Posted by: DrAlanRae | May 15, 2009

Learning to learn – part 1

Given that a successful business is going to have to hop growth curves to survive or grow, it turns out that your only sustainable source of competitive advantage is your ability to learn

Sweet Spot Growth2

You may remember this picture from earlier on. What it says is that you can’t stand still. If you’re good you catch the next wave early enough and grow on it. If you’re average you catch the next wave and let go of the old one. However it’s difficult to know much in advance what the next relevant one will be. One of the hallmarks of effective companies is that they are able to develop new products and services from a well established organic base.

To create these and implement them in a way that’s operationally sound you need to be able to take the team with you – you need to be able to learn how to find the new opportunity and implement it – in a way that’s not been done before. This means that you have to take your team up a learning curve. If you can do this faster and more effectively than the next company then you will work in the market place.

So how do you learn to learn? Most of us have the creativity driven out of us by the education system as it is lovingly tended by the Ministry for the Prevention of Learning. It tends to produce by numbers people who do things by the book, who can’t think things through from first principles and who are stuck in a low level “evidence based” view of the world. In extreme cases they regard their bodies as a way of getting their heads to meetings. (I wish I’d said that – actually it was Sir Ken Robinson in his talk at TED)

The real world is more messy than that – you need to try things. You need to carry out a Tango with the market place. Product creation and launch is a physical process. You can’t do it intellectually in a back room.

So we need to take note of what is known about learning to learn. The expert in this area is a man called Peter Senge. So the rest of this section is a summary of his main ideas – which I think is fundamental to business success in today’s market.

Senge’s ideas were published in a book called the 5th Discipline which is well worth a read because as well as dealing with the characteristics of the learning organisation he has a nice little appendix describing some archetypal binds that organisations fall into.

Basically he says that creating a learning organisation needs you to build a culture that celebrates and practices 5 key skills. If any one is missing then you can’t create a learning organisation. They are

  • Personal Mastery
  • Mental Models
  • Shared Vision
  • Team learning
  • Systems Thinking

What these mean in practice is that one of the tasks of leadership is to be continually evolving, growing and learning from the environment and to distil this experience into a model of the world that facilitates process for those around you.

To create a learning organisation, the leader must

· Do this consciously

· Demonstrate it to others

· Encourage them to do the same.

The interaction of a group of people working together on real projects that they all have a strong interest in achieving, creates a shared vision around a common purpose. If articulated and pictured this can become the brand. Internal branding in a service business is fundamentally about creating and propagating this shared vision throughout the organisation.

More about the “how” in the next post.



  1. […] See the rest here:  Learning to learn – part 1 « How to do Business […]

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