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Your Competitive Edge
To remain competitive, your company must engage in one all-important, essential action on a routine basis: learning. For proof, consider the typical buggy-whip manufacturer at the turn of the 20th century. With no learning and therefore no vision or knowledge of changing times, the buggy-whip company couldn’t see its future going up in smoke as cars replaced horses and the buggy whip became unnecessary.
Blockbuster, which filed for bankruptcy in 2010, is a more recent buggy-whip example. The videotape and DVD-rental company “put itself out of business” because its decision makers made incorrect judgments about future technology. The prevailing wisdom in the firm was that Blockbuster was “never going to go out of business,” because the Internet was “too weak, too slow.”
Netflix’s leaders thought differently. They looked to the future and adapted to thrive in a new technological, web-based environment. Learning enables leaders to audit present conditions intelligently so they can anticipate and prepare for the future.
With Google and Amazon both considering package delivery by drones, FedEx and UPS likewise must learn the issues involved in using such technology so they can adapt effectively to the future. Or maybe not. A UPS representative told The Wall Street Journal, “There remain numerous reasons why drones are not a feasible delivery method at this time.” That sounds a bit like Blockbuster’s reasoning about the Internet, but this time regarding a different high-tech development. And it may prove just as disastrous. Or perhaps it’s a wise choice – that’s where gathering information and continuing to learn is a corporate survival skill.
If your organization can’t learn, it may have a hard time keeping up over the long-term.
The Ultimate Learning Organization
In contrast to other commercial failures, such as Circuit City – another high-profile company that dramatically collapsed – Google built its success as a great learning company. Its strong learning culture is a significant contributing factor to Google’s place in recent years at the top of Fortune magazine’s “Best Places to Work” list.
Google wants its employees to learn and does everything possible to facilitate their ongoing education. This includes providing each interested employee with up to $12,000 annually in college tuition reimbursement. Starbucks also offers tuition assistance, even to some part-time employees. According to the 2011 National Association of Colleges and Employers’ Student Survey, tuition reimbursement ranks just below salary increases and “100% employer-paid medical coverage” as the “third-most desirable employee benefit.”
Technology and globalization transform everyone’s business environment. Learning organizations are better able to maintain their balance as the ground shifts. Learning organizations welcome change; they don’t fear it.
Systems expert Peter Senge defines a learning organization as a culture where “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire.” Employees in learning organizations can meet their personal learning goals and expand their professional knowledge and capabilities.
Executives of learning organizations place a heavy premium on fresh thinking. In learning organizations, everyone from the CEO down understands that they can always learn more and tries to keep gaining knowledge and skills. Learning organizations minimize hierarchies and eliminate extraneous rules. They encourage collaboration and risk taking. They regard failures as learning opportunities and support bold thinking. They view business problems as intriguing challenges. However, putting this philosophy into action day-to-day is never easy. Becoming a learning organization is a crucial goal, but achieving it takes time, effort and money.
Building a Learning Culture
A learning organization requires a learning culture, a pervasive corporate attitude that “promotes and supports learning at all levels and in a variety of ways.” A learning culture that supports a companywide quest for knowledge depends on:
- “The right leaders” – Transforming a conventional organizational culture into a learning culture requires a CEO and senior executives who believe strongly in learning and devote time and energy to promoting it. They serve as role models and make sure that the company recognizes learners for their efforts.
- “The right people” – Your employees should be open-minded about change and eager to collaborate and share knowledge. Recruit and hire people who love to learn.
- “The right behaviors” – Your organizational culture should promote “collaboration, innovation, experimentation, risk taking and information sharing.” Actively involve your employees in this process so they feel invested in the organization’s forward-looking, productive point of view and understand the value of learning.
- “The right resources” – Treat learning and development as essential – not discretionary – activities, and fund them accordingly. As a rule of thumb, learning organizations should set aside 2% of their revenues for training, development and learning.
To develop a learning culture, assess how your organization is doing now in terms of learning and diagnose what you must do to make it stronger. Is your learning agenda in good shape? What specific changes are in order? You can use a range of survey tools to conduct your assessment, from instruments that suppliers customize for your company to off-the-shelf tools. One such assessment, now available online, is the “Learning Organization Survey” by professors David A. Gavin, Amy C. Edmondson and Francesca Gino. Such evaluations ask if your managers are performing as mentors and coaches and if your firm offers learning and development options.
A learning organization needs a formal learning plan. Your plan must include learning goals for the overall organization, its work teams and its individual employees. The plan should include “competency models” spelling out the information and capabilities workers need to do their jobs.
Your learning plan must include information about specific learning methods, including “classes, e-learning and Web-based programs, coaching, mentoring and on-the-job training.” Assess the programs you are planning to make sure that the material you want to teach remains relevant to the organization’s activities and goals. Many companies neglect this step in their evaluations.
Developing a learning plan is a major effort and can require months or even years. Set up a diverse team to create your plan. Enlist people from outside your organization as members, including customers. Have between five and fifteen people on your team. At your kickoff meeting, make sure everyone is willing to commit the time necessary to create the plan.
Meet physically or virtually on a regular basis. The primary question to answer during your meetings is, “What do we need to do better to achieve our business goals?” Determine what gaps exist between where the organization is now and where it wants to be in the future. Secure the quantitative and qualitative data you need to set up the best learning program.
Make sure that your organization’s learning goals are strategic and cascade logically from team to individual objectives. Your goals should link together and should challenge your employees. Set SMART goals: “specific, measurable, attainable, relevant” and “time-based.”
Various models list specific competencies organizations need to develop in order to reach their learning goals. Learning and development professionals refer to these competencies as KSAs, which stands for “knowledge, skills and attitudes.” You can work with five different learning methods: “classroom, on-the-job training, self-study, mentoring” and “coaching.” Superior learning organizations utilize all these methods, often in a medley, so they can provide employees with individually suitable training.
Developing a robust organizational learning program involves the efforts of many people who “plan, develop, organize, implement and evaluate” your learning strategy. You need someone in charge, whether you work with an in-house manager, an external contractor or a team. The elements of an effective learning program include:
- Content – Organize all your materials and learning items, such as “curricula and course materials, assessments, tests, competency models, employee performance and development plans, and employee evaluations.”
- Delivery options – Choose instructional methods according to your organizational needs, budget, goals and learners. Your choices include classroom training, seminars, virtual workshops, and so on.
- Technology – Select a way to manage your learning activities. Your goal is to find the “right technologies” and to use them the “in the right way.”
- Administration and marketing – You’ll need to cover many discrete, organizational tasks. When you have an administrative set up to handle these details correctly, everything will get done properly, on time and according to budget. This requires a systematic approach.
Assessing Your Learning Program
Each goal in your learning plan should include information on how you will measure performance, so you can assess if you’ve achieved your objectives. The most frequently used assessments are based on the “Four Levels of Evaluation” model created by professor Donald Kirkpatrick, with the addition of a return-on-investment evaluation developed by Dr. Jack Phillips. To use this model, evaluate your learning program according to five criteria:
- Satisfaction – Did employees enjoy their learning experience?
- Learning – Has the program taught employees what they need to know?
- Impact – Are employees using their training?
- Results – Has the learning paid off in attainment of the organization’s goals?
- Return on investment – Do the results merit the costs involved?
Eager to Learn
As the world changes, workers must update their skills to remain employable. Their most valuable skill is “the ability to learn.” Natural learners constantly refresh their capabilities so they stay current. People who love to learn are eager to improve and expand what they know. Engaged, enthusiastic learners promote learning for others. By becoming advocates for continuing education, active learners can improve their companies and their world. To be an “education activist,” embrace three challenges:
- Become a “lifelong learner” – This characteristic defines all successful people. “TED Talks, free online courses, YouTube videos, free or reasonably priced university classes,” and other offerings such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer many ways to keep learning.
- “Build a learning organization” – Transforming your company into a learning organization also will transform your employees, customers and suppliers.
- “Promote lifelong learning” – Tout the value of learning. Show others how learning makes things better for everyone. As South African civil rights hero Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”