Business leaders are always striving to identify what makes their organisations successful so that they can build and maintain a good, long-lasting reputation. The attitude of the leaders themselves can have a significant impact. Gurus such as Peter Senge of Massachusetts Institute of Technology say that successful organisations should develop a 'learning' culture, which is encouraged from the top down. Others, such as Noel Tichy of Michigan, in his recent book The Leadership Engine, espouse the theory that the most successful organisations create a climate in which managers at all levels are encouraged to teach their staff. Teacher or pupil: who is right?
The answer is, both. It is arrogant, short-sighted and regressive for a leader to teach but not learn. Teachings can become stale and one should never stand still while the world moves on. At the opposite extreme, the leader who learns but fails to stimulate his or her team through teaching, to communicate new ideas, is merely a receptor with the transmit button permanently switched off.
Leaders must keep both channels open. Teaching and learning go hand-in-hand. They are often simultaneous and symbiotic activities. They form the basis for growth and enduring success in an organisation and are unquestionably one of the prerequisites for lifelong development.
There is plenty of research, based on everyday examples, which backs up this academic debate. The best focuses on the mindsets of organisations that are too often crippled by inherited, out-of-date 'legacy' systems and processes. For too long, I have heard customers, and even my own executives, complain about these systems. When a solution to the problem is developed, it is usually a nouveau legacy system, which is then passed on to the detriment of the next generation.
The millennium issue is a good case in point. Just how did the world walk blind-folded into it? Did we not realise that after 99 came 00? The truth is that we allowed a legacy mindset to take us on auto-pilot to the greatest single threat to the benefits derived from the technology revolution of the recent past. We must learn from this failure and teach our next generation to have greater foresight. The legacy mindsets of executives and staff, who try by stealth, by ignorance or by inertia to protect the status quo, live in a bygone age. They are obsolete. They also selfishly pursue a philosophy more dangerous than any technology failure.
Lifelong learning is more than a fad or fashion - it is the driver of individual and corporate life. It must be grounded in commercial reality, however. It is not good enough to create innovative education vehicles that are all hype and little substance. Take the University for Industry, it is neither universal nor industrial. Nor should this initiative, which has excellent potential, be called 'Learning Direct' as if education is a product that can be purchased by means of the internet or a telephone call centre.
Lifelong learning has three elements: life, which is about living, creating, evolving and growing; long, which is about enduring or sustaining, with no precise start or finish; and learning, which is the conscious and subconscious adding of value to corporate and personal material and intellectual wealth.
In corporate life, the learning must be founded in the personal practices (I prefer this to the term values) that set the tone for behaviour.
Let this not be stifled by the gobbledegook vocabulary of the human resource professional, nor the carefully honed prose of the communications experts.
Rather, by helping those professions to add their expertise constructively, we may enrich the lives of employees and corporations alike and ensure that their full contribution is fully appreciated.
To support a strategy of lifelong learning goes beyond corporate life.
It is a major social issue. Motorola University is an excellent example of this, where learning starts with parenting skills for those employees and their partners who are about to have a baby, and extends to seniors preparing for and participating in the opportunity of retirement.
To be competitive, Britain needs a well-trained workforce; it needs well-founded and vigorous research applied to business and to wealth creation; and it needs highly motivated and well-educated executives.
Increasingly, these executives should be hired from a graduate pool where core competencies such as communication skills, team work, innovation and the like are taught, recognised and measured along with academic disciplines.
The availability of higher education to mature students is a positive manifestation of this need. However, recent figures from Universities Central Admissions Service show a worryingly sharp reduction in applications from mature students.
Beyond the commercial imperative is the need for individual, social and ethical enrichment through lifelong learning. It is no longer acceptable (if indeed it ever has been) for corporate values, shareholder interest and their associated paraphernalia to be out of balance with societal issues.
Like many organisations, NatWest uses the 'balanced business scorecard' as a performance management tool. Other similar instruments are equally valuable - but they are still weak in some areas. Because it is intrinsically difficult to define measures for innovation and organisational development, and to monitor and benchmark them, they have been neglected at the expense of more easily measured financial, operational and customer related factors.
It has proved even harder to measure ethical and social issues. Unfortunately, the same applies to lifelong learning itself.
We must find measures that reflect creative growth, endurance without obsolescence, and demonstrable added value. Then, and only then, will we in corporate life begin to take a valuable role in solving society's urgent need to enrich the quality of life and ensure that the next generation learns from the teaching of its elders. The next generation must, in turn, recognise that their children will often be the best teachers in the new environment and that, as parents, they will be the most reluctant learners.