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Increase your learning velocity

A spiritual guru once said, “If learning stops, you are dead.” He meant this as a metaphor for personal growth, so that guru would probably be shocked to realize that the expression in fact now defines the very core of 21st century enterprise.
That’s because we are now living in the second industrial revolution, and as it accelerates, it isn’t uncommon to see entire industries being revolutionized by a convergence of technology no one had previously imagined. One way to survive this revolution, and eventually thrive in it, is to learn faster. Every industry now has a distinct learning velocity, a rate at which we abandon old thinking and embrace new skills and ideas.
To put this into business terms, let’s look at a famous recent example: Kodak.
A few decades ago, even the most clairvoyant business analyst couldn’t have predicted the spectacular failure Kodak recently experienced. In the golden era of photo film, Kodak was so astonishingly far ahead of its rivals (the company had 90 percent of the US market, and commanded an 80 percent profit margin on its main product) that there was no domestic competition to speak of. Yet Kodak was decimated by the digital revolution. Had the company’s executives seen it coming? Sure they had. They even had a head start! It was, in fact, Kodak that built the first digital camera in 1975.
How does a market leader that pours millions into R&D and has a distinct head start in new technologies eventually fail? The short answer is: by not adapting fast enough, because it was unable to raise its learning velocity in line with new competitors.
What happened to Kodak is now happening to a number of industry leaders, except that it’s playing out a lot quicker. As a talent strategist, I have spent 15 years influencing the learning agenda of executives at various companies. Most were successful and many were industry leaders, but it was easy to spot a bit of Kodak in each of them, meaning they relied on outdated thinking that curdles imagination. Imagination is critical in times of change: It helps you skip the why and focus instead on why not.

Imagine what your company could be achieving if it raised its learning velocity. Here are three ways to use content to speed things up a little.
1. Distributed Learning
Companies need to, ditch the three-day learning “event” and set the learning agenda free. In old-fashioned cultures, everyone expects the L&D/training department to be the fulcrum of the firm’s learning activity. As a result learning is invariably an event, often takes months to design and deliver, and people are nominated to “receive” learning, probably based on once-a-year development discussions. Trust your employees more; help them manage their own competence and empower them with the right content to do so.
One great content tool, for example, is SAP JAM. Offered by SuccessFactors, this software mimics Facebook and Youtube to help anyone create and share content in real time. People can share pressing problems, access product updates in seconds, and even congregate or network around learning topics. In other words, any employee can create or share content that either solves a problem on the fly or suggests a new innovation or better way to do things.

Any classes that are offered should be short, frequent, and on topics that are inherently popular.

2. Democratized Learning
Traditionally we have learned from experts. Not anymore. With more and more buyer interactions online, there is a new authority emerging: the customer. As Rahul Sandil, CMO of the gaming developer Reloaded Games recently explained to me, “Today technology has been democratized and is in the hands of the common man. Core marketing strategy in the digital realm is no longer dependent on SMEs, but rather it’s about simply interacting with your consumer in real time.”

Marketing strategists are already doing this. Learning strategists must follow. Ask yourself: How can we use real-time customer interactions, preferences and data to accelerate the learning process? Think of customer feedback as content that can help your firm’s learning velocity shift into a higher gear.

3. Inventive Learning
Learning and innovation have a deep and mutually beneficial relationship. The more creative and inventive we are as a business, the greater learning velocity we achieve, and vice versa. What truly sets a great company apart is when junior employees—especially those out in the market, or facing the customers—are thinking about innovating. Sadly, research shows that barely 4 out of 10 employees feel that management takes their ideas seriously.

In my new book, “Talent Economics,” I describe a “flow organization.” That’s an organization where everyone has the space, time and support to work on their ideas. The first step to getting there is by creating an atmosphere of shared innovation—where employees feel comfortable putting their ideas up for scrutiny and debate. This takes courage. It also takes a genuine invitation, and you must teach managers to coach and champion employee genius. The more examples you showcase, the greater flow you generate.

Content is important, but all content—not just that which the public sees. Some of the best investments you can make are in content that points inward, that employees see and respond to and act on. Content that builds your culture, that encourages a feedback loop, that builds on itself, generating new ideas.

Remember, in high-learning-velocity cultures, employees don’t turn up just for a paycheck or to fulfill a routine need. They turn up bright-eyed because they have an idea in play.

Gyan Nagpal is an award-winning talent strategist and commentator. He has helped some of the world’s largest organizations build significant business franchises across Asia Pacific. He is author of Talent Economics – The Fine Line between Winning and Losing the Global War for Talent.