07 Jan 2016 19:52 IST

All about the Learnability Quotient

Not only must we keep learning but also focus on constantly building our ‘learnability quotient’

As students and practitioners of leadership, we are often told about the importance of a good IQ or intelligence quotient, combined with a good EQ or emotional quotient. Ram Charan and Larry Bossidy added in the XQ, or Execution Quotient, through their book Execution. This refers to the ability to get things done. But there is a fourth quotient that today’s and tomorrow’s business leaders will need. That is LQ, or our ‘learnability quotient’.

What is LQ?

Simply put, it is the ability to keep learning. To be able to unlearn old skills, knowledge and attitudes that have outlived their usefulness. To learn new skills, gain new knowledge and build new attitudes. Especially in our educational years, we focus mainly on our acquisition of knowledge, the learning piece. But as knowledge becomes rapidly outdated, it is the ‘learnability’ quotient that often counts for more than just learning and will have a greater impact on our effectiveness, relevance and impact.

Why is LQ important?

The pace of change today, has moved LQ from being a nice-to-have to a must-have trait. Our ‘older’ generation saw substantial changes. We saw the first mobile phones, the first email, the first colour televisions. That counts for a lot of change and yet it would still be like ‘rowing on placid water’ compared to the changes that generations of today and tomorrow will face.

Their world would be a ‘permanent white-water’ world - requiring people who can navigate the rapids- constantly. If the ‘older’ generation had business, product and economic life cycles with smooth up and down curves often spanning many years, the generation of today and tomorrow will face cycles that resemble the ECG graph of a person having a heart attack. Their business cycles could rise and fall in months, weeks, sometimes days.

Consider this: The telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million users, the radio took 38 years. The internet, by contrast took four years to hit that same number of users, and Angry Birds took all of 35 days!! How would a five-year business plan or strategy survive in this kind of a world?

The shelf life of everything shrinks. Business plans need to be swiftly reworked, start-ups find they have to rapidly pivot, employees find themselves redundant overnight, as new skills are demanded from a new breed of customer. Corporate graveyards are filled with former superstars. Not because they were incompetent, but because they demonstrated poor learnability, coasting on earlier strengths while the world around them required new ones.

This means that we certainly have to keep building our learning, but also focus on constantly building our ‘learnability quotient’ by challenging ourselves to go outside our comfort zone.

How can we build our LQ?

Go off-road: Read outside your area of specialisation. Often, the business student or practitioner can get valuable clues to upcoming changes simply by studying what’s going on in a different area. Can the Finance student borrow innovation ideas from what’s happening in Retail, or in e-commerce?

Do we spend most of our time talking to the same group of friends, fellow-students, colleagues? What learning is possible by picking up a conversation with someone outside ‘my circle’? From someone who is studying something else, teaching something else, working in a different industry, from a different country.

Vishal Sikka is getting everyone at Infosys to learn ‘design thinking’. He considers it important enough to get everyone in the organisation on this learning journey because he sees it not just as a useful new skill, but as a lever to transform the business, to define its new strategy.

Ask ‘What-If’: Ask yourself- what if my entire target customer base disappeared? What if a Maggi Noodles type of situation hit my product ? How does a car company heavily focused on diesel vehicles cope with the sudden push against diesel cars? This activates the ‘learnability’ spaces in our brains — forcing us to question strengths taken for granted, reinvent processes and systems, research new models.

Watch how Indra Nooyi is trying to transform Pepsi from the company that makes ‘fattening drinks’ to the ‘healthy food and drinks’ company? What ‘learnability’ lessons can she teach us?

Define yourself not by what you do, but by what you have: The IRCTC - the booking portal of the Indian Railways, is a great example of applying this. If they continued defining themselves as the portal for booking train tickets, they would have been overtaken by changes around them.

Instead, by looking at what they have — a huge customer database, a great technology infrastructure, high volume visits — they chose to define themselves as ‘people movers’. This drove their ‘learnability’. Today you can book a flight ticket on IRCTC or a hotel, you can track where your train is on an app and book your meals. In the same way, how can learnability create new career options, fast-track a project, drive innovation and bring us to contribute in new ways.

As Alvin Toffler put it: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”. Let’s start putting that in our everyday routines — learning, unlearning, relearning.

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