Kristin Wilson and Scott Rockart have published an intriguing paper titled, "Learning in Cycles." In this article, the scholars examine how firms learn and adapt over the course of business cycles. They examine a critical challenge that organizations face as they encounter cycles. Firms must learn and apply new lessons and skills at different points in a business cycle, but they must not forget old lessons and capabilities... as they may need them again in the future as the cycle changes once more. In a feature on Duke's Fuqua Insights web page, Rockart explains some of their findings:
“What people learn, and what people need to do well, differs at different points of a cycle,” Rockart said. “Imagine you’re a waiter, and during the week you are working with families, taking time over a meal, whereas on the weekends your customers are college kids looking to party. In order to be a good waiter during the week, you introduce yourself, you take time to talk, but on the weekends you are moving fast and not spending as much time with each customer. The waiter knows they need to act differently in those different settings. They’re constantly being reminded because the cycle is so fast.”
But at firms, Rockart said, these cycles can last years. “So it’s very easy for individuals to forget what they used to know, and even more importantly, to lose confidence in the importance of what they used to know,” he said. “If you’re a manufacturer, when things are booming, you need to make sure you can get supplies, hire workers, and expand a factory. During a downturn you may have to do very different things: make sure your customers won’t fail on credit; that your inventories are lean and your costs are controlled; and reduce your workforce.”
I think the finding is particularly important because we often hear that managers must "unlearn" old behaviors and ideas as they learn and adapt to new competitive realities. Yet, this research shows that can't discard our learning completely. Some of those lessons, skills, and capabilities will be useful again as business cycles change. How can we learn without completely forgetting? It's a fascinating challenge for many leaders. This work reminds me of a memorable quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."