Will marketing organizations ever “learn?”

Building a learning organization is tough work but extremely valuable. According to Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline, one of my favorite books of all time, “Learning organizations are where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to learn together.” When this happens in a marketing organization it can have a transformative impact on an entire business.

With the pace of change in marketing, the need for marketers to learn and to share what they learn with their peers has never been higher. In a recent conversation with Randy Gier, former CMO at Pepsico’s FritoLay business and then at Cadbury Schweppes, I was reminded of the simple things that lead to solving complex challenges. Randy was responsible for building an internal learning system that was used by his marketers around the globe. It helped marketers learn from their peers the things that worked and those that didn’t work when it came to launching new products or executing new campaigns. I believe there were three keys to what made this system work:

1. The input process was simple but meaningful. All programs had common information, such as the business objective, the key activities and the final outcomes. So if a product manager in Brazil wanted to test-market guacamole-flavored potato chips, she could learn from her peer in Mexico, who had already tried such an effort.

2. There was trust within the organization that the information was to be used for shared learning and not as a punishment system for failed experiments. Building such a culture takes time and the commitment of management to reinforce the desired behavior (shared learning) and minimize the undesired behavior (public floggings).

3. There was peer pressure and management support to make the system work. If personnel in a marketing office were not contributing effectively they would hear about it from the other offices at their annual marketing summit. Effective contributors were recognized, which further encouraged participation.

Most of us could learn from Randy that the key to effective marketing is learning. If you have implemented approaches that help your organization’s IQ, please send them my way.