Learn or Die: Every Business Will Be In The Business of Learning

By Edward D. Hess

The velocity of business change will increase over the next decade driven by technology advances making the speed and quality of adaptive learning an organisational strategic imperative. That will require most organisations to use the science of learning to create a learning-enabling culture and to install best learning processes.

Technology and globalisation have dramatically impacted the competitive business environment. Technology has disrupted business models, diminished traditional competitive advantages, democratised raising capital and empowered the customer. Over the next 10 years, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, cheaper and smarter robots, and Big Data will continue to transform how businesses are staffed, operated and managed. The pace of business change is unlikely to decrease. In environments characterised by rapid change, sustainable competitive advantages are likely to be no more than relative competitive advantages, making adaptive learning mission critical. That means that the speed and quality of learning will become a strategic imperative for most businesses.

The organisation of the future will look a lot different than the organisation of today. Most businesses will be staffed by some combination of smart robots, smart thinking machines and people. People will do what technology cannot do well and that is, generally, think critically, creatively and innovatively, and engage emotionally with other humans. Operational excellence will likely become technology dependent and commoditised, making innovation the key organic value differentiator. Developing innovation capability that continuously produces new value requires building a superior learning capability.

An organisation’s ability to learn is dependent upon the ability of its people to learn. Peter Senge wrote a landmark book1 on learning organisations 25 years ago. His systems approach to building a learning organisation still stands as a pillar. What has changed since that book was published in 1990 is that the science of learning has made material advances across the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics. Today we know much more about how people learn best and the types of environments that optimise learning. In Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organisation2 I synthesized that research and put forth a new blueprint for building a learning organisation using illustrations of leading-edge learning organisations Bridgewater Associates, LP; Intuit, Inc.; W.L. Gore & Associates; IDEO; and United Parcel Service, Inc.

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The Science of Learning

What does the science of learning say about adult learning? Unfortunately, it is not a pretty picture. All of us are basically suboptimal learners, because cognitively, we are reflexive, fast thinkers. That has been OK for many of us, because our only competitors have been other human beings. Artificial intelligence and big data analytics will likely change that in the near future by expanding our competitors to include smart machines. Smart machines will in some cases complement us, but in many cases they will replace us. In order to stay relevant and competitive, most of us will have to take our learning skills—how we think, listen, emotionally engage and collaborate—to a much higher level.

Taking our thinking to a higher level starts with acknowledging that according to Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, “laziness is built deep into our nature.”3 We are, in effect, confirmation machines seeking to process information that confirms our existing mental models (our stories of the world), and we tend not to process disconfirming information. We are limited by our cognitive blindness, dissonance and biases. As the late noted Professor Jack Mezirow stated: “We have a strong tendency to reject ideas that fail to meet our perceptions.”4 Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon described our penchant for confirmation this way: “People who agree with you are apt to seem a little more intelligent than those who don’t.”5

Scientists used to believe that human emotions were centered in certain parts of the brain and mostly segregated from cognitive processing. To be rational, we just had to be non-emotional. Neuroscience research now tells us that our emotions are integrally intertwined in every part of our cognitive processing.6 Emotionally, we engage in what the late, esteemed, Harvard Professor Chris Argyris called “defensive reasoning,” because our natural reflexive inclination is to deny, defend and deflect information that challenges our self-image or ego. Emotionally, we all tend to be insecure and fearful, and that impacts the quality of our thinking and learning. Rationality is a myth.

In most situations we operate reflexively on autopilot; emotionally we defend and cognitively we seek to confirm. Overcoming our autopilot mode requires us to slow down, quiet our egos and intentionally and deliberately take our thinking, listening and collaborating to a much higher level using good thinking, listening and collaborating checklists and processes. To do that requires us to accept the science that we are suboptimal learners. That is the first step. The second step to help us overcome our natural tendencies is to change our mental model of what “being smart” means.


The “New Smart”

Most people learned through their schooling that “being smart” meant that you knew more than other people and made fewer mistakes. It was a quantity-based approach—fill up your brain with more facts and make fewer mistakes as evidenced by higher grades. Many of us adopted strategies to avoid making mistakes by avoiding taking on challenging tasks and avoiding situations where the unknowns greatly exceeded the known.

That definition of “being smart” does not work well in a world where new knowledge is being created faster and faster, making the shelf life of existing knowledge in many cases shorter and shorter. It also does not work well in a world where smart machines can process, remember and accurately retrieve much more information much faster and more accurately than we humans can.

In today’s world “being smart” should mean that one is good at not knowing by understanding what one doesn’t know but needs to know and knowing how to best learn that. Today the irony is that the smartest people will be people who admit their ignorance and continually try to become less ignorant.

No longer should we define our selves or invest our egos so heavily in a quantity-based concept of being smart. A different concept put forth by noted critical thinking experts Richard W. Paul and Linda Elder better serves us in today’s environment. They propose that we define ourselves not by “the content of any belief” but by “the way I come to my beliefs” by being a good critical thinker, who uses good critical thinking processes, and an open, fair-minded thinker, who is always willing to stress-test my beliefs against new data and follow that evidence no matter where it goes.7

In today’s world “being smart” should mean that one is good at not knowing by understanding what one doesn’t know but needs to know and knowing how to best learn that.

I want to expand Paul and Elder’s concept to deal with our emotional defensiveness. “New smart” means that we are not our ideas. Our mental models are not reality—they are only our story of our world, which is limited by our experiences, biases and fears. Acknowledging that allows us to decouple our ego from our beliefs (not our values), making it easier to be open-minded, non-defensive and more willing to stress-test and modify our beliefs as dictated by better evidence. In other words, “new smart” means treating everything we think we know as being conditional subject to modification based on better data.

“New smart” people will have a healthy respect for the magnitude of what they do not know. This can be a game changer in that once a person becomes comfortable living the “new smart” definition, he no longer will be as reflexively defensive and uncomfortable when his beliefs are challenged. Quite to the contrary, he will likely be uncomfortable when his beliefs are not challenged because he has learned that it is very hard for any of us to individually uncover our thinking weaknesses.


Mistakes Are Learning Opportunities

“New smart” also allows us to make necessary changes to our mindset about mistakes. This is necessary because most adult learning comes from mistakes. So long as mistakes are made within financial risk parameters and so long as one does not repeatedly make the same mistake, mistakes are not to be avoided, denied, hidden or punished, because mistakes are learning opportunities. The faster people make mistakes, the faster they learn and improve. Great learning organisations like Bridgewater Associates, LP, the largest and one of the most successful hedge funds in the world, holds this view strongly. Another learning organisation, Intuit, Inc., goes so far as to characterise mistakes/failures in its innovation experimentation model as “surprises,” because it is from surprises—unexpected results—that innovation occurs.

Accepting the science of learning, adopting a “new smart” mental model, and recasting mistakes as learning opportunities are three key steps for an individual to become a better learner. As we shall discuss next, however, while those steps are necessary, they are not sufficient. High-performance learning within an organisation also requires a special kind of organisational environment.




Building a Learning System

Building organisational learning capability requires a systems approach to creating an environment that enables and promotes learning mindsets and behaviours. In this Learning System, the right culture, leadership behaviours, measurements and rewards must be aligned to consistently send messages to employees that enable and promote those defined learning mindsets and behaviours and the use of best learning processes.

A learning environment has to be a psychologically safe environment in order to mitigate fear. And as importantly, the Learning System has to fight daily complacency, arrogance, over-confidence, groupthink, and big egos.

What learning mindsets or motivations are we seeking to promote? Here is my definition of the ideal learner of the 21st century: Someone who has the curiosity of a young child; the courage of an explorer; the skepticism of a philosopher; and the open-mindedness, humility, and learning resiliency of a scientist who is good at not knowing and good at learning by experimenting. That means our workplace environment must enable and promote, through its culture, leadership behaviours, measurements, rewards and work processes, curiosity, the courage to try, skeptical thinking, open-mindedness, humility, experimentation, and learning from mistakes and failures.

The Learning Systems at exemplar learning organisations like Google, Pixar Animated Studios, IDEO, W.L. Gore & Associates, Bridgewater Associates, LP and Intuit, Inc. have the above attributes plus the following: candor, a practice of confronting the brutal facts and permission to speak freely; permission to fail within allowable financial risk parameters; high mutual accountability; and an idea meritocracy that devalues positional rank.

A Learning System must also mitigate the two big learning inhibitors: fear and ego. A learning environment has to be a psychologically safe environment in order to mitigate fear. As Abraham Maslow, the noted humanistic psychologist stated: a person will learn “to the extent that he is not crippled by fear and to the extent he feels safe enough to dare.”8 And as importantly, the Learning System has to fight daily complacency, arrogance, over-confidence, groupthink, and big egos. All of this has to be operationalized by culture and processes.


A Learning Culture

The best learning culture cultivates a humanistic, emotionally positive, people-centric environment. Positive emotions enable learning while negative emotions generally inhibit learning. Cultures of fear will not optimise learning. Being people-centric means that the environment must meet the basic human needs, as outlined by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan in their “self-determination” theory, of
(1) autonomy—some choice and control over our actions; (2) effectiveness—a feeling of competence and sense of accomplishment; and (3) relatedness—a sense of mutual respect and reliance with others.9 The environment must result in high employee engagement because there is high congruence between high employee engagement as defined by the Gallup Q12®10 and high learner engagement as defined by educational psychology research.


Learning Processes

Exemplar learning organisations help drive the right behaviours by putting in place and requiring the rigorous daily use of learning processes and checklists dealing with critical thinking; innovative thinking; the unpacking of assumptions; root cause analysis; after-action reviews; good listening practices; and good collaboration practices. Feedback is frequent; it is candid and it is mutual. Small team structures are preferred, and everyone plays by the same rules and is held accountable irrespective of rank.

These organisations that I studied are not “soft squishy” places. They have found how to have the highest standards of performance while being humanistic and valuing authenticity, humility, empathy and compassion. Learning is a team activity, and people learn best when there is trust and meaningful emotional engagement in teams.


The Organisation of the Future

To optimise organisational learning, organisations need to optimise employee learning by building a Learning System; installing and rigorously using best learning processes; and adopting a leadership learning behavioural model based upon the science of learning. That will present big challenges to many businesses, especially those that operate under a top-down, command-and-control and non-humanistic management model that drives compliance through fear. As Intuit CEO Brad Smith stated: “It’s time to bury Caesar.”11 Coming technology advances along with the science of learning will likely make the dominant management and leadership models of the Industrial Revolution as obsolete as the Model T. Every business will most likely become a technology-enabled business in the business of learning.

About the Author

edhessEdward D. Hess is Professor of Business Administration & Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden Graduate School of Business. He is the author of 11 books, 70 articles and 65 cases. His work has appeared in over 300 media outlets globally, and his research, teaching and consulting focuses on learning and innovation cultures and processes.



1. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Science of the Learning Organisation (New York: Doubleday, 1990).

2. Edward D. Hess, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organisation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 35.

3. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

4. Jack Mezirow, “Transformative Learning: Theory to Practice, “ New Directions for Adult Continuing Education 74 (Summer 1997), 7.

5. Herbert Simon, Models of My Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 144.

6. Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York: Penguin, 1994); Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, “Implications of Affective and Social Neuroscience for Educational Theory,” Educational Philosophy and Theory 43, 1 (2011): 98-103; Justin Storbeck and Gerald L. Clore, “On the Interdependence of Cognition and Emotion,” Cognition & Emotion 21, 6 (2007): 1212-1237.

7. Richard W. Paul and Linda Elder, Critical Thinking: Tools for Taking Charge of Your Professional and Personal Life (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2002), 25.

8. Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, and Richard A. Swanson, The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development (Burlington, MA: Elsevier, 2005), 47.

9. Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being,” American Psychologist 55 (2000): 68-78.

10. Gallup, Inc., “Q12 Meta-Analysis: The Relationship Between Engagement at Work and Organisational Outcomes 2012,” www.gallup.com/services/177047/q12-meta-analysis.aspx.

11. Brad Smith, “Lean Startup Leadership: It’s Time to Bury Caesar,” Intuit Network website, November 30, 2012, http://network.intuit.com/2012/11/30/lean-startup-leadership-its-time-to-bury-caesar-2/.



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