Organisations understand that today's business landscape demands continuous learning from all of its employees.
We learn in many ways, often by watching, trying and repeating an activity until we get, or get close to, the outcome we want, or the outcome that someone else requires. Over time our early acts of taught, encouraged and deliberate learning become a sub-conscious continuum, repeated multiple times in parallel, as we subtly reinforce what we already know, and extend our capabilities to deal with new situations in our lived environment.
As individuals mature and enter the job market the pattern is repeated. We learn new skills that allow us to become part of a paid workforce, and constantly, if sub-consciously, appraise the new information which bombards us daily, integrating it into our own personal body of knowledge, and refining our responses accordingly.
Daily learning is as essential as breathing. At its most basic level, continual learning provides us with the ability to co-exist with our fellow humans, and with the skills to earn a living. Beyond that it nourishes our minds and allow us to cope with what life throws at us; to respond to constant change, and to adapt to continue to earn that living.
Change is ever present in every aspect of our personal and working lives and continual learning is our essential response to adapt and succeed.
Aside from the very necessary sub-conscious learning capability that nature equips us with in order to survive, continual learning may be defined as:
An individual's deliberate action to expand their skillset and to prepare themselves for future opportunity by acquiring new knowledge, putting it in context and thereby developing new competencies.
Not only does this avoid personal stagnation, but it allows an individual to shape their future and helps them to live their best working life. Ultimately, it will assist them reach their potential.
The internet has democratised knowledge and knowledge acquisition, so there is no excuse not to take the opportunity to learn. Failure to do so will mean that an individual's capabilities will diminish relative to their peers. Keeping up-to-date and regularly learning new skills makes everyone more valuable in the work place as well as giving the personal satisfaction of mastering a range of competencies.
Every organisation needs to stay relevant, as markets, consumers and technology evolve. In the same way that individuals need to constantly update their own knowledge and competencies, so does the company which employs them.
It is essential that every organisation knows why it exists, how its products address the customer need and how the organisation services that need. It must then constantly update its knowledge of matters which affect these essential trading competencies.
There are many sources of knowledge across the business. The challenge is harnessing this asset in a coherent and productive way. Each knowledge nugget should be passed on across the organisation as a form of continual learning. The way a business gathers, shares and exploits its knowledge is central to its ability to develop successfully, and to continue trading.
Empowering employees to take responsibility and make decisions in a blame free environment is vital to a company's ability to pivot to being customer-centric and to focus on constantly delivering new value.
Knowledge must flow freely if an organisation is to get the best value from people, and it must be constantly updated with new learning. If the Corporate Memory is how Exec management wants key information to be captured, then Social Knowledge Management is how the workforce share information as peers.
Why continual learning matters
Whilst learning never stops, its pace slows with age and experience - as the big concepts are mastered, additional knowledge augments existing realisation. People new to a workplace are taught to become subject matter experts, by immersion in the job and/or by a codified programme of learning designed to allow them to understand the body of knowledge relevant to their working discipline.
This functional expertise is an essential building block of a company's capability, and the organisation is reliant on their staff's ability and willingness to perform it.
A continual learning mindset encourages individuals to carry on learning as they work, to embed their current knowledge and to extend their functional expertise. In doing so, they will better realise why their job exists and how it relates to other parts of the internal value chain. Good leaders realise that continual learning engages and empowers their staff, and allows their energy and insight to adapt and grow the organisation.
Just as important is an individual's ongoing development of soft skills. Their ability to empathise, to think, to communicate and to be creative is an essential part of personal growth, and is a significant contribution to the success of the organisation they work for.
Continual learning is essential to match the rate of change in the business landscape, by developing the skills needed as roles evolve. History tells us of jobs that disappeared as advances in manufacturing replaced manual activities and that has only accelerated over recent time. Today digitisation, automation and machine learning are replacing proficient workers, so the need to constantly stay on top of developments in a specialism and to learn new skills is essential to provide new routes to earning.
The type of continual learning demanded by today's business
Each sector has its own knowledge base and is at a unique point in its cycle of growth, decline and renewal, so demand for skillsets vary. However, there are some skills which span industries and for which there is a constant need, such as sales generation leaders or finance business partners.
Every year there are many lists published which highlight the new skills which are in great demand. Recently, these have included roles such as robotics engineers, machine learning engineers, cyber security analysts, data analysts, cloud architects, site reliability engineers etc. Many of these new roles are in technology, reinforcing the fact that technology has become ever more part of the way we conduct our lives.
Individuals who are in jobs which mainly comprise transactional or repetitive activities might be advised to cross-train into a new type of job, such as those outlined above. For career progression or a greater salary, many employees may wish to re-skill in order to work where they will have new impact.
Notwithstanding the published lists, no one can truly second-guess when to re-skill or to jump into a different career path, even if an individual has the aptitude and ability to make a success of such a move.
What modern business demands of people is an awareness and openness to change, an enquiring mind and a willingness to learn about new ways of working.
It is also beneficial for individuals to create the cognitive bandwidth to think about what may happen in the future, and how that future may be coped with:
We digitise data, we digitalise process, but we digitally transform an organisation. Digital Transformation is the organisational, behavioural and technological changes needed to re-align around the cross-functional value-chain, so that revenue is secured by iteratively delivering augmented products and services, to ensure that the company stays relevant as the world moves on.
The term digital in digital transformation refers to speed and agility rather than technology, so don’t leave this all to the tech guys - the modern business demands that all of its staff adapt to the new realities of the Speed of Now - and this takes continual learning.
Examples of the need for continual learning:
- Products. Understanding the many benefits arising from funding products rather than projects (OpEx vs CapEx). Aligning the business and technology as one integrated unit, optimised for speed and agility, is the key enabler of digital transformation.
- Value-creation. Embracing the value-creating trust and inspire style of leadership, rather than existing within the legacy command and control approach. Working in an environment of reputation and influence rather than hierarchy, has significant benefits.
- Cross-functional. Learning what is involved in pivoting from a siloed, functional organisation to a cross-functional customer-centric team structure. This approach uses functional expertise in a much more effective manner.
- Capability. Understanding how each role maps onto the business process, and what commitments are made to deliver what outputs, to whom, when.
- Empowerment. Accepting the faith shown in an individual's abilities by their peers and their manager, and learning how to make decisions which improve the customer experience.
- Scenario Planning. Knowing what is known about how a job is done, how would it be performed to an acceptable outcome if A, B or C happened?
- Competition. Recognising that corporate competitors no longer look like the company. Once, competing organisations were obvious - they all looked and acted the same way. Asymmetric organisations are now delivering value to people or companies who were once your customers; they are taking away revenue yet they are not recognised as competitors.
- Corporate Agility. Reflecting on the step-change needed to respond to digital disruption. Proposing how impediments to change may be removed so that the organisation's ability to changed markets, altered consumer preference or evolved technology is enhanced. This involves the correct tone at the top of the organisation which encourages exploration of different ways of working.
How to scale learning for all employees
There is so much knowledge in every organisation, yet the greater part is stuck in people's heads, and worse, walks out of the door when they leave. In a hierarchical organisation knowledge is power; in a cross-functional organisation, knowledge creates shared-value.
A corporate Learning and Development team can capture key knowledge nuggets and turn them into self-study courses or online learning, but this type of learning is best suited to governance or regulatory mandated information.
The organisational knowledge that really matters to ensure the success of the company needs to be freely shared by those individuals who thoroughly understand it, and day-to-day tacit knowledge needs to flow around the organisation in an unimpeded manner.
Digital tools for social knowledge capture (Elium, Confluence, Axero etc) and for workplace messaging (Slack, Discord, Teams etc) instantly share information, and provide a corporate repository of knowledge. This very act of sharing is also a continual learning mechanism to all employees. Further, when those message flows are codified into documents or presentations, a new learning resource is created. All the more so given that the file is stored within the tool and is easily found, used and updated.
Sometimes, the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming, so successful organisations assign curators to pick out the most important or useful learning and share the links in regular digests.
The benefits of Continual Learning
A continual learning approach encourages employees to acquire the knowledge and abilities that help them do their jobs better. This is a positive outcome for both the individual and the organisation - functional expertise, digital competencies and changed behaviours are essential in today's business landscape.
Benefits for individuals include:
- Recruitment and retention. When looking for a new job, many people are attracted by the offer of training and the ability to continually learn on the job. This commitment helps them grow as individuals and to value their contribution to the success of the company. The reality of continued learning has an effect on whether or not that person remains at the company long term.
- Remaining relevant. Topping up skills and mastering new competencies is essential for everyone; not being afraid of how the world evolves and ensuring that skills are relevant to the need is essential in order to keep earning a living.
- Dealing with the unexpected. Life and work throw some curved balls. People who continually learn, also learn how to approach matters that they are not familiar with. It is almost impossible to teach someone how to deal with every eventuality, so learning must focus on how to resolve the challenges that don't occur very often, or for which there is no 'playbook' available.
- Competence leads to confidence. Many self-help books offer advice as to how improving confidence will lead to success in life as well as in a career. An outwardly confident person is no more likely to be correct than someone appearing to lack confidence. Appearing confident doesn't bestow competence in a particular activity or role, but actually being competent, and knowing that is the case leads to earned confidence.
- Leadership comes from self-awareness. You can't lead others if you don't know who you are. Continual learning leads to a better understanding of the self, and unlocks the gift of serving others.
- Ready for promotion. A vibrant mind, fed with continual learning, will spark new ideas, change perspective and accentuate the positive. Those who exhibit these behaviours boost their personal profile, are more inclined to pass on what they have learned and are candidates for early promotion.
It is not enough to only give staff the opportunity to do what they currently do better, at a higher level.
Individuals must be encouraged to be aware of changes in the market, in customer preference and in how technology could be applied. In doing so they should be able to openly discuss how the corporate offering may be altered, and their own skills updated, in order to stay relevant and to keep the revenue flowing.
They must also be encouraged to look at the ways of working within the organisation and be allowed to propose new ways of doing things. Business processes that once made sense can always be improved.
Perhaps the most important learning for todays business landscape is that the structural and managerial constructs that have served business for decades (if not centuries) need to change. Some of today's most successful companies ignored what was 'best practice', instead creating products and services within entirely new business models, which meant that they had also to create entirely new ways of working. They then made second fortunes by making their new learning (their corporate infrastructure) available to others.
It takes boldness to change an organisation's business model. It takes continual learning for individuals to understand why transformation is needed and what that change should entail.
The business case for Continual Learning
The financial return for companies who promote and provide continual learning opportunities is simple and straightforward. So much so, that a formal business case is rarely needed.
In simple terms companies which support personal growth and have a trust and inspire leadership style have 4x better employee retention and 3x profitability than those which don't. Two-thirds of these companies actively invest to improve employee skills, knowing that workforce learning has a direct impact on customer experience. Giving employees compelling experiences such as continual learning is a significant positive contributor to employee engagement, for which the business case is proven.
The applicable timespan of professional skills is tumbling. Once, skills mastered at the beginning of a career lasted for the majority of it. Recently the half-life of skills was around 15 years, but every year this reduces. Technology in particular reinvents itself every 5 years at present, and that will only accelerate.
New entrants to the workforce in the 202os may have a healthy 60 year working life ahead of them, so they will need to continually learn new skills and master new ways of working.
The challenge of the modern business landscape is not that there aren't enough workers, but that the workers do not have the necessary skill sets. Therefore, it is imperative that companies invest in continual learning if they are to have any chance of remaining in business in the long term.
Members of staff who take the opportunity to continually learn how to better their functional expertise, should be encouraged to explore how to extend their span of control so that they can extend their influence.
They should then be supported in continuing their learning, in both how to run the company and how to ensure that the company becomes agile enough to survive each successive change.
Continual learning must exist at both the personal and corporate level. Individuals so that they achieve a personal mastery, and organisations (though the additional vision of their leaders) so that the company becomes and remains sufficiently agile, to ensure that it can prosper as all around it changes.