Dr Jack Welch, a feisty chemical engineer, died earlier this month. You may not know who he was as he disappeared from the corporate scene a decade or so ago. He was the driven CEO of General Electric (or GE) – highly successful in growing the company to great heights – in fact, to one of the largest manufacturing and industrial companies in the USA (and indeed, the world). Whilst he was undoubtedly successful as a businessman, his argument on the need for the GE company to be a learning organisation resonates most with me.
It is arguably easier to dig stuff out the ground as a miner than to keep innovating with new products in a manufacturing organisation when one thinks of the huge competition from the likes of China. Certainly, miners have the challenge in that the prices they receive for their ore is predicated by buyers in a world market. One only needs to see the current impact of the dramatically lower oil price making the vast US-based shale fields uneconomic. However, if you are digging up a commodity in demand (e.g. rare earths); it is hard for any other firm to compete unless they have access to this ore. Manufacturing however does need continual improvements in one’s products and a huge level of innovation to stay in business.
Hence, Jack Welch’s concept of GE being a learning organisation to allow for constant innovation makes huge sense.
Long Term Advantages
Jack felt that the only way a company could build a long term advantage over its competition was to become a learning organisation. This meant that every organisation has to empower each member of that organisation to continually learn, share knowledge and skills with others and then to use this knowledge in building better products and services. There must be an incredible thirst and enthusiasm for learning and innovation to build up the firm’s intellectual capacity.
The idea behind a learning organisation is the need for everyone to keep learning new things. This is probably quite chaotic and indeed, anarchic in that many new approaches learnt may invalidate current ways of doing things. This means a fight to find the best solution and often a fairly dynamic work environment; but ultimately it means innovative products which make for a prosperous company.
It is important that managers drive the learning by example without fear. There is naturally the risk that you invest in training and educating employees that leave for better opportunities elsewhere. The opportunities for the organisation presented by encouraging learning are simply too good to worry about this aspect.
Learning isn’t just about attending a formal training course – this may be only a small part of the learning process. Learning is about encouraging the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mentoring, industry forums, the internet and a myriad of other more informal sources.
Learning is a slow uneven process with clear gains not always evident. One just has to be persistent and encourage a culture of learning and sharing knowledge. And in looking at opportunities to innovate.
Finally, in the application of learning to improving processes in search of better products and services there are often failures. This is all part of the learning process and should be acknowledged and accepted.
Jack’s comments included:
Some of Jack Welch’s more famous commentary:
"Each morning, I want every person at GE to know that two things will happen that day:
* Today, I will learn something from another GE employee, supplier or customer that will help me do my job better.
* Today, I will teach, support, mentor, advise and support the learning of a fellow GE employee.
Thanks to Elliot Masie for an interesting reflective piece on Jack Welch – a sometime contentious businessman but a visionary engineer.
Yours in engineering learning