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Five Ways to Inspire Lifelong Learning

Future Of Work
Center for the Future of Work

Five Ways to Inspire Lifelong Learning

My latest report, Cycling through the 21st Century Career: Putting Learning in its Rightful Place explores the trouble with lifelong...

7 Minutes Read

My latest report, Cycling through the 21st Century Career: Putting Learning in its Rightful Place explores the trouble with lifelong learning.

When we asked respondents (over 1000 knowledge workers from across Europe) what would help them to learn more effectively, the answer wasn’t snazzy new learning tools. Their top requests point to deeper, structural issues blocking learning from being effective:

These sentiments highlight a sense of frustration among the workforce: What’s learning got to do with me? How can I find the time to learn when the 9-5 is devoted solely to “work”? How can learning help me stay employable over a 40-, 50-, 60-year career?

Traditional career models promote a learn-work-retire cadence, encouraging workers to give up any meaningful learning as soon as they step through the office door. This might have made sense when the pace of change was slow enough for one set of skills to last a lifetime, but that’s not the case today.

To inspire continuous learning, organisations need to rethink career models and create more opportunity for learning in the work week. Learning that is relevant and personalised to the individual.

Let’s explore four shifts from traditional career models, to modern career models. These ideas spring from the Center for the Future of Work’s latest publication: From/To: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Future of Your Work, But Were Afraid To Ask.

1. From Restrictive Job Roles to Breaking Work down into Tasks

Workers currently consider their work within the confines of a specific job role: “I am a nurse,” “I am an IT consultant.” Rather than branching out in experience and learning, they become increasingly mechanical in the way they execute the same tasks over and over, throughout their career.

When work is understood at the task level, and approached on a project-by- project basis (like at Google, for example), learning is prioritized to enable shifts across projects.

This fluid movement, which sometimes unexpectedly bridges the gap between unrelated fields, can bring big benefits to the organization. When hiring directors, Marvel Studios, for instance, looks for candidates with experience in wildly different domains – Shakespeare, horror, espionage and comedy. This balance of continuity and innovation seems to work – the average Rotten Tomatoes rating for franchise films is 68% vs. the Marvel films’ average of 84%. Other industries have followed suit: Energy companies hiring meteorologists, hedge funds hiring chess players and consulting firms hiring anthropologists, for example Cognizant’s own relationship with Red Associates.

Organisations should start by breaking down Roles into Tasks and supporting fluid movement across these tasks by promoting internal mobility (fluid movement across projects, teams and even departments).


2. From One-way-streets and Linear Hierarchies to Celebrating Fluidity

Restrictive job roles are further reinforced by linear hierarchies, which are still the norm. Consider a colleague or friend who makes a sideways move to more meaningful work for the same pay – would you celebrate in the same way as if it were a promotion? Learning and development can’t even keep up with linear hierarchies, despite their being ingrained in work for decades. For example, only receiving management training after you’ve become a manager is common across many organizations.

To support the prioritization of learning not just in theory but also in practice, organizations need to reward and celebrate movement in all directions, not just linear. Flexible reward programs can be used to support fluid movement by ensuring compensation that suits both age and life stage, regardless of where you are in the learning and work cycle.

For example, Netflix allows people to choose what percentage of their salary they take in stock options (the amount can also change over time), which allows workers to increase their cashflow in line with life’s demands. This has led to Netflix boasting the highest percentage of workers who believe they are being compensated fairly across the rest of the FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google).

3. From Working 9-5 to Time Well Spent

The majority of workers are still confined to the 9-5 and are programmed to believe that these 40 hours a week are for work only. But research reveals that actual time spent working is more like three hours a day and that workers fill up their remaining hours not with learning but with unrelated activities: reading news websites (on average, 65 minutes a day), checking social media (44 minutes a day) and talking to colleagues about non-work- related topics (40 minutes a day). Workers seem unaware that these extra 2.5 hours of the workday could be put to better use; in my recent report, the number-one barrier to continuous learning was a lack of time.

For learning and work to truly be considered equals, learning should be baked into the day-to-day of work. For example, Ideo, an international design and consulting firm, has installed “inspiration Mondays,” where workers are encouraged to engage in learning outside of their current remit. Taking part in disparate, disconnected learning and experience is proven to boost engagement and productivity.

4. From “But that’s how it’s always been done” to Finding Meaning

As is the case for many workers, “working for the man” means doing your time in exchange for a pay-check. No more, no less. Finding true purpose in work is not the reality for most; in fact, some studies show most businesses don’t even define a collective purpose. There’s still very little incentive to learn and develop beyond the confines of a restrictive job role.

There’s more to incentivizing than salary alone. There is a growing urgency for organizations to demonstrate a greater purpose, beyond the financial satisfaction of shareholders. That’s one reason companies like Roche Pharma India are employing a chief purpose officer. The workforce is looking for purpose too, and will increasingly seek alignment between their own personal purpose and the organization’s. With purpose, the workforce will find the motivation needed to adopt more agile, less clear-cut approaches to work and learning rather than simply get in, get out, get paid.

Organisations need to be clear and open about their purpose and have open conversations with their talent about how it aligns to their individual ambitions and goals.

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