How to build a learning culture
Education isn’t what it used to be. What you learn today may be redundant tomorrow
For generations, schools, universities and workplaces have prepared citizens to work in a linear fashion: identify necessary skills, devise a training curriculum, transfer knowledge and — voilà! — you have a workforce prepared to answer any number of specific demands in the market.
This model worked well when change came slowly. Businesses could forecast future needs and students could train to fill those needs with the assurance that a good job would reward focused academic preparation.
Not any more. The rate of change is too swift. Where once an economic paradigm shift could be absorbed over generations, we now expect to absorb multiple shifts in a single lifetime. We are in the Age of Accelerations, as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman puts it.
He identifies three exponential growth and change trends: technology (Moore’s law, which states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every year while the costs are halved); the market (interdependent global markets); and climate (climate change, biodiversity loss, population growth). Technology is measured by the relentless march of Moore’s law, which has delivered computing power at such low cost that now anything mentally routine or predictable — perhaps half of all work — can be replaced by technology.
The market has moved from being connected to hyper-connected to interdependent, forcing failures and successes to be absorbed by all.
Climate change not only drives shifts in energy markets but also changes in human migration, as super storms, drought and other conditions drive people to seek safety and economic advantage in countries other than their own.
Friedman argues that these three interlocking accelerations are redefining geopolitics, politics, community, ethics, learning and work. Change runs blindingly fast up an exponential curve.
The dose of education stockpiled in our 20s will barely last into our 30s. The old 40-year career arc is stretching to 50 or more years, as we live longer, healthier and more engaged lives. Where we once jumped on the career ladder and climbed to retirement, workers now navigate a maze of ever-changing possibilities. Traversing this maze will require not just stored knowledge and experience, but a flexible and ready ability to learn, adapt, collaborate and create.
Where the college or academy once sat at the centre of learning, corporations must now move into that position. John Hagel, who leads Deloitte’s Centre for the Edge, says it will be more important for a business to rapidly and continuously learn and adapt than it will be to push more product through a cheaper pipeline.
A century ago, the most valuable companies created wealth by extracting value from natural resources. Think of steel, oil, gas and meat production.
Fifty years ago, the most valuable companies were automotive, telecommunications and chemical companies that scaled production capabilities with skilled labour. This shift drove people to seek higher education, filling the pipeline from classroom to factory with workers trained to specific roles.
Today, our most valuable companies create and leverage digital technology. These companies create value by learning faster than the competition. Every product or service offered is merely a data-collection vehicle from which to learn more about the customer.
As we dive headlong into the future, a worker’s capacity for learning will be the fundamental skill, since any routine or predictable task will be delegated to an algorithm. So how does an organisation screen, develop and organise its workforce to meet this emerging challenge?
When US president John F Kennedy challenged his country to send a man to the moon, Nasa couldn’t just go out and hire an experienced moonwalker. It had to rely on capacity and capability, rather than experience, to build the infrastructure, machinery and programmes that would send a man to the moon.
The programme assembled collaborative teams across disciplines and organisations to first figure out what had to be done, and then do it. Questions emerged in concert with the answers, and often the answers suggested researchers were asking the wrong questions. Navigating so many unknowns required a nimbleness of thought and real learning agility.
Today, like Nasa, business can’t depend on experience to develop and exploit new opportunities. To tackle the "firsts" that will present themselves in the Age of Acceleration, businesses must build learning agility. They must continually adapt and upskill capabilities so they can discover and deliver new products and services.
In this swirl of accelerated change, a strong culture holds the centre of any organisation. Too often lumped into a pile with employee benefits or workplace perks, culture is the operating system of every organisation. With a clear sense of purpose, clarity of values and well-articulated operating principles, businesses can sustain disruptions, reinventing themselves to take on new challenges.
Leaders must shift their focus from outputs (brand and products) to inputs, namely culture and capacity. Culture is an expression of the brand and product is the evidence of capacity. In the Age of Acceleration, a product or service is merely evidence of the company’s learning. Companies that will thrive in the Age of Acceleration focus on nurturing their culture and increasing their capacity by continually expanding and upgrading capabilities.
While freelance workers are often perceived as lesser contributors to organisations than employees, the opposite may be true. A study, "Freelancing in America 2017", by Edelman Intelligence, found that not only do full-time freelancers feel their work is already affected by rising automation, 65% report they invest regularly in updating their skills. That’s better than the 45% of full-time employees who do the same.
As the Institute for the Future’s Marina Gorbis observed: "As we close the digital divide, the next divide to emerge will be the motivational drive. Those motivated to continuously learn and adapt will thrive."
Few dispute the increasing rapidity of change and its impact on jobs and the future of work. Here are four things employers can do to build a foundation for the future of work.
1. Be deliberate about culture and purpose. Every company has a culture, which is often not well articulated. Take time to examine your organisation, and document your purpose and operating principles. Ask questions like: why do we exist; how is the world different/better because we exist; and what will we learn from failure?
Test your principles with colleagues at every level of the business. Then act on them. This is not a one-time or annual discussion; culture requires daily nurturing.
2. Identify your personal purpose and passions as a leader and team. Document the culture of your career. What do you value in yourself and your relationships with co-workers? What makes work worthwhile? How do you want to be evaluated by others? Which values do you bring to your work? Think of this as an "operating manual" for your work.
3. End every major project with a postmortem. Most businesses do postmortems all wrong. They dismiss all that went well, then berate themselves over what went wrong. They promise to do better next time, then quickly fall back into business as usual. A learning postmortem looks at a project differently. It helps identify unexpected occurrences and what management and employees learnt from them.
4. Institutionalise learning. Make learning an explicit goal of your organisation and build it into your practices. For example, you might organise your teams around "learning tours" that use work assignments to give your team exposure to different parts of the organisation.
Add collaborative learning days into your company calendar. Set a challenge for work teams to develop, prototype and present a new product or service concept in one day.
Make talent discovery and sharing a part of your employee experience. People come to work as interesting and complex humans with many hidden talents. Use team meetings or events to draw out these capabilities.
Building a learning culture is a deliberate and ongoing process and only happens with leadership committed to putting learning front and centre. Develop a learning plan for your organisation that includes employees, contractors, freelance workers and partners alike. Where we once learnt to work, now we will spend long careers working continuously to unlearn, then relearn.
• Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley are specialists in education and technology innovation. This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in Dialogue, the partner journal of Duke Corporate Education.