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Straw-man argument • Harold A. Poling

Prepared for Harold "Red" Poling, Ford Chair and CEO Emeritus
Delivered at Business-Higher Educ. Forum Meeting, Sydney, Australia

Good afternoon,

While I've been a strong advocate of education throughout my career, and devoted the past ten years on the Business-Higher Education Forum, I'm a little reluctant to speak about "the learning culture."

" Learning culture" is one of those designer management terms like "employee involvement, participatory management, empowerment, re- engineering and, the latest cliche in the making -- the "virtual corporation."

Coming up with one of these buzz words is a sure prescription for success in the management guru business. By the way, my favorite definition of a business guru is that he's a doctor who comes up with a cure for which there is no disease.

Giving an old leadership issue a new name doesn't make it new, any more than a face lift and a tuck makes you young. It's cosmetic.

Worse, these buzz words lead people to think this is a radical deviation from the path we've always been on. Which is a way of selling major surgery.

That's certainly is the case with "learning culture."

The very term is an unnecessary redundancy. Every culture is a "learning culture." Everyone learns from the first day on the job. Everyone looks to his or her supervisor as a role model...which is why the learning process in business is -- and has always been -- defined by your management team.

This makes the real issue not establishing some new concept called a "learning culture," but about the business of leading people...guiding them to learn the right things -- and unlearn the wrong things... to learn how to improve quality, products, processes, and profits.

All of the rhetoric about transforming our global corporations into open campuses, misses the essential point of what we're about.

Global business isn't about the accumulation of knowledge -- that's academia.

Business is about the application of knowledge. Application turns a learning culture into an earning culture.
And that hasn't changed. What has changed, of course, is that today there is so much more to learn and apply -- so much new enabling technology -- that can lead to more and better appliccations.

Ever since the advent of the computer, and satellite global communications, knowledge has been building on itself exponentially.

A couple of decades ago, when we hired an engineer, we used to get a measure of knowledge that would last for most of a career.

Today, a degree in engineering, or business, is like milk -- with an expiration date stamped right on the carton.

If our corporation doesn't pick up where the school left off soon, the technical knowledge we thought we'd hired will turn sour fast.

And that's true not just of the educated few, but for everyone.

As one educator put it, "Learning has changed from the shopping center to the fitness center" -- from something you buy and have, to a continuous, lifelong process.

And with this change has come an awareness that education today is too central to competitive success, and too potentially costly, to be left entirely to your education staff.

So every corporation needs a continuous education and training program. But what kind, and how much?
There is literally a world of new knowledge available to every employee today with access to a computer monitor. An open "learning culture" is like an open bar -- it invites excess.

As leaders, we've got to look hard at every aspect of this available knowledge... to ask ourselves what is applicable to our individual corporate needs.

Is it worth a penny or a pound?

Every decision to draw from an almost bottomless well of new knowledge must be made with a thorough understanding that there are costs -- costs in dollars, costs in human resources, and in a global market -- costs in competitive pricing, jobs, and profits.

Yet I continue to see corporate educational programs competing with tax-supported schools. I know one corporate-sponsored program, in fact, that includes courses on lawn mower repair and personal estate planning.

In my opinion, any manager who approved teaching lawn mower repair had better be selling lawn mowers.

The task of leadership in this new knowledge era -- as in every era -- is to help your organization avoid imittating the grasshopper. The grasshopper is hell on distance, but lousy on direction.

Leadership's job is to provide direction.

So how do we define the objectives of our continuing education efforts? Communicate the message? Measure the outcomes?

I believe we should start with senior management's evaluation of what is important to the corporation. What are your core competencies? ... the core strengths you want to enhance?

Product quality, costs, employee skills...relations with customers, suppliers, and product outlets or dealers?

What core strengths lead to competitive advantage and must be kept in house, and which are better purchased elsewhere?

That's a more relevant question today, because the supplier community has developed into centers of expertise, full service resources.

Keeping the truly competitively-critical knowledge going in house, and building linked relationships with full-service suppliers is now the most common, and most cost-competitive, way to go.

Even strategic planning should enter into defining your learning objectives, since learning should be aimed not at where you are, but where your corporate vision will take you.

Let me give you an example from my own experience.

One of Ford's strategic objectives a decade ago was to enter joint ventures, particularly in Asia and Japan.
Part of Japan's success, in fact, was their adroit use of joint ventures. Yet the Ford executives assigned to developing joint ventures were coming up empty.

The problem was understanding Asian cultures -- especially Japan where the word for "yes" also means "maybe" and may just as likely mean we're being polite.

So we created a three-day seminar for all executives in which we brought in outside experts who gave our people a quick course in Japanese culture.

After that course, our joint venture strategy started working overtime.

Find a need and train to it, sounds like a simple enough philosophy. And it is....until you look at the full scope of competitive needs.

At Ford, for example, we decided to prioritize major new areas of technical concern that impacted our future.

In technology alone, there were 5,138 different technologies of specific concern, each with its own evolving body of knowledge.

That's a humongous list, yet, if ignored, any one of them could pop up like a teenager's zit the night before the prom. It could ruin your day.

So the task of defining direction for your learning curriculum becomes a formidable one.

The first step to defining education and training is clarifying your leadership priorities, in all their complexity.

The second is defining measures to see if you're actually getting what you're paying for.

Here, I'd add a word of caution. There are academic measures that help you find out what your people are learning.

But this isn't academia. What you want to ultimately measure is actual change in behavior, in the obtainment of your goals. Training that brings about no change is as useless as a parachute that opens on the first bounce.

So make sure your leadership, not your educational specialists, define results measures. Define your goals, link them to learning, and measure outcomes against them.

It doesn't sound complicated, does it?

It really isn't. Personally, I've always liked the way Jack Walch of G.E. puts it. Jack says: "This isn't rocket science. Business is simple. It's very simple. People who try to make it complex get themselves all wound around."

Yet there is one aspect to all of this that, while not complicated, is exceedingly difficult.

For it deals with that critical transition from accumulation of knowledge to actual application. It entails creating the kind of non-threatening and encouraging corporate environment where people are willing to apply what they learn.

It is impossible to develop a free-flowing competitive global organization with structured, inhibited people.
The situation reminds me of the invaluable lesson Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote of in his diary.

When Eisenhower went from being general of our military to President of the United States, he expected it would be a step up in absolute authority. Instead, he wrote: "Here I am sitting at this great big desk with all of these buttons -- but the buttons aren't connected to anyything. I have to get out from behind that desk and convince people."

Ultimately, developing a dynamic culture where people learn, and are committed to apply what they learn to the betterment of a company, comes down to leadership.

So I guess what I'm saying is that your leaders are your teachers.

And I believe we should make it clear in our organizations that the opportunity to lead comes with it the responsibility to teach.

Leadership is being the good teacher -- of not being someone to lean on, but someone who makes leaning unnecessary.

Leadership and training have the same goal -- to take people from where they now are to where they have never been before.

In summary, that's all I have to say about establishing a "learning culture." It's not rocket science. It's not brain surgery. But it is a vital function of leadership. That isn't accomplished with buzz words, or with flavor-of-the-month programs.

Yet it can happen when leaders take their educational role to heart...when we define the direction, measures the pace, call the cadence, and walk the distance.

Personally, I think the answer is to elevate the function of teacher and trainer to the highest status in our organizations, and in our society, for that matter.

George Bernard Shaw set back education with his widely quoted comment -- "Those who can, do. And those who cannot do, teach."

I believe we have to rewrite Mr. Shaw, to say: "Those who can do, can do more by teaching."

If our leadership can do that, then we can transform learning cultures into earning cultures.

Thank you,

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