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The Importance Of Competitive Learning In Management

The Importance Of Competitive Learning In Managerial Theory

Bestselling business writer Michael Ballé explains why it may be time for managers to look to experiential–or competitive–learning theory rather than other modes.

Learning is a hot topic in management – rightly so, to some extent one can define competitiveness as the speed of learning. But how about teaching?

Teaching is closer to who we are as a species than we usually think so – the cognitive revolution that happened 70,000 years ago coincides with the ability to pass on tool making from generation to generation – teaching. Some researchers even think this could explain language.

Management thinking is very concerned with either individual learning (styles, environment, motivation) or organizational learning (structure, culture, goals, incentives). Oddly, teaching is much less looked at. Everyone agrees that training is really important, but what do we know about how best to train?

Ask managers about training and they’ll probably mention reinforcement: there’s a teacher (who knows), there’s a learner (who wants to learn). The teacher repeats theory and exercises until learners “get it” and are autonomous in the task to which they’ve been trained. Motivation is recognized as an issue and is either extrinsic (you’re liked if you learn; not if you don’t) or intrinsic (you enjoy learning what you learn; or you don’t). The teacher makes the knowledge clear and interesting. The learner makes the effort to learn.

This is fine as well as it goes, but it’s only one of several alternatives. Other main ways of teaching are:

  • Cognitive: making the learner express (and clarify) their own mental models, showing them a different approach, and letting them amend their thinking accordingly. Otherwise known as the “Socratic” method.
  • Social: plunge the learner in a skilled group and led them acquire the new competency through a mix of mimicry (unconscious imitating) and mimicking (conscious imitating).
  • Experiential: testing changes on one’s own behavior, watching the effects, and evolving one’s behavior accordingly.

Reinforcement, cognitive, and social teaching theories all assume someone knows and someone learns. This works in the very special case where 1: the subject is well known and 2: the learner has no a priori ideas and is happy to be taught. This is rarely the case in business situations. In most cases we’re dealing with a marketplace shift where no one quite knows what to do – such as the current “digital transformation” – and in which managers are experienced, have their own theories of how to go about it, and are not very likely to listen to experts.

The dominant managerial theory of learning is acquire and apply: let’s identify our knowledge gaps, purchase the new knowledge, which is a commodity, from trainers or consultants, and let’s get our people to apply it. This is a sure way of reverting to the mean and becoming… average.

Competitive learning means discovering areas where things are moving fast, exploring them with leading thinkers (the people who already live in that future world) and getting inspired by them to come up with our own theories to test in practice.

The teaching theory for that learning problem is experiential – a theory that doesn’t require someone to know and transmit. This is what is known as PDCA: Plan, Do, Check, Act:

  1. Plan: Start with what you know and pick one change you’d like to try
  2. Do: test the change in a limited way where you can
  3. Check: measure the impact if you can, or look carefully at what happens
  4. Act: adopt the change, adjust it or abandon it.

Inspire and improve is a radically different approach to learning and teaching – one that explicitly recognizes the need for space to think and motivate themselves. People are not the recipient – you don’t open the head, put in a new knowledge card, close the head and watch the person perform. There is no matrix-like plug and “I know kung fu.” The discipline of learning is part of the learning itself: you start with a new idea you’ve discovered somewhere, and then work at it until it works for you.

To truly create learning organizations, managers must first question their theories of teaching – and realize that the competitive edge rests in the unknown unknowns, not the known unknowns.

Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).


Michael Ballé, PH.D. is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institut Lean France. He holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne in Social Sciences and Knowledge Sciences. He is also a renowned lean executive coach. His latest book is The Lean Strategy (with Dan Jones, Jacques Chaize and Orry Fiume).