Organizations grow when their employees are learning. If you want a high growth organization, you need to create a learning ecosystem to support high growth individuals — to expose them to new and challenging opportunities before their roles become stale.
Companies need to see that a high growth employee who loves to learn is a very valuable asset. Redeploying them on a new learning curve within the organization keeps their expertise in-house and allows them to share and build on it—a potentially exponential gain. Job swapping is one strategy to put employees on new learning curves; others include ongoing training and educational opportunities, job sharing, mentoring and outreach programs.
Erik Bursch was good at his job and his team was delivering, but he was ready to learn something new. He was running a cloud platform within the Technology division of Gannett and he believed that if he could put himself in a new environment, the organization could learn and grow along with him.
Bursch could have looked outside Gannett for a new opportunity — many people do — but he liked Gannett, had been with them for over a decade, and had relationships throughout the company. He decided to reach out to Jason Jedlinski, SVP Consumer Products, and proposed combining their engineering teams.
Jedlinski was receptive and helped facilitate Bursch’s shift to a new role as one of his direct reports. Bursch was able to bring his deep domain expertise in the full software development cycle and learned how to freshly apply it in Product. As Bursch said, “I was really seeking the challenge of aligning technology advancement to support a product vision. Being able to have a larger impact on our business gave me and my team the thrill and excitement that comes with a brand new job, without losing momentum and expertise.”
The organization benefited too. As Jedlinski told me, “The skills and innovative mindset Erik brought to our product team have resulted in better architecture, cost management, operational discipline, incident response, quality control and career paths for developers.”
Bursch’s experience exemplifies the symbiotic learning relationship between an employee and an organization. High-growth individuals who embrace new learning make the organization smarter and contribute to its growth, but they can’t do it alone. They need their managers to have a reciprocal interest in individual growth and create a learning ecosystem to foster it.
Like a biological ecosystem, organizations are either growing or they’re dying. And organizations grow when their employees are learning. So if you want a high-growth organization, you need to create a learning ecosystem to support high-growth individuals — to expose them to new and challenging opportunities before their roles become stale.
People may stay in one place indefinitely, but, in most cases, they can’t keep growing there forever. When they’re no longer stimulated and engaged by their work, their benefit to the organization is diminished. At that point, an employee may be left to languish in place or forced to leave. Their accumulated expertise and institutional memory is lost in the process. Worse, they may take their learning to a competitor — a potentially exponential loss.
Companies need to see that a high-growth employee who loves to learn is a very valuable asset. Redeploying them on a new learning curve within the organization keeps their expertise in-house and allows them to share and build on it — a potentially exponential gain.
Biological ecosystems have the concept of carrying capacity, which refers to the number of people, other living organisms, and/or crops that an area can support without environmental degradation. Growth occurs until the limit of resources is reached.
People can also grow in a workplace until they reach the limit on their resources for new learning. At the beginning, or the low-end of what I call the S Curve of Learning, there’s a lot of room for growth; but as we master our role and ultimately reach the top of that learning curve, we begin to flat-line. There’s less “food and water” for our brain as we reach the carrying capacity of that curve. Growth slows then stops and we get bored. And if this is common in the organization, it will begin to flat-line too.
This doesn’t mean every employee has to stay, and of course, not everyone will. But it’s worth trying to retain promising, curious people by allowing them to move to a new role when they start becoming disengaged — just like Bursch’s manager did when he was agitating for a new opportunity.
Managers can also orchestrate new learning by pushing employees — even reluctant ones — onto new curves. During her tenure at Rovi, a 2,500-employee digital media software company, Chief Human Resources Officer Eileen Schloss realized that two of her HR teams were locked in conflict. “The HR business partners tended to complain that jobs weren’t getting filled fast enough for their client managers,” said Schloss. “The talent people felt the HR business partners didn’t adequately convey what it took to fill a role.”
She asked the heads of each team to trade places. “This forced switch in perspective made a huge difference. Neither of them had the experience initially to perform the new job, but they had enough knowledge of the business generally, and they had people working for them who understood the specifics,” she said. “This purposeful shakeup improved understanding within each function, as well as capabilities.”
Deliberate disruption of employees who had mastered their own role, but knew little about their colleague’s responsibilities, developed a more robust understanding of the holistic functioning of HR, and how to improve it.
Job swapping is only one strategy to put employees on new learning curves, help break down silos, and maximize shared organizational learning. Ongoing training and educational opportunities, job sharing, mentoring and outreach programs are a few other examples. You can get creative in how you mix things up, move people around, and offer employees new opportunities.
By creating an ecosystem that fuels continued learning, an organization builds capacity ahead of the competition. And research indicates that the companies that survive are those that develop capacity — new technical skills and domain expertise, greater adaptability, and ways of leveraging institutional memory — before they need it. This capacity weakens when too many good people leave for greener pastures.
A lively ecosystem — where different parts interact with one another — helps people grow, generates capacity, and keeps the ecosystem flourishing. An early 20th-century scholar, Thomas Troward, wrote, “Life ultimately consists in circulation, whether within the physical body of the individual or on the scale of the entire solar system; and circulation means a continual flowing around, and the spirit of opulence is no different….If we choke the outlet the current must slacken, and a full and free flow can be obtained only by keeping it open.”
If individuals aren’t learning, neither is the organization. It becomes like stagnant water with the outlet choked off: unmoving, increasingly algae ridden and surfaced with scum. It’s the opposite of a flowing river or the power of the ocean tides. When we facilitate learning, even require it of individuals, we create new carrying capacity for growth throughout our organizational ecosystem. If we don’t…well, we live or die by the growth of our people.