We are obsessed with consuming information. Whether staying current in our emails (the desperate inbox zero), or keeping up with our social media feeds, there is a relentless push to absorb high levels of information on a daily basis.
Combined with the increasing complexity of our work, we are also desperate to adapt to a continually changing work environment. We need to keep up, or we’ll be pushed out.
But it isn’t enough just to know we’re up to date by reading everything in our path, whether email, social, or online. As Douglas Rushkoff notes in Present Shock, “if we could only catch up with the wave of information, we feel, we would at last be in the now. This is a false goal.” We don’t spend enough time pausing to actually process the information and apply it.
It’s not about halting the consumption of new information, as clearly increasing work complexity means we’ll continue to require it. But if you don’t have systems for integrating new ideas into changing and evolving the way you work, individually and collectively in organizations, you won’t be able to keep pace with the changes happening around you.
Given the fact that a third of our skills are becoming obsolete every five years, we can’t just tread water: we need to learn new skills. We need to evolve.
The need to pause, reflect on, and apply what we’re reading is a theme that has anchored much of our work at Actionable, and one of the reasons I started writing summaries more than four years ago. Taking time after finishing a book forced me to review what I’ve read, process it, and figure out how to apply what I’ve learned to my work.
I worry that not enough of this is happening today, particularly in organizations where there’s only an interest in consuming learning “for learning’s sake,” and little emphasis on how to integrate the information into tangible changes.
Making changes towards the application of what we read into tangible action can happen at one or many levels—the more you can engrain it deeply into your organization, the greater benefits you’ll see.
There’s lots you can do to improve your ability to learn and evolve your skills. The biggest one is to pause after consuming new information and figure out how you’ll apply what you’ve read. Write a blog post or create a video that captures the information you’ve learned and how you’re applying it. Circle back once you’ve done it, and talk about what you’ve learned through the experience.
As you’re reading, collecting and storing new information systematically is also important. Don’t just bookmark articles you find interesting: download and file in your local drive or tag in a data storage app like Evernote. Building a table of contents for ongoing topics or research questions you want to better understand and apply, and then moving data into subcategories provides quick reference if those problems resurface.
There are many ways teams can work together to elevate learning. Creating shared accountability for building learning elements into your regular meeting habits (share articles, ask for debriefs following workshop or conference participation), or start a new discussion in Slack about how you’re applying what you’re learning into the work you do together.
There’s truth to the “teach what you’ve learned” adage. Encourage your colleagues to run a lunch and learn, or spend the first 15 minutes of your next monthly meeting having a colleague teach others something new they’ve recently read or applied to their work.
Leaders As Learners
“Leaders must get comfortable with living in a state of continually becoming, a perpetual beta mode.”
As authors Mikkelson and Jarche emphasize in the quote above, the best leaders are constant learners. The biggest influence on learning in organizations comes from leaders demonstrating their commitment to learning and its importance as the organization evolves.
As Sam Spurlin at The Ready emphasizes, leaders in successful contemporary (aka agile, evolving, 21st century) organizations play a critical role in providing context to their teams to help provide an interpretative lens to the information they’re seeing. Leaders need to share their perspective on new ideas and information, not from a “make it so” stance, but to provide insights and greater context to help with decreasing the time needed to process and apply what they’re hearing and seeing.
Leaders need to role model their own learning—not just sharing insights from workshops and seminars, or reading they’re doing—but providing updates on how they’re applying what they’re learning, and holding others on their teams accountable for the application of insights. Leaders need to stop allowing “learning for learning’s sake” to be the extent of how learning is treated within their own teams.
HR leaders need to build metrics into their learning and development programs that focus not on the volume of learning that is being consumed, or how much the experience was enjoyed, but how learning influenced changes in outcomes—tying learning programs to tangible business results. Once that happens, learning will become a must-have set of programs, and not just “if we have time” activities.
Information overload is here to stay, and you’ll never be able to entirely escape it. Short of shutting down your email account or staying permanently offline, you’ll continue to be bombarded with new information, ideas and challenges (and that’s not a bad thing!). The key is to figure out how to manage the flow, and how to apply what you’re reading into tangible benefits for you and your team.
Stop overwhelming your brain with a steady stream of data that is unprocessed, and start learning how to apply it.