Have you noticed how the word learning has changed its meaning in business over the past years? Where once it was clearly a verb ("centres of learning", "I have learned a great deal"), it mutated into an adjective ("learning objectives") through now into being a noun - "what are the learnings we can draw from this experience?".
This may at first appear to be merely an academic observation (in many senses of the term), or just further evidence of the unrelenting Americanisation of our working lives. But for me it is at the core of the challenge that I see facing organisations, and particularly technology departments, as a result of digital disruption. That learning has gone from something we do to something we receive has ill-equipped us to deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity that typifies the world outside.
IT is not only a victim of this change - it is also culpable in its acceleration. We have sold the idea of "best practice" - whether through systems the systems that supposedly deliver it in pre-packaged business processes (hello ERP); through the processes in which we operate (ITIL, PRINCE...); and also the way in which we have traditionally measured our success (we talk of maturity models). Not only that, but it's our provision of Learning Management Systems that have delivered self-service e-"learnings" at scale to the masses.
This all works well if you are in the game of providing incremental improvement on a known service. It's the model that made Henry Ford and many others their fortunes. It has provided increased reliability and stability in the services that traditional IT provides. And it makes it remarkably difficult to truly innovate.
The idea of best practice is a case in point. While it might be possible to pick up the working models of one group of people and dump them wholesale onto another, what "best practice" ignores is that it was the sum output of a process of learning that got the originators to where they were. It would be like teaching people maths by showing them the answers to equations.
While IT might have been the epicentre for many new "things" over the past two decades, how many of us hand on heart could say that we truly innovated? Mostly we sit on the sidelines, waiting for version two or three to be released, not wanting to be in the risky position of riding the crest of the wave of hype. And quite right too - that's what our jobs have been. We've been there to protect the known and defend the status quo - because it's been in our job spec to do so.
No wonder then that digital disruption is causing many of us such an existential crisis. All this change happening, uncontrolled. "Shadow" IT springing up left right and centre outside of our management grasp. And all the while we still take the can if everything goes belly up.
Such doom, such gloom. But what to do about it?
The first thing that strikes me is to identify the things that absolutely, unequivocally need to be run in the old way, and continually monitor that list. There are lots of things that do require the traditional approaches, but that list is constantly being revised. Ask most IT folk 10 years ago if email had to be run in-house and the answer would have been a strong "yes".
The second thing is to work out how to reposition the relationship that the IT function has with the rest of the business. If you are expected to run everything to the accuracy and quality of a high-availability on-premise service, you need to get out there to explain that you can't make that happen with Facebook. Rather than "owning" everything, increasingly we need to be giving good counsel to our colleagues about the decisions they are making. Think more like a company lawyer and less like a facilities manager.
The final thing is to (re-)kindle a love of, and a skill in, learning within your organisation. Help people to help themselves to uncover new ways of doing things. Reward failure (or at least don't castigate it). Remember that innovation generally comes from the people willing to challenge how things are done.
At this point there is a common tendency to look east and talk about how we can all be learning from the world of (Tech City) start-ups. Don't be fooled. Many years ago the psychological illusionist Derren Brown did a show where an unsuspecting member of the public apparently won on a series of horse races. It was only at the end that it was revealed hundreds of participants had taken part, and it was only the person who won at each stage who was featured in the show.
The successes at the top of the world of start-ups obscures the massive layers of projects that don't succeed. Failure at that volume would be unsustainable within an existing organisation. To innovate in this age we need to know that we are learning from what we are doing, and acting appropriately along the way. That's not a repeating process - it's a learning process.