The Long-Arc of History Has Sped Up, Can We Adapt?


by: Eric VanDerSluis

The world as we know it is changing, in massive, transformational ways. There are 4 major transformations (globalization, climate change, demographic change, and automation) that are altering the ways in which we need to organize our society, institutions, and organizations. The fact that all 4 are occurring at the same time have created an urgency and ambiguity that has left many individuals and organizations unsettled. The world as we know it is changing, and in big ways.

These transformations have forced us to look at the ways in which we organize and learn in fundamentally different ways. We need to create organizational structures and supports that pay respect to the past while simultaneously being ready to rewrite our understanding of what works. This inevitably creates tensions in the workplace. It’s not a generational challenge, it’s much larger than that, and it’s quickly becoming a knowledge management issue. Billions of dollars in intellectual property and knowledge are about to walk out of organizations in the coming years. How we manage that transition is important.

The old way of doing things and the organizational contexts that we have created are important, and to be valued. But they’re no longer sacred cows. That said, the next generation of leaders need to understand and learn about how that experience brought us into this new epoch. There are important lessons in the history of every organization and many of those lessons reside within individuals. We need ways to better tell these stories and better approaches to transmit them. BUT, and it’s a big but, we need the transitioning generation to understand that our context is now drastically different. What worked in the past may not work in the future, and this is the challenge. This creates a fundamental tension between the transitioning generation and the next generation.

The skillset required to lead in this new epoch is fundamentally different. Just look at what’s happening in Major League Baseball. “Old-school” managers have been cast as out of touch and outdated with the “new” ways of operating, using advanced analytics, and relating in different ways to the younger players. These managers have been around the game for years, they know it in ways that very few of us will ever comprehend, and yet, we’re moving on from them, perhaps too quickly. We see the same trend happening in the organizations where we work. Take for example, this quote from an employee of an industrial manufacturing company:

“Guys in shop have been there for a long time and we’re throwing new things at them and it’s tough for some of the guys. Some only have 3rd grade educations. They’re apprehensive, they’re not really bought in. How do you change that behavior? We need to get them to change. How do we do this without losing their experience? Give them a job that’s meaningful and get someone new in.”

The “new things” referred to in this context are about business systems, processes, and automation that are shaking up the industry. We’re asking people to fundamentally rewire the ways they think and operate, and in some instances, we’re not properly preparing people for the transformation, or we’re facing massive resistance.  And that, is the problem. We have to deal with this dynamic.

Organizations can’t move on from the transitioning generation too quickly, we need their knowledge, skills, and leadership. However, we need them to see the ways in which transformation is shaping the world and to recognize that the ways in which they worked, may not be the solution for how things should move forward. We also need a commitment from them to make the necessary adaptations to stay relevant themselves, are they willing to rewire and relearn in this new age? My generation needs to listen, respect, and learn, while crafting new solutions to meet unmet and unseen needs. The transitioning generation needs to teach and learn.

There is great experience and wisdom leaving organizations daily, and we do very little systematically to capture the knowledge. However, this story is more complicated than implementing a knowledge management strategy. The world is changing. The long arc of history has accelerated and we don’t really know what will work in the new era. So how do we pay respect to the past while preparing for an unknown future? It’s not a question of will we meet the challenges ahead, it’s a question of how should we…together

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