Lifelong learning is here to stay, so make the most of it! Here is how.
Lifelong learning is one of the drivers shaping the Future of Work. In a world continuously disrupted by technology and other forces, skills are becoming obsolete, and we have to reinvent ourselves constantly. We have to become lifelong learners in order to continue being relevant in an everchanging world.
So far, there have always been three differentiated stages in life. In the first stage, people in their childhood and youth learned the skills and acquired the knowledge they would be using for work in their adulthood. In the second one, people worked and sometimes went through some training-on-the-job, but the main focus was on working, not learning. In the third and final stage, people retired into well-deserved leisure time, with no work or major learning happening.
No longer. This has been turned upside down.
We need to learn continuously in all three phases. Learning in the first phase feels inadequate and will have to change, as we are not preparing the young to succeed in a world in which creativity, problem-solving and social skills, not memorizing, will be paramount. In adulthood, people will have to continue reinventing themselves and learning new skills to keep themselves relevant. Concerning the third and final stage, the aging of the population and the fact that we are getting to old age in better health will cause the retirement age to be delayed, and in many cases, people will continue working well into their 70s.
This continuous learning so we don’t fall behind may sound stressing for some, but it shouldn’t necessarily be. Learning is not a chore. It is fascinating, and it can be one of our main drivers in life. As Maslow explained in his famous hierarchy of needs, self-actualization is one of our primary needs as human beings. It is actually at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. It is in our nature to get better at something, learn, and grow.
Lifelong learning is a natural process; it’s not a new fashionable invention. Human beings have always spent their lives learning. They never stopped. What has changed is the scale of the learning required to keep abreast and that we are more conscious of the amount of new knowledge we need to keep being relevant in today’s hypercompetitive and demanding world.
Skills of the future
The world has been changing very rapidly in the last couple of decades. The pace of change has accelerated in the last few months, thanks to Covid-19. As many have highlighted, we have seen the equivalent of years of digital transformation in a matter of weeks. This has profound consequences on the skills now required to be successful in today’s environment.
As this report from McKinsey indicates, we are moving into a more digital and remote world, with more people working and buying from home. This requires employees to develop new skills:
– Technical awareness and skills to operate in a remote environment effectively. This means making the most of technology to stay connected and remain productive.
– Cognitive skills to be successful in an environment with more autonomy and less direct supervision: critical thinking, project management, innovation, and creativity, problem-solving, etc.
– Social and emotional skills to ensure collaboration, even in remote settings.
– Adaptability and resilience skills to thrive in an evolving and uncertain environment.
These are skills that we will need in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic but will also become relevant in the farther future. I would add in the technical skills, AI literacy, and working well with AI and robots.
If we move onto leadership competencies, I believe the future leader (as explained here and here) should excel in the following competencies and mindsets: growth and innovation mindset, purposeful vision, cultural and mental agility, inclusive leadership, emotional intelligence, and AI literacy. All of these can be learned and developed. That’s one of the most important premises of the growth mindset: intelligence and skills aren’t fixed and can be developed with effort and hard work.
How can the lifelong learner learn these and other skills? First of all, he or she will have to learn how to unlearn.
The importance of unlearning
“The illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”Alvin Toffler, futurist
Our brains are miraculously powerful, but they don’t have infinite capacity. We receive millions of stimuli every day, and we cannot memorise all of them, only a tiny fraction. To learn new skills or habits, we often need to unlearn others.
It is not only about having limited space in our brains. Unlearning is also about a continually changing world and how what it worked until now may not be the best way forward. That’s why we have to challenge ourselves, our thinking, and our worldview constantly; be open to new ideas and feedback from others; and be humble and committed to learning, not to being always right. When you think a habit or mindset is not working for you anymore, get rid of it.
This, of course, is easier said than done, but if you want to learn something new, you need to be ready to unlearn the old and relearn things differently.
How to learn
Traditionally companies have recurred to formal training courses as the primary learning method. It will depend on what subject is taught, how the training is designed, and many other factors, but usually, training in a classroom isn’t the most effective way to learn something new, especially for adults. We typically forget most of what we were taught in a few days or weeks. Training can be a rather wasteful process.
The focus should be on learning, not training. We don’t want to train our employees, we want them to learn, and it seems a training course isn’t the best way to do it. Many L&D practitioners have promulgated the benefits of a blended learning approach, which, as its name indicates, consists of blending different learning methods for maximum effectiveness.
In a typical blended learning program, participants would have to study some theoretical concepts online via e-learning, then have a session or two on a physical or virtual training session to reinforce those learnings via role-playing and other interactive methods. They would typically complement those learnings with a work-related project or an individual action plan. A mentor or a coach can also be added to help the learner reflect on their learning and for increased self-awareness and introspection. A learning journal is also helpful to promote reflection and to reinforce what it was learned.
I am an ardent defendant of blended learning, as it maximises the benefits of each learning method, but it has to be carefully designed to have the best possible impact. We all learn in different ways and different types of knowledge are better interiorized via different methods, so by blending different approaches we ensure the learner acquires the required theoretical knowledge, makes it part of their internal repertoire by putting it in practice in a safe environment, then reflects on it and gets new insights.
Adults learn differently from children or young people. They require more practice and repetition to fix the learning in their brain and reinforce brain connections. Even in a blended learning approach, I would strengthen the more practical parts of it: projects, learning-on-the-job, etc. Sometimes there is no need to create a full blended learning program to learn some new valuable skills. It suffices to make change a role, and we will learn as we face new challenges. We learn most by doing, after all.
I love coaching, and I think it is a great way to learn about oneself, our strengths and development areas, our blind spots… to define the goals that really matter to us and find the best way to achieve them. Together with learning by doing, I think coaching is one of the most powerful ways there is to learn, increase self-awareness, and grow closer to our own potential.
Learning in the future
We will be seeing more and more learning happening in Extended Reality (XR, it applies to virtual, augmented, and mixed reality). We will be able to immerse in completely new universes in which we will see, hear, and touch a world set up for us to learn. XR will allow us to face new challenges, test ourselves, and our ability to do new things in a completely safe environment. It will even allow us to create environments that don’t exist in real life.
The potential of XR for learning is enormous. It is already being used in some areas, and it shows a lot of promise but still has some way to reach its full potential. Watch this space, as it will be the next great thing in learning.
Another area in which learning is already being transformed is by gamification. This is the present already, not the future, but it will be revolutionised, and it will play an increasingly important part in the way we learn. Since we are children, we learn by imitation and by playing games. Gamification takes our natural hunger for playing and competing with others and creates games that allow us to acquire new knowledge and skills by playing. As simple as that.
This is an industry that is growing and will be growing more in the future. Learning by playing is here to stay.
Both Extended Reality and gamification combine very well together: XR allows a more real playing and learning experience. We will see them more and more together.
And how about other learning methods? Training in a classroom (physical or virtual), learning-on-the-job, undertaking projects, reading a book or watching a video, coaching and mentoring, and all the other learning methods will continue playing their part. Still, they will be transformed by technology and by advances in AI.
Leadership is about learning
Lifelong learning will be a more prevalent phenomenon everywhere. Those able to continually learn and adapt will be more successful than those who don’t. This trend will put more pressure on people, but learning is also one of those things that makes life worth living and keeps us alive.
Organisations have to become learning grounds. Peter Senge talked about learning organisations already in The Fifth Discipline three decades ago (time flies!), but this is still as relevant as back then, if not more. Learning organisations will be the ones winning in the future, but organisations don’t learn; people do. We need to ensure we create the right environment and provide the right resources and incentives for people to learn constantly.
Leaders have to foster learning on their teams. During my first internship, my first mentor told me, back in 2003, that a leader’s first and most important mission was to make their team learn and grow. My younger self didn’t understand this back then. I thought leadership was something else. It was about being charismatic, having people follow you, and achieve great results. Now I get it. Leadership goes deeper than all that, and a leader first and foremost must help their team grow, and for that, they need to take care of the learning of their team. Great leaders continuously learn, challenge themselves and others, and help others grow.
And you, what are you doing to learn and reinvent yourself and your team? What did you learn today, yesterday, last week, last month? If you aren’t learning something new, you aren’t living fully.