Bill Fischer: Can we rely on knowledge or do we need learning in a crisis? After a hundred years, we are once again fighting a global viral war that is seemingly everywhere and ever voracious. As with the Spanish Flu pandemic, once again we’ve been found wanting in our response, and deficient in our leadership. What’s worked, social distancing and hand-washing, were relatively simple techniques born decades ago. Where we have failed has been in simple leadership skills such as inspiration, vision, curiosity, inclusiveness and imagination. In the worst situations, formal leaders have proved unaware, failed to listen to advice, lacked confidence and decisiveness, and all too often abdicated their leadership roles. This was not leadership at its finest, and we have paid a heavy price in unnecessary lives lost and impact on all our lives. What is even more alarming is that covid-19 is not likely to be the last of the potentially catastrophic challenges that we will face over the next few decades. It is clearly a wake-up call to reassess leadership from top to bottom. Interrelated themes Two key interrelated themes run through the current Covid-19 crisis that must be addressed if leadership is to have credibility in the future. The first is recognizing that learning is more important than knowing. The reservoir of knowledge, so often taken for granted, is actually contextually-dependent, and perishable in crisis situations. The second theme is that innovation, change in general, is a profoundly social phenomenon. Technologies are not enough. It is people who need to be inspired to participate in the often inconvenient struggle against catastrophic environmental challenges.
Learning, not knowing In a crisis, learning becomes more important than knowing, particularly because what we know may have lost its relevance as a result of the crisis. Openness, an awareness of new ideas, and a willingness to quickly experiment with them, is something that Peter Drucker recognized in his work on The Effective Executive, when he reminded us that we are all “knowledge workers” and are expected to replenish the working knowledge capital of our organizations as effectively as we managed traditional working capital. Scalable learning is to crises as scalable efficiencies were to profit-harvesting in mature, slow-moving industries. Only scalable learning is much faster in cadence and does not have the benefit of an established learning infrastructure as is in most large, complex organizations.
Learning is social Making all of this work remains an intensely social phenomenon. Small, autonomous, fast-moving teams, close to the action appears to be the organizational form most appropriate for the improvised choices that are so often necessary. But this only works if leadership roles are shared from the top. Emergence will replace directedness in shaping the organizational structure, and Strategy will fade in importance. Both will defer to tactics which are faster moving and more experimental. We also envision organizational boundaries blurring and ecosystems flourishing in the pursuit of collaborative learning. All of these things are vital to effective responses in the unknown, but all of these require a rethinking of conventional leadership practices. About the Author: Bill Fischer is Professor of Innovation Management, at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland. This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020. #DruckerForum