Sat | Mar 28, 2020

Francis Wade | Learning from disruptions

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2020 | 12:30 AM
A lone shopper exits the Sovereign Centre in Liguanea, Kingston on March 18, 2020. Social distancing and other coronavirus containment strategies have proven disruptive to business and commerce.
A lone shopper exits the Sovereign Centre in Liguanea, Kingston on March 18, 2020. Social distancing and other coronavirus containment strategies have proven disruptive to business and commerce.


If, like most leaders, you are struggling with the rude COVID-19 surprise, consider that this is just the beginning of a new normal.

Some say there are other massive disruptions on the horizon. Perhaps one way to cope is to redefine what it means to be a learning organisation.

Back in the early 1990s, I attended a training offered by Peter Senge’s company. He’s the author of The 5th Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. The concept was a great one – organisations needed to focus on learning in order to adapt to changing times.

However, that was before the advent of email or the internet. In today’s context, what we thought were ‘changing times’ looks quaint. For example, in the past few weeks, as a leader, you have been forced to become competent in pandemic crisis management. Consequently, you can now define a number of brand new terms: social distancing, self-quarantine and ‘non-essential worker’.

Furthermore, your organisation has picked up some fresh skills, albeit in bits-and-pieces: scheduling staff to minimise contact, limiting viral transmissions, enabling work from home and determining critical functions.

To fill these gaps, you have spoken with other executives, listened to the business news, used Google searches, and perhaps even hired subject matter experts. Unfortunately, for most companies, this has been a hit-or-miss affair. In other words, your organisational learning has taken place by ‘buck up’.

Some CEOs thrive on high-stress challenges such as this one. But most people don’t. Instead, they want a systematic way to develop the skills and knowledge needed to coast through any future disruption. How can your organisation respond effectively to the next challenge?

COVID-19 learning gaps

The best leaders noticed that their organisation was caught in a situation where critical knowledge was missing. Even if it had a generic disaster recovery plan, the nature of this disruption defies ones anticipated by textbooks.

Instead, leaders realise that the company which can learn quickly, especially in a crisis, would be the one that has the advantage. Rather than being stalled, it would rapidly assess the threat.

The gaps found would be converted into learning content to be disseminated within hours to those who need to use it: board, stockholders, executives, managers, workers, customers, suppliers, and others.

Unfortunately, too many companies rely on the fact that the CEO may be a smart, capable person. While this is often true, especially in small organisations, it’s a mistake to equate individual learning with organisational learning.

The latter is far more powerful and seeks to equip the entire company with capabilities which endure long past the tenure of any particular person.

Empower a new specialist

It’s one thing to identify the need for this kind of rapid learning, but the question is: Who should manage it? Most companies have shed whatever training people they once had in prior budget cuts. Plus, the landscape has changed.

Years ago, employees sat in three-day Microsoft Windows or Excel workshops. Today, the idea of sitting in a classroom to learn how to use an app is a joke.

The need for this kind of trainer has disappeared.

However, at the same time, the requirement for someone to take charge of organisational learning in challenging moments is evident. But this is not the same small skill-set trainers used to have.

What kind of capabilities should this individual possess? Today, this person would be a kind of crisis-manager, but not one that addresses the issue directly. Instead, they would be concerned with uncovering the learning that’s required to solve the problem in the midterm, so that it never recurs.

As such, they would require a blend of technical and change management skills, plus the ability to respond within days, if not hours.

In addition, this person should also be a quality diagnostician, able to discern the true learning gaps inherent in novel challenges. In a flash, they can analyse new technologies, alliances, distribution networks, supply chains, government regulations and other kinds of unique threats and opportunities.

Due to the importance of their work, they would behave more like entrepreneurs than bureaucrats.

Finally, they would also need to think of innovative ways to get people to learn.

A CTO-friend of mine developed a practice of assigning brand new technologies to members of his team. Their job? To research the area and deliver a training programme to his colleagues after a month or two of intense study. It was a low-tech solution to a very high-tech problem.

This is a simple example, but it reflects the out-of-the-box thinking a learning expert would have to do to prepare your organisation for its next rude surprise.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email: