Learning in the Information Age

There is widespread belief that society is moving from the industrial age to the information age. This paper discusses what is meant by the term information age and how society will differ from the industrial era of the previous two centuries. In particular it considers the impact upon learning, both in terms of differences in the type of learning that will be required to survive and thrive in this new era, and of the new and improved methods it brings which might enhance the learning process.

What is the Information Age

The 1990s heralded an era of dramatic and rapid improvement in information and communication technology accompanied by price falls which made the technology accessible to an ever-increasing audience. The proliferation of the Internet and World Wide Web gave this massive audience unprecedented access to vast quantities of information, as well as enabling communication and the formation of alliances unhindered by physical distance or national/political borders.

Numerous commentators have remarked that this new period will have an impact upon society as great as that seen by the industrial revolution of two centuries previously which saw the emphasis shift from agriculture to manufacturing. This new era has been variously termed the information age, new economy, information society, knowledge economy etc. The reality of the concept (at least) is witnessed by Google [http://www.google.com] searches returning 770,000, 880,000, 643,000 and 173,000 hits on these four phrases respectively. This paper uses the term information age to reflect the author’s belief that the enormity of technological change will have more than just an economic impact.

Small [2002] believes methodologies which were successful in the industrial age are no longer applicable due to the inherent unpredictability of rapidly changing technology. “It is not just that there are new rules or that some of the rules have changed. The new rules which apply in the digital world of communications and e-commerce are sometimes the exact opposite of the proven and accepted dogmas which apply in the conventional world”.

Characteristics of the Information Age

Change in the industrial age tended to be planned and predictable. This is no longer the case. Intel founder G. E. Moore observed in 1965 that computing power was growing exponentially, doubling around every eighteen months (specifically Moore’s observation concerned the number of transistors per square inch, but it has been shown to be valid for processor power and data density). Moore’s observation continues to hold and has become known as Moore’s law.

The industrial age has been dominated by large corporations. Their size meant they could benefit from economies of scale and provided high entry barriers to would be competitors. Big corporations are generally organized as militaristic style hierarchies with a chief executive officer delegating control through numerous layers of management to operational personnel at “the bottom”. Operational staff were usually employed on rigid contracts with fixed job descriptions and much of their role could be described as algorithmic (eg a worker might be trained to pull lever B whenever light C comes on).

IBM was a classic example of he large industrial age corporation. Its fall from grace as the world’s leading computer manufacturer has been attributed to its inability to respond fast enough to the changing market. Whittle [1997] writes “nimbler competitors offered change, ready or not, to the market before IBM could because of its rigidly hierarchical structure that devalued individual initiative.”

The rapidity and unpredictability of change inherent in the information age will demand increased responsiveness and flexibility from the businesses and organizations of tomorrow. Top-down hierarchies will be replaced by more egalitarian ad-hoc teams and partnerships in which all members are valued and rewarded for their individual ability to contribute to the whole. The job description will be consigned to the wastepaper basket as roles change continually to take advantage of ever-evolving opportunities.

One of the perversities of the industrial age was that it would spend several years and thousands of pounds training individuals to do particular jobs. As soon as they had mastered their chosen field they would be encouraged to aspire to promotion to management, at which point they would cease to carry out the role they had been so expensively prepared for.

The exalted status of management found in traditional hierarchies is likely to diminish as self-managed teams increasingly become the standard organizational model. Companies that have experimented with self-managed teams have found impressive results.

Williams [1995] reports that “3M has seen [self-directed work teams] make improvements in products, services and processes while increasing customer responsiveness and flexibility. At the same time, these teams have lowered operating costs, increased productivity and decreased cycle times.” Armstrong [2001] reports that self-managed teams at Bell “gained a whooping 26% sales increase and a 6% customer service quality increase” over more traditionally managed teams. Allen and Economy [2000] report successes of self-managed teams in organizations as diverse as the San Diego Zoo, Boeing and the Star Tribune newspaper.

In an article for Wired magazine, Kelly [1999] predicted the number of enterprises in the U.S. would double by 2020 and that the number of workers per enterprise would halve to just three. It further predicted that many workers would be engaged in more than one enterprise, a phenomenon it terms “polyemployment”. This suggests society is moving from the division between managers and managed to a situation where everyone manages, or owns, their own career.

The information age has the potential to empower individuals, economically and otherwise. In addition to raising the status of the humble employee, we now have access to greater information than ever before allowing us to make more informed decisions as consumers and citizens. We have greater choice in how we spend our hard-earned money, and have a greater range of businesses and service providers from around the globe competing for our custom.

It is often said that knowledge is power. Traditionally knowledge has been jealously guarded by those in authority, either in government or boardrooms. In the information age knowledge, and thus power, will be diffused.

Traditionally the mass media has been few-to-many in nature. A relatively small number of publishers and broadcasters have been able to transmit their message for passive absorption by the masses. The Internet and World Wide Web offer a many-to-many communication medium. Every individual with ‘net access can speak to the world through the numerous discussion forums such as USENET or the many proprietary bulletin boards, or by publishing on the Web.

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One comment on “Learning in the Information Age
  1. Erlinda says:

    Normally I do not learn article on blogs, but I would like to say that this write-up very forced me tto take a look at and do it!
    Your writing style has beedn surprised me. Thanks, quite great post.

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