How companies ought to train their staffers

June 18, 2012: 1:56 PM ET

Despite all the lip service paid to "talent development," many companies struggle to meaningfully engage their employees in a way that will help them keep pace with the changing marketplace.

By John Hagel and John Seely Brown

FORTUNE -- Joe Justice was inspired to enter the Automotive X Prize contest in 2008 after hearing about the seemingly impossible challenge: create a road-legal, reasonably priced car that gets 100 miles-per-gallon, and build it fast. The $10 million purse didn't hurt, either.

Justice may have entered the contest alone, but it didn't stay that way for long; he began blogging and using social media to share his successes, setbacks, and lessons, and soon attracted a team of 44 passionate members from four countries excited to volunteer their time. Just like that, Team WIKISPEED was born.

As the name suggests, Team WIKISPEED is all about acceleration, and not just in the cars they build. The group of volunteers can speed up how they learn by using principles from agile software development to think through and solve complex problems. Indeed, the proof is in the results: just three months after forming, Team WIKISPEED had a working prototype that tied for 10th place in the X Prize contest's mainstream class, outlasting over a hundred other entries from all over the globe. More importantly, the competition built momentum for the team and its dream of putting ultra-efficient cars on the road at a reasonable price.

The success of Team WIKISPEED is not just impressive in its own right; it has broad implications for organizations of all sizes. In our book, The Power of Pull, we explain how increased globalization and rapid advances in technology have brought about a new competitive landscape of increasingly volatile change.

MORE: Why Joe Biden is wrong about private equity execs

To compete, firms will have to shift their focus from simply increasing in size to increasing employee knowledge. Yet despite all the lip service paid to "talent development," many firms today struggle to meaningfully engage their employees in a way that will help them keep pace with the changing marketplace. This issue is not simply one of retention or employee satisfaction: employees who learn faster improve faster, and those who improve faster can deliver improved performance for the entire company.

To pull this off, firms should consider four principles that helped Team WIKISPEED:

Reach out to passionate people

No matter how many smart people you have at your firm, there are a lot more on the outside. Increasingly, competitive success hinges upon the ability to connect with others and take advantage of the knowledge that they can bring to the table.

New technologies like social software, cloud computing, mobility and big data provide powerful tools to increase the reach and richness of different ecosystems, helping to connect passionate people wherever they may be. Through social software platforms, Joe Justice was quickly able to assemble an army of passionate and driven individuals, which would have been very difficult otherwise. Companies have even more significant opportunities to use these technologies to extend and deepen their relationships with outside individuals and organizations.

Why the emphasis on passionate people? Passionate individuals seek out and are excited by challenges. They see these challenges as an opportunity to learn faster. They are also much more likely to identify and reach out to others who might have relevant experience, thereby helping them to reach a creative solution faster. By bringing together a larger and more diverse set of passionate people, there are more relevant experiences to draw from, and more opportunities for participants to learn from one another. As Justice puts it, "Morale is a multiplier for velocity." When tackling incredibly complex problems like building a 100 mpg vehicle, it is highly unlikely that any one person already has the answer (otherwise they might already be $10 million richer!), so the benefits of connecting with and bringing together passionate people can be significant.

MORE: How an upstart bat maker swings against Louisville Slugger

Keep timelines short

Traditional corporate projects require the creation of two- to three-year strategic plans and detailed blueprints. This approach, however, limits the ability to act nimbly and address market needs as they arise. It also reduces opportunities to step back and reflect on what can be learned from trial and error. On the other end of the spectrum, Team WIKISPEED works in 7-day cycles -- they're constantly reflecting on different results and what they can do better in the next cycle. While this may not be feasible for most corporate initiatives, firms should try to go with the shortest possible work cycles. At a minimum, they might want to consider defining explicit goals that can be measured every six months and provide an opportunity for progress assessment. These reviews will create more opportunities to reassess and refine approaches and waste less time and effort.

Make the project modular

As long as products and processes remain tightly regulated, it is very challenging to encourage the kind of innovation and rapid testing that made Team WIKISPEED such a success. Instead, there is value in breaking up the process and allowing individuals to experiment with smaller pieces of work. By allowing participants the freedom to tinker and improvise on small bits, there is a greater chance of making a breakthrough, and less risk of unexpected ripple effects throughout the entire initiative.

Team WIKISPEED took traditional, tightly integrated car designs and made them more modular. This approach allowed many individuals and groups to take on discrete pieces, giving them greater latitude to explore new options. Rapid testing cycles helped ensure that modules could still work as part of the emerging overall design and issues between modules were quickly identified and addressed.

Create opportunities for hands-on learning

You can certainly gain knowledge by reading a textbook, but acquiring "tacit knowledge," education that comes from first-hand experience, is a much more powerful and effective way to learn. Talent development in firms today typically comes in the form of stale training courses and presentations rather than a focus on tacit knowledge development. At WIKISPEED, however, the team learns almost entirely through hands-on experience. Volunteers work in pairings of inexperienced and experienced individuals who take on small projects. Not only does this help novice volunteers learn faster, it also reduces the time and cost of documenting every process because knowledge is exchanged between peers rather than consolidated in formal training programs.

This type of education can even be used in virtual environments. Using collaboration software allows individuals to share real-time edits and suggestions and makes it easy for volunteers to become meaningfully involved. WIKISPEED relies on free collaboration software tools to connect individuals all over the globe.

* * *

Though WIKISPEED was born from a one-off challenge, it has developed into a community of volunteers since the X-Prize. The team now includes over 150 volunteers working towards an ultimate vision of improving the environment through short-term projects. WIKISPEED has achieved several great successes as a group -- their current prototype, which gets 114 mpg on the highway, was prominently featured at the world's largest auto show and is available for sale for $25,000.

MORE: 5 CEOs holding down the fort at post-bailout companies

But the passion of its members and the team's rate of skill development leave no doubt that the group will take on even more going forward. "If we only had a short-term vision," Justice says, "the team would have dissolved after the X-Prize." Instead, WIKISPEED has taken the mission further, teaming up with SolutionsIQ to apply some of these processes to other organizations even as they work on their own projects. Indeed, companies of all sizes can learn from what they managed to pull off.

Join the Conversation
About These Authors
John Hagel III and John Seely Brown
John Hagel III and John Seely Brown

John Hagel III is co-chairman and John Seely Brown is independent co-chairman of the Silicon Valley-based Deloitte Center for the Edge, which conducts research to support corporate growth. Hagel has nearly 30 years experience as a management consultant, author, speaker and entrepreneur. From 1984 to 2000, Hagel was a principal at McKinsey & Co., where he was a leader of its strategy practice. Brown is a visiting scholar and advisor to the provost at the University of Southern California. He was the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center. Brown holds several patents and was inducted into the Industry Hall of Fame in 2004.

Email John & John
Current Issue
  • Give the gift of Fortune
  • Get the Fortune app
  • Subscribe
Powered by WordPress.com VIP.