Demand-driven learning

The online and hand-held worlds of digital content has brought us demand-driven listening, viewing and gaming. Shopping has become more demand-driven as we escaping the shackles of store hours and stock-on-hand inventories. All this has me wondering when demand-driven learning will take hold?

To help answer my question, this morning I pondered what drives us to learn the next thing. Here's the list I generated to explain why we seek what we want to learn:

  1. what we're trying to accomplish beyond the learning that may solve a problem or otherwise put the new learning to immediate use
  2. what we've just learned that invites us to go deeper in the same pursuit or explore an adjacent expertise
  3. what others are learning in our surroundings which sets us wanting to emulate them and fit in by sharing their progress
  4. what's immediately available to learn from a scheduled, or otherwise restricted, resource
  5. what seems to be challenging, rewarding, fun and/or immersive to pursue
  6. what we're already good at the process of learning which increases our odds of a success
  7. what needs remediation in our repertoire to become functional, reliable and/or accurate

The delivery of entertainment media is nearly this complex. Our motives to want to listen to a tune, watch a video or play a game can involve our situation and surroundings. We come under lots of varied influences. What's different is how diverse the range of what we might learn can be, compared to the number of songs, videos and games we enjoy.

Another dimension which complicates demand-driven learning is the problem of "not wanting to learn" what others are learning. There's much less of a problem when we don't want to listen, watch or play what others are enjoying. These problems open up another breed of demand for immediate learning - demand for solutions to a lack of demand. These problems include:

  1. making the learning useful in a personal context where it can be applied convincingly
  2. making connections between the unfamiliar new thing and recent momentum and successes
  3. cultivating autonomy and self confidence to defy peer pressure that opposes or dismisses the new learning
  4. providing tools and privileges to access the resources more easily
  5. changing the instructional design to make the process less boring, menial, punitive and/or overwhelming
  6. transforming patterns of personal failure or self-sabotage of independent learning
  7. revising the diagnosis of chronic disabilities with motivation, comprehension or retention

Solving these problems involves a much bigger investment than tagging digital files for easier access. Fortunately the work involves learning rather than downtime to prepare to listening, viewing or gaming. The possibility that demand-driven learning could emerge sooner rather than later seems more real to me after considering all this.


Patterns of failed implementation

During the many times I've taught Strategic Management to college seniors, my favorite topic to explore was this: the patterns of failed implementation. Every textbook I've seen goes overboard at strategy formulation as if there was no danger of analysis paralysis. I presume the textbooks take this approach because academics pride themselves on empirically accurate analyses. These textbooks also devoted only one chapter to strategy implementation, as if the full adoption of a strategy change will occur if the formulation is well-conceived. I presume implementation gets shortchanged because the topic is too messy for precise empirical analysis and verification. Here's some of the complexity that entangles the failed implementation of strategy changes:

Blame Games: When strategies fail, there's usually a question of whether the strategy failed in planning or execution. If the planning was done by higher ups, they will often blame the implementers. If the implementers had no say in the formulation, they will feel better by blaming the planners. A blame game will emerge fought with emails of rumors and false accusations. Fingers will be pointed at others while none point back at the accusers. All this takes away from the strategy questions that need to be reexamined.

Inbred cynicism: When strategies get formulated by big brains at the top of tall hierarchies, the low ranking members often become cynical, disheartened and defensive. They're not getting listened to when they can see familiar problems before they occur and unexpected trouble on the horizon. When things go from bad to worse, they're saying "I told you so". They cannot get an audience with higher ups because their "bad news" looks like whining, cynicism and weak excuses. The top shoots the messengers rather than assimilate their messages. When new strategies get announced, the lower ranks erupt with "here we go again", "this too shall pass" or "put on your boots - it's getting deep in here".

Preordained failures: When a strategy has failed in the past, the next one is likely to fail in the future. The system that generated the flawed strategy is functioning as before. The structure remains in place that dictates what gets seen, how it gets interpreted and why it seems reasonable. The questions are not getting asked that could disrupt the pattern of flawed inputs, outlooks, criteria and evaluations. The systems and structure are taken for granted. The failures yield "all the more reason" to try harder, to try again and to never stop trying. Tactical thinking is presumed to be strategic.

Pain Mismanagement: When flawed strategies take effect, those close to the customers, production or internal problems get burned. They are learning to avoid getting toasted like that again. Those in the executive suites are usually feeling no pain. They are learning to go for more conquests, quick fixes or boondoggles. A stalemate emerges between those running from the pain and those in pursuit of more pain. The masochists have been paired with the sadists.  Those trying to minimize their pain will get very creative at sabotaging all reckless, insensitive and clueless changes in strategy. They're not opposed to further employment or their employers continued success. They are seeking relief from their continued psychological pain.

These patterns are highly captivating and addicting. When they take hold, it's unlikely the enterprise will rebound from their failed implementation of strategic changes. The complexity defies reductionist problem solving and quick fixes. The debilitating effects in these patterns will weaken the enterprise beyond it's ability to survive.


Escaping vicious cycles

When we're deploying an effective strategy, we get energized by how well the strategy is working. We're appreciating the timing, the approach and the outcomes. We're seeing others benefit from how effective our strategy has become. All this gets us thinking how we might take this game up a level or fine tune the strategy. We're continuing to rely on our strategic thinking and explore more possibilities.

When we're deploying an ineffective strategy, none of this occurs. We go into a vicious cycle instead. There seems to be no escape from the nightmare scenario spawned by the ineffective strategy. The vicious cycle convinces us to:

  1. rely exclusively on our tactical thinking
  2. worry constantly about what can go wrong next
  3. mistrust higher ups and other outsiders who we blame for the strategy mistakes
  4. stop trying to improve, change or revise what's not working
  5. assume that any creative possibility is too weird, inapplicable or costly to help out
  6. lose all sense of purpose and self motivation 
  7. become entirely dependent on extrinsic rewards
  8. feed the array of problems with neglect, over-reacting and half-efforts
  9. struggle with apathy, depression, paranoia and sleeplessness
  10. put on show of complacency to hide all this inner turmoil

As you can see from this list, when we're caught up in deploying an ineffective strategy, we're in no shape to shape up. It's as if we're stuck in a hole where our only options are to dig deeper or to do nothing. The way out begins with letting go of trying to get out of the vicious cycle. It helps to not-know what to see, think and do. Progress occurs by seeing the repeating patterns with detachment, where they can be critiqued, challenged and dismissed. The exit is found when we switch to our strategic thinking.


Formerly effective strategies

When we're formulating new strategies, our minds are full of questions. We're exploring different possibilities and experimenting to uncover an approach that works. We're comparing different strategies to discern which is more effective at realizing desired outcomes at the least cost. We're trusting a process that leads to an unknown outcome, rather than following a recipe to replicate results. We're taking the time to get it right, rather than jumping to premature conclusions.

This pursuit of effective strategies occurs with the most mundane and the most global issues. We can be puzzling how best to prevent a drain from clogging at home or pondering how to reduce atmospheric carbon levels around the globe. Bigger scales may take more time, expertise and exploration than smaller, but the state of mind is the same.

Once we hit upon an effective strategy, our minds typically think "enough of that!". Our minds are eager to switch back to tactical thinking. It seems like it's time to stop asking so many questions, exploring so many possibilities and conducting so many experiments. We want to simply know what to do and get it done without hesitation.

At this point, our effective strategy is about to become institutionalized. It may become a simple habit or routine. It may get formalized in policy manuals or procedural requirements. It will likely become reinforced by evaluation and reward schema which incentivize sticking with the strategy. It may even become immortalized in a cultural narrative or taboo which enforces conformity with social pressures. From now on, we can only do what's been done in the past, whether or not it remains effective. It's been "set in stone" and not easily chiseled away.

There's no way out of this pitfall with recognizing what kind of thinking is missing. Without knowing the difference between strategic and tactical thinking, there's no way to formulate a new effective strategy. There's only too much talking about explicit change, possibilities and improvements, while the formerly effective strategy persists ad infinitum.


Explicit and implicit strategies

When we're acting as if something is true, we're enacting our implicit strategy. We're walking the talk of the real deal. When we're saying something is true, we're enacting our explicit strategy. We're talking the talk of some deal we want others to think is true. If these two kinds of strategy get disconnected, we don't know our own implicit strategy. We believe our explicit strategy and get haunted by our contradictory implicit strategy. We say one thing and do another like any garden-variety hypocrite. We cannot get it together because we cannot admit to ourselves how our actions say something different from our pronouncements. We cannot change our strategy while working at cross purposes like this.

Here are some examples of contrasting explicit and implicit strategies:

  1. When we're pushing the same product onto everyone, we're saying that we're meeting needs and providing value. We're acting as if there is no need to listen to customers, to cultivate relationships or to discover what beauty is in the "eyes of the beholder".
  2. When we're studying hard and getting good grades, we're saying that we're learning a lot and getting a quality education. We're acting as if there is no need to follow our intrinsic motivation, to tie in new information to our personal experiences or to learn something only when the time is right for us.
  3. When we're spending big bucks on prosecuting and punishing deviants, we're saying that we're protecting ordinary citizens and improving public safety. We're acting as if there is no point in rehabilitation or remediation for those who are caught up in cycles of abuse. 
  4. When we're trying to control what others do, we're saying that we're in charge and exercising our authority in the situation. We're acting as if we've got nothing to lose and we have no influence to change others' conduct indirectly.
  5. When we win at others' expense and succeed at "winner takes all" games, we're saying we're victorious, superior and newsworthy. We're acting as if there's no long term cost to winning this way and no context getting trashed by our one-sided conquests. 
  6. When we're fixing what's broken and alleviating symptoms, we're saying that we're solving problems and getting our job done. We're acting as if there's no way that we're feeding the problems, we're failing to prevent them or we're misdiagnosing the deeper dynamics in play. 
  7. When we're acquiring more possession, we're saying we're feeling abundant, looking prosperous and improving our quality of living. We're acting as if there's no way we're implicitly unsustainable and overly-materialistic.

Our rivals can trump these explicit strategies by taking up the challenges posed by our implicit strategies. While we act as if we cannot go there, they can act as if they can. As we deny the possibility, they explore and exploit it. While we assume it doesn't work that way, they will get it working in their favor. Failing to integrate implicit strategies with explicit strategies gives away leverage to rivals.


Psyching out rivals' thinking

It's far easier to psych out rivals' thinking when they are limiting themselves by tactical thinking. When rivals are deploying strategic thinking, our perceiving their implicit strategies becomes far more subtle and complex. It's only possible to psych out rivals' thinking accurately when we know our own minds comprehensively. When we don't know our own minds, we will only see what we want to see and filter out what's really occurring. An accurate reading of others' strategies requires a highly evolved state of mind. Here are two challenges along the way of realizing what rivals are really thinking.

Embracing our inner enemies
We all get pressured to fit in, act "normal" and meet others' expectations of us. We develop a pretentious mask to avoid their censure, rejection and constant hassles. This mask hides what others' find objectionable within our inner panorama of contrary passions, urges, fascinations and longings. We make enemies of all our inner treasures that cause problems when they show up in our intolerant social context. Those components of our total psyche become adversarial, dark and devious. They seek to sabotage our pretentious mask which frames our inner treasures as enemies. The mask handles this "house divided" dynamic by projecting its inner enemies onto outside rivals. The mask shoots messengers and point fingers at anyone who resembles its inner enemies. It cannot see others for what they really are while embroiled in this chronic war with oneself. Embracing our inner enemies requires going within, listening to the inner enemies, realizing how they've been wronged by the mask, discovering what treasures they can become when framed as valuable and cultivating their enlivening contributions to our self motivation, self confidence and creative self expression.

Seeing the familiar as unfamiliar
Our minds are creatures of habit. They conserve energy (glucose) by making as much as possible seem familiar. Complex situations get categorized, labeled and stereotyped. This creates a comfort zone which can easily become a fortress against imposed changes, unexpected occurrences and incomprenehsible evidence. Our minds become biased, bigoted and belligerent when its reliable opinions get challenged. We are operating with "no further questions your Honor". Our minds our made up against asking better questions, restoring our childlike curiosity or enjoying life as a mystery. When we change our minds to see the familiar as unfamiliar, we have stopped conserving energy. We're taking the time and mental horsepower to ponder alternatives and pose new possibilities. We're valuing our questions more than our answers. We take off the blinders and open our eyes to what we're being shown that contradicts our preconceptions. We take evidence and opinions about what is apparent as highly questionable. We look deeper and more panoramically at the small thing that captures our attention. We see things through many lenses and from a variety of different perspectives.

When we've transformed our minds in these ways, our rivals are not our enemies which necessitated defending ourselves against them. They are our teachers and challengers who bring out our best. They show us what we've not been seeing, considering, questioning or utilizing. They give us wake up calls, fresh perspectives and challenges to our preconceptions. They invite us to become more creative, resourceful and passionate. They define a game worth playing where the outcome will transform the initial rivalry into viable solutions for everyone involved.


Cruising for a bruising

Strategic thinking trumps tactical thinking whenever there is a conflict. Strategic thinking can recognize when the other side is relying on tactical thinking. The patterns are obvious to strategic thinking while tactical thinking is totally unaware of how it's thinking. Tactical thinking only know what's it's thinking, not which kind of thinking or what's missing in its thinking.

Here's some of what's obvious to strategic thinking about the patterns of tactical thinking which can be exploited easily:

  1. Tactical thinking can only try harder, not try smarter. It will pursue the conflict with dogged determination at all cost.
  2. Tactical thinking can only function like a shark, not a dolphin. It pursues direct approaches and frontal attacks with the subtlety of a bulldozer.
  3. Tactical thinking must handle danger categorically, not complexly. Danger can only mean one thing as if it's a either/or, black & white issue.
  4. Tactical thinking clings to losing battles, not giving in or giving up. It cannot let go when it's the wisest choice.
  5. Tactical thinking is limited to fight, flight or freeze when confronted by a threat. It cannot become clever enough to mess with others' minds, perceptions and intentions.
  6. Tactical thinking gets locked in a loop, not finding a way out. It experiences problems as chronic, relentless and infuriating. 
  7. Tactical thinking can only pursue more tactical thinking, not switch to strategic thinking. It must react to others' reactions which pours more gasoline on the fire.

From these patterns, you may be able to perceive how easy it is to set up others' tactical thinking to be their own worst enemy. Anyone deploying tactical thinking in a conflict is cruising for a bruising. Tactical thinkers can be baited to deplete all their resources by pursuing an endless conflict. They can be convinced to never back down or appear weak in spite of the enormous strategic advantages offered by less rivalry.  Tactical thinking takes pride in determination in spite of sabotaging it's own surviving and thriving in the future. Fortunately, we can cultivate our strategic thinking to avoid these traps.