Most of us go through life knowing that we’re expected to learn from our mistakes and improve. Those who are more conscientious about learning and personal improvement usually reap greater rewards.
It might seem logical that companies behave in the same way. Think again. Most corporations have poor records for learning and improvement. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, because companies are rewarded on the basis of their performance.
The uncomfortable truth is that many companies learn only after a severe setback. But even a catastrophe sometimes isn’t enough. Frequently, the powerful instinct to deny mistakes, or swing into “damage control” mode, overwhelms any willingness to admit error and learn. Even when there is learning, it tends to be ad hoc. Once fires have been put out, learning is rarely carried forward -- and almost never assimilated into the knowledge cortex of the company as a whole.
There are exceptions, of course. It was encouraging to read in The Wall Street Journal that General Electric recently initiated a corporate learning exercise to encourage executives to grasp the lessons of the recession and promote “more flexible ways to manage.”
The WSJ described the GE learning exercise this way: “Executives discuss their business units in small groups, looking at how to prepare for crises, and do exercises to bolster listening skills and humility.”
That’s a start. But corporate learning entails much more than crisis management and classroom exercises. As with individuals, corporate learning should be a continuous process inscribed into a company’s operational DNA.
Web 2.0 tools have given companies techniques to integrate learning. In my research, I’ve found that Web 2.0 tools can facilitate learning, both internally and externally, in three primary ways.
First, Web 2.0 collaborative tools like wikis decentralize information-sharing and assign status on the basis of genuine expertise and knowledge. In most corporations, employees are invited to meetings thanks to their title or position within a vertical hierarchy -- not necessarily because they possess genuine knowledge or expertise. Not only does this undermine optimal decision-making, it also frustrates organizational learning by excluding valuable inputs. Web 2.0 collaborative tools resolve this by encouraging open and inclusive participation that seeks, and finds, expertise and knowledge wherever it is located.
Second, Web 2.0 tools promote open and transparent collaboration that can be archived and made accessible. This is markedly different from traditional methods of information-sharing -- meetings, files, and phone calls -- which are closed, opaque, and difficult to render accessible over time. The virtue of wiki-based collaboration is that, because information is transparent and accessible over time, institutional knowledge can be transferred from one generation to the next. Web 2.0 collaboration thus transforms information into institutional learning. Knowledge doesn’t evaporate when key executives leave the building.
Third, Web 2.0 tools not only make learning collective, but also continuous through constant engagement. Most companies spend large sums of money on surveys and market data to learn what consumers think about them. But this knowledge is usually an ad hoc snapshot. Continuous learning allows companies to respond quickly -- for example, in product development or recruitment -- to new information inputs. A good example of this is the increasing use of Twitter for customer relations management and social sentiment mining. The implications for Business Intelligence and Human Resources, needless to say, are powerful.
In sum, Web 2.0 tools decentralize information-sharing to optimize expertise inputs; make information transparent and accessible to facilitate institutional learning over time; and allow companies to make learning continuous through constant engagement with their employees, partners, and customers.
True, learning doesn’t produce fast results that can be measured in the short-term. But companies must understand that learning -- even from failure -- makes an organization more open to change and improvement.
— Matthew Fraser is a Web 2.0 strategist, an adjunct professor at the American University of Paris, and senior fellow at INSEAD.