re a closed book approach to learning in a fast changing world. They’re also usually not personalised to the individual’s prior knowledge or needs, so can be a very inefficient way to learn. You need to address all of the other ways in which people pick up new information, outside of the online course or classroom.

2.  We Get Smart On The Job – Deal with the 90%

By most accounts, formal courses account for about 10% of how we learn. The rest is picked up on the job, through informal sources which can include social networks, conversations with colleagues, our own personal research, and of course, learning by doing, making mistakes and reflecting on it.

As Charles Jennings, proponent of the 70:20:10 model says: “For new people in their organisation, structured courses are usually important, to get them started – but formal learning alone won’t get them to high performance. For that they need lots of experiential and social learning – the ‘70’ and ‘20’ in the 70:20:10 approach.”

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For AT&T, I’d argue that spending 10 hours a week in “courses” might well see a diminishing marginal return. It could consume mental energy that’d be better spent researching trends, and applying new ideas, and learning what works. It’s like how Peter Thiel pays people to come and work with him rather than go to college.

3. You Need Better Filters

We’re all drowning in information. AT&T’s CEO is right in naming the key challenge we all face: how to “make quick business decisions based on a fire hose of data coming into the company.”

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For that you need better tools and filters that help sift that data so you see the right stuff quicker, and better ways to help teams to collaborate and seek, sense and share that information efficiently. Otherwise there’s a risk that the new information that breaks every day in your sector passes you by. Any gain from course-based learning is eroded by competitors who scan better, make sense of trends, and act faster.

Want To Stay Relevant? How We Can Help

If you’re trying to stay at the top of your game rather than the scrapheap, we think we can help you. At Anders Pink, we’ve created a new tool that helps teams stay smart. We do it with:

  • Intelligent filters: A course is as informed as the person who wrote it. Our approach is to filter the world’s content so you only see highly trusted, relevant content to your sector, which is then further filtered by the views of your team. We aggregate expert insights and then give you just what you need.
  • Personalised intelligence briefings: The pace of new information means we all wake up dumber than we went to bed. You need at least a daily intelligence briefing – possibly an hourly one. It’s constantly updated, so you don’t miss anything.
  • Collective intelligence: You can flag an issue or opportunity and get immediate consensus. So you can act faster on emerging ideas. Your team scan and see the same information.

If those sound like things that you care about, why not trial it for free? Just sign up here.
Offer applies to AT&T – and everyone else of course…