The Lagging Learning Curves

The Lagging Learning Curves


It takes time to teach people, it takes time for knowledge to spread around a culture. Knowledge sometimes can not penetrate business cultures readily. Some people learn slower than do others, decision makers are not as brilliant as all team members in every area of life.

Working in R&D I am constantly reminded and focused on learning curves; my own learning curve on a variety of subjects, my team’s learning curve covering our projects, my department’s learning curve on the technology that we are developing and finally the entire corporation’s learning curve on a wide variety of technologies and markets.

We are constantly learning, and learning progresses as a rapid and as a gradual process.

Corporate learning curves are the learning curves that a team or corporation undergoes in order to execute in a market.  The corporate learning curve is not the sum of the knowledge in each team member’s mind.  Rather the corporate learning curve is the body of knowledge and wisdom about a technology that leaders use to make business decisions. The knowledge may include fundamental scientific understanding, it may include understanding about processes to competitively manufacture, it may include supply-chain connections and it may include insight into future market demand. Anything that the team uses to make business decisions is a part of the corporate learning curve.

The corporate learning curve almost always lags behind (in time) the sum of individual contributor’s learning curve on any topic unless the company is very small or if it communicates very often and very effectively.

There may be 10 scientists on a team who have an understanding of the mechanism and process in order to build the next great cell phone technology however if the management in that team or company do not have a grasp of the technology, or have knowledge of what the technology can and cannot do proper business decisions can not be made.  If the commercial team does not understand and cannot market the technology then the team overall has not advanced up the corporate learning curve and therefore cannot monetize their knowledge.

There can be a gap between what the scientists, engineers and middle management knows and what the organization can execute on in the marketplace.  Because of this, the importance of teaching cannot be over emphasized; if the informed team members cannot (or will not) communicate well to the business leaders then the company will not be able to capitalize on the knowledge.

In fact individuals in any part of the organization may be further up the curve but, if they do not have the ability or authority to lead the technical teams who will to execute and create the divisions and products then the knowledge is of no value to the company.   Claiming technical success and promising a product prematurely is a function of poor teaching and poor communication, knowledge is not enough to create revenue.

Sometimes it is important for ambitious leaders who feel very confident in the team’s abilities themselves and feel far along the learning curve to recognize that what really matters is the corporate learning curve. If they do not have the political clout to educate and persuade, if they do not have the willingness and the ability to teach the organization it does not matter what they know. The only thing that matters is what the organization “knows and will accept” as a whole and can prove in that company’s labs or manufacturing processes.

What is even more remarkable is how much organizational culture can further slow down the corporate learning curve. It is not necessarily a delay due to inability to understand or is it stubbornness in management, sometimes complex office politics further slows down learning curves.  I have seen refusal to learn by senior members of teams from junior members simply because of lack of relationship or competitive resistance.  The organization is accustomed to learning in a certain way and sometimes deviations from that way are rejected.

To read more on this topic click here for part 2 of this post.


What is the best way to keep an organization together in learning?