How can organizations embrace a culture of learning?

The dictionary defines learning as “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught.” While in general many of us have acquired knowledge through formal process, significant learning happens through experience. Since, human beings are creatures of habit, there is a significant pre-disposition to doing things the way things are / were being done. In general this leads to challenges when faced with something new. When dealing with new challenges, there is an opportunity to learn. However people who are unable to learn new things (or in general are not open to the idea of learning) will fail with these challenges.  To be able to adapt to new situations in life, one has to be able to embrace new challenges with a learning mindset.

Organizations need to behave similarly. As startups in a new field, they are very absorbing of challenges and knowledge. However they lose their ability to adapt to new challenges as they grow big and struggle with competition and changing environments. Many of these organizations have the potential to be game changers but succumb to failures in dramatic ways. The internet economy has showcased the rise and fall of such companies much more quickly than in previous eras, possibly highlighting a change in the business cycle. Yet some companies manage to redefine themselves and continue to be at the top of their game as they continuously learn how to handle new challenges. Companies like Sun Microsystems and AOL have been at the top and have taken a huge fall whereas companies like IBM and Microsoft to some extent have managed to stay relevant for a much longer duration while continuing to grow.

For an organization, learning could be defined as a process that can measure changes, connect facts and expand the boundaries of knowledge continuously to be able to respond to changes and challenges to the organization.

What are the key enablers of learning?

A practice of measurement

An important element of learning is measurement, which allows us to understand current status, and decide next steps. To effectively understand if a strategy is working, there needs to be some baseline expectation in terms of improvement of key metrics along with the actual measurement of these metrics to validate expectations. In general, having qualitative assessments of whether strategies are working will not allow for unbiased answers, and decisions made based on these are sub-optimal.

It is important to define these metrics as well as to have a clear sense of what is the expected change if the strategy is to be deemed a success. Under the right implementation framework, it would be possible to measure and attribute the results to changes in strategy and it would be important to define these up front.

Like a pilot navigating an airplane based on the various instrument panel metrics that are in front of him, executives and managers need to have a quick way to get the data that they need to be able to make quick decisions. An altimeter allows the pilot to understand how high he is and an airspeed indicator allows him to understand how fast he is going. He will use both these gauges to help him land the plane safely. Similarly with multiple measurements of the health of his business an executive can safely navigate through the ups and downs of an economic cycle.

A habit of connecting

In general documentation of business insights allows for greater learning because of accumulation of knowledge. While the case for documentation maybe obvious, it’s true value cannot be appreciated in the short term. Having the ability to search through this allows us to harness the value from documentation more effectively. Search allows us to review a lot more material concisely as well as to connect elements across multiple business problems. Good standards of documentation creation allow for improved search capability and accessibility of this information as well as synthesis of this information. One of the key benefits of improved documentation and synthesis is to be able to ramp up new people into the organization / group efficiently. A lifetime of learning can be continuously synthesized and as humans evolve to learn faster, documentation and dissemination enables organization to learn faster.

Also, in theory a repository of knowledge allows connections to be made faster for new folks. Search engines have enabled us to be more efficient with searching as they build intelligence on top of search key words based on historical searches as well as different connections that can be made. As the number of connections increases, the overall knowledge of the system increases allowing for more intelligence to be built into the system.

A predisposition for experimentation

An important element to enable a culture of learning is acceptance of failure with the requirement that learning happen from it. In many ways it is difficult to accept failure unless one can appreciate the life lesson learnt in that process. A fail fast approach is an integral element of learning as one can try multiple approaches in smaller (read less impactful) situations and learn from those situations faster.

In practice, every strategy that a business tries should be based on some evidence borne out of experimentation. If not that, at least some simulation based on various outcomes that are available would enable people to understand the trade-offs being made from a decision.  Some organizations have done a great job in institutionalizing an experimentation culture where they have what is called a persistent control in their customer base. These are customers who are not getting any marketing personalized to them and are true subjects to measure the impact of personalized marketing as they provide the right baseline for measurement. However these are key business investments that have to be made and executed well on.

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