Automotive X Prize

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.

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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: More

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