Instant Learning as a Competitive Advantage

Posted on October 30, 2012. Filed under: Uncategorized |

My friend, Luis Suarez, tweeted the following from the Knowledge Management World conference in Washington DC:

To see where he got this idea, I tracked back his tweet to the keynote session at KMWorld; titled, “KM Saves Lives”, a panel discussion led by Patrick Lambe, an author and KM specialist from Singapore, and including Gary Klein, senior scientist at MacroCognition, Nate Allen, entrepreneur within the US Army and part o the National Defense University iCollege, and Nancy Dixon, principal researcher at Common Knowledge Associates.

Apparently in this session, this distinguished panel discussed the concept that KM is no longer just a back room support function, but, through illustrations in military, health care and emergency response, that KM practices can have impact on people’s lives, and have implications for organizational effectiveness in a broader context.  But it was the tweet that got my imagination going.

I’ve always believed that learning can be a distinguishing advantage for individuals and a competitive advantage for organizations.  At the individual level, being able and willing to learn new things enable us to grow and adapt.  Certainly every graduate student knows that the extra time they spend working on their advanced degree gives them an advantage over their lesser-degreed peers.  And today, social IT enable us to quickly find and collaborate with others outside of our normal social groups.  Those who master this capability find that they are continually learning, better able to bring more innovations to their daily work, and more adaptable to the changes that life presents to them.

But Luis’ tweet also suggests that rapid learning gives organizations a competitive advantage—something I’ve written about before.  The idea of instant learning is a core from my book on the Zero Time Organization, published more than 10 years ago (see my blog).  Organizations who develop a competency in learning instantly also develop a capability that allows them to reconfigure themselves as necessary to respond to the changes in their environment.  Instant learning is achieved with the right platform—technology and processes—that enable individuals in the organization to find the right information at the right time.  Our research back in the 1990s highlighted the way Dell Computers brought assembly information right to the station on the production line at the moment it was needed by the worker.  This enabled the workers to learn ‘instantly’ how to build the system, and gave Dell a way to have multiple products manufactured on the same production line- clearly a component of their competitive advantage.

In my world, IT have once again changed the way organizations learn.  Certainly data warehouses and the associated analytical processes that allow organizations to ‘learn’ from the information they collect provide a basis for rapid learning and increased effectiveness.   Tom Davenport and others have documented many examples of organizations who now compete based on their analytical maturity.

Social IT also enables organizations to learn more rapidly.  An internal social network, like that created by Jive connects individuals together to collaborate and learn from each other more quickly.  An activity stream, like that created by’s Chatter facilitates serendipitous connections that are fundamental to thinking outside the box and making links between work activities that can benefit from learning from each others.  An innovation platform like Dell’s IdeaStorm or Starbuck’s MyStarbucksIdea.comgive their organizations a way to quickly learn about potential innovative ideas and the popularity of those ideas.

Can your company learn instantly?  What would it take to create instant learning within your enterprise? What is your organization’s learning plan?  Does it include social technologies? Companies without a robust social business strategy lose the opportunity to rapidly learn.  And as Luis’s Tweet suggests, that may also slow down success and effectiveness.


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