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The most successful corporation
of the 90's will be something called a learning organization.
The 1990's are without a doubt
one of the most turbulent times American business people have ever seen. And the
force causing the greatest turbulence is rapid, unrelenting change. Consider this.
In 1900, the total amount of knowledge that mankind had was doubling about every
500 years. Today, it doubles every two years. And the pace continues to increase.
One futurist predicts that soon high school seniors will have to absorb more information
in their senior year alone than their grandparents did in their entire lifetime.
That incredibly rapid pace of new knowledge drives the forces of change at an
unprecedented rate. It's almost as if a malevolent spirit were stalking our economy,
rendering all the wisdom of the past useless, and casting a spell of confusion
and uncertainty over the land.
That means that it is likely that the conclusions, paradigms and core beliefs
upon which we based our decisions as recently as two years ago are likely to be
Howard Stein said, "All I know is, things don't work like they used
to work. So don't plan on doing anything based on the past."
The consequences of failing to deal adequately with rapid change are chronicled
on the pages of the business press weekly. Sears laying off 50,000 and IBM 70,000
are just the most visible of the national victims. At a more personal level, we
all know local companies and individuals who are struggling to survive in the
face of rapid change. Maybe you're one of them.
I routinely see the unfortunate consequences of lightening fast change in my consulting
practice. At almost every seminar I present, someone comes up to explain that
his business was solid until a year or two ago. But things have changed so rapidly
since then he doesn't know what to do.
Our knee jerk reaction to these blitzkrieg conditions s often to develop a new
plan, a quick solution, a new product or a revised strategy. Unfortunately, while
they may appropriate short-term responses, these are all band-aid answers.
In our rapidly changing economy, every solution must be seen as a temporary fix
which will grow obsolete shortly after it's implemented. Today's latest Japanese
management technique will shortly become tomorrow's cliche. Our most advanced
new product will quickly become passe' relative to our competitors' rapid responses.
And today's daring strategic initiatives will wither in the heat generated by
the blistering pace of change.
Faced with a world where every solution is short-term, our wisest response is
to master a process that allows us to continually create new solutions -- solutions
based on the future, not the past. It will not be our powerful solutions that
will preserve us. Rather, our security and prosperity will grow out of our ability
to effectively master a process of continually creating new solutions.
I call that process self-directed learning. By "learning," I don't mean just the
acquisition of new information, although that is a necessary prerequisite. Rather,
I mean the kind of "learning" that requires us first to process new information
into an ever evolving understanding of our world, and then to change our behavior
on the basis of that new understanding. Learning without behavior change is impotent.
Self-directed learning, then, is the fundamental skill necessary for individuals
and organizations to survive and prosper in our turbulent times.
Those organizations who
successfully transform themselves into learning organizations -- organizations
which continually process new information and change their behavior on that
basis of that information -- will be tomorrow's winners.
The challenge for every CEO
is, then, to transform his/her organization into a learning organization.
And the question is how to do that. How is the CEO to embark on a program of continuous,
self-directed learning? And, how is he/she to instill that discipline in his/her
One partial approach is to first become a model of self-directed learning by taking
part in a learning group composed of his/her peers.
These programs go by different names: Both the Holland and the Grand Rapids Area
Chambers of Commerce sponsor groups called "CEO Roundtables," private groups go
by names like "The Executive Committee," or our own "Menta-Morphosis Groups."
They are organized and administered by Chambers of Commerce, private companies
and industry associations. The agendas differ in their focus and length. Some
use outside consultants as experts, others rely only on the experience of the
group members. Some last only a couple hours a month, while others meet for an
Regardless of the differences, they all offer the CEO an opportunity to learn
in a unique environment comprised of supportive peers. Groups typically are made
up exclusively of CEOs and provide small group interaction as six to twelve members
discuss issues that are important to them.
Learning occurs in several different ways. First, the participants often discover
new ideas from each other. For example, in one meeting, a participant mentioned
a procedure his company had developed for reducing receiving errors. As he shared
his process, a stunned silence fell over the rest of the group. His idea was incredibly
effective and common sense. But no one else was doing it. We were all thinking
the same thing: "Why didn't I think of that!" I suspect that the receiving procedures
for every one of the member companies have since been changed as a result.
Another type of learning takes place when a member's assumptions or procedures
are questioned and challenged by other group members. There's nothing like another
CEO asking you, "Why are you doing that?" and then stumbling for words as you
discover you're unable to defend some hallowed practice or sacred assumption.
That painful moment can stimulate quality thinking and significant behavior change.
And then there is the learning that occurs as participants see their perspectives
broaden as a result of deep and honest dialogue with a diverse group of peers
who share similar motivations and challenges. While it is more difficult to attribute
specific behavior change to this kind of learning, it is none the less a valuable,
The benefits of these learning groups to the participants are powerful. Participants
remark about the practical, proven ideas that often come out of a group meeting.
I recall, for example, a discussion of "transportation" in one of the groups I
facilitate. One of the members described a program he had been offered by a freight
company. Since it was better than any the other members had, they made arrangements
to contact that vendor. One of the participants remarked that the savings from
implementing that one idea more than paid for the annual fee.
Probably one of the greatest intangible benefits has to do with the support and
"fellowship" of the group. Being a CEO is one of the world's loneliest jobs. The
learning group provides an opportunity to talk with people who understand. It
may be the only place a CEO can really relax.
One of the participants in our "Menta-Morphosis" group summed it up best when
he said to the group at the end of particularly intense meeting, "I just want
to thank you for allowing me to be a part of this. As a second generation owner,
I've never had anyone I could talk to like I can this group."
Additionally, most groups are characterized by a sense of detached objectivity
that the CEO rarely encounters anywhere else. Group members have no political
agendas to color their contributions, nor vested interest in any of the solutions
offered. A learning group may be the only place a CEO can hear refreshingly objective
critiques of his/her ideas.
The list of benefits can go on. But central to all of them is the quantity and
quality of learning that takes place among the participants in them. Participants
regularly confront ideas and perspectives different than their own, and are challenged
to change their personal and organizational behavior.
The CEO who commits to sharing and being a part of a learning group puts himself
into a situation where he/she will grow. He enters into a process designed to
facilitate effective self-directed learning.
Just as importantly, he also creates a model for his organization. He begins to
emphasize and implement the kinds of attitudes and processes that will be necessary
throughout his organization if it is to become a learning organization. He models
the kind of open-minded receptiveness to other ideas and willingness to change
behavior that is the mark of those organizations who will prosper in the turbulent
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