Using learning to increase innovation

 

In part 1, we discussed how learning and innovation are intrinsically linked. Now let’s look at how learning plays out in business. And most importantly – how you can encourage and foster learning to increase business outcomes.

 

Onboarding new talent

As a whole, the education system isn’t preparing students for the world of work. It just isn’t set up that way.

Oftentimes, employers will have to provide complete on-the-job training through graduate schemes and apprenticeships. That’s just to get the basic job done – talk less of having competitive employees in the marketplace.

If you want your new hires to be competitive, you have to also ensure that they engage in self-study. A new hire who comes in and expects to be spoon-fed information won’t ramp up as fast as they could.

In the time they aren’t productive, you’re losing money.

It’s also important that your new hires learn through others in the organization – their peers and senior staff members. By creating a culture of peer-to-peer learning, you can save greatly on formal training programs. It will also help better integrate new hires and make them feel part of the team.

Typically, when organizations approach the topic of training their employees, there is a common reluctance. Why invest in training when they could get up and leave?

Worse, a competitor could poach them and give them an advantage.

This sentiment is understandable.

But there is a middle ground. This is where company-wide, lifelong learning has its place. If you make learning a part of the culture, you won’t need dedicated programs that build their soft or hard skills.

If you create the right culture, they will take it upon themselves and consider it a natural part of their job.

 

Upskilling mature workers

 

Source: IMF

 

As we live more healthily, our lifespan increases. Particularly in modern countries, we have an increasingly older workforce who are staying in employment for longer.

Although they have decades of experience and know-how, the rapid change of digitization means that older workers can no longer afford to remain stagnantEspecially in technology work. There is a rapidly changing knowledge framework that employees need to keep on top of.

There may be a point in time where your company needs to overhaul its IT suite to stay competitive. In this case, the skill sets of old will decline in value. If your team doesn’t welcome continuous learning, then they may have to go.

 

Solving problems

There is a military saying that states no strategy survives the first contact with the enemy.

When your team is running daily operations, they may find that some things aren’t working as well as they could be. Typically, there are two ways that learning on the ground happens:

  • Experiments – For instance, your marketing team may realise that certain types of campaigns aren’t resonating with your customers. In this case, they run different experiments and learn from the results to determine the best course of action.
  • Observation – Alternatively, your customer service team may realise that there are certain issues that keep on arising. In response, they work with the product team to develop a solution to it.
  • Pro-activity – In this case, your employees make a conscious effort to learn about and anticipate your customers’ changing situations.

 

In recent years, Salesforce and other SaaS companies pioneered a new approach to servicing their customers.

Source: Gainsight

 

They introduced a new role; ‘Customer Success’, which goes beyond what traditional account managers and customer service reps deliver.

This new role is about ensuring the customer is maximising value from your product. At the core of this role is the learning process. Customer success managers have to continuously be learning about the changing needs of your clients. Without active curiosity, they won’t be able to anticipate potential problems before they arise.

 

Industry evolution

In an ideal world, your industry will remain the same. You won’t have to worry about changes in the market or new competitors.

In reality, the market evolves.

You may have the best product at a particular time, but that may not be the case going forward.

How do you adapt to these changes?

You pay attention.

One of the best ways to do this is through your sales team.

Learning through sales – Your sales team is on the front line with new customers. This means that they get to learn deeply about your customers’ evolving problems. This is especially important for prospects you are yet to acquire – you get to learn about how the market sees your product.

If your reps have a positive attitude towards learning, you have the opportunity to uncover hidden demands and see how the industry is changing.

But you won’t be able to rely on just your sales team. Customer conversations are great, but sometimes you have to uncover needs and discover knowledge through your own means.

The most effective way to do so is through Design Thinking.

Design Thinking – This represents a method of innovation where you discover knowledge and uncover insights in the most efficient way. We touch on this in our article about why business leaders need scientific thinking, but here’s a quick overview. The Design Thinking process consists of 5 iterative steps:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

The Design Thinking methodology is typically executed by your product, design and marketing teams. Through the above methods, your whole team will be learning in real time.

But that’s only if they’re encouraged to do so.

Learning of this sort needs to be a permanent fixture of the culture. It’s a way of working, not just one-off experiments.

The alternative risk is that you discover the market has shifted too late and you aren’t able to adapt. This is an issue that companies who are undergoing digital transformation may face.

 

How to foster learning

We’ve spoken about practical ways that learning can improve business outcomes through:

  • Onboarding and training
  • Your sales team identifying changing customer needs
  • Solving customer problems through support teams
  • Developing new products through design thinking

These are important channels for learning. But this assumes that your team actually cares.

After all, some people view learning as a form of work. What if your team members aren’t on the same page as you?

 

Employee engagement

 

Source: Dale Carnegie

 

If your team isn’t engaged, learning won’t happen.

It may happen by natural occurrence, but it won’t be utilized to effectively help your business. They may be learning things that could help you, but aren’t motivated enough to speak up about it.

If there’s no engagement, they likely aren’t going the extra mile to really understand how to improve your processes. In this case, the engagement of your employees will be a bottleneck in utilizing learning to increase innovation.

This is a huge topic in itself, but as a general rule of thumb to improve engagement you could try the following:

  • Ensure team members understand and internalize your vision
  • Foster team building and employee bonds through extracurricular activities
  • Ensure all team members feel valued and their work is recognized

 

Internal feedback

A large part of employee engagement is creating a healthy feedback culture. You need to set up lines of communication from the most junior employee all the way to the shareholders.

If you subscribe to the management philosophy of the past, you may come from the perspective that there isn’t anything you can learn from a junior. You may think a junior employee won’t be able to contribute to higher level decision making. They in no way can replace you, but all members of your team will have their own insights about what’s happening on the ground.

After all, it’s not you that’s talking to customers every day. You’re not the one building the product either. That means you’re probably missing a lot of key information about the execution side of things. Information that can help you more efficiently achieve your vision.

Creating employee feedback channels achieves two things:

  1. Increases your learning for strategic decisions – Learning from every member of your team gives you practical insights which you can use for strategy.
  2. Increases engagement, leading to better learning – Your employees will feel that they have influence on how the company moves forward, regardless of their position. This creates a sense of ownership which stimulates the desire to learn and solve problems.

 

Source: Glint

 

Once you have established a culture that is more conducive to learning, you have to ensure that they have the right tools. Employee engagement and feedback apps such as Glint or Insights ensure that every team member is heard.

 

Stimulating curiosity

You also need to think beyond operations when it comes to lifelong learning. Think about how to stimulate your company’s curiosity in general. Naturally, the best way to do this would be to hire curious people. But it’s still possible to create a more curious culture.

A few things you could do include:

  • Lunch and learn – Set up recurring events where industry leaders come in to talk. This could also be a great way to build stronger relations with your client network.
  • Subsidized books – The best way to stimulate curiosity is through interesting books – both audio and text. See if you can work out a deal with retail outlets for subsidized books.
  • Incentivize learning – You could set up company-wide bonuses or recognition for employees who share interesting ideas.

A lot of what curiosity is about involves following the ‘itch’. For different reasons, there are things that we are curious about at a particular time. If you go against this ‘itch’, then it doesn’t create the right environment for learning.

For that reason, you should expand the scope of learning to include things outside of your traditional business. It doesn’t even have to be about business. Just find interesting things in general that can feed their curiosity.

 

Next steps

Argopreneurs offers a 2 day transformation boot camp that can help you create a culture of lifelong learning. Our team of experts will study your situation and carefully guide you through best practices in corporate strategy, innovation, and leadership. Get in touch immediately for a consultation.

About the author

Stefan Beiten

stefan beiten portrait

Stefan Beiten is a lawyer, international entrepreneur, and investor from Berlin. With more than 20 years of experience, Stefan is an expert in building, scaling and managing successful businesses.