If you worked for AT&T 30 years ago, you were probably feeling pretty good about your career. You were working for the company that once owned the patent for the telephone. How cutting edge could you get? You were trained once at the start of your career, and that stood you in good stead until retirement. Skills for life, job for life. Learning is for newbies.
Flash forward a few decades. The payphones are in the Smithsonian, and AT&T finds itself fighting to survive. It's chasing the tails of companies that are less than 10 years old and losing to them. What went wrong? In simple terms, they didn't keep up with changes in their industry. They got Ubered – or in their case, Googled, iPhoned and Amazoned.
What happened? They didn't stay agile. You can park that at the door of the CEO, or you can say that it's everyone's responsibility. To make the AT&T story personal, think back on any piece of knowledge, training or skills you acquired 10 years back or even as recently as one year ago. How relevant is it today?
It doesn't matter what you knew yesterday, it's how you're going to find out what's worth knowing tomorrow. For proof of this, pick up a copy of Exponential Organizations: Why New Organizations Are Ten Times Faster, Better and Cheaper than Yours (and What to Do About It) by Salim Ismail, Michael S. Malone, Yuri van Geest and Peter H. Diamandis. Here are some sobering stats from this book on the value of what we've all learned so far:
- The average shelf life of business competency dropped from 30 years in 1984 to just five years in 2014
- For technical roles, it's 18 months
- The average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has decreased from 67 years in 1920 to 15 years today
- In the next 10 years, 40 percent of all S&P 500 companies will disappear from the list
When the economist is calling it out, it's real
So what do we do about it? How do we stay relevant? This isn't a theme for learning and development (L&D) professionals alone. It's about all of us, and it's spilling into the mainstream media. In 2017, The Economist ran a special report on the economic imperative of lifelong learning. It notes that with 47 percent of US jobs susceptible to automation, technology will force change on people and the skills they need to remain employable. The report considers that the answer is obvious: To remain competitive, workers at all levels and throughout their working lives should be offered continuous training and career-focused education.
"To remain competitive, economies need to offer training throughout people's working lives." – The Economist
AT&T is trying to revive its business with agility. Its not-so-secret weapon: continuous learning. CEO Randall Stephenson's edict (as reported in the New York Times in 2016) is that everyone spends between five and 10 hours a week learning to stay on top of the firehouse of new information; if they don't, in three years they'll be managing decline.
Do they even have that long? The companies eating AT&T's lunch were born with a continuous learning mindset. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, asks how we build a culture of learn-it-alls, as opposed to know-it-alls. And their arch-rival Google at least agrees that learnability is the key skill, and that we should hunt for "learning animals."
What does this mean for L&D? It shifts the focus. It's not (just) about delivering courses. They're necessary but they are, by their nature, fixed at a point in time and backwards looking.
The new challenge to L&D professionals is how to build that learn-it-all culture and equip people to adapt and stay agile in changing times. So far, CEOs are less-than-reassured that this is happening. According to the Deloitte 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, 90 percent of CEOs called out the challenge they face due to disruptive change driven by digital technologies. The majority of those CEOs said their businesses lacked the necessary skills to adapt and stay agile.
It doesn't matter what you knew yesterday, it's how you're going to find out what's worth knowing tomorrow.
What does a continuous learner do, exactly?
So what can we do about this? Well, we've all done personal work at some point. Here's what a continuous learner actually looks like. A continuous learner is:
- Always learning something new and seeking more knowledge
- Naturally curious about a wide variety of things, not only those related to their current role
- Constantly seeking new experiences and ways of doing things
- Up-to-date on current and future trends and technologies
- Agile: flexible in adapting to continual change
- Networked: has extensive professional connections and takes in ideas from diverse sources
- Open and sharing: active and visible on internal and external social networks, sharing and reflecting on the latest developments
Easy to say. But if making continuous learning a reality is on your to-do list you may need some more specifics. Ready to get started?
Here are 10 ways to develop that continuous-learning muscle:
1. Have a goal
You have to want it. If the basic motivation to learn something new isn't there, no amount of other tricks will work. In his great work on forming new habits, American behavior scientist B.J. Fogg (for more on his work see www.foggmethod.com) says you need three conditions to do this:
No motivation? Then forget about it. What motivates you to develop a continuous learning habit? It could be passion for self-improvement or natural curiosity. That's an ideal intrinsic motivation. If you need one reason, try this: you're placing a bet on your future career. All of our skills and knowledge depreciate over time, faster than we might think. Albert Einstein said that once we stop learning we start dying; an appropriate 21st century addition might be, "If you stop learning, you'll stop earning."
2. Be social
We are better when we collaborate. The idea of inspiration striking the reclusive genius is alluring but rarely applies in the workplace. Sharing your ideas, building a network of experts who can help you, is a vital step in modern workplace learning. Collaborative and social learning platforms and networks have developed in response to this (the water cooler still works, too, by the way).
Discussing what you've learned and what you still want to figure out has a double learning benefit: it forces you to clarify your thinking or at least to frame questions (which reinforces your learning) and, depending on who you talk to, it may bring insights you weren't expecting. So create connective knowledge.
3. Choose diverse sources...
Steve Jobs designed the Pixar building with this in mind: a large atrium to allow diverse, unpredictable conversations that might promote and flourish collaboration. But most workplace learning isn't particularly random. You do things in teams with the same people most of the time. If you choose a wide range of sources for your continuous learning habit you'll allow for more serendipity.
Jobs also said that the most important breakthroughs come when you're standing at the intersection of two or more domains and allowing ideas to cross from one to the other. Can reading a blog post on how an engineering problem was overcome help you with a customer service challenge? Possibly. How? That's the diverse bit. Let your mind wander into different territories while holding your original challenge in your mind. You may come back with a very different perspective.
4. ...But be selective
While being diverse is important, staying on top of the best content in your given field is far more important. A major blocker to effective continuous learning is too much of the wrong information. The International Data Corporation estimated that we spend 25 percent of our time searching for and processing information. If we're searching inefficiently or looking in the wrong places – untrustworthy sites, out-of-date courses, flicking through social feeds looking for something and wondering where the last hour went – it's slowing down our learning process and clogging up our capacity with the wrong stuff. Escape the echo chamber and stay efficient by focusing on a diverse selection of high-quality, trusted sources.
5. Look outside...
In organization-learning settings, our sources for learning tend to be quite narrow. We commission courses or create resources to address defined goals. But we need to look beyond them. Three million blog posts are published every day, and some of them will be relevant to you and your audiences, so you need to look beyond fixed, event-based formal learning to stay up to date every day. Of people polled for the Towards Maturity 2016 benchmark report, 60 percent say they learn more from external sources than they do from formal courses. As the leadership development expert Josh Davis has pointed out, Google and YouTube are the training departments for many in the workplace. The key message to L&D professionals is to look beyond your internal courses and resources to efficiently find what's relevant and empower people to do it for themselves.
6. ...And bring the outside, in
The latest content on bitcoin, big data or team leadership is not in your intranet or in your learning platform (unless you've done a smart integration – more on that later), it's on the web. That can be a problem for continuous learning. It can be unproductive. Spending time searching for content is a drain on time. The role of the L&D team should be to enable continuous learning by providing a steady stream of well-chosen and timely content aligned to people's interests and putting it in the right channels so it's easy for people to discover and consume. In your business that might be your Slack channel, your Yammer (embedded into internal learning or social platforms via plugins and APIs) or an email round-up: whatever works for your audience. As Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies, has put it, we need L&D professionals to be more like a content concierge. If all you're doing is sending people to a fixed set of unchanging resources, that's not much of a service.
This doesn't mean you need to search the internet manually and find the right external sources for everyone else (unless you have nothing else to do forever). Machines can help you.
7. Automate it
Nobody can learn for you, but automation can make it easier. Let's say you want to stay on top of the latest tips and insights on sales best practices from the top 20 sites you prefer and nowhere else. You could check each one individually every day, but why bother? Machines can do that and deliver an aggregated feed based on your preferred terms and sources. Tools such as this content curation automation tool at Anders Pink enable you to do that.
It updates every four hours with new content from your preferred sites and sources. You can save a lot of time by getting a machine to browse, aggregate and compile recent and relevant content for you. Spend that time learning instead. Be sure to investigate the viability of connecting any independent learning to your learning management system (LMS). You want this content to show up where people are already spending their time and remove any barriers to access while also creating a record or "learning playlist" so that employees can organize and share their learning efforts.
8. Space it out
Spaced learning is not quite as psychedelic as it sounds; it's simply the idea that rather than cramming, you're better off returning to new learning to reinforce and practice it at regular intervals. So, for example, if you're trying to immerse yourself in a new subject, set daily alerts to yourself to find new content or remind yourself of the key information every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m. Get into a habit of pausing, absorbing and moving on. Let it go from your working memory into your long-term memory. Repetition is an effective way of doing that. More effective still is actually applying it, of course. You need to build the practice habit.
Fogg agrees with this approach. He suggests that the key to building a new habit is anchoring it to an existing one. For example, after my first coffee I'll read one new article; after I get on the train I'll read one more. Building similar micro-habits around microlearning activities add up to a substantial amount of learning over time. Just keep it small and simple to start with and make it easy to have top-quality content to hand every time (which is what automation enables).
9. Reflect and work out loud
Journaling: it's not just for teenagers. Harvard research found that workers who spent 15 minutes at the end of the day writing and reflecting on what they had learned that day were 20 percent more productive than those who had not. Reflection helps to hard-wire the learning and makes it more available to your future self. Ask yourself what you've learned today, how it helped you, what you'll do differently tomorrow. You may not always agree with how the army approaches things, but they have a simple and effective model for continuous learning: Plan. Do. Review.
10. Have a growth mindset
Sometimes what holds us back in continuous learning is a limiting belief that we're just not meant to be good at something. Others are more naturally talented in that area, so leave it to them. It's what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset: believing either you have what it takes to achieve success – or you don't – and that no amount of learning is going to close the gap. On the other hand, you can have a growth mindset – the belief that everyone, including you, is capable of continuous improvement through learning and practice (more on Dweck's work can be found at www.mindsetonline.com). It's not hard to guess on which side of the mindset you'll find continuous learners.
"The world of work is changing rapidly, and the learning professionals who support today's organizations are slowly waking up to the fact that we can't just train colleagues once and retain them for life." – Jane Hart, founder of the Centre for Learning and Performance Technologies
Keep flexing that continuous-learning muscle
We, as learning professionals, all have a choice: we can rage against the machines and all the attendant threats of automation and job displacement. Or, we can reinvent ourselves as learning professionals and our teams as agile, continuous learners, ensuring that we stay on top of trends in our sectors and turning new technology and developments to our advantage. If you're in L&D, I hope you're making the right call.