“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” Arie De Geus


  1.   We are born to learn – but are we learning fast enough?

We are born to learn. From the moment we come into this world, we are learning how to survive, who to love, what to eat, what to avoid and how to get around. As we grow we learn new things every day. We learn about choice, boundaries, consequences and power. We learn about competition, co-operation, independence and group dynamics. We learn how to set goals and experience how it feels to fail. We have an innate capacity to observe, absorb, interpret, integrate, test and learn from feedback. We are living, breathing, learning machines. We develop new thought patterns, emotional responses, beliefs and mind-sets, which form our fundamental programs of how to manage our lives.

We are part of nature and nature adapts and learns all the time. Just as a seed can be thrown onto rocks or barren ground, and still grow into a tree, and a chameleon can adapt their colours to suit their environment, and a fire brings new growth and life to the grasslands, so can we adapt and learn and thrive. Our species have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. We have adapted, evolved and survived despite ice-ages, famine, world wars, planet damage and destructive technology.

So why is it, that organisations struggle so much with getting people to learn and change and make better decisions? What happened? What changed? What are we missing?

We are faced with a global talent crisis of massive proportion. There is just not enough depth of “ready now” candidates to fill the critical leadership and technical positions in the future. It is without fail in the top 3 risk categories in organisations world-wide, and one of the top 3 strategic challenges that organisations are investing resources to address.

If we know what talent we need and know who we have got, why can’t we match learning pathways to strategic challenges and ensure that we engage, nurture, develop and retain the talent we need?

We still seem unable to harness the value of large scale change interventions, with only a 25% success rate. Although change, uncertainty and complexity are a consistent part of our business world, we still find that change results in resistance, derailment, demotivation, disengagement, lower productivity and losing good people.

If we know what needs to change and who needs to join us on the change journey, why can’t we utilise people’s natural learning ability to move nimbly, responsively and creatively through the change process?

We consistently make bad decisions, despite being able to learn, adapt and correct. We marry the “wrong” people, we don’t seem to be able to get work-life balance right, we don’t invest sufficiently for retirement and we don’t adapt fast enough to economic, industry or societal changes. We are short-term and emotionally motivated, we only see things from a narrow viewpoint, we seek out information that confirms our beliefs and we allow our egos to miss important feedback and subtle signals, and operate most of the time on automatic pilot.

If we know what leads to poor decision making, which impacts all areas of our lives daily, why can’t we learn to address these flaws and automatic programs and make better decisions?



  1. Global and Local Talent Challenge

Globally the war for talent or as we call it “the Perfect Talent Storm” continues to rage. Leadership failures and inability to respond to a changing world continue to appear long after the lessons of Enron, Worldcom, the Space Shuttle Disaster and the dot.com era were learnt. The BP oil spill in 2010 was a very public example of poor judgement and lack of empathy and responsiveness. Long-term Industry giants, such as General Motors can also fail if leadership is not in touch with change on the ground.

The financial sector has not fared much better in the last few years with the Eurozone crisis and the U.S. Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, impacting both local and international financial stability. Too often high level business and political leadership is fraught with ego, power, greed and short-termism.

In the 2014 Global Human Capital Trends Report by Deloitte Consulting, a number of key talent and leadership challenges emerge.

  • Companies face an urgent need to develop leaders at all levels—from bringing younger leaders online faster to developing leaders globally to keeping senior leaders relevant and engaged longer.
  • Leadership remains the No. 1 talent issue facing organizations around the world, with 86 percent of respondents rating it as “urgent” or “important.” Only 13 percent of respondents say they do an excellent job developing leaders at all levels—an exceptionally large “readiness gap”
  • 21st-century leadership is different. Companies face new leadership challenges, including developing Millennials and multiple generations of leaders, meeting the demand for leaders with global fluency and flexibility, building the ability to innovate and inspire others to perform, and acquiring new levels of understanding of rapidly changing technologies and new disciplines and fields.

When asked how they are doing in managing this leadership and talent readiness gap, only 13% of companies rate themselves “excellent” in providing leadership programs at all levels. 66% believe they are “weak” in their ability to develop Millennial leaders and over half (51%) have little confidence in their ability to maintain clear, consistent succession programs. Only 8 percent believe they have “excellent” programs to build global skills and experiences

The survey further emphasises that building the leadership pipeline takes investment, time, and expertise and that there are no shortcuts to building a leadership team that is broad and deep. A new leader typically needs 18 months before feeling fully comfortable in a new role whilst for a mid-level leader, the time period stretches from 24 to 36 months. High-impact companies in the United States spend more than $3,500 per person each year to develop mid-level leaders and over $10,000 to develop senior leaders.

Corporations now compete globally for increasingly scarce technical and professional skills. Organisations need to create a global skills supply chain in the quest for workforce capability. While 75 percent of survey respondents rate workforce capability as an “urgent” or “important” challenge, only 15 percent believe they are ready to address it. Companies that succeed in building a global “supply chain” for skills will be positioned for success in innovation and performance.

The dynamics of leadership and talent shortages in South Africa are compounded by a legacy of poor education, poverty, and economic disempowerment in certain groups.

Unemployment rates are some of the highest in the world, with up to 50% of our youth (18-25) unable to find employment and only about 30% of women. Poor quality and infrastructure in education leads to a low attendance and high drop-out rate, and a skills mismatch between what business needs and what the education system is producing.

How do we accelerate the quality and relevance of education in South Africa to optimise skills the economy needs whilst creating employment and income through an entrepreneurial mind-set?


Employment Equity legislation, whilst well-intended, has led to unintended consequences of what we call a “revolving door” effect, with new hires moving on the next company approximately every 1.5 – 2 years, without building the requisite depth of skill by seeing strategies and projects through to implementation and sustainability.

How do we accelerate the learning path of Employment Equity employees, and still build the requisite experience curve into the mix?


The other challenge is that many industries in South Africa have an ageing workforce, with the average age of engineers, artisans and employees in the mining, manufacturing and heavy industry sectors being between 50 and 55 years old. Specialist skills and institutional knowledge is not being passed on fast enough to prevent a significant loss of technical and company specific expertise over time. Even where skills are being transferred, we often lose these skills to local and global competition for these scarce skills.

How do we accelerate the transfer of skills and knowledge to the younger generations, fast enough to replace those retiring soon, with dignity and recognition for all involved and retain these skills in our business and economy?


  1. Making the Shift

It is time to change the tide, to take a fresh approach, to identify and remove the barriers to the natural inherited learning process and to embrace what unleashes true talent, latent potential, natural curiosity and motivation to learn and change.

“Problems that are created by our current level of thinking can’t be solved by that same level of thinking.” Einstein

Much of what we learn in structured or formal training sessions are outdated within a few years. “We need to revolutionise the learning environment to be more strategic, co-ordinated, learner centric, and using more on-line and mobile platforms” says The Deloittes Global Human Capital Trends Report 2013. More than 66% of companies in this survey see this trend as “urgent” or “important,” yet only 6% believe they have mastered the content and technology capabilities needed to make online learning an accessible tool and a compelling experience for their employees. “We need to empower employees to become equal partners in the learning process, and foster a culture of learning and growth—driving performance, engagement, and career development.”

Gone are the days where learning can be limited to a planned event that is scheduled for some time in the future.Single session classroom based learning with tedious PowerPoint presentations and thick manuals are outdated and ineffective. Learning needs to be immediate, interactive, continuous and accessible 24/7. We must think creatively and weave the learning process back into how we live and work as human beings. Let’s remind learners of the ease and joy of learning and the thrill of mastering a new skill. It can be really empowering to embrace the humility of not knowing it all, trying, risking, failing and the build the resilience to get up and try again until we get it right.

High performance organisations must develop leaders to become masters of talent, competence and change and build learning pathways toward a strategically planned future. Understanding how individuals, groups and communities learn and change will become a core competence. To engage staff it will be necessary to create an environment that stimulates interest and passion for learning and growing – as whole people with a balanced life. Learning interactions in the future will be designed to optimise whole brain, whole person learning, utilising the latest research in Neuroscience and positive psychology – including understanding people’s natural strengths, the power of collaboration and team coaching and reshaping the stories we tell.

We need to integrate learning into work, and teach every manager to be a coach and every person to be a learning buddy. Let’s allow the younger generation to teach us how to interact simultaneously, on multiple platforms with information and relationships all over the world. Let’s appreciate the older generation to help us stay focused, respectful, reliable and deliver quality products on time. Let’s make learning colourful, fun and flexible and customise learning for individuals – making it available wherever you are, for people on the move and create multiple opportunities for practice and repetition in a “safe” space.


  1. Maintaining the foundations

Whilst we need to evolve, adapt and make the shift to on-line, mobile, interactive relating, sharing and learning, we still need to continue to develop the skills of dialogue, conversation, rapport, empathy, emotional intelligence, relationship building, giving and receiving feedback and conflict management – still the foundation for personal and work success. We need to hone our ability to focus in a world of ever increasing information overload and distraction. And we need to continuously build and enhance our skills, emotional maturity and “grit” to flow with the change that bombards us every single day.

It is so important to keep on dreaming of a better world, working in a better company, being a better person and living a better life … to keep us motivated to continuously improve our thinking, our skills and our ability to learn. Purpose and passion are key ingredients for generating energy, for pursuing creative options, for trying again when we fail, and for staying the course until we get results.


This is the first part of a series of articles on Accelerated Learning. Look out for future articles which will be part of a new book: “Accelerated Learning for Breakthrough Results” out later this year. We hope that these articles will refresh some old perspectives, break some outdated paradigms, reinforce the beliefs that empower you, and inspire you to reinvent your own learning journey, and those learning journey’s that you impact in some way.



Global Human Capital Trends 2014, Deloitte Consulting.

Talent Shortage Survey Research Results 2013, ManpowerGroup

Leadership Development Survey 2013, Knowledge Resources