Learning as a Strategic Investment

I recently contributed to an eBook targeted to Pharma and Healthcare marketers.  The book, intending to guide its audience toward where to invest their learning in 2010, is directly relevant to anyone in business.  It begins with the famous Toffler quote
The illiterate of the 21stcentury will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

                 -Alvin Toffler, Rethinking the Future 1999
Since he wrote those powerful words, 9 years after the publication of Senge's Fifth Discipline, web 2.0 has exploded, and the challenges of choosing where to learn and what to learn are bursting exponentially -changing patterns of trade and social power on the planet. 

Jim Collins says it well in a Fast Company interview:  
FC:  What has changed if you’re building a business now, as opposed to 10, 20, or 30 years ago?

JC: The skills. You need to be continually learning. For example, if you accept the idea that work is infinite and time is finite, you realize you have to manage your time and not your work. You need a laserlike focus on doing first things first. And that means having a ferocious understanding of what you are not going to do. The question used to be which phone call you wouldn’t take. Now, it’s the discipline not to have your e-mail on. The skill is knowing how to sift through the blizzard of information that hits you all the time.
As a Business Anthropologist, I am fascinated by how social media are changing the world of learning.  Sunday's New York Times re-iterates how Twitter works as a learning portal - for approximately 10% of its users, according to a 2009 Harvard study.  With over 1000 user-designed applications, no one has quite figured out how many people that is… a telling commentary. 

Close to the beginning of the revolution represented by social media, I undertook a study of 50 top performers, asking about how they rejuvenate.    They recognized that, 
The ability to be a 'beginner' is a key factor in sustained top performance….Forty eight consciously keep their curiosity sparked through exploration and learning.

"What I'm doing now was totally beyond me 12 months ago."
                        - Entrepreneur, age 72
In my 3 decades in the trenches with business leaders, nothing seems to have gotten easier.  Most would agree that the changes of the past 15 months demand more skill than ever, and a new kind of skill: being nimble in the face of uncertainty.   

I cast my vote with Senge, Toffler and Collins: the ability to learn is our single best strategic investment. The evidence goes back to the first human communities.  

Our ancestors have done it for millions of years.  We can do it again.  How will you choose your strategic learning investments this year?

Social Media and the Brain: A Business Anthropologist's View

A number of innovations have changed the face of commerce in my lifetime.  Credit cards greatly enabled commercial exchanges.  Email and FedEx both sped up communication and reduced cost.  The internet both transformed information transfer, and introduced people around the world who would not have otherwise found each other.  In each case, exchanges – the fundamental unit of commerce – became easier.  Barriers were lowered and trade flourished.  
Are social media another facilitator of trade?
One of the aspects of social media that I find most fascinating is the proliferation of free – non-monetized, and non-negotiated – exchanges.   There’s an ethos around that practice, to which participants are finely-tuned.  It’s OK to make commercial offers, and to be compensated for touting others’ products,  as long as a) you’re up-front about it,  b) it’s deemed appropriate to the specific site and subject , and c) that’s not the only kind of stuff you talk about.  In the recent surge of activity around the Iran election on Twitter, for example, those few who sought to reach participants with anything commercial were immediately and soundly slapped.
There is plenty of commercial activity on social media. Even so, many corporate marketers are not so happy with its power  – the loss of control is counter-cultural for them - while small businesses are faster to use it to advantage .  The explosive growth of Twitter confounded the pundits and sparked controversy for months.  Much of that chatter quieted when the State Department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance soon after the Iranian election.  
I'm struck by the way social media simulate community.  The earmarks of community are 1) Shared concerns and 2) Free exchanges addressing those concerns, in addition to monetized or quantified trading. In the 17 years I had my office in Napa, CA, the river flooded half a dozen times.   People of all ages jumped in to assist – with whatever equipment and know-how at their command – with no thought of quantifying the exchanges.  And they loved it; stories abounded for years.  The mood of the entire country shifted when a now-famous commercial airline pilot landed in the Hudson in January of this year, and locals leaped into every available craft to get people out of the water.   This month, untold numbers of people from all over the world changed their Twitter profiles to confuse Iranian secret police, and offered proxy sites as internet communication inside the country was disabled.  
I suspect that our forebears lived by means of free exchanging – in ordinary life as well as in crises - starting with the earliest communities – perhaps as long as 350,000 generations ago.  Human groups are characterized by coordination and cooperation.  When did those exchanges become widely monetized?  After the Industrial  Revolution, perhaps 12 generations ago.  So for 349,988 generations human communities thrived by virtue of exchanging [mostly] without quantification.               
I’m not speaking here of Free as a ‘new radical price’, like the book of that title, though I agree that trend is important.  I’m speaking of exchanging freely, with abandon, the way children learn in play.  Sparking curiosity and enabling Neuroplasticity: the power of our brains to move with the new, in the moment - perhaps the most important skill of this century.  
From Fast Company, “Enterprise MicroLearning”,   

Twitter, a public micro-sharing network used by many early adopters, has become an integral part of my own professional practice and personal brain-building. I use it to connect, share, and discover information far beyond any other network. I've grown to realize the field might better be thought of as micro-learning where the conduit is tiny and the lessons spread are vast. Across an enterprise -- be it around the globe or down the hall -- the learning potential is endless, while the opportunities to connect to knowledge are exploding in number and variety.

I use it in a way similar to how I touch base with my friends and family, briefly and frequently, and I now extend that level of care to involve my coworkers and business partners. I can find someone to review an article as effortlessly as I can offer personal experience to a colleague on how to select a webinar platform or which organizations have successfully launched their own brand Wikipedia. This is all akin to the magic of open-source software, created through public grassroots collaboration.  
                                      - Marcia Conner, Pistachio Consulting, www.twitter.com/marciamarcia

The two comments below, in response to my blog post, “Harvard Study Confirms That Twitter is Unique”, point to that same synergistic learning:   

...for me Twitter is like being in a perpetual book store…yet many have some pretty strong perceptions and opinions about Twitter despite having never even tried it.

One other practical ‘value’ I would add to your list that I honestly didn’t think about when I first started using twitter…are the new friends and people with whom I have shared interests with that I have met thru twitter, and in some cases started to get to know in a deeper way than others that I meet in my typical day to day business dealings. And over time, these new ‘friendships’ can blossom into live face to face meetings and collaborations…Pretty amazing to think about speaking or I should say tweeting to people a few times a week that you never met before, yet overtime, you become ‘friends’ and collaborators etc.
                 - Ellen Hoenig-Carlson, Advance MarketWoRx, www.twitter.com/ellenhoenig

 I get news, commentary, inspiration, information and a view into the collective consciousness from Twitter.

The Twitter experience for me is like seeing clouds from above… Once a rare treat that has become more accessible to more people over time.

                                                - Janet Johnson, O'Johnson Partners, www.twitter.com/janetleejohnson
Those who are bewildered by social media are often those who haven’t enjoyed a good sample.  They haven’t yet noticed a simple – but powerful - factor:  it feels good.  Recent brain research shows that helping others – including mentoring, and donating money and energy to charities – stimulates the same part of the brain as sex and chocolate.   As far as I know, as of this writing no one has tested to see if free exchanges on Twitter show up in the same place on an fMRI.  But hang on, I bet it will soon be forthcoming.
In this sense, social media may be more than an innovation: they may be revolutionary in their disturbance - as corporate marketers fear.  Exchanging freely feels good.  It’s rich. The results may not be easy to measure, but they’re a form of wealth with a very long history.      
And don’t make the mistake of trying to fool anyone.  Our brains are exquisitely sensitive to community.  People can tell whether a proposed contribution or a free offer is real and sincere, or not.  The punishment of pretending to be part of community is likely to be harsh.          

Harvard study confirms that Twitter is unique

Indeed. As a Business Anthropologist, I am fascinated by who chooses to be active in Twitter and what they're up to. And equally fascinated by the numbers - including marketers and business pundits - who are fearful, confounded or compelled to denigrate Twitter.

From the Harvard study 
Among Twitter users, the median number of lifetime tweets per user is one. This translates into over half of Twitter users tweeting less than once every 74 days.

At the same time there is a small contingent of users who are very active. Specifically, the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets. On a typical online social network, the top 10% of users account for 30% of all production. To put Twitter in perspective, consider an unlikely analogue - Wikipedia. There, the top 15% of the most prolific editors account for 90% of Wikipedia's edits ii. In other words, the pattern of contributions on Twitter is more concentrated among the few top users than is the case on Wikipedia, even though Wikipedia is clearly not a communications tool.
Those 10% are very active. As other bloggers have explored, they differ from other social media users in several ways.  What I find especially interesting are the small, non-monetized exchanges being invented real time. The skill to do so is not taught in MBA programs; a better place to look might be Aikido dojos and community theatres. As I see it, Creatives from all over the world are exchanging because it's fun and enlivening. A high-performing client remarked to me recently, "I love going on Twitter; I always learn there."

For those who feel a need to distinguish between value and play (believing that play is defined as 'not creating value',) I am happy to explore the question: what are millions of people finding on Twitter? The more practical value includes:

The less practical? Challenges; inspiring quotations, accomplishments, and points of view. I learned about the Harvard study this morning on Twitter. Thanks @DanOnBranding and @Lapp.

Received wisdom when I was in grad school was that one could recognize the advent of human ancestors in the archeological record when tools became more beautiful than they needed to be to get the job done. Making such tools was viewed as distinctly human behavior. Does anyone think that has changed?

And who made those beautiful tools?  Not the median tool user.  This anthropologist will bet it was the same part of the population who are now active on Twitter. The 10% who feel compelled to make the world better.

These are the people who are navigating the economic downturn by inventing new exchanges with people all over the world.  Whether or not money is involved, these Creatives are like bees - pollinating our businesses and communities - sparking new value  - making the economy more resilient.

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