Organized Continuous Learning: Learning from Peers, Not Just Formal Classes

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Continuous learning does not replace formal training. It has different aims and satisfies different goals.

The central focus of continuous learning is to share best internal practices. Put differently, it’s all about learning from others within the organization, not formal classes.

Back in 1974, Peter F. Drucker wrote: “Continuous learning satisfies the need of the employee to contribute what he/she has learned in improving his/her own performance to the improvement of his/her fellow workers’ performance and to do a better, more effective [smarter] way of working…"

**We suggest reading this simple but incredibly powerful insight again.

Today, knowledge management gurus call Drucker’s crisp observation “creating an informal learning organization"... “a community of practice"...“internal knowledge transfer"... “the teaching firm” and “sharing work experiences and best practices."

Said Drucker: “The very fact that the knowledge worker, to be effective, has to be specialized creates a need for continuous exposure to the experiences, problems and needs of others…

… Whether the knowledge work be accounting or market research, planning or chemical engineering, the work group has to be seen and has to see itself as a learning group…”

Organized Is the Operative Word

Executives responsible for a strategic business unit or operating division must continuously bring people together to share what the most successful within the group are doing for results.

Not-good executives are prone to be too busy to organize continuous best practices sharing. For example, many product/brand organizations are organized around portals which help create and keep customers.

In many instances, each product/brand is organized as an individual unit and is semi-autonomous but does rely on varying degrees of shared services.

Inevitably, more aggressive/learning oriented product/brand managers find approaches–such as today's newest methodology which is called customer journey mapping–for monitoring and improving how potential customers navigate a given portal.

One would think the manager/executive in-charge of all portals within their sphere of total responsibility would organize regular meetings to enable other product/brand executives who rely on their portals to learn from those producing far-superior results.

The job of every executive is to do what's necessary to continuously improve individual and organizational productivity.

In general, making resources more productive is the specific job of management, distinct from the other jobs of "the executive": administration and entrepreneurship.

Neglect of organizing for continuous and best internal practices sharing is a warning signal trouble lies ahead.

Any number of executives, upon being asked why organized sessions for sharing best internal practices is not being done, typically respond (defensively) how they are doing the same sort of thing.

They may have done the same sort of things (in a random manner) related to sharing best practices, but it's not an organized activity.

Further, in some instances, more formal training is required when a high payoff improvement area is discovered (BP example below).

The Role of L&D in Knowledge-Sharing

A few straightforward questions: Do you endorse Drucker's observation? Does your internal training organization have a system for identifying, capturing and transferring knowledge to domestic/global learning groups?

Continuous learning must be organized as a formal process, as is done by WalMart which, according to the Boston Consulting Group, installed decades ago the appropriate technologies that connects all its stores to corporate headquarters and to each other.

This enables store managers to exchange information via online conferences on new developments in discount merchandising, recent best sellers and flops and successful or unsuccessful promotions.

Internal Benchmarking of Best Practices as a Tool for Continuous Improvement Is Derived From the Pioneering Work of Bell Labs in the 1920s

Drucker, in Managing in A Time of Great Change, wrote:

“Continuous improvement is considered a Japanese invention--the Japanese call it Kaizen. But in fact it was used…(more than 100 years ago) years in the United States...

.. From the First World War until the early '80s, when it was dissolved, the Bell Telephone System applied "continuous improvement " to every one of its activities and processes, whether it was installing a telephone in a home or manufacturing switch gear...

…For every one of these activities, Bell defined results, performance, quality and cost. And for everyone, it set an annual improvement goal. Managers weren't rewarded for reaching these goals, but those who did not reach them were out of the running and rarely given a second chance.

In essence, Bell pioneered the development and use of internal benchmarking.

Every year they compared the performance of an operation or a division with the performance of all others, with the best becoming the standard to be met by all the following year.

What was the basis of the comparisons? They pioneered the use of measurement as a way of spreading best practices.

Knowledge gained in one part of the company was used to gain productivity improvements in another. In short, they monitored the performance of all units via measurement and, then, made it the new standard.

How Texas Instruments Benefited From the Organized Sharing of Best Internal Practices

An excellent illustration of increasing productivity and profits through internal benchmarking is provided by Lawrence Prusak and Thomas A. Davenport in their superb knowledge management book entitled, Working Knowledge: How Organizations Managed What They Know.

“At Texas Instruments, sharing best practices became a strong focus after the concept was strongly endorsed by Jerry Junkins, then the firm’s CEO…

… Junkins noted in a shareholder's address: 'We cannot tolerate having world-class performance right next to mediocre performance simply because we don’t have a method to implement best practices…'

…In response to Junkins’ exhortation, the company developed a common set of terms and (measurement) methods around best practices sharing called the TI Business Excellence Standard (TI-BEST)…"

Much was discovered about what was making “the vital few” semiconductor plants significantly more productive. This became the new standard for all the other plants.

The result?… “the firm’s 13 semiconductor fabrication plants (known as “fabs”) had substantially reduced cycle time and performance variability, leading to capacity improvements equal to building a new fab…"

When Internal Benchmarking Leads to New Training Activities Because “Telling Ain't Enough”

Writing in the Wharton Magazine, Laurence Prusak, then Executive Director of the IBM Institute of Knowledge Management, told the following story about how British Petroleum identified and transferred best practices knowledge.

"Some years ago, executives at British Petroleum—now BP, a $5 billion oil giant—noticed an unusual fact...

… While studying the company’s performance, they discovered significant disparities in the productivity of oil wells in different parts of the world...

… Intrigued by the discrepancy, John Browne, BP's CEO, asked his associates to find out what was going on. The team that investigated the phenomenon soon found the answer… 

…It turned out that tiny, seemingly insignificant innovations, that the workers practiced—for example, the method they used to remove barnacles from a ship’s hull—cumulatively made a huge difference in results and ultimately oil well productivity.…

…Enthused by this discovery, BP set about trying to introduce these high-yield work techniques at all of the company’s oil wells...

… The initiative should have led to a massive, across-the-board increase in productivity, right? Wrong. BP learned, to its dismay, that productivity did not rise at all...

… The reason was simple… The oil workers, who saw these changes as dictates imposed from above, resisted them…

… BP had to spent large sums educating the oil workers and persuading them of the need for change. This time, the effort paid off. The company slashed drilling costs by $47 million per oil well."

Like most stories, notes Prusak, “this one had a moral: companies that capture knowledge about best practices and share it across the organization can sharpen their competitive edge.”

A Neglected Success Factor: The Role of Training

Whether or not BP's corporate training group was involved with this project is not known, but they should have co-ventured with the group that identified the best practices.

As Prusak indicated, the first attempt to transfer best practices to under-performing units failed. Once the best practices were converted into a systematic, well-organized learning program, productivity and profits soared.

Many L&D organizations are doing this kind of thing. In a series of interviews with senior level training executives, we will be presenting the equivalent of mini-case stories that should be of great benefit to our readers.

Register for our virtual conference, L&D Leadership in a Time of Great Change, and learn how the best in training are altering their learning goals and methods to digitally adapt during a time of crisis.