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Learning and improvement are essential success ingredients

Bob Milligan for Progressive Dairyman Published on 30 September 2016

Our K-12 and college students are well into another year of their education. You will soon see announcements for winter educational sessions. In this article, we stop and reflect on “learning.” In order to look ahead, let’s first look back.

I can vaguely remember harvesting loose hay and storing it in the haymow. As a high school and college student, I stacked hay bales on a wagon, and we harvested grain with a 12D John Deere pull-type combine. Fifty-bushel corn and 75 pounds of milk from a cow in a day were pretty darn good.



Think of the changes up to today – all within my working lifetime.

I don’t pretend to imagine what agriculture will look like when today’s high school and college students are my age. Two points come to mind, however:

  1. During the 50-year period described above, change occurred at an increasing rate. The experts tell us there is no reason to believe the rate of change will not continue to accelerate. Wow.

  2. There are essentially no facts that I learned in my formal education that are relevant today. I did, however, learn many skills that have served me well throughout my career.

In today’s agriculture, I believe the greatest competitive advantage any dairy farm or agribusiness can have is a culture where learning and improvement are important and expected.

Developing this culture is the topic of this article. Let’s begin by thinking about the learning status of our employees, especially new employees.

Perhaps because one of my Gallop strengths is learner, I have a keen interest in the future of education both at the K-12 and college level.


From my reading (That Used to be Us – How America Fell Behind in the World We Invented and How we Can Come Back by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, The Coming Jobs War by Jim Clifton, The End of College – Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere by Kevin Carey), it is clear that education has not experienced the great change and advancement we have seen in agriculture.

A disturbing fact is that most students finish their formal education without, in my opinion, the most important outcome of formal education – a love for learning. Rather, many, especially young men, leave with a distaste for learning.

To develop a culture of learning and improvement, you must overcome this learning stigma. How is that accomplished? We look at four key points.

Lead by example

As always, it begins with you – the leader. How do you portray learning and improvement? Are you a positive example, or do some of your comments criticize or even belittle new information or ideas?

Here are some ways you can lead to establish a learning and improvement culture:

  • Frequently share new information and ideas. The information and ideas can come from the Internet, your reading, your ideas, discussions with other farms and agribusiness professionals, or even from my monthly newsletter, LearningEdge Monthly.

  • Encourage every member of your workforce to share relevant information and ideas.

  • Make certain there are current magazines and other reading material readily available to everyone.

  • Adopt a policy that anyone who leaves the farm for a learning event must share what they learned, perhaps the top three points, with relevant workforce members.

Learn from failure

We all have a fear of failure. This fear can be positive, as it forces us to carefully analyze our ideas to maximize the likelihood of success. We want everyone to be somewhat cautious with new ideas.


We do not, however, want workforce members to be paralyzed by that fear so new ideas are not brought forward or tried. The fear level of employees is largely determined by how you and others respond to failure.

When the response is to blame the person with the new idea (the most common response), this fear will greatly inhibit new ideas. A positive response to failure is: “What can we learn so we will succeed next time?”

The management guru Tom Peters argues that the key to success is increasing the number of failures. His point is that failures will occur; however, if we try more new good ideas, we will have more failures, but we will also have more successes.

Classroom of life

In an article earlier this year, I included a discussion of what I call the classroom of life. I summarize that discussion here, as this may well be the most important ingredient in a culture of learning and improvement.

The classroom of life requires us to do three things every day:

  1. Be observant. Continuously focusing on and analyzing what is happening around us enables us to see opportunities for improvement and proactively respond to current or potential problems. Being observant applies both to things – cows and crops – and people.

  2. Reflection. The classroom of life requires time to think and reflect. For me, a prime reflection time is while I exercise. I can make plans, outline articles, resolve issues. You must find time for reflection to succeed in the classroom of life. When is your reflecting time?

  3. After-action reviews. Take the time after an event to individually, or as a team, go back and analyze what worked and could be improved and make plans for improvement. After-action reviews can be for a major event, like planting or harvesting, or for smaller events, like each time an animal dies or after each ration change.

Professional growth and development

The classroom of life must be supplemented by more formal continuing education: enrolling in online learning opportunities, working with a coach or mentor and returning to the classroom in seminars, workshops or even another degree-generating program.

The beauty of the classroom of life is that your observations, reflections and after-action reviews will provide ample insights to provide direction for your professional development.

I strongly encourage you and each member of your workforce to develop a plan for your continuing professional growth and development. Review and expansion of this plan should be a key component of your annual employee discussion, often referred to as a “stay meeting.”

Too often, learning is viewed as an event, i.e., going to a meeting. To succeed today, learning and improvement must be continuous.  end mark

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University. 

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