Businesses generally adopt one of two business models: operational excellence or innovation. Operational excellence requires processes that produce reliable results 99% of the time. Operationally excellent companies stay great by constantly improving--by getting better, faster and/or cheaper through process changes or new processes, both of which require learning. Relentless improvement is key and that requires learning.

An innovation business model is built upon continuously creating new value differentiators. Innovations usually result from iterative experimental learning. Again, learning is the underlying required process. Great innovators and great operators don't stand still. They keep learning because they know that standing still today is the first step to decline.

I believe that over the next five years, learning will become the only sustainable competitive advantage for most businesses. Learning will not be optional. Businesses will either learn or die. Period.

A business learns only if its people or smart machines learn. Unfortunately, many people have stopped learning and usually operate on autopilot within the confines of their existing mental models. And many business environments make learning a high-risk, activity because the downside of trying to learn is too great when there is no tolerance for learning mistakes or for constructive debate. To be a learning business you have to overcome those obstacles.

How does one create a continuous learning business? By starting with the key building blocks. What are the key building blocks for continuous business learning?

1. There must be a learning culture that promotes and enables daily learning by everyone. Everyone should be asked daily, "What did you learn yesterday?" Starting at the top with the senior leaders, being better must be more important than being right. The learning culture must also mitigate the two big learning inhibitors--ego and fear. That requires viewing learning as a team activity requiring collaboration, humility and empathy. Collaboration has to be relational not competitive. Learning and the courage to try new things must be celebrated. And the environment must encourage candor and provide psychological safety. As psychologist Abraham Maslow aptly stated, people will engage in learning so long as they are not crippled by fear and so long as they feel safe enough to dare.

2. There must be a new approach to mistakes, because learning comes from trying new things and making mistakes. The culture must not treat mistakes within financial parameters as bad or punishable so long as there is learning--making the same mistakes over and over would evidence no learning.

3. There must be rigorous daily use of key learning processes such as:

  • Root Cause Analysis--the "5 Whys"
  • Learning Launches--fast cheap experiments
  • After Action Reviews--the U.S. Army's feedback loop learning process

4. Learning requires high employee engagement. High employee engagement requires a people-centric, emotionally positive work environment that meets the basic human needs for growth/development, autonomy, meaningful relationships and meaningful work. High employee engagement with high mutual accountability is critical.

Businesses can't learn unless their people learn. And employees won't learn unless their managers and leaders role model best learning mindsets and behaviors. That means hierarchical arrogance, "my way or the highway" management styles, and treating employees as fungible commodities won't work if you want to become a learning business.

Is your business a good learning business? Is your team a good learning team? Are you a good learner? You need to be. Continuous learning is necessary for viability and relevancy.