Innovation: do you really need a learning trip?
A wave of tourism is sweeping over the French CAC40. Paralyzed by the ruptures they have to face, their leaders travel the world, accumulating miles and crying out for days. Their goal? Meet start-ups and understand how they are changing the world. Do they really learn from these ‘learning trips‘? Nothing is less sure. Do these allow them to become more innovative? Probably not. Couldn’t this time and energy be better used to truly innovate and transform their business? Certainly.
A learning trip is certainly not without interest. By searching well, we can find some. For example, a learning trip can help an old world manager become aware of the upheavals underway in their industry. This is one of the most obvious interests of the trip. Managers leave the cozy comfort of their thick-carpeted desks in a high-rise building in La Défense, and go for a good slap in Silicon Valley where young people in jeans will call them old nerds while they are gods in Paris with their entries into the ministries and their classification in a large unknown school in San Franisco. But beyond? They will recover from the shock very quickly.
On the other hand, the drawbacks of a learning trip are quite obvious. First, there is Potemkin syndrome. This is the lot of any visit. She gets ready and the welcoming company tells her visitors what she wants. Like Catherine II, the village is assembled before the finish and dismantles after. What a group of French managers sees is not the reality of the company visited, but its showcase. Our executives are free, the cafeteria is free, there is a pinball machine in the lobby, hours are free, and, best of all, the walls are painted red to encourage creativity. Furious scratching of pens on notepads. Is it really serious?
Then the question arises of what we can really learn. Indeed, even if the trip is well organized and we manage to perceive not the showcase but the reality of the company visited, what can an automobile manufacturer, or a French hotel group really learn from a visit to Google? That you have to become like Google? It does not mean anything. That we have to innovate like Google? It doesn’t have more. That we should offer a free cafeteria with organic products? Be serious. That data should be treated like Google? No visit is necessary for that and anyway, we don’t have the same data as Google, so so what? Learning in itself can be positive, but you have to define what you can learn from a given experience, and this is complicated, it requires work. It is to be put together as an experiment. Basically the learning trip is like the drunkard looking for his keys under the lamppost. Not because he lost them under that lamppost, but because that’s where there is light. The learning trip it won’t solve the innovation problem, but there is light and it is easy.
And besides this above-ground tourism will not bring much. If it’s about understanding how a start-up works, you don’t have to go to San Francisco, there are plenty of them in France. Above all, this can only be done by being immersed for several weeks to really experience the daily life of the start-up. Like language stays, you have to dive into the bath, alone, and not visit the country with 15 other tourists. It’s a bit like organized trips. You “make” Turkey with a group of 15 French people while staying well between you, everything is organized so that – above all – there is not the slightest incident, you are accommodated in excellent hotels so that – above all – the trip is not uncomfortable and that you do not have an unexpected meeting with the plebs. But without discomfort and without surprise, how can there be learning?
There is also, and here we laugh a lot less, an opportunity cost. As always, deciding what to do is also deciding what not to do. When 15 managers leave for a week in learning trip, these are 15 managers who do nothing else during this week. The question therefore becomes: what are these 15 managers giving up collectively and individually in order to be able to do this? learning trip? Couldn’t there be more important things to do? If innovation and transformation are really important, and we are ready to devote the energy and time of 15 managers to it for a week, there is better to do than tourism.
There is indeed something particularly intriguing in seeing all these managers going to the other side of the world to discover companies when they do not know theirs; to discover innovation practices that they have been trying to prevent for years; to visit incubators where all those who have fled their sterile embrace meet (Ô Station F). Basically, the learning trip Would it not be an illusory bath of youth for managers who have killed all life in them and around them?
You want to make a learning trip? Do it in your own business.
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.