Lifelong Learning And The Future Of Work

The 4th Industrial Revolution is bringing a whirlwind of change to organizations, but what does this mean for individuals and our willingness and ability to learn the skills that will enable us to keep up with these changes throughout our life?

A recent report from online learning provider Udemy revealed that just 42% of millennials weren’t receiving any kind of training and development at work, despite an equal number regarding this as the best perk they could receive from their employer.  This demand for learning is understandable as the technological changes impacting the modern workplace make constant learning essential for any employee looking to stay on top of things.

The scale of the challenge was highlighted by a recent study from ESADE, which revealed that a shortage of skills was the primary barrier in the development of a data-driven culture.  Skills were lacking both in the analysis of the data and the management of the data, and despite widespread shortages in the marketplace, organizations were generally not investing in development in-house to plug the gap.

Similar skills shortages have emerged in terms of artificial intelligence as well.  For instance, a recent survey by professional services firm EY revealed that most organizations have barely dipped their toe into the water in terms of working with AI, yet despite this tentative approach, most are struggling to find the talent to power even these furtive efforts.

What’s more, a recent report from Accenture suggested that a lack of pure AI skills is only half the battle, as to truly capitalize on the technology organizations will need to develop a whole range of new processes so that AI is at the core of what they do.  As you can perhaps imagine, new processes will almost certainly require new skills from the workforce.

Lifelong learning

Far from creating the doomsday scenarios, many headlines have predicted, therefore, the 4th industrial revolution will instead herald an era of perpetual learning.  The days of going to university and then trading on that knowledge are almost certainly a thing of the past, with the future requiring skills to be constantly updated.  The challenge then becomes how can we best do this?

A recent report from Accenture argues that companies should be taking the lead in developing both technical and softer skills.

“Paradoxically, the truly human skills, from leadership to creativity, will remain highly relevant and winning organizations will strike the right balance – leveraging the best of technology to elevate, not eliminate their people,” Accenture said.  “Not only are workers optimistic, but they understand they must learn new skills. Digital can accelerate learning by embedding training seamlessly into daily work – so learning becomes a way of life – helping workers and organizations remain relevant.”

A number of companies are leading the way.  For instance, Airbnb has created Data University to provide employees with the opportunity to learn about data.  The initiative has already seen roughly 1/8th of the workforce participate. Fellow tech giant Google has also created an online course in partnership with MOOC platform Coursera.  The course is designed for IT support professionals, and the team believes that a student could go from novice to proficient in around 8 months.

MOOCs offer a tremendous opportunity to help people to learn throughout their careers in an efficient and cost-effective way.  A few years ago a Wharton report found that the cost of delivering a standard MBA course was around $1,475 per student, and of course, each course is limited by the capacity of the school delivering the course.  They calculated however that the cost of delivering a MOOC worked out at $0.50 per student, or $11 per ‘graduate’ (based upon typical completion rates).

Coursera has been leading the way, and launched Coursera for Business last year.  The business specific platform has over 1,400 courses from around 150 institutions around the world.  It offers employers specializations that pool together courses on particular topics to make deep diving easier.

Time for learning

Whilst the Udemy report from the beginning of this post highlighted the paucity of investment in employee training and development, there are also valid concerns about the lack of time set aside for developing our skills at work.

3M, Motorola, and Google helped to champion the concept of 20% time for innovating on projects and ideas that were outside the core job description of an employee.  The time gave them the freedom to explore and create, and at Google helped in the development of products such as Gmail and Google Maps.

When it comes to learning however, it seems increasingly the case that if employers do offer some sort of financial support for learning, the actual learning itself is required to be done in the employee’s own time.  Whilst it’s largely accepted that freelancers working in the gig economy are in charge of their own skills development, surely in an employed setting, that responsibility is shared more equitably between employer and employee?  Indeed, a recent survey conducted by tech company BMC found that many workers believe it’s the responsibility of their employer to enable them to have the skills they need to thrive in the changing workplace.

“The massive digital disruption we are experiencing is forcing societies and businesses to create new learning environments to train their labor forces so they are able to meet the demands of digital industry. The study also shows that employees want to be ‘digital change agents’ and are looking to acquire new skills but are asking for employers to offer more training opportunities to meet the requirements of the digital era. To put it simply, businesses that take the initiative to lead today will be those that others follow tomorrow,” BMC’s Paul Appleby says.

This was the case at French insurance giant AXA, who recently partnered with Coursera to offer on-demand training to the company’s 145,000 employees around the world.  In an initial pilot, employees devoted 18 hours to learning, spread across several courses, with the average employee completing 2.5 courses during the pilot period.

“By 2020, the core skills required by jobs are not on the radar today, hence we need to rethink the development of skills, with 50% of our jobs requiring significant change in terms of skillset,” Stephanie Ricci, head of learning at AXA, said.

Car giant Toyota attempt to blend learning into everyday life.  Their production lines have ‘andon’ cords that workers pull when they are having problems, and their team collectively strive to help them overcome the problem.  Any improvements in process are then formally standardized and spread rapidly throughout the workforce via training sessions for group and team leaders.

If that constant skills development is to occur however, there has to be some time set aside from business, as usual, to give employees the time and space to learn.  Doing so will help to signify the importance attached to constant skills development whilst also giving them the time and resources to study effectively. If learning can be made a social activity among employees even better, as this will help to spread learning throughout the organization.

However organizations, and indeed individuals, approach this challenge, we should be under no doubt that we are living in an era of continuous learning and must prepare ourselves for that new reality in the best way possible.

Read the next article in the future of work series – Why finding your purpose is so important

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