How to Make Your Company a True Learning Organization

Chris McCann, president of 1-800-Flowers, shares his best management secrets.
Senior reporter, The Huffington Post
June 29, 2012

1-800-Flowers president Chris McCann spoke at Business Insider's Mobile Advertising in New York recently, and he detailed how he organizes his company internally to cope with a changing external environment.

It's all about sharing knowledge. If you don't do that, the business remains fragmented, one segment falls behind, and you're unable to adapt to change. "Organizationally, we split it into two groups—floral and food," said McCann. "Because of the rapid speed of change in these emerging channels, I have one online marketing team for the food group and one for the floral brand."

Then, there are all the shared services, like tech, finance, legal, HR and more. But his floral group has been ahead, so what's a manager to do?

Management Philosophy

"Next week we'll be out in San Francisco meeting everyone, and I'm bringing people from both groups," McCann said. This way, they know what everyone's doing—both the good and the bad—and are able to share best practices.

The brand has stood the test of a rapidly changing industry. It adopted each new technology as it came up, like the rise of 1-800 numbers and the Internet, and successfully made all of those transitions. It's especially important now with commerce becoming more complicated than it has ever been.

The goal at 1-800-Flowers is to become a true "learning organization," and that should be the goal of any company, said McCann.

In the early days when the company had just experienced its first growth spurt, McCann and his crew embraced two management philosophies. The first was dubbed the Nike philosophy—"Just Do It"—and the second was called the Reebok philosophy—"Cross Training."

The Reebok philosophy played a key role in developing talent at 1-800-Flowers. Its office was once essentially a call center, and every summer, the management team would stand up and take the job to their right—much like the age-old technique used by General Electric throughout the years.

"Sales, customer service managers and all would try new jobs," explained McCann. "They'd all say, 'this is crazy, I don't know what I'm doing.' There would be angst and turmoil for two weeks straight. But then they'd settle down and say that they now have a different perspective on things. Many of those people are still with us today."

It has been harder for 1-800-Flowers to keep a culture of knowledge sharing as it has grown larger. One big obstacle has been the company's geographic expansion. It's primarily based in New York, but the food division is based in Columbus, there's a chocolate factory in Canton, Oh., wine tasting out in Napa and a floral section down in Jacksonville.

More Meetings

"A little over two years ago I started to make dramatic personnel changes in the flowers brand, and we had a shindig at my house—like a backyard barbeque," he shared. "I found out that some people who worked in the same building had never met each other. I was shocked. We have to really facilitate this even more."

So, they focused more on group meetings—either virtually or in-person. Now, 1-800-Flowers even has a cross-brand team that gets together once a week to talk about the subject of "e-mail deliverability."

McCann is also using online networking to help his company become more of a social business. He settled on Google+ as the best way to go.

"We made the decision mainly because we're starting to utilize more Google apps, and collaboration is built in more to that platform," he said. "Hangouts are really cool."

Which of Chris McCann's tips would you try out in your business?

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