So You Learned Something. So What?

About fifteen years ago, I ran across a paper written by Arie De Geuss, then chief of corporate planning for Royal Dutch Shell. In it, he made one of those pithy observations that really capture the essence of sustained excellent performance. Insightful as he was at the time, it’s just not enough any more.

“The only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to learn faster than your competitors.”

There is no doubt that this 20th century insight from Mr. de Geuss still has great value for sales reps. It builds on Isaac Newton’s 18th century, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants” and Francis Bacon’s 16th century, “Knowledge is power.” Their core idea as applied to sales is to become the source of essential information and know-how that our customers need to solve their most pressing problems.

That concept certainly makes sense. So much so that maybe we ought to think about “standing on its shoulders.” Even if we already continuously and aggressively learn and acquire new knowledge, so what? How can we take it to the proverbial next level?

Consider learning in terms of building capabilities and then linking capabilities. Every time you learn something new – whatever it may be – focus on finding a way to apply that knowledge and therefore to also create a new capability. Take a classic selling scenario. You just learned a more efficient way to identify bottlenecks in manufacturing processes. By applying that new knowledge to one of your customers, you exercise your new bottleneck-spotting capability. By linking this new capability to your existing product application capability, your customer learns about a new way to extend his capability. Then take it to the next level…

Teach customer personnel (for a fee, of course) your new bottleneck spotting technique. Passing on the knowledge helps your customers learn and therefore create yet another new capability within their organization. With more people to spot bottlenecks, more opportunities to improve the process are identified along with more potential uses for your products and services. Then take it to the next level…

Take one of the improvement opportunities that is not currently addressable by your company. Think “link” instead of ignoring it. Even though you have no relevant offering, you probably do know – or could quickly learn about – someone else’s knowledge or capability that is relevant. Link your customer up with the source of that knowledge or capability. Then take it to the next level…

Learn about what your customer and that third party learned about each others’ capabilities. Learn about how they combined their mutual knowledge and capabilities to create yet more capabilities. Did the third party reach out to a forth party? Learn about how their knowledge and capability contributed to capability creation. Learn about how all parties involved enhanced their overall capabilities and applied them elsewhere.

Pause now, and visualize how you could learn about the value of this ever-expanding daisy-chain of knowledge and capabilities; how you could leverage the increasing number of linked capabilities to create knowledge about an ever-expanding set of new capabilities for yourself and for your customers.

Visualize how this could super-charge your value proposition. Your real value could be – should be – orchestrating the complexity involved with learning, capability building and capability linking on behalf of your customers.

Consider the fact that maybe the only sustainable competitive advantage is the ability to orchestrate capability building faster than your competitor.

Think about it…

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