BrainHarness the power of employees’ minds! Although many companies pay lip service to the idea that employees are their most valuable asset, they remain stuck in a 20th century mindset in which employees are a liability. In our new book, MINDS AT WORK: Managing for Success in The Knowledge Economy, David Grebow and I lay the foundation for companies to compete in the 21st century knowledge economy by focusing on the incredible potential of empowering and enabling people’s minds.

Companies whose roots lay in the industrial economy in which we used our hands to make things learned to “manage hands,” where success was often measured by the number of widgets that can be cranked out in a set amount of time. Most current management practices, principles and methods for learning were developed in response to the needs of that previous economy. In the knowledge economy, we are working with our mind to produce work, to transform data into information and then into useful knowledge. 

Change happens more rapidly than ever before, and companies need to be agile and responsive to be successful. They need to learn to “manage minds,” where success is measured by employees’ ability to continuously learn, collaborate, communicate and innovate. “There is no way to become the smartest company on the block if you continue managing hands in a world that demands managing minds,” we write. “You can’t solve 21st-century problems using 20th-century solutions.” Grebow adds, “The knowledge economy that caused these problems also contains the solution if you know where to look.”

Continuous learning, and enabling learning anytime and anywhere, is one of the most important attributes of a knowledge economy company. These are the three competencies that are necessary to move forward and successfully compete:

  • Learning independently - In a company that manages minds, managers need to enable people to quickly and easily find the information they need to grow professionally and personally, and people need to take responsibility for learning what they need to know, when and where it is needed. 
  • Learning interactively - Technology is an integral part of managing minds; people need to use the tools available today to learn, communicate and collaborate, and look for and be willing to adopt any new tools developed in the future.
  • Learning socially - Almost all learning in the most successful organizations is social; that is especially true in a company managing minds.  It makes sense for management to be intentional about creating opportunities for people to connect, to enable, and not disable sharing and collaborating.

MINDS AT WORK illustrates these concepts through real-world examples of companies that have made the transition from managing hands to managing minds. It’s not only about small companies and startups, but also large, multi-national conglomerates. AT&T for example is a large company trying to go through the transition. With the first transcontinental line, rotary phone, transatlantic phone service, mobile phone, automated switchboard, and transatlantic phone cable, AT&T was an icon of a company that managed hands. Those hands literally built a telecommunications industry. 

Today, AT&T’s competitors include not only Verizon and Sprint, but Amazon, Netflix, and Google. These new competitors are all about the new digital and cellular technology, and are hard at work employing the minds of the best and brightest in these new fields. The change for AT&T is profound. Copper wires, phone lines, and switching equipment are becoming obsolete, along with the related work skills.

Randall Stephenson, AT&T's chairman and chief executive, knew he had to reinvent the company to compete, to move rapidly from the earlier management model of managing hands to the new approach of managing minds. In 2014, he asked 280,000 employees worldwide to start a retraining program. He had no choice. According to Stephenson, “If we can’t do it, mark my words, [by 2020] we’ll be managing decline.”

Oberg Industries is another example of a large company that is making the transition. Oberg manufactures precision components and tooling from a variety of materials used by Fortune 500 companies and other manufacturers. As the company began to automate and sell into a global market. Donald E. Oberg, the company’s founder, realized that simply managing hands would no longer be effective as the company evolved. He began an apprenticeship program that has become a model for other manufacturing companies worldwide. The values of the program, which has trained more than 1,000 employees, are straightforward and simple: establish a culture of continuous learning for employees, and introduce new employees to the learning culture.

Oberg’s story illustrates the key to this or any major organizational change: it starts at the top. As we say, “The key to success for all knowledge economy companies is whether the company’s leaders, managers and employees can successfully make the shift from managing hands to managing minds.”