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The Obsolescence of Experience

Around seven thousand years ago, the first human revolution took place when our ancestors first applied skill to work. However skill alone isn’t enough anymore as we have to rely more and more on knowledge and this has important implications for leadership.

First, we must learn to make knowledge productive and many struggle with this concept. The payroll cost of knowledge workers already amounts to more than half the labor costs of practically all business and that represents a tremendous capital investment in human beings. But so far neither productivity trends nor profit margins show much sign of responding to it. The ROI is simply not there. The implication appears to be that we don’t know how to lead knowledge workers.

One of the few things we do know is that for any knowledge worker there are two laws. The first one is that knowledge evaporates unless it’s used and augmented. Skill goes to sleep, it becomes rusty, but it can be restored and refurbished very quickly. That’s not true of knowledge. If knowledge isn’t challenged to grow, it disappears fast. It’s infinitely more perishable than any other resource we have ever had. The second law is that the only motivation for knowledge is achievement. Anybody who has ever had a great success is motivated from then on.

The new generation of leaders, those now aged 35 or under, is the first generation that thinks in terms of putting knowledge to work before one has accumulated a decade or two of experience. In the past the grey hairs amongst us managed by experience—not a good process, because experience cannot be tested or be taught. Experience must be experienced; it cannot be conveyed.

This means that the new generation and old generation are going to be horribly frustrated working together.

One of the biggest issues is rather frightening and that is the fact that organizations that want to stay ahead will have to put very young people into very big jobs—and fast. But the new generation stays in school so long they don’t have time to acquire the experience we used to consider indispensable in big jobs and the age structure of our population is such that in the next 20 years, like it or not, we are going to have to promote younger people and we must learn to stop replacing the 65-year-old leader with the 59-year-old. Organizations must seek out their good 35-year-olds.

We will have to manage knowledge correctly in order to preserve it. And this gets us into myriad questions of teaching and learning, of developing knowledge and techniques of thinking.

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