In past decades we have seen our world become evermore specialized. Look into today’s companies and you’ll see that at any core function – be it sales, marketing, engineering, HR, communications – you have very specialized people that are great at given things. You need talent with this given specialization, and find people who are the best at those specific tools and functions. I would challenge that this has drastically changed.
While specialization works in some industries, like manufacturing, it is becoming near impossible to maintain as an entrepreneur in a fast paced business — and it’s becoming more so all the time. The approach toward expertise, how companies succeed and what people need to do to be successful has drastically changed. We live in a ‘survival of the fittest’ marketplace that is moving at the speed of light. If we continue to follow this ‘specialized’ thinking we’ll end up with an influx of people limited to specific skill sets that can become outdated just as quickly as their certifications in an area are earned. In the end, organizations will lose out on innovation opportunities and become less competitive.
More valuable than mastering a ‘specialization’ is having a company full of people thinking beyond specializing — constantly learning and adapting to the latest tools, techniques & processes that are “just in time” best suited for the success of the business.
The speed of information availability today drives rapid change and innovations, which in turn impacts all kinds of jobs and roles — and not just people in technology and product development, but across the company: sales and marketing techniques, how HR finds and retains great employees, how marketing gets great stories to the masses. My experience has been that successful start-ups hire employees who are wired for constant learning and adaptability, and establish a company culture that supports that. Why? Because people that have amazing expertise at a given discipline or, worse, a very specific tool have a shorter shelf life than one might think.
The Accelerating Pace of Innovation
How did we get here? The best way to relate to this point is to think about Moore’s Law. Moore was one of the pioneers at Intel and projected that every couple of years a new set of computing processors would render its predecessor obsolete and that this pace of innovation would be the new constant for decades to come. This has been true for hardware and over time has made its way to other technical tools and processes, and even to the pace of disruption that drastically changes how just about every business function gets done.
Consider the approach to building software (not just the products but the companies themselves). Software cycles used to be done, at best, on annual intervals — Microsoft even named a number of their products by year. The remaining business around how to market and sell it was typically planned around this pace of innovation. Today’s Agile development movement and SaaS delivery model empowers innovation on a near real time basis. Companies from around the world are now able to achieve “continuous deployment” — enabling constant innovation. The business needs to be ‘wired’ to leverage this continuous process — the speed of understanding customer needs and market disruption opportunities must be equally agile to take advantage of this pace. You can argue that a huge enabler of this pace is the “just in time” availability that exists now with most products and services.
Think about sales and the information we get to interact with prospects. What used to take months of golf outings and lunches is now pulled together by a solution like Salesforce.com and its vast ecosystem of partner solutions which provide volumes of research data on any given prospect. A sales person not leveraging this kind of toolset today is going to get left in the dust.
Five years ago the typical database requirement was met by an expert in a well-known relational database technology like Oracle or SQL, and if you talked to people about massively scaled non-structured data they would have thought you were crazy – and yet, here we are. Not only are there new exciting names such as Cloudera Hadoop, or 10Gen MongoDB but even larger than the names and types of technology I am listing is the pace of innovation. It requires us to constantly learn something new and unlearn something that can hold us back.
What we know in any given moment has a shelf life that is getting shorter and shorter. The pace of how things are changing across disciplines are at least the speed of Moore’s law – with massive leaps and turning over of new technologies every couple of years making things obsolete. Whether you’re in sales, HR, marketing or technology development, you should be constantly challenging yourself to learn, expand and refine, or risk of making your skills obsolete and sapping the strength of your company.
“..what we know in any given moment has a shelf life that is getting shorter and shorter.”
Adjusting, Adding, Sharpening – Agile
Don’t get me wrong – you don’t need to throw out everything you’ve done every quarter and start over. The key is establishing a blended leveraging of past knowledge, testing the on-going validity of what you’ve known and iteratively learning about new tools & techniques that are the latest innovations available.
Your marketing team is no longer just pitching writers and editors – they must also build relationships with impactful bloggers and be social media savvy. Human Resources is using online services and software packages that are pushing out information and pulling in resumes consta
ntly. A new mantra of inbound marketing — that didn’t even exist a few years ago — is showing b-to-b organizations how to use the successful marketing mechanisms that made business-to-consumer companies successful.
Learning to ‘Unlearn’
It used to be you’d set up a Web site and launch your product and be good for six months or more. A conversation with a VC a few summers ago made me realize that I needed to unlearn this marketing model. He asked if we had a dedicated graphic designer on-staff in order to adapt to daily, dynamic changes and adjustments to our marketing content, messaging and imagery. His point was the old drive to a big product launch — pointing people to a web site that will barely change for six months or more is over.
So part of learning — keeping up with what’s available to stay competitive and make a big impact on your company – is unlearning. We need to stay mindful of adapting and then unlearning what no longer applies.
‘Back in the day’ (I’m talking late 70’s and early 80’s) many industries built their core systems in Cobol on huge mainframe computers, and the systems handled everything from management to sales to financial activity. Back then, the IT department took great pride in how many millions of lines of code it took to make this masterpiece of a system work.
Then along came the client/server era and object-oriented programming which introduced the elegant concept of ‘less is more.’ All of the productivity and business value, at less than a third of the lines of code – improved productivity and financial efficiencies. This not only required an unlearning of the old way of programming (more lines of code equals bigger, better system), but also to adapt the ego to a different measure success.
These were major shifts back then, and today we’re at least at that same level of change but at a much faster pace. This makes the opportunities and the risks exponentially larger. Unlearning’ is vital because the speed of access to information drives the speed of entry of new businesses and the innovation market is more ripe than ever. These may be challenging financial times, but VCs are busy and the number of seed companies is amazingly high.
Are you open to unlearning and de-specializing? Because what you think you know needs to be constantly challenged by the latest and greatest way to potentially think about things. If you aren’t thinking this way, believe me, your competition is.
Is this kind of thinking more critical to and more easily adaptable at a start-up company? Yes, I’ve seen larger companies lose their competitive edge because fiefdoms are fighting to retain legacy instead of fighting to stay innovative in the market. Bigger companies tend to have more politics with increased resistance to unlearning because people want to protect their clout. In fact a current article in a very mainstream publication points the finger at Microsoft for this exact phenomenon. Though this article challenges Microsoft on not innovating at the pace of Google and other competitors, in recent announcements it appears Microsoft is “unlearning” some past practices to become more competitive. For example, in years past all you would hear from Microsoft is Windows, Windows, Windows, yet they announced this month supporting a competing operating system, Linux, with their latest MS Azure cloud hosting services.
Patty McCord, Chief Talent Officer for Netflix discussed this topic as a speaker discussing ‘Unleashed Culture.’ She said that when employees are not performing technically it’s almost always because of scale, a change in technology, or a shift in business. “Common sense and judgment trumps everything,” she says. In the early days of Netflix’s explosive growth, instead of adding more processes and rules, it focused on hiring people with good judgment and adaptability enabling the company to establish fewer rules.
Really innovative things do happen at big companies, and typically when a small product group has a chip on its shoulder and goes rogue. For example, Java was hardly the center of IBM’s universe, but a rogue group in California really thought this Java thing might take off and adopted a mentality to unlearn previously programmed thinking and replace it with a passion for pushing the envelope and bleeding edge learning.
On the flip side, there’s Digital Equipment Company – famous and successful once upon a time for its mini computers. They committed the fatal error of being so in love with what they were that they didn’t invest in out-of-the-box thinking and they plateau – right into the abyss.
In today’s world, ‘unlearning’ is critical to success and making an impact in the organization. Every time something significant and important is learned, you need to remember to step back and check it frequently.
Think about the best ways to challenge your teams to think in a way that promotes learning and unlearning? How do we encourage people to side-step the specializations and remain agile? We want the people at our companies to learn, to change, and to take risks. We need to find the balance between not fixing something that isn’t broken and taking advantage of new and better ways of doing things.
“Learning is not compulsory … neither is survival”
– W. Edwards Deming