Monday, September 5, 2011

Learn and Adapt - The New Business Imperatives

My comments to Forrester's "Voice Of The Customer Programs Need Better Understanding, Not Just Better Analytics" by Andrew McInnes (@) prompted this post about the importance of Learn and Adapt - the new imperatives for business, government, and NGOs.

What's the basis for stating that these are "imperatives?"  For starters:
In The End of Social Media 1.0, Brian Solis (@) wrote:
"Listening, learning and adapting is where the real value of social media will show its true colors. Listening leads to a more informed business. Engagement unlocks empathy and innovation. But it is action and adaptation that leads to relevance. And, it never ends."
There are three key points in this excerpt:
1.  Listening and learning, with few exceptions, are prerequisites for action and, properly applied, can make the action more meaningful and therefore, more valuable.
2.  Action and adaptation lead to relevance.  Relevance is based on the trust and performance that accompany action and adaptation.  In an increasingly dynamic marketplace, relevant organizations will be those that enhance their credibility by quickly adapting to market changes by either driving or anticipating those changes and improving performance and the customer experience.
3.  Change is a constant and therefore, learning and adaptation are the new imperatives, ones that will also be constant.

Learn and adapt are essentially an update of the continuous improvement principle.  Today, information and communication technologies (ICT), with the increasing availability of data and information, are driving business and program initiatives using social media, social innovation, and co-creation, to name a few.  There are excellent opportunities for organizational learning on a scale that would not have been possible three - four years ago.  Given the increasing emphasis on innovation, organizations also need to learn how to recognize and leverage breakthrough ideas that may emerge from small discoveries as Peter Sims (@)wrote about in "Little Bets."  A well communicated and visible emphasis, exemplified through leadership actions, on learning and innnovation can also serve to attract strong candidates and retain valued employees.

Continuous improvement's emphasis is on "incremental, continuous steps rather than giant leaps."  Organizations need to recognize when incremental improvement may not be enough.  Stories abound of competitors leapfrogging their rivals such as Apple over RIM and Nokia, Facebook over MySpace, Netflix over Blockbuster, and Target and Walmart over Sears and KMart.  Adaptation may require significant changes in the way the organization does business.

How does this impact Forrester's Voice of the Customer (VOC) cycle that has four major activities: Listen, Interpret, React, and Monitor?  There needs to be a "Learn and Adapt" activity between "Monitor and Listen."

"React" or "Engage" is what the organization does based on its interpretation of the "Voice of the Customer."

"Monitor" or "Assess" is where the organization assesses the customer's and market's reaction / feedback to what it has done and / or its engagement.

"Learn and Adapt" is perhaps the most important activity in this cycle. It enables the organization to learn, apply, and adapt to knowledge gained from the "Monitor" activity. Without this organizational learning and adaptation (as necessary), there cannot be any meaningful performance improvement. 

There are two key VOC learning opportunities for the organization; the first being "Interpret." The "Interpret" activity can be viewed as establishing initial hypotheses with supporting actions ("React" or "Engage"). "Learn and Adapt" is the second learning opportunity that serves to validate those hypotheses based on information collected from the "Monitor" or "Assess" activity. It is here where information becomes knowledge. That knowledge should drive any organization adaptation actions that may be necessary.  The cycle then repeats itself with "Listen."

"Learn and Adapt" may also be the most challenging of these VOC activities. Adaptation may involve changes that range from incremental process improvements to real innovation.  The challenge of adaptive changes should not be underestimated. An excerpt from Why We Crave Creativity but Reject Creative Ideas, based on research to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal, Psychological Science, articulates this challenge very well:
"Uncertainty drives the search for and generation of creative ideas, but 'uncertainty also makes us less able to recognize creativity, perhaps when we need it most' ... 'Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancements, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary. ... The field of creativity may need to shift its current focus from identifying how to generate more creative ideas to identify how to help innovative institutions recognize and accept creativity [and adapt to changes that may accompany this creativity].'"
Challenges are not just restricted to responding to marketplace dynamics.  They also include accepting creativity and corresponding changes within the organization.  Dennis Stauffer (@), in Innovation Case Study:  Sliced Bread, wrote:
"Winning acceptance of any new idea is far from automatic. Those who are in a position to enable or obstruct an innovation often stand in the way, sometimes predicting dire consequences, even when the end-user is destined to embrace it. ... When we’re tempted to think of some new idea as, 'The greatest thing since sliced bread,' we should realize that that thing we’re referring to may in fact be not only the greatest ‘convenience' for consumers, but also the greatest 'challenge' for us, and the greatest perceived 'threat' by others."
The Learn and Adapt imperatives are not "nice to have" tenets.  They are an effective way for businesses, government organizations, and NGOs to address today's and future challenges to enhance customer responsiveness in the face of constant change.  Organizations can recognize the challenges inherent in learning and adapting to market dynamics by making these imperatives part of their culture.

Action- and engagement-based learning builds on the data and information learned through assessments. That learning is the foundation for effective adaptation.
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