A Return on Learning

Ed Wenck | Sep 12, 2019
Luke Williams is not afraid to dive into a crowd.
The keynote speaker at CEDIA Expo 2019 in Denver is off the stage, wandering through the audience, interacting with the attendees – in some cases, one-on-one.
“Does anyone still have a Blackberry?” he asks.
One hand goes up, proudly, device in hand.
“Why do you still you use it?” asks Williams.

“I hate tapping on glass,” responds the man with his hand in the air.

The Current Brevity of Ideas

As you’d expect, everyone else in the crowd had iPhones, Samsung, and other modern smartphones without physical keyboards. Williams is noting the ubiquity of the current experience: The rest of us are wired to tap on glass.
And the word “wired” is apropos. Williams has a video of a small child, a one-year-old, trying to make an analog, printed magazine behave like an iPad. She swipes, she pinches, no response. Bewildered, the child takes her finger and begins poking herself in the leg to ensure that it’s not her finger that’s malfunctioning.
All of this tapping on glass is a recent development. Ten years ago, the scenes Williams is showing us would have been frankly unimaginable. It illustrates one of the primary points Williams is making: the notion of learning how to, say, design and build cars over the course of a thirty-year career by first learning the basics and then incrementally improving the product over decades is over.
“There was a time when ideas lived longer than people,” says Williams. A modern person’s late grandfather would have understood the notion of “car” as “internal combustion engine sitting on steerable wheels” just as we do right now.
“But today, people live longer than ideas.” 

So How Do We Adapt?

Williams, who’s a professor at NYU, has a colleague named Paul Romer, a co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Economics. Romer’s been a major contributor to the concept of “endogenous growth,” the idea that economics aren’t really driven by external forces, but rather, innovation, knowledge, and human capital. As an article at worldfinance.com  notes, “To put it simply, giving an employee a second computer does not double their output.” However, if employer and employee discover that the worker is far more productive sitting at the local coffeeshop, they’ve simply rearranged the present elements into a new equation.

“It’s like cooking,” says Williams. “You think of the things, the ingredients – those are the devices you install. But each time you change the recipe, that represents a new idea.”
The danger for any business in 2019 is complacency, the idea that “what we’re doing is working – why change it?” But the challenge, as Williams notes, is continuing to follow present business models and keeping money coming in the door while looking for new ideas that will inform the inevitable – and perhaps unforeseen – changes heading our way in five or ten years.
“You need employees, everyone on the team, on the lookout for ideas that may change your business – that might even blow up your business and start it from scratch.” (Think of what Blockbuster would be today had they bought out Netflix when they got the offer, rented DVDs through the mail, and dropped late fees.)
“And don’t think about ideas that you wind up not using as ‘useless’ or a ‘waste of time’,” cautions Williams. “They’re all adding to the process.”
“Stop thinking about ‘ROI.’ Concern yourself with ‘ROL’ – your Return on Learning.”