Creating A Continuous Learning Culture

Jeff Shupack is the President of Advisory Practice at Project & Team.

The last 10 years have seen mind-blowing changes in the overlap of enterprise operations and digital technology. Corporate leaders everywhere are trying to lead with trust, competence and ethical behavior while mastering the complexities of global business.

As Gartner, Inc. notes: “In today’s digital economy, the demand for new ideas, new information and new business models that continually expand, combine and shift into new ventures and new businesses will increase. Employees must consistently refresh their digital dexterity to meet these needs.”

Gartner also notes that in the next five to 10 years, “the complexity and scale of business objectives will demand the involvement of brainpower and expertise across boundaries in more intricate ways.” That is where a continuous learning culture is pivotal to intentionally disrupt an organization while maintaining focus and discipline.

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

Increasing knowledge to stay competitive is a no-brainer, but where to focus, invest and challenge people with measured outcomes is the big question. The simple fact is that, without it, your market position may slip even if your products themselves are excellent. You may already be thinking that it’s time for your organization to embark on the journey toward continuous learning, but will it be worth the investment?

In continuous learning cultures, organizations collectively work to increase their knowledge and then integrate that knowledge to improve performance. It’s all about innovation and competency that are scrutinized in short, quick cycles, with findings that are immediately put into place to improve market competitiveness.

Market dominance may suffer if an organization doesn’t embrace continuous learning. Products that business customers or consumers demand today may fall out of favor tomorrow. If your competition realizes that and adjusts to changing market conditions more quickly than you do, your product lines may become stagnant and no longer as important in the marketplace as they had been previously.

Lean Practices To Optimize Learning

Recently, there has been a noticeable shift in how organizations are optimizing and what they’re optimizing for in mass production. At the birth of Lean, businesses were optimizing for the number of goods that could be created through their systems, and they focused heavily on leaning out various types of waste.

That’s very different from what organizations want to optimize today. Today, they want to focus on rapid learning: “I can accept the fact that the widget I’m building today is not the widget I necessarily want tomorrow. I want to learn as quickly as possible so that the widget can be more useful for our consumers of that value at the end of the day.”

Organizations need to learn quickly, which also means creating space to allow for that learning. Even though Lean principles are focused on eliminating waste, we can’t allow that space for learning to be considered waste. It’s actually very valuable.

Today’s companies must adapt rapidly to a business climate being fundamentally changed by digital advancements. The introduction of artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and cloud are transforming organizations into data centers. As they build out this data foundation, they’re gaining rapid insights that inform where they can expand and where they may need to change.

We must all focus more than ever on learning and optimizing around learning. To adjust rapidly, we need an operating model that sits on top of the data-centric core created by digital advancements—and that operating model itself similarly needs to be able to adjust rapidly.

Making Continuous Learning Work In The Enterprise

The goal of the continuous learning culture is knowledge sharing—integrating knowledge gained across subject matter experts (SMEs) working on a team. The game becomes how to integrate your branch of knowledge and my branch of knowledge into a single trunk so it can be shared.

That can often be a pitfall. Some organizations have established strong innovation or ad hoc learning on a localized level, but how does a company become a learning organization rather than one in which learning is approached ad hoc?

As the saying goes: “What gets measured gets done.” Is your organization measuring learning and integrating that learning back into the organization, or are you really just talking about learning? If you’re not measuring, you’re not really going to see any change.

It may seem like an over-simplification, but you need to start somewhere. A classic example is the so-called “hackathon,” where organizations bring in SMEs to create some sort of innovation and receive quick feedback. They are allowed to pivot without mercy or guilt, with all the time and space they need. Of course, the problem with such an approach is that it can become a grind with an unreasonable expectation: “Come in and be innovative.”

Ultimately, organizations need to move beyond that way of thinking. In the near term, however, it’s a fine place to start. You want to start shifting the corporate mindset to take pride in innovative people. As leaders, you must allow your experts the time and space to truly experiment. That can create the kind of innovation where a team can brainstorm an idea that will actually be funded and enabled down the road.

The big issue is how to keep learning, innovation and brainstorming from becoming a grind, as previously mentioned. Can it be tied into compensation? Are there other incentives or ways to make the work more fun? People need autonomy to explore and innovate without being micromanaged. They need time and space, and that can’t simply be bolted on as another demand being made on SMEs.

Regardless of how you begin, the most important thing is simply to begin. As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step—and that single step can transform your business into one that values continuous learning as a means for ensuring continuous improvement and continuous success. When asking whether the juice is worth the squeeze, the answer is yes—but be sure the whole basket is ready for the grind!

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