Picture a workplace in which you don’t have to labor to artificially construct programs and products on the themes that your board arbitrarily decided would be this year’s strategic priorities. Instead, you watch and talk to your members and decide, for example, to develop a resource you realize would be invaluable to them for gauging their markets and looking up solutions to tough cases: capturing, archiving and making searchable member online insights and conversations.
Imagine if, instead of the uphill battle of constantly pushing your new products to members and still having to cancel some of them due to insufficient interest, your members flocked to them because they had a hand in co-designing, testing and adapting them to their needs. The National Grocers Association (NGA) found out that the opportunity for members to meet and explore partnerships with suppliers was the most valuable solution that the association could provide. Instead of piling new topics and programs to their annual convention, NGA created the Trading Partner Program which leveraged these annual meetings to provide opportunities for members to connect with senior leadership such as wholesalers, manufacturers, and service suppliers to discuss mutual business opportunities, strategies, and goals. This has become the association’s fastest growing program. Read case in this free white paper.
These are all characteristics of true learning organizations.
If the very term “learning” elicits yawns from you and your colleagues—“so what’s new about it?” — it’s time to rethink its meaning from a business perspective! In the age of knowledge an organization’s learning capabilities constitute competitive necessity. “Learning,” however, is not synonymous with mastery or passive knowledge. It refers to a state of mind; a culture of continuous discovery and adaptation; and a different basis for decision-making.
Are you a learning organization? Judge for yourself:
How well do you really know your members? Do you know the context in which they will use your services and what they hope to achieve through them? Do you dig beneath what your members say to extract what they mean? Do you understand how these members actually experience their problems in the course of a day? If not, you lack the nuanced and holistic understanding that will make your products and services indispensable.
Are your members asking for access to the latest research? What good will it do you if you stock your library with cutting-edge data that is not easily searchable or accessible to busy executives who are constantly on the move?
How curious is your organization about its members? Do employees use every opportunity to get to know them as people? Do conversations and meetings in your organization revolve around what has been learned about members today and what changes or opportunities this might imply? Or do they focus on your products, policies or operations?
What is the basis of your decision-making? Are employees allowed to learn by doing—testing and applying lessons learned—or are they asked to implement “strategic plans?” Are plans created internally and then directly implemented or are they developed “by doing,” such as through small pilots and collaboration with customers?
A Mindset of Continuous Learning
Peter Senge, who introduced and established the concept of the “learning organization” in his 1990 book The Fifth Discipline, defines it as an organization “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.”
The modern, competitive organization is above all a true learning organization– geared to constantly detecting and leveraging new opportunities in fast-moving markets and to learning from results. Discovery, experimentation and applications of “lessons learned” are the way they do things and arrive at decisions.
Applying What Has Been Learned
True learning simply cannot take place unless it is applied and makes a difference.
Case: CEMEX’s Culture of Learning and Innovation
CEMEX is an innovative global construction materials manufacturer in Mexico. A culture of engineers, priding itself in its orderly and timely deliveries, CEMEX noticed a growing dissatisfaction among its contractor clients. Instead of surveys or focus groups, CEMEX executives spent some time on clients’ construction sites and talked extensively with contractors and their teams. It turned out that it was not predictability and precision this industry needed, but speed and flexibility. Construction schedules were unpredictable because of endless unexpected variables that could drastically change plans and timelines. They wanted cement deliveries when, where, and as they needed them at a moment’s notice.
Instead of looking for best practices in their industry, CEMEX teams visited hospital emergency departments, police and fire stations, emergency response teams, and mechanisms in military and civilian establishments both in Mexico and the United States.
Understanding the marketplace through their customers’ eyes transformed the way CEMEX perceived its business and lessons learned translated into new actions.
First CEMEX had to rethink and reorganize its business around a new identity—that of solutions provider rather than product manufacturer. To provide solutions that would enable its customers to operate and thrive in environments of unpredictability and crisis, CEMEX became a technology innovator. Through technology-enabled delivery systems; and innovative cutting-edge applications, such as on-demand delivery via an ATM-like Bulk Cement Dispatch System, the company completely reinvented its delivery processes, market positioning, and relationship with its customers and investors.
Today CEMEX has $15.1 billion in annual sales in the United States alone and is one of the world’s leading suppliers of ready-mix concrete and one of the world’s largest suppliers of aggregates.
The most critical obstacle to bureaucratic organizations becoming competitive in the knowledge age is that they are not set up for the continuous, strategic, and probing mode of learning, experimenting, innovating and constantly adapting. The new leadership needed requires building and leading organizations that are constantly alert to customers and the outside and are able to push beyond the obvious to discover new opportunities and bases for competitive advantages.