Learning in a VUCA world – How Knowledge Workers learn to innovate

The acronym VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – accurately describes the conditions under which organisations, corporations and institutions operate in the world today. As there is no predictability or way to plan for every issue or problem that may arise, it becomes necessary to plan for any issue that may arise. The VUCA world calls for innovative business strategies and processes that can be used to cope in any given situation, and if treated right, the VUCA world can be an opportunity for knowledge workers to learn and develop effective agile and flexible strategies. This year’s ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN conference will hold a plenary session to discuss learning in a VUCA world and the ways that knowledge workers learn to innovate.

By Claire Adamson

The term VUCA originated in the US military in the late 1990s and is a way of assessing and providing for the changeability of general situations and events. Volatility refers to the ease and speed in which a situation can change. Uncertainty refers to the lack of knowledge or awareness that surrounds unforeseen events, Complexity to the web of interconnectedness and chaos surrounding an event or organisation, and Ambiguity refers to the potential for confusion and misunderstanding within that organisation.

The term was quickly adapted to be used in business environments and now stands as a strategy for coping with unavoidable changes and events that may arise – anything from a change in consumer fashion to unstable government or the onslaught of recession. A good example of the recent influence of the VUCA world is the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull and its subsequent ash cloud. This unforeseen natural event disrupted air travel in Europe for 6 days in 2010 stranding passengers all over the world and costing air travel companies millions of euros, as well as affecting countless other companies. It was a completely unpredictable event and there was no way to stop it or prevent it from happening. Businesses just had to deal with the fallout, and suffered everything from mild setbacks to massive losses.

The changeability of our surrounding environment is of course not a new phenomenon, but it has certainly been amplified in the last ten years or so as technology has advanced and humans have become more connected than ever. The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

While the VUCA world may seem like a scary and unpredictable thing, preparing a company for any eventuality is a massive opportunity for innovation, learning and change, and it should be treated as such. Promoting agility and preparing for constant change in a big company may weaken control and structure, but it will prime the company for growth and can be a real competitive advantage.

One of the most important ways that knowledge workers can interact with the VUCA world is through constant learning and access to new information and new processes. School-based learning is an essential part of personal development, but allowing employees to learn in action is one of the most important steps toward readiness in a VUCA world. ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN panel moderator Richard Straub (Peter Drucker Society, European Learning Industry Group) argues that the required changes need to be cultural – employees need to be given an environment in which learning (including from failure) is encouraged. Tools and technology are being created to enable this, but there needs to be a big shift in how companies are managed and the ways in which their learning environments are created and nurtured.

ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN will hold a plenary session with expert speakers to discuss learning in the VUCA world and how different-sized businesses from different sectors can grow and evolve. Steve Martin, behavioural influence expert and co-author of the international best-selling book Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion; Jens Hilgers of Geewa Games; Dr Terry Moss of Eskom Holdings and the International Hydropower Association South Africa; Ahmed El-Sobky of Egypt’s Information Technology Industry Development Agency; and Edith Lemieux, Head of Air Liquide University, France, will each offer their own insights and experiences with the VUCA world and how they have fostered learning and development amongst employees in their respective businesses whilst promoting innovation and readiness for any eventuality.


The plenary session Learning in a VUCA world – How Knowledge Workers learn to innovate will take place on Friday, November 30th from 09:30 to 11:00. For more information, please click here.

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