If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of the future of work colliding head-on with the future of learning.
This is a collision that has been building for a long, long time. However, the convergence of a number of powerful forces—artificial intelligence, the global skills shortage, the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of the contingent workforce—have put a new edge on the debate about how best to prepare ourselves for the future of work.
Increasingly now, we are realizing that our future capacity to build, create and problem solve—the foundational tasks that help drive vibrant economies and create fulfilling jobs—is fully and completely determined by our ability to provide learning opportunities that are fully aligned with the human jobs of the future. While some of us are just waking up to this reality, others such as the World Economic Forum, have been predicting this for years.
“The current moment provides an opportunity for leaders in business, government, and public policy to focus common efforts on improving the access and delivery of reskilling and upskilling, motivating redeployment and reemployment, as well as signalling the market value of learning that can be delivered through education technology at scale,” according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020.
Those are lofty goals that many of us in the human capital industry have been advocating for some years now. And there has been some progress. However, because of the massive corporate and technology transformation ushered in by COVID-19, there is urgency to address the lack of overall progress we have made in preparing workers around the world for the future of work. Even when individual nations or companies show us the way with innovative solutions, far too many of us lag behind unsure of what to do and when to do it.
As the WEF report put it, a marriage between learning and work will require “a holistic approach” that must involve “multi-stakeholder collaboration between companies looking to support their workforce; governments willing to fund reskilling and the localization of mid-career education programmes; professional services firms and technology firms that can map potential job transitions or provide reskilling services; labour unions aware of the impact of those transitions on the well-being of workers; and community organizations that can give visibility to the efficacy of new legislation and provide early feedback on its design.”
This is a steep hill that we must climb. And we’re only going to reach the top if we start to reconsider some of the oldest, deeply seeded assumptions about the relationship between learning and work.
Towards an on-demand world of learning
The Higher Colleges of Technology, the largest institution of applied learning in the United Arab Emirates, did not wait for a global pandemic to start changing its approach to education. For several years now, HCT has been preparing to reimagine itself as a virtual institution. To minimize risk during the pandemic, HCT moved quickly to ramp up its plans to deliver learning remotely and took all of its courses online in March 2020.
However, HCT is doing a lot more than just taking traditional, in-person learning and moving it online; the school has adopted an on-demand model for delivering education that allows students to pursue training in specific job-oriented skills as opposed to a standard, years-long journey to a degree. Now, students can enroll and learn from anywhere and build an education plan that is less about acquiring academic credentials and more about meeting the real-world needs of a specific job.
HCT is not just an advocate of a new approach to learning; it is also practicing what it preaches. HCT now offers one of the world’s first “e-Teacher” programs, training a new generation of instructors who will have specific expertise in virtual instruction and the use of leading-edge digital learning tools.
If we learn anything from the HCT story, it should be how this school willingly challenged all our preconceived notions about what relevant education looks like in a modern context, and how we structure learning to bridge the gap between education and occupation.
Increasingly, employers are beginning to challenge their own notions of what skilled really means. Higher education, with its lofty price tags and years of commitment is still a valuable commodity. But employers are focusing less on academic credentials and more on things like “relevant experience.” At the same time, more and more countries are starting to invest heavily in apprenticeship programs where learning and working are perfectly married.
Re-inventing the sequence of work and learning
Everyone used to know the path to a great job: work hard in secondary school to qualify for a top post-secondary program; work hard at college or university and get a degree; use the degree to secure a good and lasting job. If we’ve learned anything during this most trying year, and in recent years, it is that this sequence is no longer viable.
Heather E. McGowan, a future-of-work strategist, recently released a book called The Adaptation Advantage, in which she argues that the “learn-to-work” pathway has been replaced with a “work-learn-work-learn-work-learn” journey. A few years ago, McGowan coined a phrase that I believe all employers should etch into their human capital strategies: “Learning is the new pension.”
On that basis, we at LHH have been encouraging leaders in learning & development and human resources to start changing the way we think and deploy learning. We desperately need this shift in thinking not only to meet future skills needs, but also to start mining the maximum value possible from human capital, the real engine of growth and success. Here are our top four takeaways to advance the convergence of learning and work:
1. Learning needs to become foundational. Employers should incorporate learning as a core element in our contracts with employees. For too long, we have focused on the individual’s obligations to the employer: engagement, productivity, creativity, loyalty. In our current context, we now know that employers must reward these commitments with our own commitment to life-long learning opportunities so that strategies like coaching, reskilling and redeployment become principal tools for managing workforces.
2. Learning needs to become more flexible, more purposeful. Old and outdated approaches to learning at work must be eliminated and replaced with new, digitally powered and on-demand education that uses the best online tools and learning strategies, and provides the best consumer-grade user experience. We have the power now to put learning literally in the palms of our hands through mobile apps and smartphones. This means we can also organize learning to be part of the workday, or outside working hours, whichever is preferable for the individual. And it needs to keenly focus on both the employers’ future skill needs, and the individual’s future career goals.
3. Leaders will need to become coaches, mentors and teachers. A key leadership function today is the ability to coach employees to develop their own abilities and become the best they can be. But effective coaching is an acquired skill. Companies should invest in leaders to build coaching capabilities that drive employee performance, including building new competencies for conducting expert coaching conversations related to performance, development and careers.
4. Learning must be viewed as an investment, not a cost. Generally accepted accounting principles require organizations to categorize investments in reskilling or retraining as costs and not investments. Many forward-thinking advocates, however, have been arguing for new accounting models that allow employers to re-categorize these expenses as investments, just the same as the purchase of a new building or a new machine. The Adecco Group has led internationally on this topic, publishing numerous white papers calling for a modernization of accounting rules so that learning is fully reclassified as an investment. This could spark a new generation of investment in learning that could future-proof our workforces.
During the pandemic, as we’re all struggling to meet a tidal wave of new challenges, we risk losing sight of the opportunities that come with change. Now is perhaps our greatest opportunity to re-imagine our approach to learning so that it is part of the basic contract between employer and employee. Those organizations that accept the challenge and seize the moment will find they have unleashed a future full of potential and success.