ATD Blog

Learning as a Competitive Strategy

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In the archives of Sony is a little known anecdote, which was a favorite story often told by the late Malcolm Knowles, father of adult learning.

Sony was founded in 1946 by Masaru Ibuka as a small electronics shop in a bomb-damaged department store building in Tokyo. The company had $530 in capital and a total of eight employees. The radios they manufactured were, like most around the world, manufactured with vacuum tubes.

The transistor was invented in the early 1950s. Most electronics makers knew the invention would revolutionize their industry. All knew it would take time to retrofit factories to incorporate the new technology. While most manufacturers focused on the technology, Sony focused on the new knowledge required of employees. They began training employees in an array of topics—many of which were unrelated to engineering, including flower arranging, painting, and auto mechanics.

When transistor applications were introduced, Sony’s employees—already in the habit of learning—were able to learn faster than competitive organizations. And, they quickly gained worldwide dominance in electronics. While many factors contributed to their success, CEO Ibuka attributed much to learning. “We knew learning was a skill,” Ibuka said in an interview. “The more employees learned, the better learner they became. We knew continuous learning would make them more adaptive to new ways of manufacturing.”

“Your ability to learn faster than your competition is your only sustainable competitive advantage,” wrote Arie de Gues in his book, The Living Company, which examined the features of companies lasting longer than 200 years. His quote is not about the ease of reverse engineering or simplicity of copying practices; it is about the impact that continuous learning has on an organization’s competitiveness.

Wise Organizations Have Elevated the Traditional Training Director Role to the C-Suite

Along with the COO, CIO, and all the other “Cs” and “Os,” the chief learning officer now sits on mahogany row. The symbolism is that learning is not just a facet of human resources, but a central part of how an organization views effective change management. Enlightened organizations view learning not simply as a C-level job, but as an integral part of every leader’s mantle. No CEO would delegate an organization’s focus on customers solely to the CCO any more than concerns for all matters financial would be left to the CFO.


Benefits of Organized Learning Are Widely Known

Learning is a tool to gain and retain talent, a morale improver, an instrument for team building, and a way to heighten production—the path to increased profits and enhanced growth. But building on the philosophy undergirding the de Gues quote, learning is predominately the means for competitive advantage...and ultimately survival.

Folksinger Bob Dylan sang “He who is not busy being born is busy dying.” While Dylan directed his lyrics at people and the need for change, the sentiment applies to organizations. Without the pursuit of learning hardwired into its DNA, the organization lacks the capacity to adjust, renew, and progress. Without the heart of a learner woven into the organization’s culture, employees miss the nuances of “my iceberg is melting” (à la Kotter) or “my cheese has been moved” (à la Johnson). Without the curiosity of a learner, the organization risks simply herding sheep and babysitting sleepwalkers,

Top Leaders Must Be First and Foremost Active and Zealous Learners


Rosebeth Moss Kantor, professor at Harvard Business School, says: “Leaders are more powerful role models when they learn than when they teach.” It is not about being a proponent of learning, but rather a practitioner. When leaders model that learning is a priority it signals the organization is adaptable.

When former CEO Jack Welch lead the transformation of General Electric, he turned to his CLO, Noel Tichy, to position their Corporate Learning Center as the venue for their infamous “work-out” session (their term for action learning). Welch was not just an advocate, he served on the faculty. Noel Tichy would later write in his book, Crotonville: A Staging Ground for Corporate Revolution: “Radically altering the genetic code of a large successful corporation requires revolutionary action. The work-out sessions served as a tonic in achieving that end.”

Growing Learning

Archeologists excavating the pyramids discovered wheat seeds that dated back to around 2500 B.C. As in the tradition of antiquity, the seeds were there for the dead Pharaoh to eat if he became hungry. The find was important because it would enable scientists to determine what variety of wheat was in use in the ancient world and could be invaluable for engineering new types of wheat. Out of curiosity the scientists planted the 4500 year old wheat seed in fertile soil and an amazing thing happened. The wheat seeds grew! The promise that senior leaders make to their stakeholders is that in the end... “their seeds will grow!”

Chip R. Bell is a senior consultant with the Chip Bell Group and the author of several best-selling books. His consulting firm has worked with many Fortune 100 companies helping them create an innovation-driven culture. His newest book is the international best-selling Wired and Dangerous. His next book due in bookstores Spring, 2013 is Managers as Mentors 3rd edition co-authored with Marshall Goldsmith. He is a past president of the Charlotte Area ASTD chapter. He can be reached at

About the Author

Chip R. Bell is a senior consultant with the Chip Bell Group and author of several bestselling books, including Take Their Breath Away with John R. Patterson. His newest book, with Marshall Goldsmith, is Managers as Mentors and will be in bookstores in May 2013. His consulting firm has worked with many Fortune 100 companies helping them create an innovation-driven culture. He is a past president of the Charlotte Area ASTD chapter. He can be reached at

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