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For CEO's: How to Model Self-Directed Learning for Your Organization

Copyright 2000, by Dave Kahle.

    The most successful corporation of the 90's will be something called a learning organization.
    Fortune Magazine
The 1990's are without a doubt one of the most turbulent times American business people have ever seen. And the force causing the greatest turbulence is rapid, unrelenting change. Consider this. In 1900, the total amount of knowledge that mankind had was doubling about every 500 years. Today, it doubles every two years. And the pace continues to increase. One futurist predicts that soon high school seniors will have to absorb more information in their senior year alone than their grandparents did in their entire lifetime.

That incredibly rapid pace of new knowledge drives the forces of change at an unprecedented rate. It's almost as if a malevolent spirit were stalking our economy, rendering all the wisdom of the past useless, and casting a spell of confusion and uncertainty over the land.

That means that it is likely that the conclusions, paradigms and core beliefs upon which we based our decisions as recently as two years ago are likely to be obsolete today.

Howard Stein said, "All I know is, things don't work like they used to work. So don't plan on doing anything based on the past."

The consequences of failing to deal adequately with rapid change are chronicled on the pages of the business press weekly. Sears laying off 50,000 and IBM 70,000 are just the most visible of the national victims. At a more personal level, we all know local companies and individuals who are struggling to survive in the face of rapid change. Maybe you're one of them.

I routinely see the unfortunate consequences of lightening fast change in my consulting practice. At almost every seminar I present, someone comes up to explain that his business was solid until a year or two ago. But things have changed so rapidly since then he doesn't know what to do.

Our knee jerk reaction to these blitzkrieg conditions s often to develop a new plan, a quick solution, a new product or a revised strategy. Unfortunately, while they may appropriate short-term responses, these are all band-aid answers.

In our rapidly changing economy, every solution must be seen as a temporary fix which will grow obsolete shortly after it's implemented. Today's latest Japanese management technique will shortly become tomorrow's cliche. Our most advanced new product will quickly become passe' relative to our competitors' rapid responses. And today's daring strategic initiatives will wither in the heat generated by the blistering pace of change.

Faced with a world where every solution is short-term, our wisest response is to master a process that allows us to continually create new solutions -- solutions based on the future, not the past. It will not be our powerful solutions that will preserve us. Rather, our security and prosperity will grow out of our ability to effectively master a process of continually creating new solutions.

I call that process self-directed learning. By "learning," I don't mean just the acquisition of new information, although that is a necessary prerequisite. Rather, I mean the kind of "learning" that requires us first to process new information into an ever evolving understanding of our world, and then to change our behavior on the basis of that new understanding. Learning without behavior change is impotent.

Self-directed learning, then, is the fundamental skill necessary for individuals and organizations to survive and prosper in our turbulent times.
    Those organizations who successfully transform themselves into learning organizations -- organizations which continually process new information and change their behavior on that basis of that information -- will be tomorrow's winners.
The challenge for every CEO is, then, to transform his/her organization into a learning organization.

And the question is how to do that. How is the CEO to embark on a program of continuous, self-directed learning? And, how is he/she to instill that discipline in his/her organization?

One partial approach is to first become a model of self-directed learning by taking part in a learning group composed of his/her peers.

These programs go by different names: Both the Holland and the Grand Rapids Area Chambers of Commerce sponsor groups called "CEO Roundtables," private groups go by names like "The Executive Committee," or our own "Menta-Morphosis Groups."

They are organized and administered by Chambers of Commerce, private companies and industry associations. The agendas differ in their focus and length. Some use outside consultants as experts, others rely only on the experience of the group members. Some last only a couple hours a month, while others meet for an entire day.

Regardless of the differences, they all offer the CEO an opportunity to learn in a unique environment comprised of supportive peers. Groups typically are made up exclusively of CEOs and provide small group interaction as six to twelve members discuss issues that are important to them.

Learning occurs in several different ways. First, the participants often discover new ideas from each other. For example, in one meeting, a participant mentioned a procedure his company had developed for reducing receiving errors. As he shared his process, a stunned silence fell over the rest of the group. His idea was incredibly effective and common sense. But no one else was doing it. We were all thinking the same thing: "Why didn't I think of that!" I suspect that the receiving procedures for every one of the member companies have since been changed as a result.

Another type of learning takes place when a member's assumptions or procedures are questioned and challenged by other group members. There's nothing like another CEO asking you, "Why are you doing that?" and then stumbling for words as you discover you're unable to defend some hallowed practice or sacred assumption. That painful moment can stimulate quality thinking and significant behavior change.

And then there is the learning that occurs as participants see their perspectives broaden as a result of deep and honest dialogue with a diverse group of peers who share similar motivations and challenges. While it is more difficult to attribute specific behavior change to this kind of learning, it is none the less a valuable, enriching experience.

The benefits of these learning groups to the participants are powerful. Participants remark about the practical, proven ideas that often come out of a group meeting. I recall, for example, a discussion of "transportation" in one of the groups I facilitate. One of the members described a program he had been offered by a freight company. Since it was better than any the other members had, they made arrangements to contact that vendor. One of the participants remarked that the savings from implementing that one idea more than paid for the annual fee.

Probably one of the greatest intangible benefits has to do with the support and "fellowship" of the group. Being a CEO is one of the world's loneliest jobs. The learning group provides an opportunity to talk with people who understand. It may be the only place a CEO can really relax.

One of the participants in our "Menta-Morphosis" group summed it up best when he said to the group at the end of particularly intense meeting, "I just want to thank you for allowing me to be a part of this. As a second generation owner, I've never had anyone I could talk to like I can this group."

Additionally, most groups are characterized by a sense of detached objectivity that the CEO rarely encounters anywhere else. Group members have no political agendas to color their contributions, nor vested interest in any of the solutions offered. A learning group may be the only place a CEO can hear refreshingly objective critiques of his/her ideas.

The list of benefits can go on. But central to all of them is the quantity and quality of learning that takes place among the participants in them. Participants regularly confront ideas and perspectives different than their own, and are challenged to change their personal and organizational behavior.

The CEO who commits to sharing and being a part of a learning group puts himself into a situation where he/she will grow. He enters into a process designed to facilitate effective self-directed learning.

Just as importantly, he also creates a model for his organization. He begins to emphasize and implement the kinds of attitudes and processes that will be necessary throughout his organization if it is to become a learning organization. He models the kind of open-minded receptiveness to other ideas and willingness to change behavior that is the mark of those organizations who will prosper in the turbulent 90s.

Dave Kahle offers a variety of resources that can help your business stay competitive in changing times. To learn you can reach Dave by phone at 800-331-1287 or send him an email request.

Transforming Your Sales Force for the 21st Century
Transforming Your Sales Force for the 21st Century
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Distribution companies, by their nature, should be sales-oriented companies. But, most distributors don't do sales very well. That's the premise behind this new book.

The book, written for sales managers and executives in the distribution industry, provides a blue print for executives to transform their sales forces into highly directable, effective, focused performers.

The book begins with an analysis of current conditions that pressure the distributor to revise the way he/she thinks about his sales force. Kahle then paints a picture of the distributor sales force of the future. The sales force will be:
  1. more specialized
  2. more directable
  3. more flexible
  4. more professional
  5. more productive.
His advice begins with "See it as a system," a concept that is based on one of the key principles for the book, "When you change the structure, you change the behavior of the people who work within that structure."
 
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