I recently spoke to about 150 executives, mostly men, all of whom were university educated and about 40 years of age. I asked how many were currently enrolled in any kind of study program -- university, college, executive education, or a course. Just one hand was raised. Shocked, I asked, "In your opinion, when does one's formal education end?" Embarrassed silence. The best companies in the world recognize that learning never ends. At Dana Corp., all employees must complete 40 hours of education each year. The Toledo-based company spent about $32.5 million on employee training programs in 1999, and has three Dana University schools. IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., invests 6% of profits on education. Merck & Co. Inc., Whitehouse Station, N.J., spent approximately $100 million on employee and skills development in 1999, or about 3.5% of payroll. Abbott Laboratories, Abbott Park, Ill., offers one-week management and three-week leadership development programs. I've taught the Abbott faculty for six years, and I often tell them their dedication to learning is one of the best reasons to buy Abbott stock: Companies that invest heavily in learning are investing in their future. The most valuable employee benefit today no longer is a handsome health-care plan or retirement portfolio, it is the right to learn. One of the most important criteria used by job seekers when selecting an employer is the opportunity for personal growth, and learning is the path to that growth. Our challenge is to learn so that our skills remain market-relevant, as well as to learn fast enough to keep pace with change. With Internet traffic doubling every 100 days, lifelong learning is no longer an option, it is an imperative. Doomsayers warn us that an economic downturn will inevitably appear. But, in truth, there have been no recessions, and there probably will not be any. There certainly has been and will be irrelevance, though, and learning is our inoculation against irrelevance. Irrelevance takes two forms. First there's marketplace irrelevance. When organizations cease to provide products or services that are relevant to their marketplace, they become irrelevant to their customers, resulting in a decline in sales and profits. This inevitably leads to layoffs, which of course are blamed on "the economy" instead of the real cause, which is management's failure to recognize and react to change caused by inadequate listening and learning. The second form of irrelevance is caused by employees who, blind to the changes swirling around them, do not take learning seriously, coast on their existing skills, and assume that their old competencies will last a lifetime. Soon the market changes, their skills become irrelevant, and they find themselves a candidate for downsizing. On the other hand, employees who upgrade their skills and partner with leaders -- who encourage and finance their professional and personal development -- are insulated from this sad byproduct of irrelevance. Lucent Technologies Inc., Murray Hill, N.J., employs 120,000 people. Last year the company received 150,000 applications and had a voluntary turnover rate of 1%. One of the main attractions of Lucent is a tuition-reimbursement program, including up to $7,000 for undergraduate studies and $9,000 for graduate programs. What makes Lucent one of the hottest companies in the world is its dedication to learning; after all, knowledge is all Lucent has to sell, and relevance in its high-tech business can evaporate in 30 days. When we are committed to learning, wisdom will follow. Learning is achieved by acquiring information, whereas wisdom is acquired by letting go of previously learned information. For example, none of us is born with prejudice -- discrimination is a learned behavior. Unlearning this behavior requires us to unlearn our long-held beliefs and behaviors. Thus growth requires both learning and wisdom. Learning is good for the soul and leads to regeneration. Learning is the fuel of the soul, and without it we cannot grow, and without growth our souls wither.
Lance Secretan is an advisor to leaders, a public speaker, and a recipient of the 1999 International Caring Award, presented by the Caring Institute, Washington, D.C. Author of nine books, including Inspirational Leadership, Destiny, Calling and Cause (1999, CDG Books), Secretan can be reached at [email protected].