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