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The New Rules of Fast Learning

Unlearn what you already know about learning so you can thrive in the age of fast.

In the old economy, executives had a choice: They could be fast or they could be smart. They could “do” or they could “think.” They could not do both. The function of “planning” (the equivalent of organizational “learning”) was structurally separated from the operation of the enterprise.

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Because of this duplicity, I label this epoch the Age of FAIC (pronounced “fake”). The acronym FAIC stands for Fordian Age of Irrational Choices. (Gerald Ford was America’s post-Watergate president who had trouble multitasking. Film clips seem to indicate that the favorite son of Michigan could not walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time, particularly when descending the steps of Air Force One.) Multitasking defines the paradoxical world we live in.

Our cars have become entertainment, communication, and mobile-feeding centers; our offices have become fitness centers, game rooms, and pet parks; and our homes have become offices. Our pockets are now lined with digital devices designed to create the illusion that we can be in many places and do many things simultaneously.

In the new economy, however, fast learning — the ability to observe, orient, and act on the multiple streams of information that flood over the cognitive transom — is not an option: It is a necessity. To become adept at fast learning, we must unlearn much of what we now think about learning. Here are four rules to guide learning in the new era.

The New Rules of Fast Learning

Rule #1: Learning does not come from “The Temple” — in other words, from traditional institutional sources of knowledge. It comes from conversations with smart people in shared spaces. Just as Martin Luther “disintermediated” the priests of the Catholic Church, so vernacular learning spaces are now disintermediating the “priests” who run our stodgy old universities.

Rule #2: “Open” learning spaces — those that embrace diverse points of view and that welcome external thought leaders — will outthink, outlearn, and outperform “closed” learning spaces.

Rule #3: New learning is “time-boxed.” You assemble smart people. You set a deadline. You let them loose. Smart people confronted with a deadline and stretch objectives will surprise and delight you with their output.

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Rule #4: Executives of the future must design workplaces that foster fast learning. Members of the new workforce will not tolerate a work environment in which their skills do not expand as a by-product of their labor. Their motto: “Make me smart and make me rich, or color me gone.”

Fast education is baked into the DNA of the new economy.

Thornton May (thornton.may@guardent.com) is the corporate futurist and chief awareness officer of Guardent, a digital-security services firm. He also serves on the faculty of the Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA.

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