As I researched my new book, OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn In The Future, a recurring question loomed large over the evidence I was gathering: why is formal learning so unsuccessful in engaging its users?
Around the world, fewer than 30% of students would claim to be engaged in their work. The stats for the workplace are even worse. The latest Gallup survey suggests that, globally, only 13% of us would say that we are engaged by our work. Setting aside the financial cost of this paltry return on investment, the human cost – of people spending large proportions of their lives feeling negative, bored, disinterested – is appalling. Surely we can do better than this?
We can and we do. Think about our levels of engagement when we’re not in a formal environment: at home, with friends, on our laptops. If we’re disinterested in the documentary we’re watching or the forum we’re browsing, then we switch. But most of the time, we’re engaged (often deeply) when we’re learning ‘socially’ like this. But it’s too easy and too simplistic, in my view, to attribute such low levels of employee and student engagement to the difference between learning because you choose to, and learning because you have to (which is not really learning at all).
What I discovered was that there are enough organisations who confound those global patterns, with very high levels of user engagement, that we should all learn from them. Companies like Google and WD40, schools like High Tech High in San Diego, colleges like MIT. I looked for commonalities and here’s what I found: they’re all ‘open’. Some are more physically open than commercially, perhaps. Others believe in open management, still others in open learning systems. But they all believe in making knowledge open, and that’s one of the key reasons why they’re successful.
They grasped this fundamental shift in our understanding of knowledge and made it work to their advantage: the commercial value of knowledge has plummeted over the last decade, but its social value has soared. The concept of intellectual ‘property’ is in decline, while putting knowledge out there, so that its value can be determined, and you can be hired to help others put that knowledge to use, is on the rise.
I interviewed Patrick McKenna CEO of Ingenious Media, one of the world’s most successful media investment companies (and the backers behind ‘Avatar’ and a host of other marquee movies). Ingenious used to carefully guard their market knowledge. Now, according to Patrick:
“The only way we can sell those insights is by sharing what we know. The reason why we don’t worry about giving that knowledge away is because most people can’t implement what they know. The capital value of something these days is the ability to implement it rather than to create it originally.”
High Tech High’s CEO Larry Rosenstock expects all their teachers to make their plans, project ideas and student work available to the world, through their digital portfolios. It’s one of the reasons why the schools have over 3,000 visitors a year and why High Tech High staff are increasingly advising schools around the world how to re-think learning.
‘Open source’ principles aren’t just for IT start-ups. But some organisations have gone open, like online shoe retailer zappos.com practicing ‘radical transparency’, while others, adopting similar strategies, have floundered. Why?
I believe that Open is just one of four values and actions that all need to be in place to ensure success. The others, Share, Free and Trust, shape purpose, vision and values in the innovative organisation.
Collaboration, for many organisations, remains ‘an unnatural act between non-consenting adults’ – for too many schools sharing is still called cheating. Companies may talk about the freedom to fail, but few would follow WD 40’s Garry Ridge in banning the use of the word failure, and substituting ‘learning moment’ instead. Freedom to learn and freedom to fail have helped define Google and 3M (how many CEOs would feel comfortable with their respective ‘failure’ rates of 36% and 50%?). The fourth value/action is perhaps the most elusive: trust. While the leading-edge companies have gone SOFT (Share, Open, Free, Trust) globally we’ve seen a halving of employee autonomy in the last 40 years, and 90% of employees have seen an erosion of trust in the past 5 years.
So, SOFT matters and OPEN matters. It matters because it is a gateway to employee engagement and through that, a transformative effect upon creativity, innovation and productivity. And if you needed a further reason to go open, here’s one more: your customers engage socially in ways that are open; they now learn socially and openly, and they expect their transactions with you, the information you keep, and their interactions with your employees, to be open too. So, what’s stopping you?
David Price is a Senior Associate at the Innovation Unit, Co-Founder of We Do Things Differently, and author of Amazon best-seller OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn In The Future. You can follow him on Twitter: @davidpriceobe, read his blog at www.goingopen.org and hear him speak at the Enterprise Learning Conference 14, etc, etc,