The Ultimate Competitive Advantage: Translating Learning into Action

“What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember. What I do, I understand.” — Confucius, ancient Chinese philosopher

“Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” — Mark Twain, American humorist.

The Ultimate Competitive Advantage:  Translating Learning into Action  by Laura Stack #productivityEvery business leader worth their salt recognizes the value of training team members to fit their jobs better. Who among us hasn’t attended conferences, seminars, classes, and workshops designed to improve our productivity? And you send your team members to the same. Most companies have no problem with training; they know it’s necessary, and actively pursue it for their employees.

That said, the new learning we absorb from our training sometimes fails to make the jump from theory to practice, for reasons varying from inefficiency to cultural inertia. I worked with a Fortune 500 telecommunications company on crafting communications protocols for the entire company. After paying me for five full days of work with leadership at all levels, the resulting guidelines weren’t implemented, because the vice president and directors weren’t willing to agree to them. I’m positive any future initiative introduced will receive a less-than-warm reception from the managers, with a corresponding “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude, and I can’t blame them. All it takes is one person failing—or refusing—to do their job or take a risk or change to kill the competitive advantage offered by the training.

Case in point: shortly after a colleague began his first real job, his company spent a mint to send everyone to a two-day seminar on process improvement. When he tried to put his training into action weeks later, boldly suggesting an alternate workflow method, his department head slapped him down. That was when he understood why his co-workers, who had undergone the training before, hadn’t mentioned it in their last few meetings. It was not used, and would not be used, in his department.

Learning into Action

As General Electric’s legendary Jack Welch once pointed out, “An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” My colleague’s department head deliberately tossed away that advantage because he didn’t believe in the training and wasn’t open to changing.

Welch, on the other hand, transformed GE during his tenure in office (1981-2001), streamlining the bloated organization by a third and selling off underperforming divisions. His philosophy of “speed, simplicity, and self-confidence” soon permeated every training session and meeting, and it became a standard part of GE’s HR process. He adopted Motorola’s Six-Sigma program by 1995 and pushed it hard.

Naturally, not everyone believed in or agreed with his methods. However, he demonstrated his commitment to them when he sacked two senior leaders who refused to buy in. In 1980, the year before Welch took over, GE earned an impressive $26.8 billion and had a market value of $14 billion. In Y2K, his last full year as CEO, GE earned $130 billion; and by 2004, it had a market value of $410 billion, the highest of any company in the world at the time.

Real-World Implementation

Rather than shoot yourself in the foot either accidentally or deliberately, take these tips into account when providing training for your team members:

1. Choose carefully. If you aren’t the final arbiter of how the organization implements a particular type of training, and you suspect (or know) your superiors won’t put it into action, don’t bother pushing for it. Why waste the resources? Always make sure the training fits what the arbiters of corporate culture deem acceptable. This doesn’t mean you can’t argue for something new, but don’t covertly slip it in or try to push it through if you lack support for it.

2. Apply the concepts of Action Learning. The modern concept of Action Learning puts training directly into action, using a learn-by-doing model actively led by the team leader. It includes two self-descriptive types, Peer Coaching and Team Learning, both (a) leader-centered; (b) inquiry-based; (c) accountability focused; and (d) systemic. Action Learning commits the team and its members to learning over time and sharing both information and learning strategies.

3. Remain flexible. Train your team consistently and repeatedly as the business environment changes, not just to keep up with the programs and machines they use on a daily basis, but to deal with evolution in organizational philosophy, mission, vision, and goals.

4. Be supportive. Some of your team members may find it difficult to implement a specific aspect or type of training, or otherwise integrate it into their duties. Do what you can to help them, via additional training, direct coaching, or mentoring.

5. Be Creative. The best way to translate what you’ve learned into action may not always be obvious, so throw open the floodgates of creativity and do some team-wide brainstorming. Don’t go too far afield, but leave yourself open to less obvious solutions. If nothing occurs to you, then check out how other groups within your organization have adapted the training and, if necessary, ask for help.

6. Just do it. You may not want to use what you’ve learned, but if your organization has invested in it, they obviously consider it worthwhile. Go with the flow and at least try to put your new knowledge into action. Even if you disagree with it initially, you may find you’ll benefit from it.

Proactive Advancement

Training is part and parcel of the accelerated change environment now normal for modern workers, and most of us grasp its value. But when people refuse to learn from the experience, it may as well not have taken place. Push your people and yourself to put what you’ve learned into play, even when it comes from venues as minor as customer service surveys and satisfaction cards. The more learning you can implement, the better off and the farther ahead of the pack you’ll be.



  1. Excellent advise! The part I loved the most: “When he tried to put his training into action weeks later, boldly suggesting an alternate workflow method, his department head slapped him down. That was when he understood why his co-workers, who had undergone the training before, hadn’t mentioned it in their last few meetings. It was not used, and would not be used, in his department.” After conducting hundreds of Grid Seminars, I saw this over and over again…companies spend millions in Mgt. Seminars, then refuse to use the training and learning….because of the company’s culture, sadly.

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