An introduction to applying learnings from other businesses to your own company

Other companies are a valuable source of inspiration, ideas and good practice. Our guide explains how to apply what you’ve learnt.

While all businesses are in a sense unique, they also have much in common – employees, a product or service and customers – and share many of the same opportunities and challenges.

What do other companies do well, what do they do badly and what can you learn from both their successes and their failures? And, how can you best go about applying those lessons to your business?

It can be tempting to copy what other businesses are doing. In one survey, two thirds of UK businesses admitted that leadership had copied the marketing techniques of competitors.

Of course, directly copying what another business does may not be the best answer. There are myriad other and more subtle ways that you can take what you learn from other companies and apply it in your own business, including your competitors and companies from other sectors.

This guide shares the factors that influence how you apply learnings, as well as common mistakes and quick wins.

What factors influence how you apply learnings from other businesses?

The practicalities on the ground

You may have spent time analysing and learning about other companies. But deciding which of these learnings to apply to your company will depend on the practicalities on the ground.

For example, another company may be particularly strong on customer service, while you know you have issues, making this an obvious area to consider.

Your company’s resources

Your company’s finances, skills and technology will all affect your ability to implement learnings. Sometimes, they will just delay implementation, but at other times, they will mean they aren’t possible at all. Management time is a key factor in this assessment.

Flexibility and openness to change

Any company that wishes to apply learnings from outside must be open to new ideas and ways of doing things. Applying learnings requires change and change can be difficult, so having an engaged workforce is vital.

Joanna Swash – Moneypenny

Joanna Swash reminds other leaders that the key isn't to replicate – it's to apply lessons

“Looking at and learning from other business experiences will lead to your continued business evolution and improvement, whether that is in customer service, culture or product development. The key is not to replicate but take those salient lessons and apply them to your own requirements.”

Joanna Swash, group CEO of Moneypenny

The cold hard facts

A study of Chinese firms found that owner-managers who attended 12 networking meetings over the course of a year saw their firm’s revenue increase by eight per cent compared to business owners that were not part of the network.

Common mistakes in applying learnings from other businesses

Becoming a “me-too” company

Learning from the success of others is fine, but be aware of becoming a “me-too” company where your marketing and initiatives fall flat because they’ve been seen before.

Being inflexible

Adopting too rigid an approach to implementing learnings can set you up for failure, especially if you plough on regardless when problems occur. Better to adopt a flexible approach that recognises that your company is not a clone of the one down the road and tweak what you’re doing accordingly.

Turning to external resources to quickly

Companies go overboard and are quick to pull in expensive external professionals or technology without properly researching the options available internally.

Not looking outside your own sector

Valuable learnings are not confined to your sector. In fact, the most valuable may come from other industries that can point to solutions and ideas that will be unique to your market.

Failing to assess the size and magnitude of the challenge

Implementing learnings should not be undertaken without a lot of planning and thought. The amount of time, effort and money needed can be considerable.

Michael Edwards, The Northern Affinity

Michael Edwards points out that businesses need to have existing frameworks for things like marketing and finance before they incorporate learnings

“Many businesses will bounce around using great ideas from others but they have little framework for this and miss the important element of why something has worked. Businesses need to ensure they have a strong brand voice, content strategy, finance strategy, marketing strategy etc. and then apply learnings within this. If not, it can often confuse their potential customers.”

Michael Edwards, founder of The Northern Affinity

The cold hard facts

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has a membership of 165 national standards bodies and has produced over 21,000 documents on a wide variety of topics, covering almost every industry. It’s a useful research tool to understand the technical aspects of systems that have been standardised.

Quick wins in applying learnings from other businesses

Mine customer reviews

Customer reviews are a goldmine of information about how other companies in your industry operate and what customers like and dislike about it. For example, they may have developed a more effective onboarding process.

Look at case studies and marketing

Case studies share the epitome of a company's service. Often, they’ll break down the customer challenge, the solution and impact, helping you learn what’s working and why. Similarly, following their marketing gives you a sense of what they’re working on.

Know what to ignore

Recognise that some aspects of what makes other companies great won’t work in your own business. Work out which aspects of your business are non-negotiable and key to your culture, your values and your identity. Don't dilute your USP.

Track progress

Make sure you track progress towards implementing the learnings from other companies, by making someone accountable for delivering them and giving them the resources they need.

Benchmark yourself against others

Benchmarking yourself against other companies will help you identify where you need to improve. And, once you have brought in changes it will help you to monitor whether things are on track. Look for performance data, such as benchmarking by industry bodies or networks.

Talk to your business partners and use your network

Companies that you have strong relationships with can be extremely helpful in providing advice. Talk to them and your clients to get inspiration for new ways of working – what have they seen another company do that got them excited?

Keep in touch with people you have met, say on a course or at a networking event. Ask them about their experiences of applying things they have learned. They will normally be delighted to offer advice and support.

Lisa Lyons advocates making use of the tools and resources available

“Always look for the cost-effective solution. There are so many great tools, technological advances and resources available to you. Don’t overcomplicate things and maximise everything you have within first before looking externally, so you get maximum gain for minimum input.”

Lisa Lyons, co-founder of Plastic Box Shop

The cold hard facts

One study gave companies a ranked list of ten anonymous venders, including themselves, representing the full distribution of businesses in their sector. It found that low-performing companies reported profits that were 54 per cent higher than the control group 12 months after receiving the list, suggesting the information led them to make improvements.

Now you’ve read about applying learnings to your business, use our action plan to direct your next steps.