Learning can be a hard sell in many organizations. As HR consultants Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Josh Bersin wrote in an HBR article about establishing a team learning culture, “Performance is highest when we are not learning.” There is the cost, the time, and the learning curve, just to mention three objections that can be difficult to overcome. And, of course, learning is only one factor that leads to success. While essential, learning is rarely sufficient.

The challenge is to recognize opportunities for learning whether that is specific skills or broader programs. A primary way of doing that is to use the business model for guidance. Of course these days the COVID-19 pandemic is stressing every organization’s systems and forcing re-examination of many business models. This leads to opportunity for efforts that can:

  • Clarify, where that is needed
  • Help build innovation, where that is appropriate
  • Solidify and improve current practice, where that is appropriate.

There will be those who will romanticize learning and play on the belief that learning in and of itself is good, even if the application will be some time in the future—even if by then, what was “learned” is mostly forgotten. Some descriptions of learning culture, for example, can be quite appealing while at the same time being a bit beside the point. It is possible to agree that learning is good and then focus primarily on learning that helps achieve specific organization goals per the business plan. That, after all, is more likely to be funded and supported.

In the current circumstances, no one knows what shape things will take. Obviously, this is a time for innovation but this is also a time to make sure the core processes that pay the bills are solid. In other words, there is need for a balance between innovation and stability. Learning can play a role in both as the business plan is tested and adjusted.

As for innovation, there is a basic structure that has remained essentially the same for years. You could call it double loop learning. Create a feedback loop in which you review the results of your actions—what worked well, what needs to work better. Then make appropriate changes and try again. There have been various models and approaches over the years that capture that process and build on it their own way: Plan Do Check Act, After Action Reviews, OKRs, Agile.

Stability means making sure that those who do the core work have kept current, as well as helping key stakeholders to develop processes to determine if anything needs to change with the core work.

Interestingly, in many jobs there is a similar balance between stability (things that remain largely the same because it is more efficient) and innovation (areas where an employee has discretion). Some elements of jobs do not change or change much. It’s simply more efficient—airline pilots do many of the same things the same way every time. Grocery store clerks stack shelves the same way every time, etc. But pilots practice for when they must solve problems they do not encounter regularly. And some grocery store workers also design merchandise displays and/or are available to answer customer questions about products.

The need for innovation can both require learning—so that the process is done well—and drive learning—so that the organization will adapt to changing needs. Looking to the past, it is easy to find examples of how organizations significantly changed their business model and utilized learning (among other things) to successfully implement change.

Two examples

1. In her book, The Good Jobs Strategy, Zeynep Ton describes a credit union, Affinity Plus, that used a call center for dealing with customers. Initially efficiency was the top priority. Employees were encouraged to complete calls as quickly as possible to meet the target average wait time of 1.41 minutes. The bank shifted the primary goal of the interaction to satisfying the customer. Call center employees were empowered to make decisions on product pricing, general services, and even loan structuring.

To make this successful, employees needed to learn more about the various tasks and how to evaluate different situations and make good decisions. Because call center employees were taking longer on the phone, all employees were cross-trained so that they could pick up any overflow. A change in the business model led to changes in learning opportunities.

2. In another case, employees went from having no discretion (except to stop the line) to having responsibility for working with others to perform a root cause analysis and solve a complex problem. They learned how to do effective problem solving. And they also learned from the results of their problem solving efforts.

Neither Toyota nor Affinity Plus was doing a learning intervention. But learning was essential for successfully implementing the change in their business models. Many companies avoid these sorts of changes. They are high risk, complex, and expensive. Obviously, things worked out well. But they didn’t have to.

When you use the business model to help identify where learning would be helpful, you find organizations that are not fertile ground for learning. McDonald’s is an example. Employees have little discretion. If they did, product quality would differ from one location to another, which does not fit the business model. Instead McDonald’s has developed procedures that guarantee consistency across the chain. Obviously, the need for social distancing and other similar actions require some changes. Still, the employee’s job is to learn and follow the procedures. This makes for a smooth operation, especially given the high turnover.

Summing up

An organization’s business model is a useful tool for identifying critical areas for learning. The current pandemic is stressing the business models and shining a light on areas where learning can help shore up weaknesses and build new strengths. Learning by itself won’t solve much. But by collaborating with the business and working to provide information and processes that help move everything forward, there can be many opportunities for learning.