When will we ever learn?

No, seriously, when will we find the time for ourselves and our teams to invest in our learning and growth?

It's always the first thing to go--yet science indicates it should be the last thing to jettison when striving to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage in our businesses.

Research indicates that a whopping 60 percent of an organization's competitive advantage is derived from internal advancements in knowledge and learning.

As Ray Stata, former chairman of Analog Devices (and a pioneer in creating learning organizations) famously quoted in a 1995 edition of the The International Journal of Organizational Analysis: "The rate at which individuals and organizations learn may become the only sustainable competitive advantage left."

Steve Shifman, CEO of Michelman (a forward-thinking executive I'm lucky enough to know personally), told me that the need for a learning organization is an absolute essential, "otherwise the bell curve shifts to the right with today's rate of change and our knowledge base slides towards the average middle".

So what we know today that provides competitive advantage will be cost of entry knowledge tomorrow, and without continual learning, we'll fall behind.

In fact, studies show that knowledge gained in college becomes obsolete in two to five years in many disciplines.


By the way, to achieve sustainable competitive advantage, you need fully engaged people--on a sustaining basis. Duh.

Think back to a time in your career when you were the most frustrated and unfulfilled. There's a good chance it was either a) when they took Twinkies out of rotation in the vending machine, or b) during a period when you weren't challenged, learning, and growing--when you thought, "Am I wasting my time here?"

Odds are you weren't exactly fully engaged at that time.

Scholars have long held that when we see ourselves as learning and growing it creates an increased sense of competence, critical to maintaining engagement and productivity.

Yeah, yeah, but back to the real world, you say. The high-ranking exec is in from HQ? Set training aside. Mundane team meeting #1,305? Better let that run over into time slotted for consumer research. Crisis of the moment is upon us? Ditch the lunch-n-learn.

The truth is: The extent to which you and your people are learning and growing in their role doesn't solely depend on the subject matter. It also depends on the extent to which you believe the subject matters. You have a choice whether or not to prioritize your employees (and your own) learning and growth.

I've learned never to show up to a party without gifts, so here are some time-tested ways you can personally foster a learning and growth environment:

  • Have patience and empathy for the learning process (and tolerance for mistakes).
  • Have a "not yet" mindset vs. a "you failed" mindset.
  • Put emphasis on assets, not deficits.
  • Listen for understanding, not for convincing others.
  • Focus on being interested, not interesting (to encourage learning and sharing).
  • Enable ownership of ideas (don't do too much for them).
  • Use data to go from "I think" to "I know." But don't let "I know" get in the way of "I think."
  • Talk openly about the importance of learning. Role-model the priority you give to learning.
  • Encourage "the sky's the limit" thinking, not limited thinking.
  • Commend (not condemn) the person who brings conflicting information.
  • Don't rewrite history, remember it. Then use realizations to move forward.
  • Change "We've tried that before, sorry" to "Let's try that again, smartly."
  • Show a genuine interest in each individual's unique learning journey.
  • Take the time to teach in teachable moments.

Holding sacred the opportunities for you and your organization to learn and grow isn't just important, it's imperative. After all, sustainable competitive advantage isn't a given--you've got to earn, and learn, your way there.