[Note – this piece was originally published in May 2005. The current graduation season got me to thinking about what and why we learn – and I think there’s still great relevance in this one from the archive].
When I was kid, the entire collection of everything I needed to know was contained in a 32-volume set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. History, science, language, art – it was all there. And every year, we’d receive an annual volume to update the knowledge base with new things we needed to know. The extent of society’s knowledge about itself expanded at the pace of one large encyclopedia volume per year.
Things have changed. You don’t need me to tell you the pace has picked up a bit since then. Our accumulated knowledge expands at a rate none of us can maintain. Today’s expert in a certain field, can easily become tomorrow’s relic; a curious museum piece, put out to pasture through no fault of their own, other than falling a step behind and failing to be relevant.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this recently as my daughter prepares to start college. I am looking for nuggets of wisdom related to what major would best prepare her for the future in a world that is growing exceedingly more competitive and flat. What should she learn? What courses would serve her best?
New York Times columnist and author Tom Friedman writes:

    “The most important thing you can learn in this era of heightened global competition is how to learn. Being good at “learning to learn,” as President Bill Brody of Johns Hopkins put it, will be an enormous asset in an era of rapid change and innovation.”

The best advice I can give my daughter will be – “Regardless of your major, develop the ability to learn new things and never lose your curiosity for the future.”
Substitute “major” with the words “core competency” and this lesson can relate to your company.
In a global environment that is growing exponentially more competitive with increasingly fewer boundaries, your organization’s core competencies are less relevant than your ability to adopt new ideas and metamorphosize into something different.

  • UPS was a top-notch overnight delivery system – until it joined forces with Mail Boxes Etc and became a top-notch overnight delivery system with convenient retail drop-off locations all over the country.
  • Ditto for the marriage of FedEx and Kinko’s. They haven’t changed what they do, but they have learned a new way they do it.
  • I received a catalog in the US MAIL last week from Amazon.com. The Internet shopping powerhouse that forced many traditional catalog merchandizers to recreate themselves is changing the rules – again – by sending a printed catalog to it’s on-line customers.
  • Business Week reported on May 12, 2005 that Kodak – the world’s leading photographic film supplier – was the number one seller of digital cameras in the US. Talk about learning new things.

Nothing stands still. Rules change, loyalties shift, technology goes obsolete, markets dry up and new markets come from nowhere. Holding tight to yesterday’s core competence can paralyze you.

Don’t be fooled. There are too many companies who THINK they are learning new things when they are actually reading old volumes of the encyclopedia; rehashing old ideas and, as we used to say in Wyoming, “putting lipstick on a pig.”
It’s time for serious evaluation:

  1. Is there someone on your staff who has the regular assignment of looking for new ideas? Do they have the authority to question the status quo?
  2. Does your corporate culture honor people who come in with wild and crazy ideas?
  3. Does the company reward people who try new things – without regard to failure or success?
  4. Do you have established relationships with people outside the company who can bring in fresh ideas and offer third opinions? Every organization should have someone like me on retainer. Someone who is not bound by company politics or the tyranny of the urgent.
  5. How often do you invite “guest lecturers” to come in and teach your team something new?
  6. When was the last time you shuffled your organizational chart?
  7. When was the last time you dumped an entire product line?
  8. When was the last time you considered buying or forming an alliance with a competitor?

If I’ve provoked some thoughts and you’d like someone to bounce an idea off, drop me an email or give me a call. I’ve never met a new idea I didn’t like, at least for a few minutes.
Until next month –
Jim Seybert