This month's issue: The Learning Proposition.
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A Newsletter from Creative Ventures

Issue #105

Big News

I wish I were articulate enough to find the best way to say how grateful Colin and I are that the world has spun in a manner to allow us to connect with you... and that the value of our ideas, successful application, and impact continue to drive Creative Ventures for over 30 years is the miracle we share. So we simply say THANK YOU for another year of adventure, challenge, creative impact, and friendship. May you have a joyful and grace-filled holiday season. We'll see you after the calendar page turns to a new year. 

On December 13, Colin and his high school sweetheart Anna will tie the knot here in Austin. Laura and I are so proud of them and can't wait to have Anna join the Harvill clan! Our joy is boundless. Thank you. 



The Learning Proposition:

If you think education is expensive, try the cost of ignorance. 

-Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University

I sat with three young sales professionals at the request of their manager to discuss what was identified as their shared weakness, poor presentation skills. I started with a Socratic opening, "Tell me about your presentation skills." So begins this story...

Each of the young sales persons told me about an experience of freezing during a presentation, forgetting where they were in the context of the program. They spoke of their throats' contracting and mouths as dry as the Sahara. They said, if asked a question they struggled to find the answer, even though they knew the material. One of them summed it up by saying, "We suck!"

I asked them to tell me about the training they had received around this critical sales ability. They reported having received no training. They lamented how they had asked for help, but despite the recognition of need, the company simply had not provided any. In fact, these three said they were working with me  on their own dollar. 

So, this article is not about the significant benefit of strong presentation skills (though it could be), but is instead about learning as a strategic imperative, a process that provides you with a true competitive advantage. 

Creating strong education programs is a cultural fundamental in successful companies, none more so than the internet retailer ZAPPOS.


At ZAPPOS, the entire culture is based around learning. Your first month is spent in training where you are introduced to the Who, What, and How of the company's delivery of their legendary customer service. 

The ZAPPOS School of WOW features extensive training and learning in everything from front-line customer service to leadership. Despite the expense associated with this strong commitment to learning, the leaders at ZAPPOS knew education was an element that they could control and that it would help separate them in a crowded internet market. The impact? Unable to compete against this cultural juggernaut, in 2009 Amazon paid $1.2 billion to buy these shoe guys. 

The commitment to organizational learning is neither a cheap nor simple proposition. There is no such thing as the effortless acquisition of knowledge and skill. Developing a company-driven, high impact learning program is both tricky and touchy. Many attempts at creating curriculum fail due to a lack of understanding how to connect content that is relevant and impactful to what the company actually does. 

Many companies look at learning as "one offs." Send employees to a generic communication class or leadership program and then bring 'em back. Bingo! Effortless and inexpensive training...not! Good learning is based on connections: connecting content to desired outcome, connecting delivery to interaction, and most importantly, connecting all of it to the application within the context of your specific business. 

Leading organizations are about learned (and taught) agility. They can move and shift because they have learned how. They support education in both industry specific areas and in general skills such as thinking, communication, leadership, and problem solving. This balance builds strong teams and supports the development and growth of results. 

The analytics software giant SAS is consistently voted the number one place to work in the world. Their commitment to employee training is legendary and their corporate mission states it loud and clear. 

So take a few minutes to consider your learning programs. What level of commitment is there to the development of skills in your company? What is your new employee introduction process (often called "boarding")? If you are looking to separate and differentiate yourself in a world of commodities, teach your people to better and challenge them to lead with new skills. 



Do This!

OWNERSHIP: The success of any educational initiative has to be driven by the leadership of the company. Without the ownership of learning as a strategic element, a valued piece of the company "plan," the chance of success is minimal. At every company where training is an imperative, you will find leadership at the top of the learning ladder. 

At ZAPPOS, Tony Hsieh is at the helm of promoting learning as a cultural cornerstone, and at SAS James Goodnight is the leader of employee development. Without the enrollment of the top tier of leadership, education will never become woven into the DNA fiber of the company. 

FIT - The biggest mistake we see in the development and delivery of curriculum is client misunderstanding of what we call THE FIT. Not all learning cultures are the same. Some are in the genesis phase, just coming out of their developmental cocoon. Others are fully developed and adding needed pieces here or there to fit the existing model. Learning needs to be designed and delivered to fit the cultures of the company and the industry in which the company serves. The customer service skills needed in an architectural firm will be different than those in the medical field. Fit is essential to the success of any training program structure, so give it its due emphasis. 

ACCOUNTABLE APPLICATION - The idea behind learning is that it will have a direct beneficial application for both the business and the participant. Achieving this requires a firm follow-up process based on the application of the new skills and knowledge. There needs to be a strong practice in place to check new skills against their application and to hold those responsible to make a difference with what they have learned. Impact requires the demonstration of what is learned. At ZAPPOS, learning and its direct application make up 50% of their performance review process, 50%! It will be a wasted effort to teach, to make learning a critical piece of culture, and not demand demonstrable results from that effort. 




AH, LIFE:  Coca-Cola is at it again. They are always pushing barriers and launching new ideas on a global level. You probably don't think of Coke as one of the most innovative companies out there, but you'd be wrong. The new Coke Life product is showing amazing signs of being another success. Coke Life is an 8 oz. 60 calorie product with no artificial sweeteners. Over 70% of those in the test market give Coke Life 4 out of 5 stars for taste. The green-labeled product has a unique look on the shelf. Over 50% of test stores sold out and 80% say they would buy it again, requesting that management keep it on the shelves!

OLD SCHOOL, REALLY OLD SCHOOL: In a world of data avalanches and the constant barrage of emails from retailers (remember when you checked that box that said it was OK to send you product info 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?) we have to hand it to IKEA. The Scandinavian big box retailer with everything from meatballs to full kitchens has taken a giant step back with the release of the book, an analog approach to showing off their stuff, a a paper catalog! The idea is a good fit with their pared-down design philosophy (count me out on do-it-youself stuff, as I have only two tools: one is a hammer and the other isn't). This video shows how humor and a little old school marketing can still fit our digital world.

THE PODCAST AS A STORYTELLING TOOL: The humble podcast, whose history begins in the 1980's with the advent of broadband internet and picks up speed with the now ubiquitous MP3 player (oh hell, we should just say iPod), is gaining new followers with the incredible quality of programming. The new true crime podcast SERIAL (, brought to us by the makers of This American Life, is a fantastic example of the growth and creative direction you can find in podcasts. My friend, David Wilcox, turned me on to 99% Invisible (, a podcast series that focuses on design. There are so many great podcasts, and the best part is that you can listen to them anywhere. Jump in and you will find yourself subscribing to a new world of storytelling!
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