The following article explores key characteristics of a learning company.
The learning approach to strategy
By this we mean that company policy and strategy formation, together with implementation, evaluation and improvement, are consciously structured as a learning process. In that sense it is not a gung-ho approach, but one that allows business plans to be developed, formulated and revised as you go along. Managerial acts are thus seen as conscious experiments, rather than set solutions. Deliberate small-scale experiments and feedback loops are built into the planning process to enable continuous improvement in the light of experience. (Interestingly, the words ‘experiment’ and ‘experience’ come from the same root.)
This characteristic refers to the sharing of involvement in the policy- and strategy- forming processes. That is, all members of the company have a chance to take part, to discuss and contribute to major policy decisions. There is a deliberate fostering and encouragement of contributions and a recognition that successful debate involves working with tensions, or even conflicts, between different values, positions and views. There is a commitment to airing differences and working through conflicts as the way to reaching business decisions that all members are likely to support.
Internal exchange involves all internal units and departments seeing themselves as customers and suppliers, contracting with one another in a partly regulated market economy. The purpose of a department is thus to ‘delight’ its internal customer. To do so, individuals, groups, departments and divisions engage in constant dialogue – exchanging information on expectations, negotiating, contracting and giving feedback on goods or services received. Since our purpose is to delight our internal customer, the latter is seen as the key stakeholder. At the same time, internal customers recognize that their suppliers have rights and needs too, and treat them with respect. In any case, it is fully understood that the way to deliver quality is to receive it – hence we need good relationships with our suppliers in order to develop good relationships with our customers.
Another key element here is that of overall collaboration, rather than competition. Thus, each department not only seeks to delight its customer, and vice versa (mutual win-win), but, also, everybody remains aware of the needs of the company as a whole. This calls for further levels of discussion, negotiation and contracting in a spirit of overall win-win, to ensure that certain units are not delighting their internal customers in such a way as to prevent others from doing the same. By this collaboration there is an overall optimization of performance.
Such structures create opportunities for individual and business development. Roles are loosely structured, in line with the established and contracted needs of internal customers and suppliers, and in such a way as to allow for personal growth and experiment. Thus, departmental and other boundaries are seen as temporary structures that can flex in response to changes. The aim is to create an organizational architecture that gives space and headroom for meeting current needs and responding to future changes.
Inter-company learningBR> Since a Learning Company seeks to delight its customers, it will engage in a number of mutually advantageous learning activities. Joint training, sharing in investment, in research and development, job exchanges – these are just some of the ways in which this takes place. The corollary, of course, is that it also joins with its suppliers in these activities. We can also learn from companies in other industries – a process often known as ‘benchmarking’. For example, Rank-Xerox set out to learn from Caterpillar, considered to be the world’s best company (i.e., the benchmark) at delivering heavy equipment.
More surprisingly, perhaps, competitors get together for mutual learning. They don’t fight each other (win-lose, which in the long run always leads to sub-optimization, or, lose-lose), but engage in win-win learning. They recognize that both their interests will be served by increasing the market, bringing in technological advances, establishing joint industry standards, and so on. Rank-Xerox have a slogan ‘come and steal shamelessly from us’.
In a Learning Company managers see their primary task as facilitating members’ experimentation and learning from experience. It is normal to take time out to seek feedback, to obtain data to aid understanding. Senior managers give a lead in questioning their own ideas, attitudes and actions. Mistakes are allowed – if not exactly encouraged – for it is recognized that we will never learn if we don’t try out new ideas, new ways of doing things, and these won’t always work. We need to recognize that there’s no such thing as a failed experiment – as long as we learn from it. External stakeholders – customers, suppliers, owners, neighbours, competitors – are all involved in these processes. Similarly, there is a strong realization that differences, as discussed under ‘Participative policy making’ earlier, are essential for learning.
Importance is attached to the idea of continuous improvement. We can always learn and do better, no matter how well we think we are doing at present: ‘good enough is not good enough’, we always need to be striving to do even better.
Self-development opportunities for all
Resources and facilities for self-development are made available to all members of the company – employees at all levels, and, ideally, external stakeholders, too. With appropriate guidance, including systems for feeding back data, people are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and development.
A whole range of resources will be required. These will include courses, work¬shops, seminars, self-learning materials, but in addition there will be others, such as development groups, one-to-one coaching/mentoring, peer-level one-to-one co-counseling. Databanks will provide information on what is available, together with, on a voluntary opting-in basis, details of individuals who are working on specific developmental issues and who are looking, got or are willing to give support and mutual guidance.