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21st Century Organizations Are Listening Organizations

It seems obvious, but during times of disruptive change, the ability to listen and learn are critical skills. In fact, this is called out as one of the key components (Sensing) in LEF’s 21st Century Organization framework. Professors Hiroyuki Itami and Kazumi Nishino, in their article ‘Killing Two Birds with One Stone’ in the journal Long Range Planning1, argue that a business model has two functions: profit for now, and learning for the future.

21st Century Organizations Are Listening Organizations

But real listening and learning, both at an individual and an organizational level, are rare skills.

But real listening and learning, both at an individual and an organizational level, are rare skills. Ever had a conversation with someone who pretends to listen to you, but is obviously just preparing what they are going to say next? Ever heard the term ‘corporate communications’, or ‘marketing communications’, and only thought of outbound/speaking, not inbound/listening?

I would argue there are five levels of listening:

Level 0 – not hearing.

Being ignorant of what is going on around you.

Level 1 – shallow/narrow/twisted listening.

Listening and translating what you hear based on your biases/the existing categories in your mindset/culture. Only listening in a limited set of domains. (For example, only keeping track of technology trends, not regulatory trends.)

Level 2 – deep/broad listening.

Listening to a wide variety of sources on a wide variety of topics, triangulating the information and thinking through what the sources were trying to say. This requires what psychologists call ‘theory of mind’ – understanding that there are other individuals/organizations in the world, with their own world view; they are not just objects in your world.

Level 3 – active/dynamic listening.

Proactively experimenting and testing to explore the situation and the possibilities. This includes hacking, champion/challenger marketing, and other means of dynamically exposing the context.

Level 4 – full lifecycle listening and learning.

Closing the loop so that learnings are synthesized, and actions taken based on what you learn.


Professor Ed Hess, author of Learn or Die2, talked about the importance of listening at the LEF CIO Forum in Washington in May. LEF’s Simon Wardley also refers to it, as situational awareness. Lewis Richards and Bob Barker have developed a two-day Digital Xperience Lab, a hands-on playground that exposes participants to new digital skills with a view to effecting change within their businesses. 

Great Business Relationship Managers must have triple deep skills

In our report Raising IT’s Game Through BRM, published this month and based on our experiences of running over 50 BRM workshops for clients, Robina Chatham, Kirt Mead and David Moschella make it clear that great Business Relationship Managers must have triple deep skills – technical/digital skills, business skills, and finely honed interpersonal skills – including listening, and its close cousin, empathy.

How do you know if you have got good (enough) listening skills? Perhaps the single best way is ethical business hacking. Not to be confused with more technical hacking, this technique involves trying to find ways to destroy your own business. Set up one or more teams, with mixed skills, knowledge and backgrounds, ideally including outsiders. Get those teams to envisage real and hypothetical (but possible) threats to your business. They could be based on data capabilities, dominant channel positions, new business models or brand extensions. Then analyze whether your organizational listening skills would have caught these threats. If not, look to close the gap in your armour through broader, deeper or more dynamic listening.

Are you listening...? 


1. Hiroyuki Itami and Kazumi Nishino, ‘Killing Two Birds with One Stone: Profit for Now and Learning for the Future’, Long Range Planning, vol 43 2010

2. Edward Hess, Learn or Die: Using Science to Build a Leading-Edge Learning Organization, Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014 


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