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Learn Fast, Learn Well

While the Information Age can deliver facts and data in an instant, wisdom is still learned the old-fashioned way.

How many times a day does the average 5-year-old laugh? Answer: 150. How many times a day does the average 45-year-old executive laugh? Answer: 5. Who is having more fun? Who is, therefore, likely to be more creative? Need we ask?

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Traditional organizations are not fun. They are hierarchical and run by older people. They suppress, rather than encourage, learning. On average, younger people are more creative than older people. Younger people are more entrepreneurial, more risk tolerant and more imaginative in their approaches to problem solving. Younger people can process more stimuli in the same amount of time. Flat organizations are more effective than traditional hierarchies simply because they empower younger people.

The rising percentage of older people in developed societies could be a major drag on economic progress if we don’t figure out how to teach old dogs new tricks. Of course, many older people possess wisdom — an ability to make sound judgments and to screen out the wheat from the chaff, based on learning from experience in the school of hard knocks. Wisdom is the ability to ask the right questions in the right order. Wise people may not be able to process as many stimuli as rapidly as young people, but they can screen the stimuli more effectively.

The Internet brings more information stimuli and more choices to our fingertips than ever before. But, for some, more material means information overload. So learning how to locate and filter information is becoming an increasingly important skill — especially since today’s Internet resembles a poorly organized library full of poorly organized books.

As a learning medium, the Internet offers one advantage over a book: interactivity. Despite that, the noncompletion rate for Internet courses remains high; chat-room feedback cannot yet match the motivational power of face-to-face interaction with other students and instructors. But we’re still in the early days of this medium. The effectiveness of Internet-delivered learning will improve as more research studies are completed. I recall the bright, young student I met in a remote Indian village who said, “I’d rather learn from a guru over the Internet than from an idiot face-to-face.”

The Internet may accelerate the speed with which we can access facts and technical knowledge, but will it improve how we learn, how we learn to learn, and how we learn to unlearn? Learning how to solve problems, how to make sound decisions, how to communicate, and how to persuade are the handrails that we need more than ever in an environment in which knowledge can become quickly outdated. How can we accelerate the speed with which those lifelong skills are learned? By giving young people as many opportunities as possible to develop them.

We can agree with racing car driver Mario Andretti that “if I think I have complete control of the car, it probably means I’m going too slow.” The pace of change requires constant learning. But let’s not celebrate fast learning for its own sake. Some of our best minds are slow learners. Speed is no substitute for effectiveness. Fast is easy. Good is hard.

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John Quelch (jquelch@london.edu) is dean of the London Business School. He is a nonexecutive director of WPP Group PLC and was a founding director of Reebok International Ltd.