What to do about Learning?

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At what age do you think you’ll stop working? I’ve asked this question to executives at the peak of their career, and to MBA students in the early stages of theirs and it seems like we’re finally getting it. More and more, the answer I hear is ‘never’, or at the very least ‘well into my 70s’. It seems we’re coming to terms with – embracing even – the prospect of an extended working life.

But here’s the catch. What about the next logical questions: What skills will you need to build to be employable in the future? How will you build them… and who’s going to pay?

At this point, the room tends to go quiet.

While we’ve figured out that we need to be working for longer, we are far less certain about what it takes to stay employable in an ever changing world of work. This is exacerbated by the disruptions we see around us in our roles, organisations and industries as technology displaces some jobs while augmenting others; as new competitors enter the landscape and fundamentally shift how customers and clients engage with our products and services.

It’s clear then, that much will have to change — both in how we as individuals understand and anticipate the evolving nature of work, and how we then respond:

Anticipation. As part of my research consortium, The Future of Work, I recently launched a survey asking people in large corporations how they were addressing learning. I was fascinated to see that many of them scored highly in terms of investing time and energy into regularly learning new skills. However, they scored lower on anticipating which skills would be valuable in the future. Essentially, they were investing a lot of resources into learning, without knowing in which direction they should be going. This is concerning.

Response. What do we need to do differently to learn over the course of a longer working life? Here again, it seems that we are experimenting at the edges of the system with online learning modules and mentoring, but are yet to make the fundamental shifts required to maintain our employability.

What’s the answer? I firmly believe that this is a societal shift and must be addressed at every level and by multiple stakeholders – individuals, governments, educational institutions, organisations. For now, however, let me focus on organisations.

Work is a major place of learning, and it is incumbent on organisations to be active both in the anticipation and response stages:

  • Anticipation: is your organisation analysing how jobs are changing and then translating this into guidance for your employees?
  • Response: does your organisation provide people with the time and resources to act on this by embracing lifelong learning?

There are some organisations already leading the way here: media and telecoms company, AT&T, anticipates future job profiles through the mapping of job categories. This then demonstrates which areas will grow and where jobs may be at risk. Westpac, the Australian bank, enables response with a platform-based approach called LearningBank, which has been rolled out to 40,000 employees. This is a social learning environment where employees co-create and share their own learning material as well as accessing training curated by the company.

Where does this leave us? It took time for us as individuals to come around to the reality of longer working lives, and perhaps it will take time too for organisations to fully appreciate the challenge ahead and their role in addressing it. In the meantime, however, those organisations that anticipate and respond fastest, have much to gain from an informed and employable workforce.



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