What Successful Companies Do Differently

What is your big organizational initiative right now?

Perhaps, you’re focused on increasing sales, decreasing production costs or streamlining internal processes.

Maybe you’re in the strategic planning process or in budget hell.

Successful companies have processes in place to continuously monitor the performance of every function of the business.

Resources are allocated to examine the status of finance, production, logistics, service, partnerships and even consumer perceptions of the brand or company.

However, many overlook the organizational L-word: Learning. Be honest, when was the last time you pulled your best and brightest people into the conference room to examine the way your company learns?

Generation Tension

Traditionally, the structure of learning has been a transfer of knowledge from the veterans at the top of the org chart that trickles down to the rookies at the bottom. However, changing demographics are creating an increasingly diverse and complex workplace.

For the first time in history, your human resources will be comprised of five different generations, and each subset is wildly different. This “generational tension” creates both obstacles and opportunities.

Consider, for example, the Millennials compared to their senior colleagues. While those seniors are gold mines of organizational history and industry knowledge, the rookies are technological wizards who traded their pacifiers for the device du jour.

They see limitless possibilities in the world around them and have very different expectations than their older counterparts. This rich wealth of experience combined with visionary optimism seems like a formula for success.

However, the “hire the rock stars and the rest will follow” philosophy is outdated and shortsighted. A building full of all-stars doesn’t just magically create an all-star team.

In a recent SHRM poll, 47 percent of Millennials identified their senior leaders as micro-managers who don’t value new ideas and are resistant to change. On the other hand, 33 percent of the veterans found a lack of respect, a need for supervision and an inappropriate level of informality in their younger colleagues.

Impacting Bottom Lines

The vast differences in skills, expectations, communication and learning styles can impact performance, engagement, innovation and the bottom line like never before.

An organization’s culture of learning, or lack thereof, has never been more significant. Unless younger employees and seasoned vets learn how to learn together, the ROI on even the most talented group of individuals will never actualize.

Today’s leading companies foster a culture of creative thinkers who can innovate, collaborate, troubleshoot and solve problems. They invest in their people and their ability to learn.

Learning how to learn is life’s most important skill.

Almost 30 years ago, at the inception of personal computing, Shoshana Zuboff delineated the difference between computer-mediated work from earlier generations of mechanization and automation.

She published her ideas in her book, In the Age of the Smart Machine. Her conclusion was that there would eventually be a blurring of the demarcation between “work” and “learning,” to ultimately create a cultural shift from a “division of labor” to a “division of learning.”

Operating in Information Markets

Fast forward to today. That shift seems remarkably obvious given that the evolution of technology in our daily lives has allowed rapid global communications, immediate access to an exponential explosion of information and the trend that market-changing disruptions will continue to accelerate.

We’re getting smarter faster and expectations of a competitive workforce align with that trajectory.

Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes of information created. We now create five exabytes every two days. See why it’s so painful to operate in information markets?”

– Eric Schmidt, Google CEO

We’re long past the Taylorism principles of the industrial age. “You’re not paid to think; shut up and do your job.” Thinking, ideating, innovating and problem-solving are exactly what leaders expect from their best people. Yet, for many organizations, learning how to learn isn’t a priority.

Crippled by either the force of inertia or a deeply entrenched top-down culture that neither promotes nor nurtures opportunities for people at all levels to become better learners, these organizations are like the manufacturer who wants more parts faster but never stops to improve his machines.

Despite the wealth of recent brain-based research illuminating how we learn most effectively, many organizations fail to apply these findings and prioritize the practice of helping their employees become better learners.

The inevitable consequence of not learning how to learn is the inability to improve the way you learn.

Creating a Learning Culture

A culture of learning isn’t formed by a committee, and it isn’t an initiative delivered in a binder. It begins with understanding how we learn and an expectation to grow the collective capacity to learn.

It’s nurtured by providing people with multiple opportunities to contribute. People who feel valued for their contributions will seek out opportunities to learn and to share what they know with others.

Driven by intrinsic rewards, they create a learning culture — one of colleagues and co-learners who are inspired to learn and inspire others to learn.

You can’t learn anything if you’re busy trying to look like the smartest guy in the room. Effective leaders not only use the L-word and create the conditions that enable people to learn better, they set the course by demonstrating that they, too, value opportunities to learn.

By cultivating trust in the contributions of others and respecting the reciprocal rewards of a learning community regardless of where people sit on the org chart, they nurture healthy, high-performing teams that breed an atmosphere of success.

Those that are able to grow their “division of labor” into a “division of learning” will realize the powerful fusion of the gray knowledge with the green knowledge rather than sacrifice one for the other. They will enjoy far-reaching dividends long after the current project, product, or campaign is over.

(Photo by tvol / CC BY)

Dr. Melissa Hughes is the founder and principal of The Andrick Group. Our mission is to engage, inspire, and educate people to increase their capacity for learning and creativity. We do this by providing tailored, dynamic workshops that help organizations improve their work by understanding whole-brain learning and applying those principals to achieve greater productivity, professional growth, and personal satisfaction.


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