They call this progress

I recall those monotonous mornings in the second grade of primary school where hour upon hour were sacrificed on the altar of learning to commit times tables to memory.  Then there were those homework spelling lists, followed by the inevitable weekly tests.  It was hard work committing all of that information to memory!  Fast-forward several decades and we now find that many sixth-graders still don’t know that seven nines are 63 (unless the calculator says so) and who cares about learning to spell when Word has a spell-checker!

Prevailing purveyors of pedagogy say that rote learning is so passé.  Their claim is that young minds need not be filled with facts and figures that technology so easily provides.  Rather, imbue the next generation with social justice outrage, environmental activism, some critical thinking skills and an absolute disdain for absolutes.  Now, I’m not going to pretend that I know more about learning than Dewey, Parkhurst and Montessori, but I’d like to offer some insights on the topic drawn from decades of personal experience and empirical evidence, both in the academy and in business.

Despite significant investment in Australia’s educational systems, our students are becoming progressively less intelligent that their peers from other, in particular, Asian nations.  Dr Sue Thompson from the Australian Council for Education Research said local academic performance was in “absolute decline”.  “The proportion of high achievers is decreasing and the proportion of low achievers is increasing,” she said.  “Basically, what’s happening there is everything’s sliding backwards if you like — our strong kids aren’t as strong as they were and our weak kids are actually weaker than they were.”  Please refer to the following link for more details:

Having worked in various industries for a long time now, it doesn’t seem that management practices are improving either.  On the contrary, important concepts, previously well-known and routinely applied now often draw blank stares at their mention.  In some incomprehensible manner the average Australian worker appears to be subject to a systematic “dumbing down” through the joint efforts of educational systems and Learning and Development departments.  Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, methinks.If you are a young business leader and think that I’m dissing you, please hear me out.  In my opinion, not only is the educational system broken, but the philosophical backdrop to organisation and management seems now to be thwarting any attempt to improve systematically.  Middle managers appear to be constrained to dealing only with what’s in front of them and using the tools and processes afforded to them by their organisation.  One must examine the positions, policies and priorities laid out by an organisation’s top-level leaders and their advisors to discover whether an organisation is really serious about improving their business performance.  Too often I’ve seen very little in the way of a defined approach, performance measures that divide and conquer and leadership training that is strong on inclusion and weak on expectation.

I’d like to share some experiences (including some offered to me by a friend who shares my concerns) that will help to summarise the issues under discussion.

  1. An organisation decided that in order to improve its maintenance performance it should implement a new Computerised Maintenance Management System (CMMS). However, rather than configure the CMMS to support a desired way of working, it was determined that employees would simply align their practices to the CMMS functionality.  Easier said than done.  Everyone has their own idea of how work should be managed and without a defined approach and the discipline required to deploy it, the new CMMS became more of a burden than a benefit.  It took several years for the organisation to claw back to an acceptable level of work process performance and there was still much more to be done before the investment began to yield appreciable benefit.
    CMMS implementations are rarely successful and take a lot of effort.  IMHO, not agreeing to a defined way of working is among the biggest reasons for failure.
  2. A manager, new to his position sought to replace an existing service desk system with a new work management system due to lack of transparency in workload for his team. The team members involved simply don’t use the existing system, or previous systems for that matter.  The manager does not monitor or control the existing system to enforce its use.
    How could a replacement system fix the problem when multiple systems have been tried before and failed?
  3. A volunteer recently took over the timekeeping duties at their local running club. He was presented with some manual timekeeping records for the club dating from 1985 to 2003.  These old handwritten and typed records were meticulously organised in folders and were based on hand written timekeeping notes for each race.   There was little technology back in those days, but bucket loads of discipline to keep everything so well organised.
    However, between 2003 and 2008 no timing records were kept, despite it coinciding with the beginning of the so-called “information age”.  Unfortunately, as quickly as technology became available, the discipline required to maintain good organised records in one place went out the window!

Just what did we learn in the second grade that was so hick and regressive?  I use my times tables many times each day but that’s not the most important thing that I believe we learnt back in the day.  What I’ve found to be of great import is that it takes patience and discipline to accomplish something significant and things that come easily are rarely valued.

Sometimes there needs to be a standard way of doing things and people just need to follow instructions – no questions asked.  At other times, people can be given some latitude to make changes.  But even then, the process for making such changes needs to be managed so that they will actually result in improvement.  Finally, people should occasionally be encouraged to try something weird and wacky to break entrained patterns of thinking and create something totally new.  Effective leadership knows the difference between each of these ways of working and has the courage and ability to make each happen in their appropriate time and place.

My take-aways from almost four decades of reflection on this issue are:

  1. Don’t look to technology alone to fix your problems. Figure out what you want to do and then determine how technology can accelerate the process.  Obviously, an idea of what’s possible with modern tech is also useful, so include a propeller head in your design team.
  2. Draw on your “second grade” lessons to create top grade results through patience and discipline in doing what needs to be done. Recall the words of the great golfer, Arnold Palmer – “the more I practice, the luckier I get!”
  3. Great leaders are identified by the people that follow them. Learn how to encourage people to do what needs to be done.  (That’s a whole blog topic on its own!)

What is the biggest issue I see with implementing the above?  Answer: disagreement with my assertion that “sometimes there needs to be a standard way of doing things and people just need to follow instructions – no questions asked.”  There is an absolute disdain for absolutes among many leaders today and this often results in a mandate for no mandates.  Until people can break free from this vicious cycle and agree that there is a valid reason for standards for certain ways of working, we will continue to focus on the less important and will ignore the vital.