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The Problem with Lifelong Learning and How to Fix It

Millennial Generation

The Problem with Lifelong Learning and How to Fix It

What is a learner? A student, an apprentice, a novice. What is a worker? A grafter, a labourer, a wage-earner. Learners are at...

6 Minutes Read

What is a learner? A student, an apprentice, a novice.
What is a worker? A grafter, a labourer, a wage-earner.

Learners are at the beginning. Workers are getting the job done. We learn until we graduate, we work until we retire. Kids learn. Grown-ups work.

It’s a battle to convince people that learning is for life. It’s hard to accept, after spending tens of thousands of dollars and countless caffeine-fuelled days in the library, that the things we learnt at school and university might not actually see us through our working lives.

But it’s true. 76% of business leaders face a daunting skills gap and 73% think it will widen in the next five years, according to recent research by the CFoW. But the trouble doesn’t stop there. Not only do we not know, we don’t know what we need to know (I know). The biggest challenge for organisations reskilling the workforce is ‘a lack of clarity regarding which skills to prioritise’ (73%).

Organisations are scrambling to work out what work looks like over the next five years and leaving skills planning ‘til last. There’s a major disconnect: prioritisation of jobs and tasks and mapping of skills and learning as secondary. (Actually, there’s a pretty fine argument for starting with skills and then working out work – double-down on the “art of the job” as the “science of the job” is being eaten up my machine. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

So now, by promoting ‘lifelong learning’, we are perpetuating the problem by continuing to distinguish ‘learning’ from ‘work’.

Listen up: Learning is work.

Breaking down the long-entrenched view that work is superior to learning, that learning merely enables work, is going to be tough. Let’s take the expectation on leadership as a perfect case-in-point.

Leaders are ‘know-it-alls’. They are the experts. You wouldn’t catch Mr. CEO googling ‘What is AI’ – they have to (magically) know all these things. Leaders are expected to have a considered, intelligent opinion on any topic even tangentially related to their business. And they’re expected to communicate that message flawlessly. After all, knowledge is power.

In actual fact, 73% of business leaders surveyed expressed concern about their leaders’ skills and abilities to handle new types of work driven by emerging digital technologies. This isn’t something that leaders should be ashamed of, it’s something they just need to own up to. After all, who, in our complex world, can possibly keep up with every new advancement, every new technology, every environmental and social development around the world? (Because for leaders today it’s not just about shareholders: sustainability matters, humanitarianism matters, global matters.)

Instead of professing to be eloquent experts in everything, leaders need to reform into humble learners. They should set the example that learning is an integral part of work, and that having to learn doesn’t detract from your power. It simply empowers.


Three Steps to the Successful Integration of Learning and Work

How can organisations break down the barriers between learning and work? I’ll suggest three ways (for now – watch this space):

1. Rework motivation to learn

Misalignment of workforce strategy with business goals was cited as a top challenge for business leaders. 60% of businesses agreed that learning is still perceived as departmentally-driven and, as such, is the responsibility of the L&D and/or HR departments – business functions that are not always the driver of change in businesses.

How are you motivating your people to learn if there’s no connection between learning and business goals?! And then you think about the way you reward your people… for hitting their targets and meeting business goals… Which are disconnected from learning plans…

Why would anyone bother learning?

If you’re learning efforts for employees are measured in number of learning courses taken or number of hours spent learning, it’s time for a serious rethink. Focus on how to measure learning by the impact it has on work. How? Read on.

2. Put a skill on it

Business goals and learning goals shouldn’t be separate. Skills should be assigned to each quarterly business goal and individual KPI. Hitting a sales target? What new sales technique are you learning? Writing 2 blogs a quarter? What writing courses are you taking? Working on a project with a global team? How are you building your cultural awareness?

Next time you set a business goal for you or your direct report, map a skill to it.

3. Lifelong learning… AKA a career. Duh.

When setting career and developmental goals, get that reskilling mapped in advance! A distressingly common example: how many people become first time managers and only get access to the managerial training after they’re assigned their first underling? Align your learning plan and your career plan. Hopefully one day this will be second nature and we’ll just call it a career plan.

Research has already started to show that the number one reason to stay with an employer is learning and development opportunities, not salary. Especially amongst the millennial generation. Please don’t knock that hunger to learn out of them by giving them no reason to learn at work.

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