“The rate at which organisations learn may become [their] only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990)

The notion of collaborative organisational learning may not yet be familiar, but when it becomes common currency, it will change forever the competitive dynamic of the digitising marketplace and transform the competences of the companies into which shareholders plough their investments.  

When Peter Senge wrote the prophetic words above, and in the margin, the vast majority of us didn’t yet have any awareness of, or access to, the internet.

Yet, all readers here now depend on it, directly or indirectly, in ways we could not have forecast. And now, no business has any excuse but to employ it in getting busy on Senge’s central assertion.

Commercially, we’ve already seen its tip-of-the-iceberg disruptive effects on established distribution channels in the music industry (Napster, Apple), in media (Google and Facebook), in retail (Amazon), on taxis (Uber) and in the hotel industry (Airbnb).

Yet, the internet is still only young, and as its reach continues to expand, some characterise its rising tide of pervasive digitisation as a “third industrial revolution.”

Investors will come to understand that in the hands of a leaner, hungrier rival, the end of their investment is little more than an act of dangerous competitive imagination away.

And, as every business is forced to transform itself digitally by rival and even unseen competitor activity in its own industry, the need to adapt is ubiquitous and unprecedented.

As a consequence of this pressure, the ability to drive organisation-wide learning will likely become the guiding competency of all management teams, wherever they are and in whichever industry they trade.

As businesses simply can’t survive in this emerging environment without engaging all of the intelligence to which they have access, the capacity to learn as teams is most likely the only thing that can keep them out of trouble, or at least a best bet.

The great knowledge machine is still under-used

For over 20 years, we’ve had business access to the internet, the greatest knowledge machine ever invented for the pooling and sharing of human experience to create insight, learning, new knowledge and wisdom.

Still, currently, while in modern workplace social technologies we also have the best tools ever developed for capturing and disseminating learning across an organisation, in most, they aren’t being used widely enough.

Most businesses don’t yet appear to have developed either an appetite or a recipe for engaging them in meaningful collaboration.

But this will change, not least because those who would invest in those businesses will demand they find that hunger to put them to work to learn.

Investors will come to understand that in the hands of a leaner, hungrier rival, the end of their investment is little more than an act of dangerous competitive imagination away.

That event is simply waiting to be brought into reality by teams of smart individuals working together collaboratively to focus their collective rivalrous intellectual effort.

The deliberate transformation of most companies’ known competitors presents just as certain an existential threat waiting to drop on to many businesses if they fail to prepare for this inevitability, with their unwitting shareholders likely to bare the brunt.

Once awareness spreads of the potential of digitised collaborative organisational learning, and the cost of not exercising it, valuations of companies caught short by not reporting to shareholders on how they are organising their learning efforts will slide precipitously.

Worse for the directors concerned, a lot of investor wealth will just evaporate.

And in an age of vigilant social media, in Australia, those representatives of ASX-listed organisations who would try to pull the wool over investors’ eyes about the learning progress within their business will be exposed cruelly and with serious wealth-deflating consequences for the perpetrators.

Why do we need better organisational learning, and isn’t everyone already doing it anyway?

If you are an ordinary small-time investor, you may be shocked at the answer to the second part of the heading immediately above, because it is not an unequivocal yes.

The idea that organisations, rather than individuals, could learn together is still a mystery to many people, with even some who are  exceptionally digitally smart continuing to confuse it with workplace training.

For the purposes of this site, the critical difference is that training currently focuses on improving known skills of known, identified individuals in known roles.

It is about getting better at something with which they are already familiar.

And certainly, there is always scope for all organisations to lift their games in what they already know how to do.

It is those things that organisations don’t yet know how to do that are more challenging.

Organisational “learning” thus describes a new future for skills acquisition, and exercises undertaken in businesses trying to extend themselves by identifying and building new capabilities.

To begin with, it depicts the intellectual effort of drawing out from those across a workplace a better, 360-degree awareness and understanding of the present state of their operation.

That may sound easy, but in many it is neither obvious, nor visible.

By increasing their understanding of the context of their labours, effective organisational learning promotes the availability of a deeper well of intellectual resource, enabling possible futures to be extrapolated from what is known, detected and articulated.

It is a necessary catalyst for future change and growth.

Know thine enemy

Because the networked economy is still young, it will continue to change everything about the ways in which we work and the businesses we work in and, undoubtedly, as importantly, our awareness of those we must compete against.

As a consequence, all members of our future workforces will develop a heightened consciousness of what is changing around, and of the competitive forces acting on, their businesses, because that, increasingly, is what they will be trained to do.

Because the purpose of this is to drive better all-round readiness and defensibility, no matter how smart they may be, the overwhelming array of possible scenarios ensures this is more than the work of a single individual.

In the words of LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, “No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.”

Because new skills and insights will be invoked and valued, this “investigative learning” has the potential to change the capabilities of the organisation at its core.

In the future organisation, the people and the new hires look different

In a well-managed, future-oriented learning organisation, people will be attracted, retained and developed according not only on their existing job skills, but for the contribution they make in collaboration with others, and for the insights they can bring to the business.

It will teach those responsible exactly who they need to attract and hire, and who they must retain, and for what they will be rewarded.

To enrich the intellectual mix, they will be encouraged to reach beyond the organisation to bring in their own opportunistically acquired, contextually appropriate, on-demand learning, as and when needed.

For a company’s benefit, much like a battery is a critical latent energy force, learning is also an eminently rechargeable resource, ready to be applied when needed.

It is impossible to have too much such charge in a company, or too much intellectual force to bring to bear on understanding its challenges, or its possible futures.

But, because the inevitable future is a place in which no one has ever competed before, no company will be able to afford to waste a single iota of its diverse human imagination and intellectual power.

Only those who can’t command its powers when needed will suffer, along with their investors.

Australian investors beware

For Australians, it is plainly in everyone’s interests that Australian companies make the transition to become effective, agile and adaptable learning entities fit for the future.

After all, as much as investors back proven past performance, they are not investing in that past, but in future promise.

ASX-listed companies responsible to shareholders should be especially mindful that they have a respectable learning story to tell, as they have a duty to protect those investors’ interests.

Thus, the purpose here is to conduct running research exploring the learning undertakings and declarations of ASX-listed organisations in an index that tests their likely risk, and forewarns their investors and those they employ of their future jeopardy.

There will be catastrophes, and all should be warned about putting their money, their time or their hope into an imploding business.

Collectively, we must instil in the minds of investors a more questioning sensibility such that all can learn to enquire more effectively about the quality of the deliberate, orchestrated learning going on within those organisations.

This will be essential to the future health of our market, and of concern to many of us, not least because this may, after all, be where our own superannuation is invested.

A new future for shareholder reporting

In future reporting to shareholders, lacklustre, self-congratulatory annual reports of the current variety that skip the issue of how those companies aim to become smarter will simply no longer be acceptable.

The research here explores and measures the learning undertakings and declarations of all ASX-listed organisations against this yardstick.

This does not always make for easy reading, and certainly will not for the directors of many current ASX incumbents, as it tests and foreshadows for their stockholders their likely susceptibility to risk.

On account of their trial at the The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, we begin with scrutiny of the banks and financial service providers.

This is likely to catch the attention of, and to scandalise, the widest range of ordinary shareholders, because despite their relatively bottomless resources, those particular organisations’ apparent lack of readiness for a learning future is just that, a scandal.

Disruptions ahead for managers from an always-on learning state

In a world of pervasive digital transformation, in which businesses must be mindful and ever vigilant about what disruptions might be coming from even unknown competitors, there is no one-off fix.

The change to be managed must be permanent and continual, as successful evolution can only result from adjusting into a permanent state of “becoming,” which is therefore one of constant adaptation and learning.

To ensure they are not caught by surprise, all businesses will need, at minimum, to sensitise all in their workforces to detect what is changing around them, and for their people to report it and share and test it with their peers.

In a well-managed business, the dynamic needs of change alone should inspire new ways of engaging new forces of collaborative learning within them.

But, just as whole industries have been disrupted by unexpected change, one can’t guarantee the smooth transition into a learning state within individual organisations, as some managers and their teams may remain stubbornly culturally resistant to change.

And the nature of this particular change may most discomfit those senior executives in some organisations responsible for reporting to investors.

First, their competitors’ learning that threatens to upend their current businesses may be troubling enough if they find themselves struggling to adapt to this growing challenge.

And, predictably, there will be great discomfort for less well-managed and entrenched hierarchies needing suddenly to evolve into faster learning, flatter and more merit-sharing networks.

In this, of course, it is far preferable that management teams should suffer rather than those shareholders entrusting their savings to them.

But we need also to be mindful that directors of listed companies don’t just learn to game this new system by claiming and reporting learning progress that can’t withstand scrutiny.

And authenticity and plausibility may be what investors should be most mindful about, as the incentives to be less than truthful may be high, and what is coming in our own first reports here will unsettle many.

Nonetheless, as a community, we must simply mutually undertake to expose investors to what they most need to know, and how to ask better questions of those to whom they might otherwise hand their money.

And in this, when we know better what to ask, and what to pass on to others, the concerned social media populated by our peers is our new and eternally vigilant friend.