“The only skill that will be important in the 21st century is the skill of learning new skills. Everything else will become obsolete over time.”
– Peter Drucker
The skills needed to succeed as both individuals and as organizations are changing in a very fundamental way. As learning leaders, we are being challenged to build systems and cultures capable of supporting the continuous development of these skills.
Emerging technologies are a primary driver of this change. A 2017 report by McKinsey Global estimated that up to 375 million current jobs could be lost to automation by 2030. The most likely jobs to be automated in the short term are those that involve procedural tasks that can be easily programmed. The more difficult (though we won’t dare say impossible) tasks to automate will be those in the highest demand. Talented individuals—especially younger talent with long careers ahead of them—are now looking to work in organizations that will support them to develop these “futureproof” skills.
The question then becomes: what are these skills and how can we support our teams to develop them?
This question raises an important insight. Many of the jobs, and therefore the skills, of the future are unknown. As things change with increasing speed, so do the relevant skills and knowledge. This is why traditional approaches to learning and development are becoming more and more limited. They struggle to keep up with high turnover of skills and knowledge.
What competencies and skills are we most confident will continue to be relevant? Arguably, they are those which enable us to keep learning and unlearning—building new skills and knowledge as needs shift, as well as letting go of outdated practices and ways of thinking.
This brings us to our our sixth principle of Leading Continuous Learning:
Continuous learning is driven by a specific set of meta-skills and the systems that support their ongoing development.
We use the term “meta-skills” to highlight that these are skills that directly relate to building new skills on a continuous basis.
With this in mind, we’ll here present a competency framework of 4 core competencies for continuous learning, consisting of 12 futureproof skills.
The 4 core competencies and 12 futureproof skills of continuous learning
4 Core Competencies
- Exploring possibilities
- Analyzing opportunities
- Designing experiments
- Testing ideas
Each of these core competencies consists of 3 futureproof skills:
- Observing self and others
- Sensing tensions and opportunities
- Imagining future scenarios
- Interpreting data
- Researching potential solutions
- Examining assumptions, beliefs and biases
- Creating hypotheses
- Making decisions
- Developing and proposing action plans
- Initiating action
- Managing time and attention
- Working collaboratively
Futureproof skills as drivers for continuous learning
The 4 core competencies and 12 futureproof skills provide us with a powerful framework for strategically developing both our individual and collective capability to learn, adapt, and evolve in a changing world. When taken together, they represent the four main parts of the continuous learning spiral:
Effective continuous learning, wether on the individual or collective level, happens as a result of continuously moving around this cycle and in doing so, moving forward (hence the spiral).
This model intentionally aligns with David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle and his original four learning styles, which will allow us to draw some valuable insights from that inspiring body of work and research. In reconceptualizing Kolb’s model, it will also give us some license to add some original thinking.
For example, a key insight from Kolb’s research is that we tend to become specialized with one or two of these core competencies. This happens as a result of personality as well as educational and work experiences. In other words, different personalities and different fields/roles/professions often tend toward certain competencies.
While developing our individual strengths within this skillset is arguably an important consideration, we’ll also make the case here that becoming over-specialized and failing to address our weaknesses is an increasingly critical threat to succeeding in the modern world. When we are overspecialized we tend to get stuck in the cycle, failing to move forward and generate the new skills and knowledge needed to succeed.
Kolb frames a critical step up the spiral as the transition from the specialized level to the integrative level, where each of the competencies is developed. Facilitating this transition, we will argue here, is a fundamental challenge for all learning leaders today.
An important factor to highlight is that each of us has specialized in unique ways. Therefore, our paths from the specialized to the integrative level must be personalized. To help illustrate this, let’s take a look at a couple of hypothetical examples.
Example #1: Lisa, Marketing Director
Lisa is a very hands-on kind of learner. She has well-developed skills in testing ideas: managing time and projects, implementing plans, leading and working collaboratively with others. She’s very pragmatic, not tending to get into much theory related to her profession but relying mostly on her own instincts and experiences.
A primary challenge for Lisa is keeping up with all the changes in her field. She often feels overwhelmed by so much information, new tools, and shifting customer expectations. She works very hard but often feels like she’s not making the progress she (and others) would like to see.
In becoming more aware of these patterns and where she has a tendency to get stuck in the cycle, she can prioritize certain skills to help her break through her blocks and start learning in new ways.
Lisa is supported to self-assess her skills and competencies and finds that exploring possibilities and analyzing opportunities are areas where she is lacking. As she begins working to develop these skills and close the gaps, new insights emerge around her role and how her team’s marketing strategy can evolve.
Lisa can honor her strengths and specialization, while still investing in her under-developed competencies. In doing so, she increases her capacity for continuous learning and becomes more valuable to her team and organization.
Example #2: Jim, Quality Assurance Supervisor
Jim has an advanced degree in materials science and is very good with technical details that go over most people’s heads. Most of his greatest strengths correlate to analyzing opportunities, such as investigating causes of problems and potential solutions related to the company’s products.
While Jim was always an outstanding student and excelled through the junior ranks of the R&D department, he is facing some challenges now that he has been promoted to the role of supervisor. He never considered himself much of a “people person” and he’s coming up against a number of skill gaps that are making his new role difficult.
For example, while he is very good at analyzing quality issues, he lacks skills in designing experiments and testing ideas: making decisions, creating and executing action plans, and leading others.
Supporting Jim to build skills in his lesser-developed competencies will help him break through the areas where he tends to get stuck and grow into his new role. Like with Lisa, he can honor his strengths while working to become a more well-rounded continuous learner.
Building systems that support daily Practice
How can we as learning leaders best support team members like Lisa and Jim to become more skillful continuous learners, capable of performing at high levels in a changing environment?
We’ll make the case here that in contrast to many traditional approaches to learning and development, an effective strategy is not about implementing a one-and-done training event. Rather, it is about building a system that will support the day-in, day-out learning that happens through the work itself. In other words, the daily Practice of continuous learning.
This is not to say formal learning doesn’t have it’s place, or that it is unimportant. For example, our strategy may include a kickoff workshop or blended program aimed at helping participants become more aware of their strengths, patterns, and tendencies as they relate to these core competencies and skills. This might include some exercises and supporting content designed to help them shift into a continuous learning mindset.
However, unless these formal experiences are supported by a system (and a culture that emerges around that system), meaningful change is unlikely to be sustained. These formal learning experiences are best situated within the larger picture of workplace learning, which can be conceptualized with the 3 E’s: Experience, Exposure, and Education. Many learning experts agree that education, or formal learning, accounts for around only 10-20% percent of all workplace learning. The other 80-90% is considered informal, and is made up of experiential and social learning.
Many systems that claim to support “continuous learning” focus on delivering information in a new way: more personalized, more relevant, more digestible, or more on-demand. Again, these types of solutions have their place. But they are often still focused on Education, or the 10-20% that typically happens outside the flow of work. For the rest, the individual is largely left to their own devices, which results in a lot of potential left on the table.
On the other hand, by focusing on developing these competencies through the daily practice of continuous learning, the strategy expands to include the 80-90% of experiential and social learning.
If we take a look at the core competencies, skills, and tasks of the continuous learner, we see that, as organizational learning expert Harold Jarche says, “work is learning and the learning is the work.” In other words, the way of continuous learning will largely match our way of working.
As learning leaders, we can add tremendous value to our teams and organizations by helping them to develop work systems and processes that enable continuous movement around this cycle and up the developmental spiral. For example, systems and resources that support individuals and teams to:
- Track tasks and projects
- Capture ideas and insights in the flow of work
- Reflect individually and collectively at specific intervals or after project phases
- Capture and organize key insights and guiding questions during reflections
- Create and recreate shared visions of success
- Analyze data and share findings
- Share self-directed research findings, resources, and key takeaways
- Share lessons learned and current best practices
- Design and track experiments
In each case, content may be provided to build awareness around good practices and foundational knowledge. However, arguably, greater emphasis should be placed on embedding tools into the flow of work to facilitate performance with each task. For example, a library of interactive templates may be provided to capture insights from reflections, lessons learned, or current best practices where they can be made readily available for others at the point of need. Cheat sheets, job aids, or other performance support tools may be appropriate to guide reflective, analytic, or decision-making processes.
Levels of systems and practices
It’s also useful to see there are multiple levels of systems and practices operating simultaneously. When these levels are well integrated, learning and performance is optimized.
Systems and practices on different levels likely share many common elements, such as processes and tools to support the activities shared above. Each is focused on learning around and up the spiral, and each exists in a co-evolutionary relationship with the others.
What does this look like in the real world?
To help us illustrate this, we’ll first flesh out our hypothetical example with Lisa and Jim, who work at a medium-sized company that manufactures outdoor sports equipment, which we’ll call MoreOutdoors.
Let’s imagine MoreOutdoors has a strong culture of continuous learning with some relatively mature systems in place. How is the organization supporting Lisa and Jim to overcome their challenges and learn in the ways they need to in order to succeed in an rapidly changing environment?
We’ll start with Lisa, who is struggling to keep up with all the changes and opportunities in the field of marketing, as well as with shifting customer needs and expectations. Lisa is supported to become aware of her strengths and areas for growth in the context of continuous learning. Recall she has strengths in testing ideas: implementing plans, learning by doing, managing projects and leading others. She tends to fail to create space for reflecting and sensing/analyzing opportunities for improvement.
With new awareness on which competencies she needs to focus on developing, Lisa is supported to establish a personal learning practice, which centers largely around developing a regular habit of reflecting and unpacking her experiences, as well as integrating self-directed learning, to help her better identify and take advantage of the opportunities she is sensing.
At MoreOutdoors, a Continuous Learning Community of Practice (CoP) has been created to support individuals throughout the organization to establish and develop their personal learning practices, as well as support leaders in developing team learning practices. The community is sponsored by executive leadership and managed primarily by the learning and development team, though some of the roles are filled by volunteers from other departments who are looking to expand their networks and add value to the organization in new ways.
The Continuous Learning CoP offers blended learning programs and workshops, hosts special events, creates and offers tools and resources, and collects and organizes best practices related to the art and science of continuous learning. It also supports a number of other CoPs which have emerged to serve specific disciplines within the organization, which include a Leadership CoP and a Customer Experience CoP.
Lisa participates in a blended program hosted by the Continuous Learning CoP which helps her to establish her personal learning practice, as well as supporting her to become more aware of the resources that are available to her. She downloads some templates and job-aids that support her to regularly reflect on her experience and create an individual development plan, which includes some resources provided by other CoPs. She becomes aware of an opportunity to contribute to the Customer Experience CoP while at the same time expanding her knowledge of leading-edge marketing strategies by curating and sharing resources.
Meanwhile, Jim has also taken advantage of the resources the Continuous Learning CoP offers and has created an individual development plan that focuses on developing his competencies in designing experiments and testing ideas. This includes participation in a monthly leadership development “action learning” group, as well as a series of 30-day micro-learning challenges that focus on the skills he has identified as top priorities.
Jim finds that the Leadership Community of Practice is also a great source of support for his personal learning goals. There, he is able to connect with other managers during their weekly lunch and learn event where they discuss challenges they are facing and provide each other with stories and mentorship. The CoP’s library of curated leadership resources, Current Best Practices, and Lessons Learned helps Jim effectively grow into his new role and quickly build the skills he needs to succeed there.
As leaders, Lisa and Jim are also both supported to cultivate ways of working for their teams that align with the continuous learning spiral. This includes structured team reflections that generate new insights, a more experimental approach to making decisions and testing ideas, and a system for documenting and sharing experiences amongst team members. Additionally, both are supported to begin having regular coaching conversations with each of their team members on a monthly basis, helping them step into a more supportive and proactive role in facilitating the continuous learning and development of those reporting to them.
The core competencies and skills that drive continuous learning are developed through ongoing Practice. As learning leaders, a key task is creating systems to support this Practice.
The Practice happens simultaneously on multiple levels: the individual, the team, the organization, as well as larger inter-organizational networks.
On the individual level, we can develop solutions to support individuals to take stock of the their current skills and tendencies and to create individual development plans that strategically target key competencies skills that will help them break through the “traps” that prevent them from effectively moving forward.
On the team level, we can support leaders to establish ways of working that facilitate continuous progression around and up the continuous learning spiral. This may include leveraging existing approaches like Lean or Agile.
On the organizational level, we can create systems that enable creating, sharing and managing knowledge such as current best practices and lessons learned, curating resources, facilitating learning events, connecting mentors and mentees, and facilitating career development. The adaptive nature of communities of practice (CoPs) can provide an effective structure for such support, where communities can center around specific disciplines and can be (at least in part) self-organized to meet the needs of those they aim to serve.
We write in more detail on Communities of Practice here.
On the inter-organizational network level, we can encourage and support individuals to engage with professional networks, external CoPs, and other communities which will create valuable streams of knowledge and perspectives into the organization to be shared and experimented with.
As each organization is unique in their blend of culture, industry, size, and the stage of their development, there is no formulaic approach to building such systems. However, the elements highlighted here may illuminate a way forward for learning leaders from diverse situations.
Building such systems, along with the cultures that surround and support them, is an ongoing process. Finding the right leverage points and building momentum is the key to success, and these vary from organization to organization.
As learning leaders, we may begin by asking: how do I need to develop as a continuous learner on the individual level so I can be a better role model for those I work with directly? What opportunities are there for developing new ways of working within my team that better align with the learning spiral?
It is ultimately through these questions that the solutions for adding more value to our organizations and beyond will emerge.
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