We know that what we absorbed in the college classroom was at best a foundation for absorbing more, and a fragile foundation at that.
“For knowledge, by its very definition, makes itself obsolete every few years, and then knowledge workers have to go back to school,” Drucker asserted. “They may be store managers … or physicians or engineers, but every few years they have to refresh and renew their knowledge. Otherwise they risk becoming obsolescent. … It will force us to accept that, in the knowledge society, learning is lifelong and does not end with graduation.”
Not surprisingly, given its import, lifelong learning has been the subject of hundreds and hundreds of books. It is the term slapped on classes for senior citizens. It was even the name given to a six-year initiative by the European Union to offer its residents “a range of exchanges, study visits and networking activities.” (Surely, the good folks in the UK must have missed this last month when they voted to bolt from the EU.)
And yet, for all of this, when it comes to refreshing our knowledge, many of us do it inadequately. The necessity of truly updating and renewing what we know often collides with a deep-seated preference for tinkering around the margins of our existing skills and insights. And even if we’re willing to go deeper, we still might veer in the wrong direction.
Indeed, if you lead an organization, odds are that new ideas relevant to your work are being generated faster than any single person can possibly absorb them. How do you make sure you take in the most significant ones?
At the same time, how do you put your people in position to learn what’s truly valuable to them? After that, how do you put their knowledge to work? How do you use it to change things for the better—that is, to innovate?
In short, how are leaders supposed to ensure that they and their organizations are learning what needs to be learned?
We cannot offer a comprehensive answer because no one really can. What we can provide, however, are half a dozen examples of executives from all sectors—corporate, nonprofit and government—who have come to some notable answers of their own. They, in turn, may help you with yours.
Assuming, that is, you’re ready to learn.
STEVE KERR: DIAL FOR IDEAS
Steve Kerr has been involved with education for his entire career, including a stint as dean of the faculty of the business school at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. But it was at General Electric that he became the first person whose business card read “Chief Learning Officer.”
Jack Welch, GE’s chief executive at the time, felt that the title conveyed more dynamism than would “chief education officer.” (Plus, the abbreviation CLO would cause less confusion than having two “CEO”s.) This was in 1994, and the central challenge facing Kerr was how to create more sharing of knowledge across company lines.
Even the best companies have trouble moving information across boundaries, and GE, like most, experienced difficulties trying to do it. Complicating things was the company’s far-flung range of activities: running a TV network, building jet engines, providing financial services, supplying medical equipment.
People and information—those are the things that conglomerates tend not to share.
Former Chief Learning Officer, General Electric
LEIF EDVINSSON: ADJUST THE CONFERENCE TABLE
Leif Edvinsson, a Swede often described as the “godfather of intellectual capital,” credits a U.S. institution, the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, with teaching him how to learn.
“They trained me to not just respond to the question but look for what’s behind the question and to see the deeper pattern and to challenge the pattern,” says Edvinsson, who attended Haas in the 1970s.
Edvinsson took this habit of mind to Swedish financial services giant Skandia, where some credit him with becoming the world’s first corporate “knowledge manager” in the early 1990s.
It was in that position that Edvinsson discovered just how hard it is to manage knowledge—especially as employees approach middle age.
Creativity and curiosity typically come in a U shape, according to Edvinsson: They peak in a person’s youth and in older age but tend to hit a trough when someone reaches their early 40s. That, of course, is precisely the time that many executives are entering C-suite positions.
Edvinsson believes that the stress of these jobs causes the brain to close up, inhibiting learning.
So what can you do? Edvinsson says that small steps toward reducing anxiety can make a big difference. Among them: Lower the height of the conference table, where senior executives routinely meet, to make it more comfortable and inviting. “Spice your environment with signals of being at home,” advises Edvinsson, who is now an emeritus professor at Lund University.
“Where do you think knowledge sharing happens more naturally?” he asks. “In the kitchen or the boardroom?”
To keep an eye out for such opportunities, Tighe says, it’s crucial to separate purpose from function. For example, Costco doesn’t exist to improve the health of impoverished communities, but it sure knows something about distribution—a function that’s central to what Direct Relief does. Google’s primary purpose isn’t to raise philanthropic contributions online, but it definitely has a lot to impart to an organization like Direct Relief about how to connect efficiently and effectively with potential supporters.
And FedEx wasn’t founded to get medical supplies into crisis areas, but it knows an awful lot about optimizing logistics and handling bottlenecks or surges. “Given our logistics challenges, it would make no sense to seek from FedEx only financial support so we could then try to use that money to buy logistics services,” says Tighe. “The thought was, ‘How would FedEx do this?’ and then, ‘Maybe we should ask them.’”
In fact, Direct Relief has approached FedEx and Google and many other corporations with a simple proposition: We’re eager to learn from you if you’re willing to help us. And in all three cases—as well as many more—corporate executives have turned out to be very, very generous with what they know.
When a nonprofit asks for ideas instead of just dollars, says Tighe, “it changes the nature of the conversation.”
K.H. MOON: DON’T WASTE TIME
In 1997, when the Asian financial crisis hit, lots of executives in that part of the world ran for cover. K.H. Moon saw it as a tremendous opportunity for his employees to pause and learn.
“Even though we’ve graduated from high school or university, we haven’t studied in a long time,” says Moon, who was then the CEO of the Korean consumer products giant Yuhan-Kimberly. “Why don’t we fill up our holes of capability?”
At the time, many Korean companies were reducing their workforces by 30%. Moon felt this was the wrong thing to cut.
Yuhan-Kimberly had lots of machines, warehouses and slow-moving products, and not all were worth keeping during the downturn. “Instead of dismissing people, why not dismiss underutilized assets first?” Moon asks.
This type of ownership is critical, if people are going to sustain their lifelong learning habits. If we had asked them to learn this or learn that, we might have discouraged them.
Former CEO, Yuhan-Kimberly
Meanwhile, the work that remained was spread out, as the company moved from a three-crew, three-shift arrangement to a four-crew, two-shift schedule. This allowed Yuhan-Kimberly to avoid slashing its payroll, while giving employees more free time.
But Moon was determined that these extra hours not be squandered. And so Yuhan-Kimberly paid for workers to attend classes, with a full menu of options offered. “Some decided to study Chinese or English,” Moon recalls. “Some learned Microsoft Office. Some learned about time management. All kinds of topics were allowed, based on their own priorities.
“This type of ownership is critical,” Moon adds, “if people are going to sustain their lifelong learning habits. If we had asked them to learn this or learn that, we might have discouraged them.”
The payoff: Yuhan-Kimberly saw worker engagement and productivity go up so much, Moon says, it more than paid for the cost of the program.
Today, Moon is CEO of another company, Hansoll Textile (and serves as a member of the Drucker Institute’s Board of Advisors). There, he continues to encourage lifelong learning by supporting study groups and workshops where peers meet and share knowledge. Hansoll also has developed “innovation circles” that enable workers to learn across different departments. And there are monthly video conferences in which the exchange of ideas is encouraged.
And while no one is wishing for another financial crisis, one thing is certain: If and when it ever happens, K.H. Moon will not allow it to go to waste. *
What will you do on Monday that’s different?
TRACK YOUR RESULTS
Whenever you take on a major task, write down your expectations—and then see if the results live up to them. The gaps will help show you what you need to learn.
TEACH SOMEBODY ELSE
Volunteer to coach or mentor a colleague, with the firm understanding that the best way to truly learn something yourself is to teach it to others.
DEVOUR SOME DICKENS
Remember Peter Drucker’s notion that management is a liberal art, and should draw heavily on all of the humanities. So read a novel with a new eye, asking, “What can I learn here that I might apply to my work?”