Why Study and Learn?

"The more you study, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you learn. So why study? The less you study, the less you learn. The less you learn, the less you forget. The less you forget, the more you learn. So why study?"

I recall laughing when I first heard this contradictory prose in my university days 40 years ago, but I had no choice but to ignore it and do the opposite. At the time, I was a student of industrial engineering at Cornell University competing with top-notch honors students. There was no option but to study hard.

Why is this relevant to our jobs and careers today? Like many of you, I went to college, took classes and received grades. But when I left my scholastic education, which is formal and supervised, I then began my experiential education working in organizations. This is no different than you, and we all now know that experiential education is much more behavioral and emotional than the academic world of doing your homework and raising your hand in class to show a professor that you know the correct answer.

Experiential education is unstructured and somewhat random. It comes at you. There is no course syllabus. You just start accumulating knowledge and wisdom through all the interactions emanating from your assigned tasks or projects as well as the colleagues, customers and partners you work with.

Business School is Not Like Law School or Medical School

The professional disciplines of law and medicine are codified with decades, even centuries, of accumulated and layered knowledge. The discipline of management is not codified and structured to facilitate learning. Most managers learn from their prior managers. Ever work for a lousy manager?

One can get an MBA to learn about the discipline of management. I received one from Northwestern University Kellogg Graduate School of Management. The curriculum taught me about management, but I can candidly say it did not teach me how to manage. There is a difference. Management involves strategy, analysis and decisions from choices. How to manage involves people.

Admittedly there are courses in an MBA curriculum on organizational development and change management. Despite being an engineer – with its impersonal quantitative emphasis in the university – my qualitative MBA behavioral courses fascinated me. I felt a little like Star Trek’s Dr. Spock, the Vulcan who thought logically but was aware that emotion somehow played a role in making change happen.

What Can You Do to Overcome What an MBA Degree Does Not Provide?

Maybe I should have paid more attention to those MBA behavioral courses. Why? Because I find that understanding how to influence, persuade and educate people is arguably more critical to transform an organization than understanding the principles and concepts of performance management methodologies, such as strategy maps, measurement scorecards, dashboards, customer value management and activity-based costing. Business analytics software can very effectively model performance management solutions. But a successful approach involves people and assumptions.

During the last five years I have realized how much I underestimate the importance of behavior modification of people, especially overcoming their natural resistance to change. I do not believe this involves begging, badgering and bullying people, but rather educating them. My style is to enable senior executives to teach (training comes later) their subordinates and colleagues by reading one or more well-written articles, then bring them all together like a book club meeting. At this point, 90 percent of the work for the executives is done! That meeting can cover what each person in the group learned, what issues and concerns exist to overcome, and next steps that can be taken.

Real Life Versus the University

With experiential education, your direct-line manager is like the professor. Hopefully, you have worked for good ones. Real life doesn’t happen in the same way as your scholastic education. In a university, information comes directly to you via lectures and textbooks, and then you get tested and measured. With experiential education, you are continuously tested, but you never really see it happen or how it happens. Others, who may have a profound influence promoting or impeding your career progress, are always judging you.

What does this have to do with enterprise performance management? Plenty. The success of how its various methodologies get communicated and implemented is highly governed by managers and employee teams. If there is a culture for learning, metrics and discovery, that is a good start. If not, these social issues are barriers that need to be overcome.

Organizational transformation is about people changing practices and systems – not the other way around.