Continuous learning as the only important competence
To improve and expand your career prospects, you need to think about the near future. And if predicting the distant future is not an easy task, then look closely at a couple of short years ahead is not so difficult. The last two decades have been marked by the radical application of technology in virtually every area of business. Thanks to the introduction of technology, once daunting barriers to new companies have disappeared, the processes have become highly transparent and productivity has increased (in particular, in the development and distribution of new products). Is it so logical to assume, taking into account all the changes that you have witnessed over the past 20 years, that those competencies that were required by organizations three decades ago will remain valuable in the coming times.
Characteristics of the last 20 years
Despite the fact that technology adoption has become the main driver of all changes, the business environment of the last two decades has been characterized by the following four features:
- Constant turbulence – frequent cyclical periods of rapid economic growth and recession forced organizations to acquire and lose both talents and entire businesses. Many international companies were forced to take measures in conditions of simultaneous economic recovery and recession, which is remarkable for the state of turbulence.
- Heavy international competition – with the disappearance of barriers to entry and competition, all firms, even those that once served narrowly defined regional markets, have been drawn into a state of ruthless and fierce global competition. In the pursuit of differentiating themselves from their competitors, companies began to use technology to accelerate the development of new products and the introduction of innovative ways of delivering products, this gave rise to an endless struggle that shortened the life cycles of new product development and stimulated innovation in all business services.
- Rapid obsolescence – With the shortening of product life cycles and the daily emergence of new ways to deliver products and services, all information, tools, practices, products and skills are becoming obsolete at an alarming rate. In some industries, the knowledge required to manufacture a product becomes obsolete as soon as the product enters the market. This feature affects not only people and organizations, but also entire industries (printing, photography technology, telecommunications infrastructure, etc.).
- Unpredictability frustrates clarity of planning – all of the above characteristics in combination create a fourth: the volatility of the business environment makes planning more difficult. In industries where long-term investments are made (aircraft, heavy industry, mining, etc.), long-term planning has become highly inefficient.
Two words best describe the current state: permanent obsolescence. Many years ago, management guru Tom Peters predicted that this would happen. He called it “management in a state of chaos”.
Traditionally established competencies are not appropriate in today’s realities…
The processes of evolution and change are not new in essence, but the pace at which the business environment is changing is absolutely unprecedented. For most of the last century, the economic cycles, product lifecycles and the knowledge, skills, tools and methods used to produce goods have lasted longer. Not only have changes been slower, but they have also happened under predictable scenarios. These stability and constancy allowed organizations to create organizational models that determined how the work was broken down into tasks, who performed the tasks, what tools were used, and also allowed them to know in advance how long it would take to complete the work. A few years after entering the industrial era, the concept of competencies emerged and organizations began to recruit new employees according to the right set of competencies, which did not change much in the next 60 years; until today!
The era of durable competencies has passed away, I am confident that it will never happen again. Chaos and rapid changes are the new norm and the transition period will take several more decades. In today’s chaotic environment, one thing is clear: methods developed for organizing work and performing work in the industrial age have now become an obstacle to productivity. Organizations no longer need access to narrowly qualified talents for an indefinite period; rather, they need medium-term access to universal and diverse talents and short-term access to narrowly specialized talent.
The only important competence will remain continuous training.
Anyone in HR should realize that in a world of constant obsolescence, knowledge, skills, tools and practices have an extremely limited shelf life. Instead of relying on past experience, training, or education, employees will be required each time to “learn” to do the job in accordance with yesterday’s outdated practices and use outdated solutions, and to find completely new ways, using social trends and modern technologies. In such an environment, the only key competence that can effectively counteract the effects of obsolescence is the ability to continuously learn and apply knowledge.
The competence of continuous learning is the foundation of a building called the “learning organization”, in the construction of which conceptual firms such as Google, Nike, Netflix, and Apple have succeeded from the very beginning.
The key characteristics of Lifelong Learning Competence include:
1) Endless learning – unlike traditional learning and development approaches, there is no learning endpoint for individuals or organizations that demonstrate this competence.
- Appropriate speed – while eternal learners never stop learning, the speed at which they find, absorb, and apply knowledge corresponds to the pace of innovation or the speed of change demanded by the market.
3) Latest technology – eternal students never play catch-up, they prefer to supplement their knowledge with the latest. It should be noted that the main popular channels of mass distribution of information are rarely among the proven sources of information for such people.
- Self-control – tracing all the latest knowledge is impossible under the control of an external system designed to coordinate the masses. Eternal students have inner motivation and self-control.
- Practical application without delay – a situation is quite possible when knowledge is continuously replenished, but never applied in practice, when as eternal students are never satisfied with theoretical or abstract knowledge. On the contrary, they find areas of learning that can be directly applied to the problems and opportunities of the present moment or in the near future.
- Broad scope – in order to guarantee the application of knowledge, eternal students acquire information concerning more general skills and abilities, helping to apply important specialized knowledge without delay. Such broad coverage often includes analysis of potential problems, listening to leading experts, examining best sources of information, promising practices, metrics, and trends.
- Dynamic – eternal learners can quickly realize and recognize that what they have learned is no longer so important, they stop defending old practices and entrenched beliefs.
- Sharing – both individuals and organizations that have mastered the competence of lifelong learning develop systems that can maximize the speed and quality of information shared within the organization, thus anticipating excessive duplication of ways to find the right data. These systems also help to clarify how and where eternal learners find valuable knowledge.
- Performance criterion – people who are eternal students evaluate their own performance based on their ability to keep abreast of the latest developments, even if others are still unable to do so. Organisations that want to create a learning organisation also consider the behavioural patterns of continuous learning as the main factors of assessment in hiring, deciding on promotion, performance evaluation.
- Data-driven decision-making – those who are not eternal learners can afford to use historical data and examples out of context, while real eternal learners and learning organisations require time-sensitive information to justify their decisions.
Get away from reading for a second and ask yourself: “Has my organization had to deal with unpredictable changes over the past few years, are there areas where we’re growing and other areas where we’re seeing a decline, have familiar business practices become an obstacle to our way forward? If you answered yes to any of these statements, think about whether you can be in the front row or dominate the industry without addressing these issues.
To admit that knowledge and experience are outdated is very, very difficult, but if you intend to succeed in a world of chaos, innovation and constant obsolescence, you must realize that “yesterday’s answers” are not only rapidly devalued, but also become a real obstacle if you continue to focus on them. If, as a specialist, you are thirsty for success and want to be always in demand, you must turn into a “learning machine”. If you want to lead your organization to success in a chaotic world, announce that from now on, “continuous learning” is the number 1 competence of your organization.
Justifications are not accepted.
Some time ago I attended an official meeting at Google. In order not to distract me from the essence of the meeting, I took away all my technical stuff (which stood out strikingly from the rest of the “Google” people present). Immediately after the meeting, I was asked to comment on the implications of an industry event that had occurred just as the meeting was taking place. I referred to the fact that I did not have sufficient information and was not aware of the event because I was completely absorbed by the meeting with the company’s senior management. To my great shame, the employee frowned, clearly ignoring my excuse, and left, grumbling disgruntled and shaking his head disapprovingly. That day, I realized how high the cost of not knowing “everything and immediately” at Google was. Don’t let yourself use that excuse. The learning process cannot freeze just because you are busy doing something else.