Rapid change is the distinguishing characteristic of the new millennium. Add that to growing competition, increasing complexity, consolidations at every level, and increasing demands from customers, and you have the recipe for a business climate that will turn anyone¿s hair gray.

This puts great pressure on organizations to change themselves. Not only must the organization as a whole change, but the individuals within each organization must themselves change, learn, and grow more rapidly than at any time in the past.

Software, customers, products, bosses, coworkers, strategies, policies, and procedures will change. If they don¿t, your organization is in danger of becoming a dinosaur ¿ wonderfully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.

The ability for an organization and its people to change in response to the changing world around them may be the ultimate success skill for the Information Age.

A few years ago, it was good enough to allow learning and change to happen in a hit-or-miss fashion. Not so today. If your organization and its employees are going to change as rapidly as the business environment, they are going to have to get serious, dedicated, and systematic about those changes.

That means you must organize and manage an effort to stimulate and support positive, personal change. In other words, companies like yours need to develop the capability to change rapidly.

Every organization has a unique set of capabilities. While some of those are necessary for any successful business, others are unique to that company. For example, every business must be capable of accounting for its money, generating sales, and providing the goods or services its customers want.

However, the real strength of the business comes from those capabilities that differentiate it from its competitors.

One way to prepare your organization for rapid change is to develop a unique and new capability: ¿active learning.¿

Active Learning Defined

Active learning is the process of acquiring new information and/or gaining new insights, and then changing behavior as a result. It¿s what happens when you go to a seminar or conference, gain several new ideas, and come back and implement them in your organization.

Active learning takes place at a number of different levels within an organization, but they all depend on an individual employee changing how s/he behaves.

The employee who is adept at active learning regularly absorbs new information and acts in different ways as a result. It¿s the same process you engage in when you attend a seminar, except that it¿s required of every one of your employees, not just you.

Let¿s say you upgraded your computer software to the most recent version. Now, every employee who works with that software must take in new information (the changes in the software) and change his/her behavior to correspond with the new information (they must use the software). This learning process requires that they do something differently than they did before.

There is a fundamental and powerful concept underneath the surface of this simple example: Learning to use this software upgrade is not a one-time event. There will be other upgrades, and your employees will have to learn again and again.

One of my clients tells every new hire, ¿The only thing I can guarantee you is that you won¿t be doing the job you¿re hired to do a year from now. Either the job will have changed in such a way as to be significantly different, or you will have grown to take on new responsibilities.¿

Hire well, and eventually you¿ll evolve into a learning organization. In the meantime, you must work with the employees you have. Unfortunately, not all of them are ¿change-friendly.¿ Many were hired in slower times, and may view change as a threat to their positions and status. Some may resent every attempt to get them to do something differently.

While it¿s true that everyone can learn, it is just as true that not everyone can learn equally quickly and effectively. This ability is one of the most powerful capabilities of organizations that plan to succeed.

Learning in the Information Age

We have seen the economic environment change dramatically in the last few years. Every futurist I¿ve read or listened to has predicted that the rate of change will only continue to accelerate in the near future.

If you have witnessed a great deal of change in your business environment, you probably haven¿t seen anything yet. The ability to change your organization and all the individuals within it will become ever more important. Those organizations that excel at learning will have a strategic advantage over those which, like the dinosaurs, are slower to change.

Not only is the institutionalized competency of active learning a strategic imperative, it is also a powerful fringe benefit for your employees. One of the things that attracts employees to an organization is their perception that the organization is headed for success and is willing to invest in its employees along the way.

Helping your employees gain new skills and/or deepen their current capabilities is a powerful way to show your commitment to the future and your investment in your employees.

Creating this learning capability within your organization and instilling the capability at every level in the organization provides a double benefit: It¿s a strategic advantage as well as a fringe benefit.

How to Begin

Here are four steps to start the transformation.

1. Develop a compelling vision for the company¿s future and show your employees how they can be a part of it.

By describing a future that is different from today¿s, you provide a reason for every individual to grow: The organization needs them to become something better than they are now. The difference between your vision for the future and your current situation is clearly an opportunity for the different pieces of the business to grow and expand.

One of the core principles upon which active learning is based is this: Adults don¿t learn unless they want to eliminate some pain or achieve some gain. As long as everyone is content with the status quo, there can be no serious growth. Your job, if you¿re going to build this capability of active learning, is first to instill some discontent.

The more challenging and exciting is that vision, the more likely it is that individuals will want to hop on board and be motivated to change. Here¿s a great example. Steve Case, ceo of America Online, has been quoted as espousing this vision: ¿We want to be the most valuable and respected company on earth.¿

How¿d you like to be a part of that organization? That¿ll quicken your pulse.

2. It is not enough merely to instill the vision; you must also enable the learning. You must invest time and money in the learning process.

That can mean something as a simple as creating a budget item for ¿¿training and learning¿ and allocating money for this process. It can also mean creating policies that reimburse employees for job-related learning. It can mean investing in outside trainers, classes, courses, and continuous growth programs. It can also mean policies that allow for released time for seminars, retreats, and training programs.

3. Begin to instill this capability in your organization by mandating personal growth.

Write into every job description a phrase stating that every employee is expected to continually grow in their capabilities to do this job better, as well as to expand their knowledge of other jobs within the organization.

Make learning a strategic initiative. Manage it like you would any other strategic issue. Give it lots of conversation. Mention it in newsletters and memos. Write it up in the annual report. Talk about it at employee meetings. Create learning lists for individuals and small groups.

Let everyone know from the top to the bottom that continuous personal improvement is a necessary part of everyone¿s employment in your organization. Let them know that coasting along with last year¿s knowledge and last year¿s capabilities is no longer acceptable.

4. Be a model of the kind of behavior you expect everyone within your organization to mimic.

Let people see you learning and growing. Let them see you invest in your own development. Let them see you go to seminars, participate in ceo roundtable groups, read books and periodicals, and go to training courses.

Implement these four strategies, and you¿ll begin to instill the number-one competency for success in the Information Age into your company: You¿ll begin to turn your organization into a learning company.

Kahle is a consultant and trainer who serves on the editorial advisory boards of two Bureau of Business Practice newsletters, ¿Strategic Sales Management,¿ and ¿Professional Selling.¿ Contact him at info@davekahle.com (e-mail).

Sidebar: Active Learning: A Quiz

Complete this quick assessment to determine how well your organization has embraced active learning. Answer yes or no to each question.

Do you have a budget for training-learning?

Is the budgeted amount greater than 3% of payroll?

Do all employees know that they are expected to continually improve their capabilities?

Are employees regularly evaluated on how well they are learning and gaining new skills?

Does your organization have a compelling vision of what it could become?

Are all your employees aware of that vision?

Does each employee understand how s/he can contribute to attaining that vision?

Does each employee understand the benefit to them for moving the company toward that vision?

Do you encourage employees to expand their skills via reimbursement or released-time programs?

Do you model the kind of continuous personal growth that you expect of them?

Scoring: If you answered yes nine or 10 times, you are in great shape. Seven or eight times, you are well on your way. Focus on adding the missing pieces.

Five or six times, you are off to a good start but you need to spend more time moving your organization toward active learning.

Under five times, you are lagging behind. It¿s time to get serious about building this competency into your organization.

¿ Dave Kahle

About Dave Kahle, The Growth Coach: Dave Kahle is a consultant and trainer who helps his clients increase their sales and improve their sales productivity. Dave has trained thousands of salespeople to be more successful in the Information Age economy. He's the author of over 200 articles and three books. The Six-Hat Salesperson, was recently released by AMACOM.

For more information, or to contact the author, contact The DaCo Corporation, 15 Ionia SW, Suite 220, Grand Rapids, MI 49503; phone 1-800-331-1287; fax 1-616-451-9412; Info@davekahle.com; www.davekahle.com

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