"The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable advantage."
Every time employees leave your organization, they take with them critical knowledge that you may never be able to replace. With every resignation or termination, every retirement, every transfer, valuable slices of your wealth, your knowledge capital, are lost, and your ability to succeed suffers as a result.
In the past, wealth and success were tied to an ability to make and move hard goods. Employees were simply there to support the process. But we are in a new era of wealth creation. No longer is success tied only to the development and distribution of physical products. The determinant of success in this economy is more abstract than that. You can't hold it in your hands, heft its weight, run it through your fingers.
Today, the driving force behind the creation of wealth ”and the only thing that guarantees success ”is knowledge and the ability to move information. Regardless of your industry ”whether you manufacture goods or sell ideas ”the speed and agility with which you acquire and disseminate skills, knowledge, and information will determine your competitive advantage.
To succeed in a knowledge-driven economy, not only do you need to gather and share new corporate data, you need to capture the information that already resides in the corners of your organization. You need to find a way to cull the knowledge that is being so carefully guarded by employees who have learned how to survive in your knowledge-is-power culture. You must also create processes to save the knowledge carelessly discarded by those who do not value it or have fidelity to you.
The concept of employer/employee loyalty is dead, especially in key business units where critical knowledge collects. According to the Giga Group , "Of today's 3 million IT workers, 30 percent are actively seeking new jobs and another 40 percent are passive job seekers." In other words, 70 percent of all IT workers feel little obligation to their employers , and for a small incentive they can be lured away by your competition. Sales-force turnover rates are similarly grim.
Every time one of your employees moves on, that individual takes away your knowledge ”the only commodity you have to differentiate yourself in this rapidly changing economy. Every abandonment, every lost nugget of information about your systems ”your clients , your processes ”does irreparable harm to your organization and your potential for success within your industry. Even if you make your employees happy, you cannot keep all of them forever ”nor would you want to ”but you have to find a way to keep their knowledge and share it with those who replace them.
Few companies have strategies in place to gather the valuable knowledge held by departing workers. They also haven't put much thought into the impact of mass retirements on their knowledge structure. Baby boomers have been the mainstay of industry for decades. They hold the key positions in most Fortune 1000 companies and the lion's share of corporate history and knowledge, and they are all about to retire. How will you capture and retain their expertise?
The only way to secure your knowledge ”and your competitive advantage ”is to turn your company into a learning organization where information sharing is integral to the business process. In a learning organization, individuals don't hoard knowledge the way they do in every other company. They distribute it freely because the culture and reward system encourage them to do so. A learning organization's employees actively seek the skills, knowledge, and information they need to perform and transform themselves into better, faster, more effective employees. Its managers empower employees to seek training when necessary, and they create a climate and culture in which education, skill acquisition, and knowledge sharing are not only supported, they are required. This is a critical point. A learning organization has the infrastructure, the environment, and the support in place to foster this constant process of knowledge accumulation and dispersion.
This transformation requires a vast cultural change. Corporate culture isn't what the employees do, but the manner or style by which tasks get accomplished. To become a learning organization, you must be prepared to first diagnose your culture, then tear down the cultural barriers that stand in the way of an environment in which employees are empowered to seek new skills and knowledge as they are needed. You need to establish a new mindset that understands the value of a training philosophy that ties learning to the needs of the business.
The importance of learning and the speed at which your employees acquire needed skills isn't new. This subject has been the focus of myriad books and articles over the past several years and has been touted within the corporate world as the most important single competitive element a company can attempt. Training professionals have used this hyperbole to capture additional budgets to roll out new programs and expand more of the same old stuff, delivered in the same old traditional method. Recently, they've extolled the benefits of e-learning as the Holy Grail that will finally solve all the training problems of the past. This was the same thing we heard when videotapes arrived on the scene three decades ago. How effective were they?
The reason these training programs fail is that they exist in a vacuum . They have no bearing on individual business units and no link to their strategic goals. Most training initiatives rarely tie to any specific business objectives, causing managers to see these efforts as nonessential perks or necessary wastes of money to achieve established training requirements rather than critical components of achieving success.
The transformation to a learning organization requires more, however, than just apprising the training department of the company's core business objectives. Even when they are made aware of business imperatives, many training departments fail to take the time to evaluate the core learning necessary to achieve those end goals. They make cursory investigations into the process, then fall prey to the "training can fix it" mentality ”even if training isn't necessary to solve the problem. Most companies see training as the only answer when a problem arises, but it almost never is.
Press an employee to do something and ask, "Can you do this task?" An employee who says yes doesn't need training. Unfortunately, most corporate cultures expect trainers to blindly accommodate their requests for training. It's far easier for managers to put a sales group through training than to reflect on the quality of the product, the validity of the sales process, or the effectiveness of their own management styles. Training is an easy out, and when it doesn't improve performance, trainers are an even easier target. They get blamed for offering ineffective learning when the lack of learning wasn't the problem to start with.
The learning-organization transformation eliminates that skewed approach to training because it rebuilds the culture, attitude, and motivation surrounding the education process. Champions of the learning organization revamp their learning environment, converting management and employees' approach to skill and knowledge acquisition from a passive, often dismissive style, to an active, vibrant, self-fulfilling system in which every person takes responsibility for his or her performance and abilities . They turn the culture, the "how we do it" learning style of the company, on its ear, eliminating passive training options and replacing them with proactive learning opportunities. They stand up to the minority, who may try to tear down their efforts out of fear or laziness , and force a revolution for the good of the business.
Tying learning to the strategic and tactical goals of the organization is at the core of the learning-organization transformation. When you turn your company into a learning organization, every training opportunity is hardwired to the business objectives of the enterprise, because that is the only way that learning will add value to your company. The connection between learning and the business will prove that time spent acquiring new skills and knowledge directly affects the bottom line. That's what makes training a valued component of the business process. Once a company hardwires its learning to the business goals and attaches all curricula design to the eventual training-delivery measurements, the return on investment of learning becomes obvious.