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How continual learning in the workplace can foster efficiency

(OPINION) A typical business model is to run a tight ship with fear of inefficiencies, but cultivating learning can bring the best out of organizations

Left side of brain showing calculations and right side of brain with colorful paint, resembling creativity and learning.

Despite living in an ever-changing world, many people assume that learning, be it academic or vocational, more or less stops with the conclusion of formal education. Harvard Business Review’s John Hagel III posits that an exploratory mindset, rather than fear, is the most effective way to cultivate an ongoing interest in learning – something that, as Hagel reveals, is more beneficial to a modern world than business owners realize.

Inefficiency is perhaps the most common fear of any business owner, and for good reason- Efficiency is tied directly to profits. Because of this, the majority of industries focus on establishing protocols, training employees rigorously, and then holding them to their prescribed models of operation.

And while those models can be extremely restrictive, the fear of inefficiency prevents employers from fostering creativity and personal learning, prompting some to go so far as to penalize employees who color outside of the lines. Indeed, Hagel describes one such interaction affecting an acquaintance of his: “As someone who was excited about improving the company’s supply network, she created and began testing a new intake form to assess supplier reliability.”

“She was fired for not using the standard procurement forms,” he adds.

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But Hagel’s acquaintance wasn’t acting maliciously, at least by his description; she had simply identified a bottleneck and attempted to fix it using her own expertise.

We’ve written before about the importance of trusting one’s employees, implementing flexible procedures, and even welcoming constructive criticism in the interest of maintaining efficiency in a growing market. This is exactly the point that Hagel drives home – that holding employees to standards that are optimized for maximum efficiency discourages flexibility, thus culminating in eventual inefficiency.

“In a rapidly changing world with growing uncertainty, front-line workers find themselves consuming much more time and effort because they have to deviate from the tightly specified processes, so scalable efficiency is becoming increasingly inefficient,” says Hagel.

The irony of rigidly efficient practices inspiring inefficiency is clear, but the process of moving away from those structures is fraught with missteps and a general lack of understanding regarding what truly motivates employees to seek education on their own.

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating for a Montessori approach to work, one in which employees spend more time licking the walls and asking questions about the sky than they do attending to the tasks at hand. But employees who have been encouraged to explore alternative solutions and procedures, especially if they are supported through both their successes and failures, tend to be more ready to “scale” to increasingly changing demands in the work environment.

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Ultimately, those employees and their expertise will create a more efficient system than all of the best-thought-out procedures and guidelines one can muster.

“Cultivating the passion of the explorer enables innovative thinking in the organization at a whole new level,” Hagel summarizes. “But harnessing that opportunity requires us to move beyond fear and to find and cultivate the passion of the explorer that lies waiting to be discovered in all of us.”

It is both Hagel’s and our own hope that businesses will find ways to appeal to that same exploratory passion – if not because it is in the best interests of employees, then, at least, in the name of improved efficiency.

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Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Stefan Groenendal

    October 22, 2021 at 11:59 am

    Well written. John is very inspiring when it comes to organisational innovation. Please do write a bit more respectful on Montesori. Most of today’s corporate rebels all have Montesori type education is my finding.

  2. Pingback: Further - the hybrid B2B and B2C startup providing all-in-one learning

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