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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

The Economic Challenge

Chairman and CEO, CIBC

I want to talk about the need, or perhaps I should say the imperative, to develop learning organizations in our society.

Learning organizations represent one of the best opportunities we have as a nation to gain a competitive advantage in the global economy. They also represent a true partnership of mutual advantage between companies and their employees.

While my remarks are ostensibly about training, it's not training – but rather learning – that's going to enable us to cope with the kinds of fundamental economic and workplace change we're all now experiencing.

Learning is now so essential for career success, corporate survival and national prosperity that it no longer makes sense to relegate it to certain institutions or to particular periods in one's life – as we've tended to do in the past.

Learning is now everybody's business – the business of schools, colleges and universities, of government, of labour, of the individual employee and, most important for my purposes, learning is the business of business.

I want to examine some of the ways business can make learning its business and look at some of the forces that have compelled companies to adopt the learning imperative. In addition, I'll take a detailed look at the learning organization itself – its principles, its culture, its structure and its approach to employees, customers and other companies.

To begin, I want to emphasize that learning organizations are not primarily training organizations.

I say that because our traditional idea of training – a company instructor teaching specific skills to groups of employees, in a specific place – has at times proven less than effective in helping employees cope with today's complex, challenging workplace.

Mind you, I'm not suggesting that training is obsolete. Even organizations with complex educational requirements – and I include my own company in this number – find that traditional training methods work quite well in some situations.

But today, competitive companies are discovering that training is only a part of workplace education – one of several paths employees must take to acquire the kinds of knowledge and skills so crucial for corporate success, customer loyalty, and career achievement.

Learning is qualitatively different than training. It's more comprehensive in scope. It's ongoing, not finite. And it is active, rather than passive – something done by, rather than to, the individual.

In a workplace setting, this means learning is driven by the individual employee – not by an instructor, not by a fixed curriculum, not by the company. The employees are in control. They control the pace of their learning. They select the tools that best enable them to acquire the knowledge and capabilities they need and want. And because they are in control, they are more motivated. Their learning is more efficient, more effective, more satisfying.

Finally, where training is often geared to a specific occupation, learning builds portable skill-sets or competencies. That means that as an employer, I give you an opportunity to develop not a particular skill but a degree of competency which will allow you to adapt to change, to master not one job, but a series of jobs over time. As an employee, your responsibility is to make the most of that opportunity.

Those are some of the broader differences between training and learning. And I find these differences very illuminating when it comes to the way we look upon training in this country.

It's become almost a cliché in Canada to observe that – aside from the efforts of large corporations – we don't do a lot of training.

The frequent lament over Canada's training effort – especially our low level of training relative to that of other countries – is misdirected. The mere quantification of training into hours or days or weeks is not particularly helpful in measuring the depth and degree to which knowledge is acquired in an organization, or in how effectively that knowledge is being used. Nor does it reveal how much self-directed learning is going on in the company, whether – and how – more training enhances productivity, and whether it contributes to customer satisfaction or leads to career fulfilment.

We have to ask ourselves whether more training – as it's traditionally practised and measured – is the answer. I don't think it is.

For me, the issue is not that we don't do enough training. It's that we don't do enough to help individuals acquire knowledge in an ongoing, systematic way. We don't do enough learning, in other words. And this is where the emphasis ought to be – on learning...and particularly, on learning within and by the private sector organization – the learning organization.

I'm talking about a very specific concept here. I define the learning organization as a corporation in which every process, procedure, structure – and every employee – is dedicated to constant learning...learning that advances individual careers as well as the corporation's business goals.

If learning organizations are to develop, however, both parties – employer and employees – have to be active participants. Building such organizations is an act of shared responsibility – a partnership – in which a company undertakes to provide the tools and opportunities while the employees at all levels supply the commitment and effort to learn continuously.

Twenty or thirty years ago, all this would have been alien to corporate management. North American companies were rigidly hierarchical and conformist in their structures and attitudes.

We recognize at CIBC that the old hierarchical model has become a barrier to fully capitalizing on the creativity and talent of all our employees.

Those days of splendid isolation are over. The information explosion, deregulation, intense global competition, the shift from a resource-based, manufacturing economy to an information-based, knowledge economy....all these factors have forced companies out of their shell into a world where learning and the ability to learn are the new signatures of competitive success.

For individuals, organizational learning means changing attitudes and assumptions, what human resources experts refer to as "mental-models" or "mindsets." Whatever you call them, they are not easy to change.

Let me give you some examples. The expectation of a lifelong, secure job, the assumption that learning only happens in school, equating one's identity with a job – all these beliefs are entrenched in our society, and all of them are obsolete.

The critical step in building a learning organization is to encourage people to adopt different mental models that better reflect competitive and workplace realities. Unless employees become comfortable adjusting to change, they won't be able to cope.

How is this done? It entails, first of all, moving people away from the mindset that says organizations are fully responsible for their careers.

At CIBC, we tell employees that they own their careers, that they are responsible for updating their skills on an ongoing basis, and that they have a great deal of control over their own success. I think it's the job of the learning organization to help people make that transition.

While individuals are responsible for their own careers, the organization is responsible for providing the best possible support structures. A learning organization also embodies an attitude, an atmosphere. The desire to learn can be found in individuals, teams, processes, systems and structures. Learning is the central cultural value of the organization. In this environment, innovation is not just encouraged, it's celebrated. Change is avidly sought.

A learning organization must be tolerant. It celebrates success, but it must also be able to cope with failure. Companies that punish failure or honest mistakes dampen innovation, experimentation and motivation. It's not just a matter of tolerating mistakes. Companies have to know how to learn from mistakes and failures in a systematic way.

Probably the most valuable feature of the learning organization is humility. I believe that learning organizations are humble organizations in the best sense of the word. Indeed, humility is the very soul of learning – because in order to learn, we have to admit to ourselves that we don't know everything, that we aren't perfect.

And that goes as well for the way companies relate to their customers. It's not good enough any more to treat customers in an arrogant, "arms-length," transactional manner. Hence the importance of developing closer learning dialogues with customers – relationships in which organizations listen and learn, identify customer expectations, and anticipate needs.

This is where the broader economic and social dimensions of the learning organization starts to emerge.

I see no reason why the principles and practices of learning that I've described today cannot grow and thrive in all kinds of institutions.

Think about it: schools, colleges, universities, governments, labour, special interest groups, customers, companies, citizens all co-operating, sharing information, exchanging ideas and expertise in and united in a common goal to fashion Canada into a learning society where every resource, every institution and every individual sees learning not just as an end in itself, but as a powerful and irresistible force for global competitive success, national prosperity and human fulfilment.