Thanks to a rapidly changing global business landscape – driven in large part by technology – we can either be left behind, change along with it, or ideally, outpace the change to gain a competitive advantage. To do that, the individuals who power the leading organizations in the market have to be continuously learning and trying new things.
That continuous learning, said Tim Rahschulte, CEO of the Professional Development Academy, business professor at George Fox University, and author of “My Best Advice: Proven Rules for Effective Leadership,” is largely a cultural phenomenon.
Learning How to Get Things Done
Nurturing a continuous learning culture can do great things for the business. According to Deloitte’s 2016 Global Human Capital Trends survey, 82% of respondents said they believe that culture is a potential competitive advantage.
Culture can be a complex concept, but in this context it refers simply to how work gets done. Learning, and by association, an organization’s training efforts, can significantly impact the quality and quantity of work. Organizations that understand the importance of learning also understand the importance of continual change, and as Rahschulte said, they recognize the good work employees do but are never quite satisfied with how good that work could be.
Continual change and change management, quality, learning, etc. these interconnected things directly impact an organization’s ability to innovate as well as plump its bottom line. Findcourses.com’s 2018 U.S. L&D Report survey reports that 42% of learning and development professionals say if their employees are highly engaged in learning, they’re also highly engaged overall at the organization. That has implications for productivity, product development, and perhaps most important for technological innovation.
“Most individuals love the idea of change,” Rahschulte explained. “But they loathe the idea of having to change. If we’re going to innovate, we’re going to need new technology. It doesn’t matter if you’re innovating the next generation jumbo jet, smartphone, or a planned community in an urban setting. That happens by learning to do the next thing: to become more efficient, to create the next product, or the next feature within a product, to do something different than what you’re doing today.”
Technology changes so quickly, using learning as a change agent makes perfect sense. The need to build a continuous learning culture in today’s fast-paced business environment is why scientists and researchers are conducting R&D level work at companies like Apple and Facebook and Amazon. “What we know to be true today may very well be questioned tomorrow because of the speed of technology. Think about cyber security and threats from cyber attacks. Many things we address today didn’t exist five years ago. Therefore, we need this constancy of learning,” Rahschulte said. “If we’re just trying to maintain what we have today, we’re actually falling farther and farther behind.”
Change? Do I Have To?
Unfortunately, too many organizations struggle not only with change, they struggle to create a culture that supports continuous learning, and experts say that is a key responsibility for HR and learning leaders. Instead, leaders erroneously assume that hiring the top technical talent, for instance, means it’s up to those individuals to continuously get better and stay competitive. That, “we’ll hire the best people, and if you don’t keep up we’ll find somebody else to take your place,” attitude does very little to promote a positive culture, or to establish meaning in one’s work.
Organizations are also prone to silos, which are atypical to a culture that promotes continual workforce development. Engineers, for example, may find themselves working with other engineers without thinking deeply about the business or service application for the work they do, and how do individuals consume or value the products or services they create. Those shifting dynamics dictate how technical talent might need to change over time and what development options will facilitate that change.
“To create a culture of constant or continual learning, some of the greatest organizations will promote, bring in, share or document consumer reactions to products and services provided,” Rahschulte said. “Being able to see the end result is extremely valuable.
“I might be on the team working to build the camera for the next smartphone. If I’m building that phone it’s great for me to see the value, the enjoyment, the experience the user is having using that feature in connection with the other features. Then I can start getting ideas for the next generation product.”
The Project Is Complete. What Did We Learn?
Innovative ideas will help to inform which new skills, capabilities, and technologies technical talent need to develop or be trained on to create next generation products and services. But before that happens, an organization must figure out how to build learning into the workflow as opposed to bolting it on after the fact.
With that in mind, Rahschulte said many organization ensures there is a feedback loop embedded into project work. For instance, a company won’t wait until a six month project ends to ask, what have we learned? Instead, they debrief every week, even every day, asking: how do we get better for tomorrow? How do we work across silos in engineering, finance, marketing, HR etc. to learn from one another and better conduct our work?
It’s a leader’s job to embed that retrospective learning into work, and that doesn’t just mean the learning leader, it means all leaders, technical too. To facilitate that learning some organizations bring in outside experts. It may not cost much to contact someone doing great research at a local university, and ask them to come and share their findings. Other companies leverage experts who are already inside the organization, tapping into internal experience, knowledge and capabilities. That could mean providing a mentor for lab work. Or, it could mean having staff help teach part of a class.
“Marc Varner, the CISO for Yum! Brands, once said to me, it’s important to realize that we don’t learn from the middle of our capabilities, or our comfort zone,” Rahschulte said. “We learn on the fringe of what we already know. Therefore, in order to get better we have to work at the fringe level. It’s at the fringe that we’re able to see those next generation advancements, innovations, and needs from our customers.”