Be a Mover or Shaker: Learning to Learn Drives All Significant Change

Jul 10, 2008
This article is part of a series called Polls.

“. . .we can say that Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn.      It is shocking to find how many people do not believe  they can learn, and how many more believe learning     to be difficult.”
-Frank Herbert, Dune

This quote from the well-known science fiction novel Dune underlines the difficulty many people have in learning. Learning means change, examining what we are now doing, and being open to explore what we could do differently.

Very few of us have ever learned to learn and most of us live in fear of learning. This fear has roots in embarrassment, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, our society’s worship of “book” learning over experiential learning, the desire to be like everyone else, the need to be liked, and many other needs and fears.

Children have the wonderful gift of total trust that they can, through interaction with their environment, learn. They experiment, test, challenge, and in the process, learn. Their natural curiosity and excitement over piecing together the world as they discover it is a wonderful thing to witness. Yet, somehow as we go through our formal schooling that innate belief in our own ability to learn, and most of our curiosity, is taken out of us.

Our organizations reflect this as well. Only a few are true learning organizations that invent the future and do so regularly. One that comes to mind is Apple. Perhaps fueled by Steve Jobs and his seeming less-ruthless focus on perfection, it remains youthful and exciting, even now that it is into middle age. It has programmed into itself the ability to take risks, be bold, and go where others are afraid to go.

Recruiting remains a transactional and traditional function for most of us. Not much learning, and consequently change, has taken place despite huge changes in how organizations design, manufacture, and sell their products and services.

Talent remains local. Competencies reflect yesterday’s needs. Sourcing is still a reactive process based on templates designed in the past. And hiring happens the same way it did 50 years ago.

If you want to be a mover and shaker in this profession, you have to learn to learn. You have to take some chances and do things differently.

Here are some slightly out-of-the-box thoughts on how you can create a learning environment and stimulate discussion and change by challenging the traditional and by boldly acting differently:

  1. Hire people from the same spectrum of countries you purchase raw materials from or where you sell your products. Whatever else these employees are doing for your organization, they are also eyes and ears for product development and for sales growth. They may have fresh ideas about uses for products or have ideas for new services you can offer. And, given the talent shortages, it may be easier to find certain skills in those countries than in your own. To make this work, develop a sourcing strategy that works in multiple countries and a career site that is in multiple languages and has different recruiting messages for different countries. Encourage leadership to embrace virtual employment and let employees work in their native countries.
  2. Hire people from parallel occupations. Try and expand your hiring managers to think more broadly than they do now about the kinds of people they want to hire.  Too often I find job requirements that are narrow and way too specific. These descriptions often list very specific competencies and precise skills that a candidate must have, along with a certain level of experience, to qualify for a job. In a few cases this kind of specificity may be necessary, but for the most part it is wasteful and not creative. By encouraging hiring managers to think out the box (for example, hiring music majors and training them to be programmers as Cisco and IBM have done) expands your talent pool, can lower starting salaries, and makes it more likely that some creative new concept will emerge because these people have not been trained that something cannot be done. The time to productivity curve may be longer, but the quality of thought and the morale of employees will be higher.
  3. Rehire retirees or retain baby boomers. Many organizations could realize gains in product development, time-to-market, and other areas by bringing back experienced ex-employees who have retired or by hanging on to experienced boomers who are thinking about retiring. Transferring knowledge to younger workers is a major undertaking for many organizations and the best way to do this is to utilize the older worker’s experience as mentors or coaches for younger workers. By putting a few experienced employees on a project with younger workers, learning happens automatically. No time is used in classrooms or seminars. Work remains the focus with learning a significant byproduct.
  4. Get rid of job titles and levels. Put people into project teams with only broad titles such as engineer, planner, statistician, marketer, and so forth. Let the team collaboratively decide who does what based on the team’s goals and desired outcomes. Hire people with broad skills and experience or with only a little experience (e.g., new college graduates). Creativity and change most often come about when there is a significant contrast or gap between people, ideas, or needs.

If you are looking for greater satisfaction and commitment to your profession, be open to learning and actively practicing it.

You practice learning by taking chances, experimenting, measuring the results against a standard, and trying again. Being open to learning and making changes is what differentiates the movers and shakers from everyone else.

This article is part of a series called Polls.