Published on 2012/02/09

Continuous Learning Is The Key To U.S. Competitiveness

Continuous Learning Is The Key To U.S. Competitiveness
The key to success for American businesses and the American economy is an educated and agile workforce. Photo by Jake Liefer

One of the biggest differences between teams who achieve consistent success and those who suffer through inconsistency is their commitment to continuous learning.  Successful athletes continuously practice the fundamentals while learning more advanced strategies. High-performing companies recalibrate their offerings while making sure they do the little things better than their competition. Strong governments explore new ways to advance their cultures while ensuring their residents are safe and cared for.

The economic crisis has uncovered a huge blind spot for the U.S.

We are a country with an insatiable appetite for constant stimulation. We are consumers who have been conditioned to constantly enjoy the luxuries that are available to us while achieving monetary success in our careers. The result is a society that moves at an incredibly rapid pace, is too inwardly focused and whose dominance is diminishing quickly.

Continuing down this path will have devastating consequences.

The following are threats to the health of the U.S. economy. You’ll find them in our businesses, schools, and personal lives. Their presence brings imbalance, unnecessary stress and inconsistent results.

That being said, we can fix them. To be clear, we have the power to change things by applying some of the actions below. Continuous learning is the key.

  1. Complexity. Life has become far too complex. As our economy grew over the years, the average person became busier than ever. In our haste to achieve career success, work/life balance has become a distant dream for many. Heck, these days it’s more about keeping a job for many than moving up the corporate ladder. We’re so busy accomplishing short-term goals to survive that we don’t take the time to impact longer-term goals. It seems too hard. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be.

Solution: To counteract complexity, we need to Simplify. We know that being busy does not guarantee success. Applying The Pareto Principle, (often referred to as the “80/20 Rule”), can help us identify the Vital Few actions that generate the most results.

For example, a sales person who reviews the business she has won in the last two years may find that most of her accounts are in one or two industries. Continuous learning to develop a vertical market approach may result in specialized expertise that accelerates the sales cycle, increases margins and lowers the average cost of sales.  Uncovering what differentiates our offerings in the mind of the customer will help determine what training and development is necessary for team members. Before applying this knowledge, we may feel as though we know the answers. Yet, we have to show people how to do things differently. We can’t just tell them what to do.

Continuous learning in this example requires far more than training. A vertical market approach would likely mean redistributing the team’s accounts, possibly changing the compensation plan, and a learning curve associated with coaching for change.

  1. Low Tolerance for Pain. The short-term pain associated with implementing a new approach is too much for some companies. We often want the results that come from planting our flag on top of the mountain, but visions of the long hours, sweat and tears that accompany success keep us from some achievements that are well within our reach.

Solution: Realize that the anticipation of pain is often worse pain itself. Decide how committed you really are to getting results. Then anticipate what challenges you think you’ll run into and make plans to address them. For example, some top companies are applying change management techniques to their learning and development initiatives. This includes anticipating resistance and making plans to address it on several levels. People don’t change for many reasons – often they either can’t or won’t. Your continuous learning must address varying levels of motivation and skill.

  1. Arrogance.  Many organizations have a culture of hero leadership, where the top executive is relied on to make all critical decisions. They don’t usually look outside the organization for solutions because they think they already have all of the answers. As Jim Collins notes in Good to Great, these companies rarely achieve consistent success because so few of their leaders are conditioned to make decisions. Organizations with significant technical expertise often display a similar arrogance, particularly when they’ve enjoyed the benefits that come with being first to market. A great example of this is Kodak, who pioneered the personalization of photography. They refused to embrace new technologies (primarily the migration from analog to digital) and quickly became irrelevant. They are now in bankruptcy.

Solution: Embrace collaboration internally and externally. Realize that front-line employees are a great resource. Learn from your customers and other companies, even your competitors. You don’t need a fancy title to come up with great ideas. You do need a culture that encourages new ideas, trust and the latitude to fail forward.

Many companies find that cascading their strategy from the executive level down to frontline managers makes a huge difference in engagement and retention. It also has a very positive impact on their shareholder. For example, business simulations are a great way to simplify the complicated, provide clear lines of sight for team members to add value from their place in the business, and enhance collaboration.

I encourage and challenge you to embrace continuous learning. Your success depends on it!

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