Learn, Unlearn, Relearn
“The rate at which organizations learn may become the only substantial source of competitive advantage.”
Ray Stata (Analog Devices)
You know the situation – “That will never happen ... highly unlikely, there are absolutely no indications ...” and then suddenly it does happen – radically and completely unexpected. In his book “The Black Swan”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that events of this type happen over and over. As described by Taleb, black swans are highly unlikely events that turn established structures and beliefs upside-down and bring about fundamental changes. Once the exception, they are today almost a part of everyday experience. Established companies in particular are affected directly by the consequences of black swans and simultaneously subject to constant pressure to adapt. In times of competition suddenly appearing out of nowhere, disruptive innovations, and rising customer expectations, companies must rethink their own innovation capability and take specific measures to promote it. However, most of the innovation efforts of German corporations frequently run aground in the rigidity of their own organization, so alternative solution strategies are in demand. But what is to be done? Shaking up your own organization is no trifling matter, after all, and requires a holistically strategic approach. Company ReBuilding offers a groundbreaking method to steer the value generation of an organization and to secure its sustained competitiveness by means of an agile cell structure (an introduction by Marc Wagner and Verena Vinke is available here). The cornerstone of such a cell structure is the principle of the learning organization. This article will illuminate why the organization of the future must be a learning one and what steps organizations should take along this path.
About black swans, agile attackers, and digital ecosystems
In times when dynamics are accelerating and, simultaneously, complexity is rising, the only constant for organizations appears to be that everything can change at any time. Airbnb, Uber, or Netflix have demonstrated that digital attackers are perfectly capable of setting entire industries on their heads – not even large established corporations can escape. The size of the company, brand awareness, and strong core business have long ceased to be guarantees for success. Instead, innovation capability and adaptability as well as speed and agility are in demand. You might now be thinking: “Oh, yes, exactly, so we all simply start operating like a startup?” No, that is not the answer, either. As you probably know, about 90% of startups and innovation labs end in failure (Capital Study Digital Innovation Units, 2017). And why? Because they are isolated from the rest of the corporation and do not have any touch points or understanding of the problems of the “rest.” But what can corporations do instead?
When searching for an appropriate approach to a solution, it is well worth the effort for you to examine closely the Company ReBuilding approach. Based on the principle of cell division, value generation of a company is steered through agile and dynamically robust platforms (cells) pursuing the goal of getting transformational products to the market. The process of cell division combines the advantages of a large corporation with the merits of a startup. The individual cells are each established around a specific customer benefit and form in their entirety a digital ecosystem. In joint co-creation with customers and partners, common value generation processes are established and continuously improved. It becomes clear at this point that the value generation in the ecosystem is dependent on the uncompromising exploitation of network effects and presumes intense sharing of experience and knowledge among all the players. But transformation products cannot be developed until cells, partners, and customers share what they have learned with one another and in this way continuously improve the level of knowledge in the ecosystem as a whole. What good does the valuable pioneer work of a cell do anyone if the acquired results are not shared and communicated appropriately? An effective and functional ecosystem is therefore especially dependent on whether the core company (the stem cell) creates the general conditions necessary to secure the holistic buildup of knowledge and experience. One important control lever is the development of a sustained learning culture. But what does a learning culture of this nature look like and, much more important, how can it actively be fostered by the stem cell?
The learning organization – inner transformational capability requires a pronounced learning culture
Learning organization – what do you associate with this concept? Do you also get goosebumps when you think of hours of studying, gray seminar rooms, obsolete methods, and lecturers droning on at the front of the classroom? Advanced training in the style of mass production, essentially based on the idea of advancing the development of as many employees as possible as quickly as possible and (above all) as cheaply as possible not only falls short of its goal, but is in the long run even harmful for the company. What companies need instead is an understanding of the urgency of the transformation and the awareness that the inner transformation capability of the organization has become a decisive factor for success.
This is why the organization of the future is compelled to be a learning organization, and it must become that in the truest sense of the word. A learning organization is adaptable and capable of responding flexibly to stimuli from the outside and from the inside. Learning organizations understand that they are a part, a kind of subsystem, of an overarching complete system to which there are many diverse links and connections. Like the cells in our Company ReBuilding approach, the learning organization sees itself as part of a superior ecosystem and the knowledge base available in this system. Learning organizations launch strategic, future-oriented learning processes in the company to make specific use of this knowledge base and, at the same time, to enrich their own (learning) experience. It serves as the fuel for transformation capability of their own organization and lays the groundwork for sustained growth. The motor driving these kinds of organizations is a pronounced learning culture that fosters life-long learning and is firmly established throughout the company. Before too many buzzwords enter the discussion here, let us take a look below at how companies can create this type of learning culture and establish it firmly and permanently. Before continuing, let us point out that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for the topic of learning, either, and meaningful steps are always dependent on the corporate structure and the specific industry and market environment. It is essential, however, to take the following actions into consideration.
1. A sustainable learning mindset begins at the highest level of the company and permeates the entire organization from there
The awareness of, and the willingness to accept, life-long learning cannot simply be imposed on an organization. The required steps must be taken at all levels of entrepreneurial action. At the purely strategic level, the goal is to integrate the topic of learning into the broad vision and corporate strategy. As is so often true, the leadership function is of enormously important significance here. But this is right away the crux of the matter. Do I, an executive, admit at all my own weaknesses and potential for improvement? If so, how much time do I take for myself to reflect on it? How do I create awareness for the necessity of continuous further development? How do I foster my own motivation to learn as well of that of my employees, and do it long-term?
2. Learn, unlearn, and relearn again – mistakes are the means to an end and an essential part of the learning experience
“A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.” John Henry Newman
By their nature, learning and further development involve change, a culture of mistakes, and trust. Life-long learning means repeatedly questioning the way things are and being prepared to relearn things you have already learned, regardless of how well they may function at the moment. Mistakes must not be labeled per se as negative and harmful. The more making mistakes is valued, the greater the willingness to share the experience with others. Added value for the total organization is not generated until the mistakes are consciously communicated.
3. Companies with a viable future need future-oriented learning concepts
Future-oriented learning approaches are oriented to the needs of the learner and promote an inspiring, creative learning environment. Learning programs are by no means limited to the company boundaries, but instead encourage informal learning. Informal learning encompasses all the learning experiences we gain in our everyday lives, in our social environment, or at the workplace, i.e., precisely at the point where we are at any given moment. In these situations, we learn on our own, without direct leadership, facilitation, or a certificate at the end. Organizations should create cross-departmental and cross-hierarchy platforms and experiment areas for this purpose, places where people share ideas and can work together to find solutions. At this very moment, we are developing various learning concepts together with the Detecon Academy so that we can support companies along this path. Based on the blended learning approach, we are developing study trips on specific topics and combining them with a broad pool of experts and coaches on such diverse topics as agility, New Work, ambidexterity, storytelling, and future communication.
Learning ability as an essential growth factor for your organization
Let us return to the cell in the digital ecosystem and the Company ReBuilding approach. As explained at the beginning, Company ReBuilding seeks to create an organization in which value generation is steered via agile platforms (small cells). Efficient value generation in the digital ecosystem is influenced primarily by two factors: the learning ability of the cell and the quality of the co-creation processes with partners and customers. The stem cell has the important task of actively promoting both aspects. A learning culture with deep roots in the company is indispensable for this. The scope of Company ReBuilding confronts companies with the challenge of actively and credibly filling the topic of the learning culture with life. A learning organization does not spring into being overnight, however. Nor is there any magic spell. Learning organizations grow over the course of time and develop by incremental steps.