The Strategic Elements of Learning
Strategic learning is about the why By Michael E. Echols
Michael E. Echols is principal and founder of Human Capital LLC

Michael E. Echols is principal and founder of Human Capital LLC and author of “Your Future Is Calling.”
He can be reached at


e are in the midst of titanic shifts in how we buy and sell, how we manage our health, how we move from here to there, and how, what, where and why we learn. The strategic learning is about the why.

It is human nature to look backward to try to understand both the present and the future. The current digital revolution is such a case. What is especially challenging about digital is how fast it is happening, and how broad its reach.

Corporate digital deployment can be viewed as an “add-on” to assets and strategies that already exist — i.e., assets brought forward from the past. Here, I’ll point to Walmart to show you what I mean.

Walmart has been a hugely successful place-based retailer. Few American communities of any size are without a Walmart or a Sam’s Club. The investment in physical assets is obvious the moment you step past the greeter at the door. Their massive buildings are filled with row upon row of wheeled shelving units displaying tens of thousands of items. Once inside, we buy and then carry the purchases to our automobile parked in the equally huge parking lot outside. It is all very visible. It is all very familiar.

Less obvious, however, is the gigantic strategic shift taking place in how Walmart is repositioning itself to serve customers in the digital age. Retail competitors are also following suit.

It is easy to think of Walmart’s digital investments as an add-on to the company’s historic retail strategy. Competitive reaction to what is doing is a common narrative repeated on Wall Street. While the competitive response message may be reassuring, it is not sufficient. Indeed, Walmart’s digital investments are much more about what they are becoming than an add-on to what they have been. So it is with learning. The changes we are in the midst of are strategic, though much energy has been devoted to the how, what and where of learning.

Successful learning leaders will have to let go of the comfort of the past and set their visions further into the future.

But before we make the closing arguments for strategic learning it is worth taking a short side journey away from the Walmart display racks, on the newest passenger airplane, the Boeing 737 MAX 8. By the time this column is printed, the two recent crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia will likely have been diagnosed and solutions implemented. As an aside, it is extremely likely that those solutions will contain a huge dose of learning, driven largely by the emerging role of artificial intelligence in transportation.

AI will be a key driver of the strategic dimension of learning. The challenge will be for the masses, from the drivers of autonomous vehicles to the residents of smart homes, to learn how to use, manage and ultimately control “smart” devices. The pilots of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 are already in this strategic learning phase. The rest of us will soon be there, in one form or another.

For some, it will be most comfortable to slip back into the familiar. For others the challenge will be much more about the why as entire industries are threatened and even obliterated by the digital changes going on all around us.

So what does it all mean for learning leaders? It means much more than merely training more software coders. It means that successful learning leaders will have to let go of the comfort of the past. It requires setting our visions further into the future. The speed of change, the scope of the impact and the uncertainty of it all blur the line of sight to the best answers for each company. The answers needed are not to be found among the merchandise displays in the aisles of today, but in the learning challenges created by the electronic payment systems that currently handle our money, the rich and interactive electronic displays of merchandise, the robots that will eventually stock our shelves, the autonomous vehicles that will deliver our merchandise to our buyers and the new processes that assure privacy and security. We all have a lot to learn from this future, and it’s currently knocking on our front door.

Just as with the ultimate safety of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, learning by all those touched will be an important dimension of the solutions. Indeed, learning will be strategic in that future.