Monday, September 01, 2014

The Learning Crisis

I was introduced to the world of books by my father and nurtured by my English teacher, both kept me supplied with enough books big and small, modern and classics. Drowning in their fictional world, late night sojourns with super heroes and supernatural beings completed my days. Growing up surrounded by virtual friends, as I started working they transformed into management and self-help books in the quest to stay ahead in the rat race. Books were interspersed with other trade publications and in recent times by electronic newsletters.

At the turn of the century and thereafter there has been overabundance of management books on colored oceans, climbing mountains, being different and creating strategic differentiators; I remember meeting many luminary authors in conferences which had a mandatory fixture with one such thought leader. As a young professional I enjoyed these interactions and managed to get autographed versions of their publications. Reading voraciously my collection of knowledge started outgrowing the space in my office.

The story tellers and theorists with their postulations evoked interest in some; rest found good slumber value in the books distributed in the conference. Having read some of their books before meeting them I had a few questions; at times to validate my assumptions and many times to clarify a point or two. There were also occasions where my frame of reference did not agree with the writings resulting in good discussions over drinks. Those with good oratory skills enthralled us, for the rest their message was lost in articulation.

Everyone loves to go on company offsite meetings and sponsored conferences, especially to exotic locations with no agenda, devoid of presentations they have to attend or make. Most people love the fun elements, skits, karaoke, and when alcohol is involved. As a good manager, I too indulged my teams which required everyone to attend with only medical emergencies being accepted and excused. There was always excitement about the event and the agenda; there was also trepidation in equal measure with majority of the team members.

Talking to friends and peers I realized that my situation was unique and none of the others had found such behavior. We compared notes, went through respective agendas and offsites structures; there was no evident difference in what they did to what I did. We discussed locations, team profiles, traveling arrangements, accommodation, and day end activities; there was no material difference that could have pointed to my teams’ variant behavior. I sensed it was not the obvious so I popped the question to my team.

I did not know how to react to the revelation, to me it was unimaginable, but it was their reality. They loved everything that we did starting with preparation, planning, fun and games, what have you; the part they hated is when prior to the offsite a book was given to every team member to read which would be the theme of the outing. They were okay with the books being given post the offsite as giveaways as most of them did not read them, but when they were expected to read before the journey, it gave them sleepless nights.

I discovered that even my CIO friends wondered why I insisted that my team spend precious time in reading these “management” books. Do they serve a purpose beyond the hours being occupied ? How does it help understand new technology trends or implement the next system ? As it is, there is paucity of time, where do we fit it in our priorities and urgencies which keep everyone busy ? Their ignorance was appalling and comparable to kids in my team. I also realized that the few who loved books stood out in their ability to engage their enterprises.

With information overload and explosion of news, views and innovative ideas, unfortunately many professionals have deprioritized reading as an investment over other pursuits. The resultant learning crisis is scary to say the least creating educated but ignorant people whose ability to connect across paradigms is challenged. The electronic media pushes information at our faces, we need to embrace it to survive. If you did not change with online retailing of books and then their electronic versions, it is time now before you are made irrelevant in the new digital world.

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