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The Journey to Become a Learning Organization

The Coca-Cola Company embraced failure and iteration to create a continuously learning organization through wholesale business and cultural transformation.

Two heads with light bulbs in their heads.

In 2017, under the leadership of The Coca-Cola Company’s Chairman and CEO James Quincey, our company began a journey to change our culture. We would need our people to be curious, empowered, agile and iterative, exhibiting what we call growth behaviors. 

“We need to have lots of curiosity about how things could be different, could be better, and how we respond to the way things are changing and then, of course, there needs to be some courage to try new things,” Quincey told analysts in a July 2017 earnings call.

For a 134-year-old organization like The Coca-Cola Company, this was a call to action. We are extremely proud of our heritage and our history, and we have built brands that are recognized by consumers globally. We also recognized that it was time to evolve to become a total beverage company and focus more on the needs of consumers. It was important for us to listen, experiment, and fail—and be okay with it. Typically when you try something new, there’s a 50 percent chance of failing. For a culture like ours, failing was not an option. Or was it? Perhaps smart failures would be an important part of our learning, too.

This is the story of our business and cultural transformation starting with a reset of our business strategy. We took a step-by-step build approach over a four-year time period to set the foundation right, and then learn and iterate. In this journey, we leveraged technology to the fullest, digitized and scaled solutions to create consistency in experience and self-reliance on behalf of the people and their managers. Our intent was to build a high-performing and learning organization that is humble and agile.

What Is a Learning Organization?

There are many definitions and viewpoints around this topic. Our belief is that as business context continues to change, our growth can only be unlocked by becoming a learning organization. In our context, a learning organization is an organization that has the ability to unlearn and relearn, to retool and has the capacity to continuously reinvent itself. Being a learning organization will increasingly become a source of competitive advantage for us. This requires a growth mindset—a shared belief in continuous learning to improve the business and ourselves. 

One leader said, “We started to move away from ‘I need to know what the pre-determined answer is, then I will get to it in the most optimal way to get it’ to being okay with not knowing what the ultimate answer is—being clear on principles and strategy to get started, and then letting learnings and agility drive our answers.”

Learning is also a process of transformation and value-creation. For organizations, learning enables enhanced capacity and capabilities and bridges the gap between strategy and execution. For individuals, learning engages and motivates us to make a difference. The act of learning occurs in the individual, is amplified in the context of teams, and then reinforced at an organizational level. Learning is most impactful when we connect the individual, team and organizational contexts to support new mental models and behaviors to deliver higher performance.

Start with Growth Behaviors

This journey to rebuild ourselves and become a growth company required us to have a growth mindset. But how do you go out there and tell thousands of employees around the world to just “have it”? It required us to set expectations very clearly and communicate it in a way that everyone could understand, embrace and role model. 

The process to define our growth behaviors started with our top 50 leaders identifying the cultural characteristics that we should keep and amplify and those that would no longer serve the company’s new growth agenda. The alignment and commitment needed to begin at this level because, while culture change ultimately happens when behaviors are adopted at all levels, to have any chance of efficient success, the tone must be set and reinforced at the top. 

Later, our first group of movement leaders were brought together to further shape and define a set of four growth behaviors: curious, empowered, agile and inclusive. The group of 25 included employees who volunteered or were nominated by leaders from across the business, representing various geographies, roles and levels within the company. They participated in a design-thinking workshop to help co-create the framework that would be the bedrock of our cultural change. This approach to defining the growth behaviors was, in and of itself, an example of the growth behaviors in action. 

To be a truly consumer-centric company, we needed to reset expectations and set a true north star behaviorally for all employees. We agreed that we did not want a culture of command and control, but a culture of trust, pride, humility and learning. Our growth behaviors were the foundation, and for the first time, we had a simple, easy to understand, culturally relevant and forward-looking view of what we expected from our people. The two behaviors of curious and agile set the tone to build a culture of failing quickly and learning from those failures. Suddenly, we were embracing the idea of creating solutions that were version 1.0 and not perfect. We were open to being vulnerable and putting something out there that clearly was a long way off from being commercialized, yet was an initial step in an iterative journey. It also helped bring in other voices and thoughts, and course correction to happen earlier. We started building psychological safety, and this practice influenced how we built our long-term company strategy and planning processes. 


Measure, Then Reset

Every enterprise organization has a performance management practice. It is a core people process that drives focus, engagement, rewards and development investments. For us, it was identified as one of our top five global pain points. There were more than 25 misconceptions of its purpose, more than 370,000 hours spent every year managing the process at an individual and team level, less than 40 percent of the employees saw a connection between their pay and the performance practice, and most importantly, nearly 70 percent perceived that there would be a bad outcome to taking risks. In short, there was fear of failure across the organization. We realized this would not work if we wanted to be a growth company that is nimble and agile. 

We also wanted to embed our growth behaviors into our performance practice. We recognized that the growth behaviors were not intended to be a poster in our company hallways; they were core to our success and achieving measured progress was important. 

In 2016, we redesigned our Performance Enablement practice, deliberately moving away from the management terminology. We stopped activities with low and negative impact, such as:
  • Formally cascading and documenting annual objectives. We understood the dynamic nature of business and the need to focus on near-term work with the ability to iterate frequently.
  • Conducting formal mid-year and year-end reviews. We recognized that our people needed more frequent feedback and focus on their development on an ongoing basis. This also helped drive a learning culture, which would be required as we brought new products to market, started to serve consumers in ways that we had not done before and were rapidly innovating and experimenting with new ways of working. 
  • Using performance ratings. We felt that the attachment to a label that comes from a formal rating actually ends up reducing innovation as people take less risks and are more focused on the rating, rather than doing their best work. We also wanted to move away from forced ranking and place a higher focus on individual accountability, making it easier to foster teamwork.
We focused on breaking down strategy into near-term work, aligning our employees’ skills to the work and clearly communicating work expectations and priorities. Delivering frequent and informal feedback, amplifying the importance of learning and failing as a part of success (by measuring progress on the growth behaviors as part of the monthly reflections), and recalibrating priority work as needed. This shift helped us move from bureaucracy and to being more comfortable with continuous change, and the habit of feedback and iteration. 

Make Iteration, Failure and Learning Part of Life

If the change only happens in process, but not in what people are experiencing every day in their work life, the change will not stick. It is important to change the ways of working to match the aspiration, embed artifacts that serve to celebrate and recognize, and invite co-creation from a global workforce. We did some of these things well, although much still needs to be done. 

Agile COE and agile ways of working. One of the most important investments in capability was creation of an Agile Center of Excellence (COE) in the center. This COE helped build awareness and understanding of the agile methodology, built capabilities in teams across the company and helped organize the work around key problems rather than functional silos. Several of our business units globally followed suit by organizing themselves in an agile way around key projects and initiatives, and we have seen significant progress in business results and engagement in these businesses. Our key challenge has been in having a global point of view that is consistently deployed. This is because not all businesses are the same, so we have chosen to decentralize organization design so that it can fit the need and purpose for local markets. 

Innovation awards. We institutionalized our Global Innovation Awards for employees and teams to be recognized in person by the board of directors and executive leadership team. This was created in 2016, and the annual awards help drive a culture of innovation to balance rapid iteration, disciplined execution, entrepreneurial audacity, intelligent risk-taking and continuous learning from failure to build the capabilities we need for long-term growth. The awards celebrate innovations in three categories: innovation success, innovation experiments and celebrate failure. This award category, celebrating failure as learning opportunities, has us helped take a big step towards making failure acceptable and a normal way of working for our culture. This was a huge change and shift in our culture. 

Crowdsource solutions. We all know that putting many minds at work results in faster solutions that are much more relevant. While there are many examples of what we tried to do, one stands out from a capability standpoint. One of our key strategic priorities is to digitize the enterprise, and to do this, we recognized that a key capability gap was in the area of data analytics. 

To make learning fun, leverage the network, and crowdsource innovative solutions, we launched a global Data Analytics Challenge. Through competition, we wanted to land the message on the importance of data, technology and insights. This challenge, co-sponsored by our Chief Financial Officer and Chief Information and Integrated Services Officer, was designed to demonstrate the power of leveraging technology to facilitate better and more effective analytics output. The competing team did not have to be a data scientist or an expert in analytics, and there were no limitations on project types. 

More than 100 projects from across the company were submitted in 2019 on a range of topics, including automating cash flow forecasts, decision-making under uncertainty, risk and opportunity analysis, robotic process automation of order management, and reporting. The company gained tremendous insights and suggestions on how to reduce bureaucracy, simplify experience and process, and implement technology solutions to everyday tasks making the experience of working at the company enjoyable. All of this was built with just a simple competition. Knowledge management is very important, so all the best practices, submissions, network and insights are stored in the Data Analytics Hub that seeks to bring like-minded people together and keeps the conversation going. 

A Refreshed Purpose and Talent Strategy

2019 marked the year when our CEO shared the refreshed company purpose. Our vision is to craft the brands and choice of drinks that people love, to refresh them in body and spirit. And done in ways that create a more sustainable business and better shared future that makes a difference in people’s lives, communities, and our planet. This has three connected pillars:
  • Loved brands. We craft meaningful brands and a choice of drinks that people love and that refresh them in body and spirit.
  • Done sustainably. We use our leadership to be part of the solution to achieve positive change in the world and to build a more sustainable future for our planet.
  • For a better shared future. We invest to improve people’s lives, from our employees to all those who touch our business system, to our investors, to the broad communities we call home.

The reality of our success and scale is that we have to lead, to be a force for progress and for good. We have an incredible opportunity ahead of us and wind in our sails. We nurture a culture with a passion to refresh the world. We make a difference. This includes inspiring and supporting the growth of our people, service to our communities and constantly shaping a more sustainable business. We embrace a growth mindset and believe in continuous learning to improve our business and ourselves. We value how we work as much as what we achieve.

Stating the importance of having a growth mindset and a culture of continuous learning within our company’s purpose was an important nod toward the journey we had been on for the last several years. 

This set the tone to a refreshed talent strategy. The company had an ambitious vision for growth. This growth would come from being consumer-centric, leveraging the collective genius of our system employees across the enterprise, by democratizing learning and opportunities and building a networked organization. Building a learning organization, focusing on enterprise capability and investing in holistic development of our talent, became the key cornerstones of our talent strategy and long-term investment model. We had no idea what the world had in store for us. 

COVID-19 and a New Learning Strategy

One of the biggest pivots we made was related to our learning strategy. Over the last several years, we made tremendous progress with talent management, performance enablement and culture. But where learning was concerned, we still seemed to think learning equals training. We were highly dependent on curriculum and classroom learning experiences. And, even though we had three years of performance enablement under our belt, not enough progress was made on making learning real-time and in the flow of work. 

COVID-19 became the accelerator for something that we should have done a few years ago. The irony is that the changes had already started to happen, and we were starting to catch up. Pandemic or not, external forces were already accelerating the need to set a clear learning strategy for the business. 
  • Changing nature of work. One-third of core job skills will change in the next five years, requiring greater cognitive flexibility, adaptability and learning agility as core competencies. Our need to perform is being accelerated in a VUCA world. We see an increasing reliance on the ability to connect, collaborate and co-create in an increasingly networked world and organization.
  • Changing expectations of the employee. Increased personalization of experiences means learners have new expectations on the relevance, timeliness and applicability of what they learn. We trust and value our social communities more than we trust governments or companies. Credibility is derived from social leadership versus hierarchical relationships. 
  • Impact of technology. Learning is digitized. Ubiquitous technology has turned society into both consumers and creators of learning content. Social media frames our life experience. Over 80 percent of people use social media at least once per day. Always on, immediate, and continuous media exposure drives how responsive we expect learning to be. 
We also realized that we were fragmented. Learning must be integrated to have an impact and signal as a true performance differentiator and a source of competitive advantage. We brought together our investments on leadership, transversal enterprise capabilities and functional skills in one framework for a common understanding and purpose across the organization (see Figure 2). It was very important for us to build the understanding that true change will come about with investments in all three, and in order to build true employability, employees need to see and understand the connection between all the three. 

This created a strong case for change, and we drafted four key principles to guide our transformation. 
  1. Empower and decentralize for speed. Build learning capabilities far into the organization; learners select their own learning material; line managers provide quality feedback and coaching; regional teams identify locally relevant solutions.
  2. Drive integration and focus. Prioritize the capabilities we need to build in order to differentiate performance; strong governance to integrate and prioritize our efforts. reduce duplication and drive scale. 
  3. Provide practical tools, blending social and formal learning. Focus learning on solving day-to-day work challenges, timely resources vs. annual courses and user-generated video content. Build connected learning communities and enable easily shared, expertly curated assets. 
  4. Celebrate unlearning and relearning. We cannot fully predict what the future will hold, so we must institutionalize practices that help build a learning culture—project postmortems, encourage dissent, celebrate shamelessly stealing and reapplying.  
All the above means that we will not default to formal classroom programs, we will not push development onto the unwilling, we will not tolerate poor execution discipline and we will not invest in development activities unless we see clear commitment and a way to measure sustainable impact.

This reset resulted in a significant investment in building our digital learning solutions. In April, we launched online learning across the entire company, making world-class external solutions available real-time to all employees. We did not tell people what to learn—we made it available, connected it to their work and asked them to explore. We invested in building social learning communities by region leveraging collaboration tools and let the dialogue begin. 

We recognize that democratization means we must reinvent ourselves as well, and this journey is a very long one. To date, we have developed an ambitious strategy and framework for learning that makes sense. It is practical, it is digitally enabled, and it will work in a networked organization. But this culture change will take significant investment in upgrading our own capabilities (people, process, technology, solutions) to deliver this experience. It will take a great degree of ownership and investment from leadership and line managers. This will not magically happen. We know this is version 1.0, and in line with our culture, we are pleased that we have taken the first step.  

Summary of Key Learnings 

1 Set the strategic north star, invite employees into the discussion and keep it simple. 

2 Leadership is the key that will unlock the door. People are looking for continuous role modeling and humility from their leaders. Humility leads to listening, and listening leads to learning. 

3 Artifacts and routines are important. Do you have a strong knowledge management culture? Do you perform after-action reviews following every project? Does your reward system have the flexibility to reward failure and iteration? 

4 Integrate the experience from an end-user standpoint. All people processes must be integrated through technology, be mobile-enabled and be accessible in real time. 

5 Just start. If you have one good idea, move on that and keep iterating as you make progress. Building a learning organization is about being willing to take that first step and knowing that there is a 50 percent chance of failure. Be okay with that. 

Tapaswee Chandele is Global Head of Talent and Development at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at