Building learning agility to survive the future of work

27th June 2019, by

Evolutions Vs Revolution?

Digitisation is affecting every industry, from hospitality to healthcare, financial services to retail. From a business perspective we are seeing radically different business models emerge and traditional ways of generating value for customers being challenged. Yet this is not new. The First Industrial Revolution brought mechanical innovations like the steam engine, cotton spinning and railroads. The Second Industrial Revolution brought mass production through assembly lines and electrification. The Third Industrial Revolution brought mainframe computers, personal computing and the internet. During each point in history, automation anxiety surged as computers threatened to create vast unemployment. The only thing is… we didn’t run out of work. Each time, technology advancement has unlocked productivity, and our unique ability as humans enabled us to creatively generate value in new ways which may have not been possible without technological advancement.

So, what’s different this time?

Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, published a book entitled “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” in which he describes how this fourth revolution is fundamentally different from the previous three. He states “This time, we are facing a range of new technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds. These new technologies will impact all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenge our ideas about what it means to be human”. These fundamental shifts present dramatic change. The difference is, this time… it is happening at exponential speed.

The skill set of tomorrow

As companies grapple with competing in a business environment characterised by constant, rapid, and unpredictable evolution, an unforgiving spotlight is shone onto our ability to cope with complex challenges. From financial instability, cybersecurity, through to volatile political landscapes, the need for vision, agility and flexibility in decision making is being compounded. Increasingly, there is no trodden path where best practice shines a light on the way forward, yet leaders and businesses are needing to sense and probe their environments, and respond quickly, as the world becomes more complex.

The skills we need for today, let alone for tomorrow are shifting. According to McKinsey’s research into the skills shift, the demand for higher cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, decision making and complex information processing, will grow through 2030 – by 19% in the United States and by 14% in Europe, from already sizable bases, and it is predicted the fastest rise will be the need for advanced IT and programming skills, which could grow as much as 90% between 2016 and 2030.

Source: “Skill Shift: Automation and the future of the workplace”, McKinsey Global Institute, May 2018

With a shift in future skills and the pace of technological advancement, the notion of lifelong learning is central to remaining relevant, both individually and organisationaly. We see today how robotics and automation are removing some of the roles we have in society, albeit creating new ones, many of which we are yet to be imagined. To adapt, we will be required to learn, unlearn and relearn, more than ever before and the learning agenda is becoming a central tenet of forward-thinking business strategy. Yet the question remains, how often do not actively strengthen our own learning agility – our own capacity to learn?

Cultivating learning agility

On-the job-learning is powerful, yet are we forgetting the magic of studying something completely new? Has the concept of learning through experience narrowed our focus, creating a very deep, but streamlined perspective in a particular area, industry or profession, causing us to inadvertently limit our peripheral vision? Do we need to be more comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of being a novice? How can we better incorporate experimentation and creativity into the challenges we face on a daily basis?

The question is not whether your company’s workforce and leadership have the right skills; it’s whether they have the potential to learn new ones. As people, our natural aptitude for creativity, navigating complex social interactions and our sensory perception put us in a prime position to develop and strengthen our learning agility. This is one skill that will help us to continually reinvent our businesses and ourselves. We all have different innate learning abilities, we just need to remember to proactively exercise the muscle. As our society, businesses and workplaces transform, how do we too, as individuals?

In the words of futurist Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn.” Continuous learning will better equip us to cope with whatever paradigm shifts lie ahead.

After all, machines are learning, are we?

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