Few people ever recall
who finished in second place. This is most evident in automobile racing,
whether it is the international Formula 1, the annual “greatest
spectacle in racing” at Indianapolis, the thundering NASCAR circuit, or
the more than 250,000 dirt tracks around the United States.
racing draws more spectators than any other sport. It’s not because of
the danger, although the prospect of a crash certainly holds the crowd’s
interest. What brings people out, time and again, is the simple
demonstration that “he who learns fastest wins, but winning once does
not guarantee winning again.” The spectators as well as the drivers
understand that principle intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally.
Although most spectators do not apply that rule in their own lives after
they leave the track, the winners do, 24 hours a day, until the next
race. They exemplify the difference between learning by watching,
learning by miming, and learning by doing.
The rate of
learning in automobile racing is probably the highest of that in any
organized human endeavor, including in the world’s best research labs,
because winning—or even finishing—requires a wide variety of successful
“doing.” Each race track is unique. Each lap around the track presents
different traffic conditions. Each turn on a lap presents varying road
conditions. Drivers, builders, and pit crew members all have “bad hair
days.” The variety, excitement, and suspense of automobile racing is why
Dennis Buede of the Stevens Institute of Technology and Bill Mackey of
the University of Maryland believe that it provides the ideal learning
environment for their graduate students in systems engineering. Others
interested in learning cultures likely would discover new answers to
their questions by spending 12 hours at a race track with Roger Penske,
Richard Childress, or Virginia’s own Leonard Wood.
doesn’t guarantee learning. Winning can stall learning if winners begin
to think they are superior or pay more attention to garnering praise and
fame than to continuing to learn. Arrogance is a sad harbinger of a
winning is preferable, learning by losing is another good way of
learning by doing. After Vic Edelbrock, Sr., founded the Edelbrock
Corporation in 1938, one of his favorite sayings was, “Buy three of each
part. After we have ruined two while learning what won’t work, we will
have one left for building the winner.” Sixty-four years later,
Edelbrock continues learning by doing as the innovation and sales leader
in the automotive high-performance aftermarket.
the consistent winners have learned that assembling the most
knowledgeable and motivated people is not sufficient. Rather, the key is
whether the working group becomes a learning group. The diagnostic
ability of the driver–crew chief pair is critical to making the right
choices in more than a dozen adjustments on the car. The pit crew,
through its elaborate choreography, seeks to save a tenth of a second.
Back at the garage, the 20 or more engine builders, chassis builders,
test and instrumentation people, and their respective suppliers must
collaborate at the idea level regarding design and fabrication as
successfully as the pit crew does at the physical level.
challenge in creating a team learning culture is to harmonize
competition and collaboration. Many a highly talented person, fiercely
dedicated to winning in competitions, simply cannot collaborate in
doing, let alone in colearning by doing. Transforming a person’s values
to team winning without suppressing the urge to innovate is key.
Personal and group learning must meld into a specific “feel” that
permeates the team.
the automobile racing analogy just a little further, consider that an
engine uses air and fuel to produce horsepower for the drive wheels,
which, barring loss of traction, overcome both inherent inertia and
motion-induced drag to maximize the speed of the racecar. Often the
fastest car does not win because the engine fails, the tires overheat,
or some other weak link becomes overstressed. The winner is the fastest
car that finishes. In business, air is ideas, fuel is cash, drive wheels
are the products and services that carry value to customers, and
traction is the strength of the network of relationships throughout the
team. Horsepower feels a lot like enthusiasm, which can overcome both
structural inertia and dynamic drag, also known as fear. Enthusiasm,
coupled with a learning culture, can even transform negative energy into
increased motivation, which leads to superlative results.
the learning? Learning is everywhere and happens every time someone
wonders which ideas to pursue, what proportion of profits should be used
for what purposes, how to generate enthusiasm, or whether the wheels are
spinning because the right relationships do not exist. However, lack of
knowledge or integrity—or too much greed—can overstress any one of these
factors and create a loser.
organizations cannot get a grip on learning. Learning is necessarily
multifaceted, but most organizations are filled with linear thinkers
(this event causes that result) or scenario thinkers (these related
events combine to cause that pattern of results) but few thinkers who
consider entire systems (when salespeople overcommit our production, the
factory output is actually below full capability). Besides, when joining
the race, most organizations believe that business is about generating
profit, not about learning.
Types of Doing, Types of Learning
not guarantee learning. Performing mindless activities by rote takes a
long time, and the doer ends up learning little. Achieving a
straightforward goal that is well within reach contributes more
learning, but not all that much. When a person takes on a challenging
goal at the edge of the unknown, learning accelerates.
at least three types of learning by doing. One type takes place at the
visceral level, as demonstrated by the choreography of the pit crew.
Another type exercises the mental level, as can be seen by drivers who
learn as much or more between races and during the off-season as they do
out on the track.
in this instance the driver is learning through reflection, examination,
and practice—a kind of doing and learning that is very different from
that which takes place during an actual race. This type of learning is
also reported by golfers, who watch instant video playback to study
is what causes all types of learning to occur. Other ingredients of
learning are purpose, nourishment, tenacity, and time.
type of learning by doing is less tangible. It involves formulating
propositions and vetting them in order to delete the ones that do not
make sense. This kind of learning is often mistaken for abstract
thinking or the dialectic of logicians. However, it is different in two
ways. First, the effort is to understand a system of relationships and
their dynamics, and to develop several propositions and focus on how
they interact. Second, it is more than a mental exercise because the
person becomes one with the physical world and arrives at a heightened
understanding and sense of harmony. This phenomenon is reported not only
by racecar drivers but also by musicians and other performers. And in a
group setting, the ability to share this “feel” determines who becomes a
part of the team and who does not.
what causes all types of learning to occur. Other ingredients of
learning are purpose, nourishment, tenacity, and time. But without the
doing part, as is well known, retention suffers and the ability to apply
what was learned degrades quickly. And the vetting of doing helps ensure
that what is applied makes sense.
alternative to practicing doing in the real world is to practice doing
in a simulated world, especially for the second and third types of
learning. An effective learning culture arranges for the joy of
achievement while immersing participants in realistic environments that
protect them against undue penalty for error (no sense discovering
gravity by being the apple). This aspect of a learning culture creates
opportunities for the learner to discern, firsthand, without chance for
denial, the results of his or her decisions. Such objectivism is
essential. Just as scrimmaging is a valuable form of doing, realistic
simulations hasten learning.
pilot is not allowed to fly a real jet without first spending hours in a
flight simulator. The same should be true for CEOs, who all too often
are hired without anyone testing whether they can cope with the
challenges of the job. This insanity is slowly coming to an end. GE’s
manager development program has used business simulations for more than
40 years, most authored by David Sims. Also, several rudimentary
management games are now commercially available. As managers begin to
emerge from the video game generation, this way of learning by doing
will become standard practice, probably even featuring tournaments on
the Internet. In fact, the technology exists with which managers can
build business simulations by describing their own enterprises. Such
descriptions can be translated to a computer-executable program that
exhibits the characteristics of the enterprise as if it were actually
operating. Beyond allowing team members to scrimmage in a “war games”
fashion, this software can be executed as a situationally sensitive
TelePrompTer that guides managers and nonmanagers alike as each acts out
his or her role. It can even ensure that legal and ethical guidelines
are honored while business is carried out on behalf of all stakeholders.
software will also show what is not happening. Quality guru Phil Crosby
has noted that as organizations get larger, managers find it
increasingly difficult to know what is happening and practically
impossible to know what is not happening. Realistic business simulations
that let employees play the roles of competitors can help this
situation. Further, because simulations lead to a high-fidelity
representation of the enterprise, minute by minute, such folding of
planning and reflection onto operations allows managers to perform,
adapt, and align simultaneously, which is the ultimate in learning by
qualified to prepare such simulations and models? Only those involved.
MYOB, model your own business, is the best advice any manager can
receive. When managers set out to see their business as a system, to
describe the entities and relationships and to reach consensus on what
actually goes on in the business, they pursue a challenging goal that
pays great rewards when achieved. An amazing number of viewpoints and
disagreements that have been corroding business processes rise to the
surface. No wonder larger companies are less productive and innovative
than smaller ones are. They have exponentially more unresolved, even
unrecognized, conflicts that interfere with their attempts to learn.
fosters the third type of learning by doing described earlier: the doing
that develops systems thinking. When people construct a model of their
organization, they come to a deep understanding of the elements at work
and how they interact. They realize, for instance, that responses to
requests are determined more by the nature of the interactions than by
the competency of an individual. However, we do not want to engage in
just intellectual systems thinking. We want systems doing—systems
thinking that is grounded in real-world results, as in the first and
second types of learning by doing. To return to automobile racing, for
example, we may decide that a greater angle on the aerodynamic lip at
the rear of the car will shorten the time through Turn 4. It does, but
it causes the car to push, thus putting wear and tear on the tires
during Turn 2. This vetting of hypotheses is accomplished in minutes at
the race track instead of hours in the wind tunnel or at the computer-
In this way
we shall learn to model, and thus manage, the key entities in a business
system: the people and, more important, their relationships. We now have
the technology to do so. Rudolph Starkerman has produced a model of
robots in groups engaged in a process. He has associated the 23
parameters in this model with the attributes of a person involved in a
one-on-one interaction. We
can now explore how these parameters implicitly interact to establish
the trajectory of the microculture that will be created by any set of
people. We can anticipate the effects of environment, nourishment, and
purpose on colearning. Further, we can show people what they are doing
for, and to, one another that is at odds with their best interests. In
this way they can understand both the best learning culture and how to
type of learning by doing, systems doing, is a prerequisite to
arranging, implementing, and sustaining a culture for tripartite
learning. No longer must we manage with linear archetypes, which allowed
the multibillion-dollar debacle known as business process reengineering.
No wonder all those employees with common sense rebelled. Ironically,
their rebellion gave rise to programs for quelling resistance to change,
which, based on further linear thinking, proved equally futile.
systems doing, we can observe a set of people voluntarily bound by
mutual purpose. Each acts independently, no two alike, such that the
combined effect takes them closer to their goal. Each coadapts as his or
her individual situation changes so that together they are still
pursuing their goal. Such coadaptation necessarily involves colearning,
which, of course, happens fastest through collaboration. This is not a
picture of a utopian company. This is a description of the moment by
moment doing while learning in today’s few leading- edge enterprises.
managers are still convinced that the organization is too busy to take
time “away from work” for learning. Once we understand the self-aligning
and self-cleansing power of learning by doing, we will be able to create
true learning cultures. When we all spend our days learning by all three
types of doing, then we will all be winners.
Starkerman’s work is summarized in William L. Livingston,
FL: FES Publishing, 1990), Appendix 1.
Jack Ring lives in Arizona and has 45 years of experience as
an intrapreneur and executive in a variety of businesses. He applies
systems thinking, dynamics, and management to making enterprises
intelligent. He is a member of the Chaordic Commons, the
International Council on Systems Engineering, and the American
Association for Artificial Intelligence, and is the convener of the
INTelligent ENTerprises Alliance.
Contact him directly.
(c) 2002 The Darden School Foundation.
This article was originally published in
Transforming Culture: An Executive Briefing on the Power of Learning.
It is reprinted here with permission.