The importance of continuous learning for innovation, progression and survival

‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever’ is a famous quote from Gandhi and is as relevant today as it was when it was first said. Disruptive technologies, changing workplaces, changing political environments and volatile economic climates mean that adaptability is a key skill in the workplace today. Information and knowledge professionals are no stranger to this, indeed for more than 20 years, it has been an important survival skill in the sector. Part of being adaptable is the drive to always be open to learning through looking at new ways of working, being innovative and staying relevant in a constantly changing environment. Those organizations that realize the value and importance of continuous learning also understand that making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process and work to create a blameless culture and even celebrate mistakes.

A well-known drug company, Eli Lilly, has been holding ‘failure parties’ for quite some time. This process enables those developing new drugs to review in detail and look at why they may have failed. As around 90% of experimental drugs fail at first, it is an important aspect of the development process to review and understand why they failed as it is equally important to have a blame-free culture in order to encourage innovative thinking and keep developing. Pfizer is famous for the initial failure of the drug Viagra in treating angina or severe heart pain, which now is used successfully for treating impotence. (https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB108249266648388235)

Albert Einstein once said that a person who has made no mistakes has never tried anything new.

The importance of allowing mistakes to be made as part of the learning and innovation process has more recently been highlighted with tech companies. Google who developed Google Wave platform and then cancelled it a little over a year later celebrated the process as a mistake to learn from. Its CEO has been quoted as saying ‘We try things. Remember, we celebrate our failures. This is a company where it’s absolutely okay to try something that’s very hard, have it not be successful, and take the learning from that’.

It was described at the time by TechCrunch writer MG Siegler as ‘ambitious as hell – which we love – but that also leaves it open to the possibility of it falling on its face. But that’s how great products are born’. (https://techcrunch.com/2010/08/10/google-wave-death/)

Accounting software company Intuit also hold failure parties as their co-founder Scott Cook says ‘every failure teaches something important that can be the seed for the next great idea’. The ‘Church of fail’ is a concept used at social media company NixonMcInnes where staff are actively asked to stand up and admit their mistakes and are congratulated for doing so. (https://www.happy.co.uk/8-companies-that-celebrate-mistakes/)

The important part of all mistakes that are made is the learning that is taken from them and applied to future projects. Recording them and storing them appropriately is paramount so that they can be found and reviewed in order to impart valuable lessons learned for future projects. It is particularly important as developing technologies are taking away menial tasks and the workplace becomes more and more knowledge intensive. Here is where the knowledge learning cycle and utilization of knowledge management techniques come into their own – learn before, during and after doing – to support the process of learning from previous experiences. Learn before by reviewing previous documentation and experiences, talk to peers and use internal networks to connect with people who have done aspects similar to your project in the past. Review internal and external documentation. Learning during by reviewing actions and processes as they take place – what happened, why did it happen, was it expected and so on…Learning after – final review of all actions and processes, record and store as much of the knowledge gained as possible utilizing knowledge transfer techniques to get to the implicit and explicit knowledge people hold.

An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2011/10/lean-knowledge-work) describes the process of evaluating and learning from processes and job tasks (good and bad) to eliminate waste and encourage the recording of explicit and implicit knowledge gained from the process and task in order to review and improve. This is a great illustration of the continuous learning process – constantly reviewing actions and processes to ensure that an organization is working at its most efficient. The idea of working in this way is also supporting an environment of creativity and innovation removing menial and repetitive tasks and processes from the individual allowing greater time for more knowledge intensive and focused work.

Credit: Sage Journals