A spiritual guru once said ‘if learning stops, you are dead’. Meant as a metaphor for personal progress and discovery, little did he know that this innocuous expression would eventually come to define the very core of 21st century enterprise.
For this is the second industrial revolution; and as it accelerates, it isn’t uncommon to see entire industries being revolutionized by a most inconspicuous disruptor, or by previously unimagined technology convergence. One way to survive this revolution, and eventually thrive in it, is to accelerate our collective rate of learning in line with accelerating change. In reality, every industry now has a distinct learning velocity, a rate at which we abandon old thinking and embrace new skills and ideas.
To contextualize this in business terms, let’s look at a famous recent example – Kodak.
A few decades ago, even the most clairvoyant business commentator couldn’t have predicted the spectacular failure Kodak recently experienced. In the golden era of photo film, Kodak was so hysterically ahead of rivals (picture this – Kodak had 90% of the US market, on a product generated an 80% profit margin) that there was no domestic competition to speak of. Yet Kodak was decimated by the digital revolution. Had they seen it coming – sure they had. They even had a head start!
Not many people know that it was in fact Kodak that built the first digital camera in 1975.
How does a market leader that pours millions into R&D, and has a distinct head start in new technologies eventually fail? The short answer – by not adapting fast enough – in large part because we are unable to raise its learning velocity in line with new competitors.
What happened to Kodak is now happening to a number of industry leaders, except that it’s playing out a lot quicker. As a talent strategist, I have spent 15 years influencing the learning agenda of tens of companies. Most were very successful and many were industry leaders, yet for all their past success, it was easy to spot a bit of Kodak in each one of them. I am referring to legacy systems or outdated thinking that curdles imagination itself. Because imagination is critical in times of change: it helps you skip the ‘why’ entirely, and focus instead on ‘why not’.
Imagine what your company could be achieving if it raised its learning velocity. Here are three ideas to speed things up a little –
1. Distributed Learning
In other words – Ditch the learning ‘event’ and set the learning agenda free. In old fashioned cultures, everyone expects the L&D/Training department to be the fulcrum of the firm’s learning activity. As a result learning is invariably an event, often takes months to design and deliver, and people are nominated to “receive” learning, probably based on “once-a-year” development discussions. Even though this sounds like something out of the Jurassic age, you would be surprised how common it is!
To raise your learning velocity, try trusting your employees more; help them manage their own competence and empower them with the right tools to do so.
A great example of a tool is SAP JAM. Offered by SuccessFactors, this software mimics facebook and youtube to help anyone create and share content in real time. People can share pressing problems, access product updates in seconds, and even congregate or network around learning topics.
Basically what I am saying is – ditch the 3 day workshop. If classes are indeed needed, they must be short, frequent and on topics which are inherently popular. And don’t waste money on clunky Learning Management Systems. Spend it instead on “just in time” platforms that replace the wide spectrum of “just in case” development we commonly see today.
2. Democratized Learning
While the first point aims to increase learning velocity through mode and medium, this one deals with ‘who’ should drive the learning agenda?
Traditionally we learnt from an expert. Not anymore. With more and more buyer interactions online, there is a new expert emerging- the customer. As Rahul Sandil, CMO of gaming major Reloaded Games recently explained to me, “Today technology has been democratized and is in the hands of the common man. Core marketing strategy in the digital realm is no longer dependent on SMEs , but simply interacting with your consumer in real time.”
Marketing strategists are already doing this! Learning strategists must follow. Ask yourself – how can we use real-time customer interactions, preferences and data to accelerate the learning process? Do we really need all those experts to act as learning middlemen? Learn directly from customer feedback and see your firm’s learning velocity shift a gear.
3. Inventive Learning
Learning and innovation have a deep and mutually beneficial relationship. The more creative and inventive we are as a business, the greater learning velocity we achieve, and vise versa. It’s good if our R&D guys are cutting edge, even better if senior managers are innovative, but what truly sets the great company apart is when the junior employee – especially the one out in the market, or facing the customer – is thinking about innovating the enterprise. Yet sadly, research shows that barely 4 out of 10 employees feel their ideas are taken seriously by management.
In my new book, Talent Economics, I describe what a “flow organization” looks like. One where everyone has the space, time and support to work on their ideas. The first step to getting there, is by creating an atmosphere of shared innovation – where employees feel comfortable putting their ideas up for scrutiny and debate. This takes courage. It also takes a genuine invitation. The second step is teaching managers to coach and champion employee genius. The more examples you showcase, the greater flow you generate.
Remember, in high learning velocity cultures, employees don’t turn up just for a paycheck or because a routine needs to be fulfilled. They turn up bright eyed, because they have an idea in play.
See Gyan Nagpal and other ogilvydo contributors on Fast Company