The ultimate business survival skill during times of change


We’re living in incredibly turbulent times.

The well-spring of this uncertainty lies in one of the unique characteristics of the times in which we live — rapid change.

The pace of change in our economy, in our culture, in our institutions and in our industries and businesses is unprecedented in human history. Businesspeople are in the middle of this tidal way of turbulence and daily are being buffeted by this increasingly rapid rate of change.

Driving this unprecedented pace of change is the expansion in the amount of information we create. Consider this: In 1900, the total amount of knowledge available to mankind was doubling about every 500 years. That meant that in our great grandparents’ lifetime, things changed slowly. Our great grandparents lived in the same type of houses, worked in the same kind of jobs, and interacted with the same kind of social structures as their parents. In the year 2000, that same measurement — the quantity of information — was doubling about every two years. Today, according to some, the rate of change is doubling every 30 days!

That means new products, new regulations, new market configurations, new customers and new technology in almost every industry. It’s no wonder we’re confused and uncertain about what to do.

And the growth of that knowledge continues at an expanding rate. One futurist predicts that today’s high school students will have to absorb more information in their senior year alone than their grandparents did in their entire lifetime.

That incredibly rapid pace of new knowledge is driving the forces of change at an unprecedented rate. The effect of that snowballing rate of change on our businesses and our jobs can be cataclysmic.

Indications are that this rapid state of change will not be a temporary phenomenon we all must live through. Rather, it will be the permanent condition we must accept for the foreseeable future.

That means it is likely that the conclusions, paradigms and core beliefs upon which we based our decisions just two or three years ago are obsolete today. Even more sobering, the conclusions and strategies which we develop today will be obsolete in a couple of years.

One of my clients recently told his employees, “The only thing you can count on is that you won’t be doing this job in three years.” His point was that the job will change in that period of time to such a degree that it’ll be a different job. The technology used will likely change, as will the customers, the systems and the focus of the job.

The insightful person will accept that rapid change is now a defining characteristic of our economy and plan to deal with it effectively on an ongoing basis. Our ability to change ourselves and our organizations at least as rapidly as the world is changing around us will be single greatest challenge of our professional careers.

What’s the best way to go forward in the light of this rapid change? What mindsets can we adopt that will equip us to survive and prosper in turbulent times?

The solution

I believe there is one core skill that will define the most successful individuals and organizations. It’s the ability and propensity to engage in purposeful, self-directed learning. The only sustainable effective response to a rapidly changing world is cultivating the ability to positively transform ourselves and our organizations.

Our most powerful positive response is to cultivate the ability to learn. By “learning,” I don’t mean just the acquisition of new information, although that is a prerequisite. Rather, I mean the kind of learning that requires one to change behavior on the basis of an ever-changing understanding of the world. Learning without behavior change is impotent.

The individuals who become disciplined, systematic and purposeful self-directed learners will be the success stories of the new economy. Likewise, those organizations which become learning organizations will have the best chance of surviving and prospering.

The most skilled entrepreneurs, executives and employees, therefore, will be the ones who can continually assess the changing facts and growing complexity of their jobs, and then change appropriately.

As the economy becomes more and more global, competition will increase. Few businesses will enjoy a secure market position. The quality of competition also will improve as competitors strive to out-do one another in providing customer service and value-added products and services. In this new economy, those who survive and prosper will be those who know how to learn, and who do so faster and more systematically than their competitors.

How, then, do you instill this “purposeful, self-directed learning” in your organization?


Today’s learning, at least for businesspeople on the job, always involves changed behavior. In other words, for you to learn something, you must do something differently.

Knowledge at this level — if it is isolated and unapplied — is virtually useless. That is different from the kind of knowledge which drives a change in behavior. The key indicator is behavioral change.


This learning has an end in mind. Purposeful learning begins with the end — the purpose — as the starting point.

On the job, purposeful learning focuses on improving your skills so that you can do your job more effectively or broadening your skills so that you qualify for another position.

So, for example, a salesperson who takes an online course in selling is improving his/her job skills. That same salesperson who enrolls in a course in sales management is investing in acquiring skills and competencies that will qualify him or her for a promotion.


In both examples above, the individual initiated the learning experience to become better. That’s what makes them self-directed.

Not all purposeful learning is self-directed. From my experience, those executives, professionals and workers who take the initiative to improve themselves and gain additional skills are in the minority. Those who create their own learning experiences are more likely to rise to the top of their professions and gain the positions of influence in an organization.

But just because someone is not “self-directed” does not mean that purposeful learning is not for them. As a veteran sales trainer, very few of the salespeople we train would have taken the course on their own, yet they can gain new competencies and skills and become more effective for their employers and more richly compensated themselves.

Here are six disciplines for self-directed learners:

  • Set aside dedicated time for learning
  • Expose yourself to differing ideas
  • Ask questions
  • Take risks with a project outside your comfort zone
  • Reflect, consolidate and commit
  • Include your employees, family and those you influence

If you find yourself in a leadership position, instill purposeful, self-directed learning in your people. Here are three tactics to begin the process:

Wipe the slate clean

Just because something is, doesn’t mean it should be. The reason you started doing something may no longer exist. Remember, with a world turning over more or less completely every two to three years, any decision or procedure which had its roots in a situation which is three or more years old may not be justified today.

That principle can be applied in every area of your business, from something so fundamental and important as your method of reaching your customers, to something as mundane as the way you answer the phone or fill out a receiving document.

Use a strategic emphasis

Build in the need to become a learning organization in the most fundamental building blocks of your business.

Write it into your mission statement. Get the board to pass a resolution advocating it. Display your commitment to it prominently in your personnel manual.

Also, make sure to model learning behavior yourself.

Make it part of the job description

Begin to create learning expectations for yourself and all your employees. Talk about their need to learn and grow.

Then encourage, develop and support learning opportunities throughout your organization.

Begin to implement these strategies, and you’ll take the first steps to transforming your organization into a learning organization.

Dave Kahle is an author, consultant and speaker who has presented in 47 states and 11 countries, improved the performance of thousands of B2B salespeople and authored 13 books. Receive his insights on a regular basis here:

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