Learning How To Learn

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

In 1997, Arie de Geus, author of The Living Company, gave us the germ of a great idea: “In the future, the ability to learn faster than competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”

Without the ability to learn effectively, competitive advantage would be impossible to attain. This applies at both the individual and collective level. It is hard to get ahead individually if we fail to learn; organizations die when they are unable learn and adapt; and as our political leaders tell us, a first class education system is critical for success in a competitive global environment.

But what does it take to be an effective learner or learning organization? Or more important, how can we win at learning?

Here are my thoughts on this question.

1) Learning is mainly about leadership of self

Winston Churchill said, “I love to learn, but I hate being taught.” If we look at the Latin root of the word “education” we see that it means “to lead out”, not to “put in.” Learning would be easy to achieve if it simply meant sitting people down and pumping them full of information. But learning does not happen that way. Learning is a drive that comes from the inner self. It requires motivation. A crucial task of leaders is to ignite and sustain that motivation within themselves and within their teams.

Howard Gardner has a great definition of leadership. He says successful leaders are able, through personal example, to change the thoughts, feelings and actions of those whom they seek to lead. Effective leaders personally practice learning, curiosity and a spirit of inquiry and cultivate these practices in others. The decisions which follow will then be based on commitment rather than mere compliance.

2) First we must learn what to learn about.

We need to frame our learning challenge more explicitly. Of course a sound general education is an essential building block. But in a competitive environment this is not enough. If we are to develop a winning strategy, our learning must be purposeful and focused. Our objective must be strategic learning. This means directing our learning to achieve a superior understanding of customers, competitors, the dynamics of our external environment and our own realities. This is where the competition begins. Lose this battle and we lose the war.

Procter & Gamble conducts this range of focused inquiry deeply and systematically. One of their breakthrough ideas is an open innovation system that harnesses talent from outside the company to bring in fresh perspectives about the competitive environment.

3) Our challenge has shifted from information to insight

The digital age has turned information into a commodity which has become cheap, abundant, and rapidly transferable. The main source of competitive advantage has shifted from the production of information to making sense of the overwhelming information already available to us. Paul Saffo put it well: “Our predicament is the growing gap between the volume of information and our ability to make sense of it.”

A recent television program examined the work of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). The head of the NSA said, “We accumulate a massive stream of information, but it’s hard to know what’s there.” In fact, most of the lapses in national security, including 9/11, have been failures of sense making. All the information was available, but scattered. The failure was one of synthesis.

What is the difference between information and insight? Insights involve looking at a body of information and seeing the underlying truth. This involves sifting through volumes of information to find patterns and explanations which enable you to see things in a new way. Insights simplify complexity. They enable you to make better choices on where to compete and how to win.

Wal-Mart’s early insight was that the key to everyday low prices was an efficient and smoothly functioning supply chain. As Wal-Mart developed and honed that capability, K-Mart and Sears gradually fell behind and eventually descended into bankruptcy.

4) Questions are more important than answers

We will never have all the right answers, but we must have the right questions. In fact, producing answers without the right questions can be downright dangerous. As noted by the ancient sage, Solomon Gabirol, “A wise man’s questions contain half the answer.” They serve as our portals of discovery.

Entrenched answers create fixed mental models. They become a substitute for critical thinking. And inevitably they – and the organizations clinging to them – get overtaken by events. The right questions force us to challenge our underlying assumptions. They unfreeze us and open our thinking to new vistas.

What often brings us down is the question we failed to ask. Just look at the tragic collapse of General Motors before it was rescued by the government. As their market share and profitability declined inexorably year after year, they obsessed over their cost disadvantages and totally lost touch with the needs of their customers. Those questions were simply not on their agenda.

Learning organizations have a high ratio of questions to answers. They are driven by curiosity – the first part of the word “question” is “quest”. Questioning is an act of humility. It involves an admission: “I don’t know. I want to deepen my understanding. I need to learn from others.” Genuine learning is non-hierarchical. As my friend and eminent surgeon, Dr. Ash Tewari, puts it, effective learning means no subordination.

5) Learning is a journey, not an event

As a professor at Columbia Business School I am heavily involved in executive education. A misconception I often encounter is that learning is an event, such as a seven day program, that on its own will inject the necessary amount of learning to carry those executives forward into the future. This fallacy results in the squandering of this investment in human development.

This point was brought home to me when I became an American citizen and attended the graduation of my two children in this country. Where I was raised in South Africa and also where I studied in the UK, these events are simply called a “graduation.” The attendant idea is that this is the end of something. However, I was struck by the fact that in the U.S this ceremony is called a “commencement”, meaning the beginning (or at least the continuation) of something. I love this concept. It exactly captures the essence of learning as a lifelong journey.

For executive education, the implications are profound. Our job as teachers is not done until our participants have internalized the individual and organizational processes for ongoing learning and adaptation – in other words, until they have learned how to learn.

6) Effective leaders instill learning as a habit

Aristotle reminded us that excellence is not an act. It’s a habit.

There are a number of simple but powerful ways to engender organizational learning. Let me offer just two simple techniques that work wonderfully well:

- Teach what you have learned.

I ask participants on my programs for a commitment to go back and teach their teams what they have learned. I offer them a teaching plan for doing this. This accomplishes two goals. First, by teaching, these leaders deepen their own learning. Second, they share the learning (an act of generosity) and thereby raise the capacity of their team members. The concept here is “leaders as teachers.”

- Keep a learning journal.

Writing down what you have learned forces you to clarify your thinking. Then regularly retrieve your learning. I have personally kept a learning journal since I was sixteen years of age. I now have a pile of what I call “my little black books” (they all happen to be black). As a means of reflecting I often consult these journals. I regard them as a treasure. Dr. Ash Tewari, whom I referred to earlier, has done the same for many years. But he goes one step further. He insists that everyone on his team, such as his young interns, regularly write down their learning. Then at his weekly team meetings he calls at random on members (including himself!) to share their learning. Ash has created a team of learners.

Instilling learning as a habit consists of a set of deliberate practices such as these. However, I believe there is a threshold requirement. Leaders must serve as role models. Effective leaders constantly ask probing but non-threatening questions and listen to the answers. They readily admit their own mistakes, and when mistakes are made by others, they shift the focus from blaming to learning. They fearlessly confront reality. They regularly conduct strategic learning sessions, inviting wide participation, and act on the outcomes. They deliberately create a culture of openness and trust.

If we aim to create organizations propelled by ongoing adaptation and renewal, there is no greater need than learning how to learn.