In their post titled, There’s No Such Thing as Corporate DNA, Hans-Paul Bürkner, Vincent Chin, and Ranu Dayal challenge the popular notion that successful organizations have unchanging values and set ways of doing things that are passed on from one generation of employees to the next. It is common for companies to say that their mission and values are in their DNA. This used to sound good from a marketing perspective but makes no sense today. The authors make the case that organizations should no longer claim stability, that constancy in this era of rapid change is not a virtue. They argue that the sustainability of a company is built on change, not continuity.
In our globalizing world, market shares are shifting fast. Companies that were hardly known ten years ago—often, but not always, from emerging markets—have become not only global challengers but also market leaders in their own right. And once-great companies have slumped, disappearing either into bankruptcy or into the hands of successful rivals. Why? Because for too long, old stalwarts have clung to their company’s so-called DNA when radical change—evolution with a capital “R”—was called for. They tried to protect their heritage when new approaches were required. They emphasized continuity when discontinuity was necessary.
Examples abound. Apple, Ford Motor, and GE have made dramatic pivots on their march from success to success. Companies like Radio Shack, Blackberry, Bethlehem Steel, United States Postal Service, and Sears have faltered badly because, in part, they desperately stayed the course. Colleges and universities cling to their academic traditions at all cost and hospitals adhere to the medical model in the face of stiff economic, political, and social pressure to change. All of these organizations behave as if organizational DNA is determining their future.
Same can be said for employee learning. Companies act as if formal training programs are in the genes of the organization. They seem to believe that having courses, workshops, and seminars that pass on the values and norms dating back to company founders, is pre-determined. This traditional training culture perpetuates stability and consistency at the expense of innovation and change. This event-based, just-in-case, buns-on-seats approach to learning does not give employees the learning agility they need to respond to new information, new technology, new goals, and new competitors.
What is needed in this fast-paced, global, high tech environment is less reliance on formal training programs and more emphasis on just-in-time learning, learning from experience, and co-creation of knowledge. People need to learn what they need to know when and where they need it. They need to learn from the successes and failures of their teams. They need to learn how to learn from each other. Organizations need to learn fast and learn how to change fast. They need a learning culture!
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