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Human Resources Officers

Companies that learn together, earn together

Subscribe to Human Resources Officers 5/18/2017 Roch Parayre

Learn together earn together

You and your customers may work in different sectors of an industry, operate within different organizational structures, or be located in different geographies, but you have one very important thing in common: you both need to learn in order to adapt and succeed. So why not learn alongside your customers and strengthen your relationships in the process? That’s the idea behind a trend that can best be described as customer-centric co-learning, where organizations and their customers come together to learn side by side in an executive education–type setting.

General Electric is already famous for the leadership development programs for company managers that it offers at its leadership center in Crotonville, New York. It is also one of the best examples of a company that has embraced—and benefitted from—a customer-centric co-learning model. Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching at more than half a dozen of GE’s co-learning events around the globe, and I can tell you firsthand that the inherent value of co-learning with customers is immense. Not unlike the benefits of co-creation, which show that developing beta products with active users works much better than traditional iterative improvement techniques, co-learning offers the opportunity to work collaboratively with key influencers to strengthen business relationships in ways that can’t necessarily be achieved otherwise.

In GE’s case, here’s how it works:

The company identifies its top customers and partners and invites them to send a small cohort of executives to participate in the learning experience. Most events I’ve been involved with are capped at about 120 participants (10 senior executives from 12 customer companies), which is a small enough group to remain intimate, while also offering diverse perspectives and viewpoints.

The course, which typically runs for one week, is designed to focus on one area or theme that is particularly relevant for the specific audience. The company assembles a team of presenters—educators and thought leaders who specialize in that area—while tapping GE representatives to moderate and facilitate group work. During the course, teams learn how to apply relevant concepts within their own organizations. At face value, this setup may very well look like any other executive education event—but it’s not.

Here’s why it works. Customer-centric co-learning enables organizations to do the following:

  • Get closer to their customers. 
    The opportunity to spend a week, or even a few days, interacting with customers outside of the normal course of business doesn’t come around often. But when it does, it enables both parties to learn things about the other they may not otherwise know—things that may not be directly connected to their business dealings at the moment, but that lead to a deeper understanding and enable companies to better serve their customers in the short and long term. It is also worth noting that greater trust and collegiality are by-products of this sort of transparency.
  • Break free from sales tensions.
    These engagements are about learning and relationship building—not making another sale (although that may happen as a longer-term result). Sales conversations are prohibited during these programs, unless initiated by the customer, freeing participants from their everyday vendor–customer mode and encouraging customers to share freely without needing to fend off sales pitches.
  • Encourage outside-in thinking.
    When customers and partners from various industries come together, everyone benefits from different viewpoints. Too often leaders are limited by their own perspectives, but a diverse group of peers can help one another see the bigger picture and adopt a more macro lens that can help them on a strategic level. 
  • Demonstrate their investment in customer success.
    Including customers in such a high-caliber learning event clearly demonstrates that an organization values its partnerships. It sends the message that the organization is vested, and invested, in its customers’ success. It’s not unusual for companies to commit substantial resources to make this all happen, and while there is no guaranteed hard return on investment, it pays dividends in building long-term business relationships.

For all of these reasons, I’m convinced that companies that learn together, earn together. While GE is not alone in its co-learning endeavors, most organizations have yet to recognize its value, let alone take the plunge. But those willing to try will reap the rewards.


About the author

Roch Parayre (rparayre@heidrick.com) is a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Philadelphia office and a member of the Leadership Consulting Practice.

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