Information-Driven Business
Robert Hillard

Navigating the future with lifelong learning
by Robert Hillard

Flourishing in the future of work requires all of us to embrace lifelong learning. But you can’t train for jobs of the future when you don’t know what you don’t know. While most discussions on education concentrate on funding, it is just as important to motivate employees to learn and redesign work to encourage incremental change.

In general, learning budgets are spent to help each worker get better at their existing job. The pressure that so many employees feel day-to-day mean that they often don’t embrace training that isn’t immediately applicable to the role that they play. At the same time, more and more workers are instinctively feeling the need to move jobs with increasing regularity. This is true of all demographics but particularly evident in surveys such as that done by Deloitte on the “Millennial” generation.

The future of work suggests that everything that can be automated will be automated. This creates two challenges. The first is that many entry-level jobs that provided basic skills are the most at risk of automation. The second is that as fast as new roles appear old ones are rendered obsolete.

The first challenge requires entry level jobs to be thought of as a capital investment rather than simply in terms of operational efficiency. I’ve previously argued that teaching is an important part of more senior roles (see Experts make better decisions with an understudy). If future roles require junior levels as a source of talent then designing jobs that will create those skills early is simply an investment in the future.

The second challenge requires rethinking the design of jobs over time. Shortly before the latest Millennial survey, Deloitte also asked executives about their readiness for the future in a survey on the fourth industrial revolution. In summary, executives know there is change coming but acknowledge they aren’t ready.

Rethinking education and engaging everyone in evolving their own jobs is a good step towards sustainable career pathways and reducing churn as employees seek new experiences to avoid obsolescence. Historically, students were encouraged to set career goals and ambitions based around a target job. It’s become a glib, but accurate, comment that the job you want to do hasn’t been invented yet.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is often tied to these jobs of the future, which is then assumed to particularly mean learning to code. Although it would be great if everyone could program, there is little evidence of a link between coding skills and the majority of future jobs. What is important, as more jobs embrace automation, is numeracy skills through a mathematical foundation. When combined with a broad syllabus of foundational subjects, a student is as set up for the future as they can be.

In the absence of certainty about that future, an evolution of jobs rather than a single radical change is the best approach. Too many employees see their roles as fixed and fear becoming obsolete if they don’t move. These same employees seem unable on their own to make the leap to develop their skills over time. If anyone spends too long in a fixed role, all the training they receive simply reinforces the same set of skills, potentially to a dead-end. An evolving job can be aligned to a training programme of “micro credentials”.

Rather than accepting job hopping as the norm, leaders should work with their teams on evolving their existing roles in this way. Managers find their people have various attitudes to change but regardless of their comfort should not let any of them become isolated by a lack of skill development. This should even include the ecosystem of gig, casual and part time workers. Like the upfront investment in entry-level roles, the culture organisations create to develop their workforce pays back over the long term.

A good opening to the creation of sustainable careers is an ongoing investment in the streamlining of each job. Sometimes referred to as “pixelating”, each role can be broken into its constituent bits and the team members invited to consider which activities are candidates for automation in the near or more distant future. Anything that is done by rote is a likely candidate for some form of automation either now or as artificial intelligence matures. No matter what, leaders shouldn’t fall into the trap of waiting for the big ticket technology project, small investments in automation will establish the design for future systems if or when they come.

Most of all, leaders and their teams should be curious. One of the strengths of humans is our ability to cross-pollinate ideas. Something that is making progress in banking might be highly relevant in health and vice versa. The curious mind is unlikely to be obsolete.

No matter what the time pressure, the most impactful things that anyone can do are often the least time consuming. Everyone should be encouraged to make even the smallest of investments of their time each week to progress one strategic idea or advance at least one new skill no matter how trivial.

After all, the biggest long-term obstacle to being ready for the future is the lack of even minor progress over an extended period. There are no dead-end jobs, only leaders with a dead-end mindset.

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