The safest prediction is that reality will outstrip our imaginations. So let us craft our policies not just for what we expect but for what will surely surprise us. –Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of economics, Harvard University

Professor Mullainathan argues that, in this age of disruption when constant innovation results in creative destruction of businesses, we need to think differently about the education of people throughout their careers. He writes:

… in a rapidly changing world, the fundamentals that were useful decades ago may be obsolete now; more important, new essential skills may have arisen. Anyone helping a grandparent navigate a computer has experienced this problem.

Once we recognize that human capital, like technology, needs refreshing, we have to restructure our institutions so people acquire education later in life. We don’t merely need training programs for niche populations or circumstances, expensive and short executive-education programs or brief excursions like TED talks. Instead we need the kind of in-depth education and training people receive routinely at age 13.

I don’t think we want to subject adults to the kind of learning experiences typical of a 13-year-old’s classroom. But I do agree that all workers today need to be continually learning and our institutions need to recognize and support this learning.

In the Knowledge Economy, learning cannot end with school. Learning at the individual, team, and whole organization levels must be continuous. Training programs are not sufficient. E-learning programs are not sufficient. On-the-job coaching and mentoring are not sufficient. Workplace learning must be all of these and more.

Former mine workers are learning coding. Car prototype builders who used to build clay models are learning how to use a 3D printer. Teams that previously took years to develop a new product are learning to be agile and develop new products within weeks or months. Organizations are learning to experiment with new structures, without the controls that bureaucracy and hierarchy have provided.

The economy depends on people learning throughout their careers. A special report in The Economist titled, Lifelong learning is becoming an economic imperative, concludes:

To remain competitive, and to give low- and high-skilled workers alike the best chance of success, economies need to offer training and career-focused education throughout people’s working lives.

We need to prepare people for jobs that don’t currently exist. Tom Friedman, in an interview for Deloitte Review, said:

If work is being extracted from jobs, and if jobs and work are being extracted from companies...then learning has to become lifelong. We have to provide both the learning tools and the learning resources for lifelong learning when your job becomes work and your company becomes a platform. So I'm not sure what the work of the future is, but I know that the future of companies is to be hiring people and constantly training people to be prepared for a job that has not been invented yet. If you, as a company, are not providing both the resources and the opportunity for lifelong learning, [you're sunk], because you simply cannot be a lifelong employee anymore unless you are a lifelong learner.

Companies have a responsibility to provide resources and opportunities for learning but people have a responsibility to learn how to learn lifelong. The mindset and skills that K-12 students need to learn in school and then in college are not the same as the mindset and skills needed to learn in the workplace, and these are not the mindset and skills needed post-employment. Lifelong learners move from teacher-centered learning to learner-centered learning over the course of a career. In the workplace and beyond, learning in the Knowledge Economy has to be self-directed. People must pull the learning they need, when and where they need it and faster than they ever have before. In this age, ability of individuals to learn fast and learn well is critical to organizational survival.

[Stephen J. Gill is author, with David Grebow, of the forthcoming book, Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy, ATD Press, 2018.]

 

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