Creating competitive advantage through learning

Sue Willcock Food for Thought

The concept of the ‘learning organisation’, where a business continually strives to learn in order to acheive competitive advantage in it’s market, has been around for some time now and is highly relevant in today’s knowledge economy.  With this in mind, Chaseville recently undertook a study looking at the theory of learning organisations and the practical reality of the concept in business.  The following are simple questions that can be asked to determine how far a business is on the journey to being such an organisation. 
How does your business fare?    
Is learning embedded into your business strategy?  Is the business outward looking, consistently monitoring for market change, gaining feedback from your clients and flexible enough to be able to adapt to change quickly?
Are learning and feedback processes in-built into ‘the way you do things’?  From performance appraisals, 360 feedback tools, your QA procedures being focused on business improvement (not compliance) through to having a supportive coaching culture, and embedding ‘lessons learnt’ into all projects and assignments, what processes support opportunities for learning and improvement?
To what extent does your business structure hinder or support the sharing of information and knowledge to give you advantages in your market?  Does one part of your business deliberately hinder knowledge sharing due to internal politics?  Are people rewarded and recognised for sharing knowledge?
Do you have tools and systems which actively support the ability to share information and knowledge that would make a difference to your business or to your clients?  These may be tools that support market analysis and tracking, through to internal tools which help you identify skills and competencies of everyone in the business for bid purposes.  Do you make it easy for people to communicate and share easily?
Is there a ‘learning climate’? Does your business believe in creating learning opportunities for everyone?  Is there a culture which supports learning from mistakes, coaching, mentoring and feedback in everything?  Do people happily share information across operational units and teams?
Whilst strategically creating a learning organisation can seem overwhelming, it is perhaps easier to identify individual projects and initiatives that have made a difference to organisations across the world. These include cross-team special interest groups to undertake research in a specific area and to open up a new market, storytelling initiatives to encourage people to share good news and best practice, specific IT projects such as Client Relationship Management tools, people databases to identify skills and competencies, online forums, 360 feedback, lessons learnt and creating a coaching culture.