Surviving The Fastest Rate Of Change… In The History Of Business (With speed learning and a learning network)

When everything changes at breathtaking speed, learning becomes a critical success factor.

Let’s Begin With… The 4 Underlying Premises That Support A Shift To Speed Learning

Premise #1. We are experiencing the fastest rate of change… in recent history – The recent phenomenal growth of AI has further accelerated the already rapid pace of change under our current VUCA environment. It’s possible that businesses may today be experiencing their fastest rate of change… ever (with the possible exception of the introduction of PCs!). I call this current time period a “Quantum change environment.

Premise #2. Rapid obsolescence requires better and faster learning – This record-breaking speed of change means that many established best practices, processes and solutions can now become obsolete almost overnight. And the best way to counter this obsolescence is with improved learning. That provides you with faster and higher quality learning with less effort. I call this new kind of learning “speed learning.

Premise #3. Failing to dramatically improve learning has many negative consequences – Even during slower times, learning ability was important. Google found that “learning ability is the leading predictor of success – No. 1 above intelligence and education.” So to be successful under an even faster rate of change, every employee must realize that both their job security and their promotability will be negatively impacted. And, of course, when several team members fail to improve their learning dramatically. The results that the team produces will eventually fall below that of your external competition. 

Premise #4. Don’t expect much help from corporate – Unfortunately, due to budget cuts and the fact that the Learning and Development function is itself slow to change; employees can’t expect much help from corporate. So, individuals will mostly have to take on the responsibility for designing and operating their own personalized speed learning process.

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The Best Practices That Are Required For Speed Learning

Fortunately, there are a variety of learning tools that an employee can use without consulting with their manager or corporate. Each of these available tools are listed below with the essential tools appearing in Part I. And some additional powerful tools that you should consider can be found in Part II.

Part I – The 6 Essential Tools For Speed Learning

Where the most powerful tools are listed first. 

  1. Create your own virtual learning network – This is by far the most impactful speed learning approach. It entails an individual employee assembling their own “learning team.” At a minimum, this can be an article exchange group, but it can support learning in many more ways.

    Although they can occasionally meet face-to-face (usually at a functional event). Most learning networks are completely virtual. Creating one requires the initial group owner to set the entrance criteria for joining (eventually, most rotate leadership positions). Among those criteria, the first absolute requirement is that every member must work in the same functional area (although they don’t have to have the same job title). Another common entrance requirement is that each applicant must prove that they have a passion for learning and enough time to learn. In most cases, the leader populates the group with 2 to 3 initial members. And after that, every proposed new team member is evaluated using the established membership criteria. And those that meet the criteria are put up for a vote.

    Once the group begins to operate, each group member then informs the entire group about the one or two topics that they want to focus their learning on. When any member happens to run across an article, podcast, recorded presentation, or blog that covers another member’s learning area. They send the information that they found directly to that member (some also send a CC to every other network member). This information is generally via email because that doesn’t require the person to remember to visit a joint website. One practice that speeds up learning that I recommend is requiring the person that is sending out an article, a blog, a podcast, or a slide deck. They must include their own one-paragraph description on what others will learn from the information piece. The type of information that is normally shared covers article/book reviews, emerging practices, problems, and the best information sources. Some other activities that the group might focus on include book reviews, the results of trends surveys, and the pretesting of new ideas and programs. If you need more details on how to operate a learning net, click on this link 
  1. Rely heavily on Google alerts – The “secret sauce” in my learning plan is the use of numerous Google alerts. They’re crucial as they automatically curate relevant information, minimizing active “information gathering” for the network member. Once they are fully refined, these alerts provide the owner daily with links to any articles, blogs, books, and podcasts directly related to your alert topic. These alerts are free, and you can have as many as you want. I personally have over 30 active ones (including “speed learning”). You can quickly create your own alerts by going to their alerts site. (After you have signed into your Google account). 
  2. Identify how “the best learn” – Rather than using a trial-and-error approach to identify the best learning sources in your field, conduct an informal survey with the most effective learners you know or are connected with. Then use the resulting “best learning approaches” survey to improve your own current list of learning sources and methods. Then share your “how to best learn list” with your learning network and your learning mentor so that they too can also focus on learning from the most effective and unique learning sources. Also, consider using this valuable list as “a trade” when you are negotiating to get valuable learning information from others.
  3. Choose a great learning mentor – You should also have a “learning mentor” to help guide your learning. Usually, that learning mentor should be a recognized fast learner with extensive experience in your field. Begin by including them in your pool of possible mentor candidates. Those that provided you with powerful sources in your “how the best learn” survey. You should also consider any author or influencer that frequently use quality sources that include data. In addition, you should respect their empathy for your learning needs and their time availability as additional selection criteria. You, of course, in return, must respect their time. 
  4. Use podcasts whenever you can – Podcasts are a superior learning source that has an advantage, which makes them much more likely to be used. And that advantage is that unlike most learning sources listening to them doesn’t require your undivided attention. Because you can listen to them while eating, exercising, and driving. I recommend that you use your learning network and your learning mentor to determine which podcast best fits your needs.
  5. Stop reading and begin to scan When you commit to reading an entire article or book. Not only will it take up a lot of your time. But because you probably won’t finish them in a single session. There is a high probability that you will put them down without ever finishing them. So instead, commit to a fast scan. When you are presented with the book, start by scanning the table of contents and then the first and last chapters. For articles and blogs, scan the introduction and the final paragraph. For podcasts, slide sets, and videos, quickly skip to the very end to judge the likely value of the work. And if you don’t find any important information after your quick scan, move on to other information.

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Part II – Additional Tools That Can Improve Your Learning Speed

These 10 remaining learning tools are not essential. However, realize that everyone that you add to your speed learning effort will likely make a small but measurable difference in the speed and the quality of your learning.

  • Set-aside time exclusively for learning – The most effective speed learners set aside specific times to read and learn. Consider finding opportunities that you will find the most unmerited times for learning, including during commute time, while working out, while waiting for meetings to start, and late Friday afternoons when little is going on. Additionally, I also recommend that schedule at least one weekly coffee break meeting with a proficient learner and one lunch period dedicated solely to learning.
  • Request additional information – When you come across great information. Realize that many articles or podcasts leave out support data and the important “the how-to’s” because of space limitations. So assume that there is more information behind the scenes. And be bold enough to contact the author of an excellent information piece and ask them if they will share any of their additional information. That additional information can be in the form of their own articles on the topic, YouTube presentations, bibliographies, slide sets, company descriptions of this approach or where more information can be found on the Internet.
  • Educate others – One of the best ways to learn yourself is to explain what you have learned and why it’s important to know. It’s also important to share with others “how you will now act differently.” Sharing improves your learning because educating others requires you to understand the big picture. And then to anticipate (and be able) to answer each of the tough questions that others are likely to pose. If you are really bold, ask your boss if you can periodically give a five-minute “what you need to know” presentation on a topic that the team needs to learn more about.
  • Ask the “What have you learned question?” – Whenever you interact with leaders, innovators, smart people, or anyone in your field that is likely to be a rapid learner. Have the courage to, at some point, ask them directly, “What is your most important recent learning in our field?” If initially, they draw a blank, prompt them with a few topic areas (i.e., AI, technology, globalization, and “WOW emerging practices”). Incidentally, you’ll get a much higher response rate if you offer to send them your complete listing of “recent learnings” for this month.
  • Learn to trade for information – When you are seeking information from a stranger. You must start off by understanding that you are requesting extremely valuable information without offering anything in return. This “something for nothing” approach is clearly inferior to the alternative, which is “trading information.” So you should develop several trade files that contain information that others would consider to be of value to them. Those files might contain book summaries of recently released business books. Or a complete compilation of “how to” or emerging practices articles” on a hot topic. And finally, be willing to share with them the summary results of any survey that they participated in. 
  • Assign popular publications to each member – A common approach that learning networks use to minimize any duplication of effort. Is to assign all of the major publications in your functional area to different individual members. Under this approach, the team member sends all of the articles from their assigned publication (that fit any one of the team’s learning areas) directly to the relevant member. And with fewer publications to read, each team member is likely to get through their assigned publications much faster. This approach will also save each team member some significant money because they will no longer have to pay for subscriptions to such a wide array of publications.
  • Let your interns contribute to your learning effort – Because interns are college students, they are probably interested in having some practical learning. So why not consider asking yours to do tangential tasks, like summarizing articles, writing book reviews, and to summarizing your learnings each week. In the same light, you should also consider utilizing family members that may want to learn more about your work.
  • Follow a limited number of thought leaders – There may be as many as 10 “thought leaders” or influencers in any professional field. And it is important to be aware that many of them won’t be providing information that is relevant to you. And some of them are so tied to tradition so that following them might even keep you going in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the Internet is full of lists of influencers that can get you started. For example, lists of the leading influencers in my field of Talent Management can be quickly be found here (best HR bloggers) and here (top recruiting influencers).
  • Slowly begin to forecast and predict One of the best ways to get internal recognition and to test your overall learning. Is to make forecasts and predictions for your team. Because everyone remembers both accurate and inaccurate predictions. Of course, you don’t want to start out with a bad prediction. So begin by making small predictions that you have thoroughly vetted with experts in the area. And after you have established a track record of accuracy in your predictions. Begin making broader forecasts for the upcoming year. Because taken together, these practices will not only help your team. But they will also make you stand out as a “forward thinker.”
  • Begin using AI to improve learning – You are likely to fall behind in multiple areas. If you don’t quickly realize how much generative AI can improve your learning. Use it to rapidly find new answers, as well as an effective way to verify the answers that you already have. Also, urge your team leader to apply machine learning AI internally. Because this data-driven approach will help the team find problems (and answers) in each of your internal processes.
  • Learning behaviors that you should stop doing In addition to the many positive actions that you should take. You should also stop l any earning activities that have a low ROI in either value-added, or time spent. That means stop limiting your information search to your own industry. And instead, broaden your best practice search so that it includes learning about the emerging practices in the fastest-moving industries (i.e., high-tech and entrepreneurial businesses). Next, stop reading complete articles and books (instead, scan them first). And finally, make sure that your team leader realizes that it’s a mistake to assume that your international employees and those from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t learn the same way as an average employee.

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Additional Reasons Why Speed Learning Is Now So Essential

In addition to the reasons that I’ve already covered. There are several additional reasons why managers should demand that every employee become a speed learner:

  • Innovation requires leading-edge learning – The most valuable firms in the world have demonstrated the tremendous economic value of serial innovation. One of them, Google, even found that innovation increases when just two factors are maximized. And those two factors are collaboration and discovery (i.e., learning). And the more that employees know, the better they are able to collaborate.
  • Rapid copying requires rapid learning – The new reality is that the speed at which your best practices are copied by competitors has also increased dramatically. So this means that those that utilize your current best practices must become rapid learners.
  • Learning impacts job performance in most jobs – Most jobs now evolve so quickly that the knowledge required to perform in them may become obsolete in as few as 18 months. So without a continuous flow of new knowledge, on-the-job performance will degrade rapidly.
  • Learning opportunities impact the attraction and retention of top performers – One of the key motivators of top performers is the ability to continually learn. Obviously, if you provide your best employees with learning opportunities and a team of rapid learners. That will directly improve your recruiting and retention.
  • Team speed requires uniform learning – In corporate processes that requires speed. You won’t be able to maintain that speed if some of your team members are lagging behind in their learning.
  • Learning increases your promotability – Learning is a key contributor to employee growth and promotability. In fact, a Korn Ferry study of one job (sales managers) found that “The higher an individual’s learning ability, the more promotions he or she will receive during a 10-year period.”
  • AI and Technology both require continuous learning – Because technology and AI are continually evolving. Those who will be impacted by it will need to continually learn simply to keep up with the updates. And the fact that technology hardware, software, and data-driven decision-making are now permeating most areas of a business. Your impacted employees will need to excel at technology learning.
  • Globalization requires more learning – As more businesses face global competition… Almost every employee will need to expand their learning so that it covers global problems and solutions.

And Finally, Understand The Guiding Principals Of Any Speed Learning Plan

Before you design your own speed learning approach. You should first be fully aware of each of the 7 defining characteristics that make speed learning both unique and effective. They include:

  • Others help you to learn – most of your learning materials will be supplied by others. 
  • Less time and effort – learning must now require much less time and effort.
  • The information flow must be continuous and automatic – most of the information-gathering process must continuously and automatically “come to you.”
  • No or low cost – other than your time, the costs of speed learning should be minimal.
  • Note how you will act differently – after each learning, you must go to the next step and decide how you will now “act differently.”
  • The speed and quality of your learning must improve – it’s essential for each individual to monitor their own learning improvement. So there should, at the very least, be a “before and after” survey. Where team members can anonymously rate to what extent their learning has improved.

Speed learning should focus on these areas:

  • Short-term needs – your target learning areas that will be important in the next 6 to 12 months. 
  • Practical knowledge – you focus on benchmark advanced and “next practices.” And you purposely devote less time to esoteric academic articles and opinion pieces.
  • Information that includes data – when you are searching for or sorting information sources. You should prioritize information pieces that are rich in data because data is required in order to prove that an approach actually works.
  • Also, include business learning – because learning about business trends may be equally as important as learning in your professional field. Make sure that your plan has a dual focus on learning in both areas.

Final Thoughts

Since early in this century, I have been warning leaders about the need for better learning in the complex and rapid rate of change that occurs in a VUCA world that everyone must operate in. However, now with the current powerful push to have AI everywhere. Both individuals and teams must now raise their learning speed to an even higher level. Just to survive during this period of quantum change. And don’t expect your manager to pull you aside in order to encourage you to increase your learning speed. Because at this point, most managers don’t actually know how to increase an employee’s learning speed… 

So consider this article to be the only warning about learning speed that you are likely to get.

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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