The Pathway to Continuous Learning
Issue 100, March 23, 2023
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the 100th Issue of 2040’s Ideas and Innovations Weekly Newsletter. We thank you for your continued readership and your feedback and comments weekly.
Everyone has a personal learning style. Independent learners buck the system and find alternative ways to learn on their own terms. Traditional learners are comfortable with the classic teacher-student relationship. And then there is everyone else in between. Whatever preference you have, continuous learning is a requirement to be well-informed and capable in today’s dynamic society. The pace of change is enabled by continuous technological developments, and just like the necessity of machine learning iterations to stay relevant, recent research suggests that people also benefit from iterative learning throughout their lives.
Organizations seeking to change and transform need to recognize that when a workforce practices continuous learning, it enables an organization to evolve and grow, as well as to adapt. We are not yet at a point where machines can do it all for us and we can simply sit back and derive the benefits. Despite the hype of ChatGPT and the slew of similar AI tools, humans are still essential. Without individuals, an organization would be unable to perform and produce. And strengthened by promoting continuous learning throughout the workforce, an organization is better poised to be more knowledgeable and competitive.
For the Record
In my role as a professor at the University of Maryland, I confront this phenomenon daily. Research across higher education has revealed that individuals learn more impactfully when facilitation and coaching occurs. It recognizes that individuals learn, comprehend, and retain information, which transforms into knowledge, in a continuous learning model that is iterative and takes place over the course of time with guidance, coaching and facilitation. How does this work? Optimal learning is not sequential. It thrives on open-mindedness, persistent yearning for knowledge and building and expanding critical thinking skills. Iterative learning that takes place in context of emerging circumstances and situations can be immediately applied. One way to apply this is the recent trend to seek instructors/teachers with real-life experience who can help students see the connections between theory and practice with relevant and contextual real-world examples. The same goes for the workplace in a mentorship model.
Learning in the Age of Rapid Change
It’s time for a refreshed look at how we are educating our next generations. Economic forecasts for Generation Z and Alpha are impacting their career prospects. And research suggests that over their lifetime that they will be less well-off than previous generations. Research also shows that Gen Z and Alpha have a dimmer view of the value of a higher education degree. Think about it in terms of what happened to the millennials. They spent on average $103,000 to earn a four-year degree in a public university, went into debt to pay for it, and entered a job market facing diminishing returns.
Jump ahead to Gen Z and the Alphas who have observed this trendline are pushing back and reevaluating expensive higher education as a profitable career track. Largely speaking, this is a cohort of young people who are anxious, pessimistic, and deeply concerned about the world they are inheriting. Although still young, many declare little interest in getting married and having children based on their worldviews. They are also taking a more pragmatic position about education and view alternative learning platforms, principally online, as sufficient to acquire the skills they need to address the challenges of the moment, and not go bankrupt in the process. This strategy reflects the power of iterative learning as an episodic mastery of new skills, knowledge and certification.
This Next Gen attitude is supported by recent higher education data that shows college/university enrollment is down by 15% across the United States as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Initially, the downswing was rationalized as the result of Covid, and a reversal of economic conditions experienced during the pandemic. The truth is that although the high price tag of a college education is a legitimate issue, it is not the first reason for deferring or pursuing a different professional path. The Next Gen existential question, with data to support it, is that the value of a college degree does not seem to be the investment it was once nor the driver or predictor of future potential earnings.
Continuous Learning and Next Gens
A shift to continuous learning models across higher education emulates what is occurring across society as a whole. Our shortened attention span influences the need for education presented in segments. When learning a skill or gaining knowledge, an alternative model is to shorten the time frame and skip traditional repetitive rote disciplines. Think of the Greek agora where students of Socrates learned through critical thinking, mentoring, and coaching – rather than a modern university didactic professor-student hierarchy.
This may concern the traditionalists, but research has suggested that we may learn better, retain, and comprehend information through applied education. We gain knowledge more effectively when we are presented with a real-life problem or situation. Contextual information — rather than abstract, theoretical education – sticks. Socrates may have gotten it right nearly 2,500 years ago.
A modern model associated with applied education is “flipped learning.” This is the opposite of a teacher lecturing passive students with theoretical knowledge. Research suggests that students often lose interest and bail on lecture sessions. The alternative? Learning that focuses on problem-solving, collaboration and lifelong learning strategies.
There is another factor that feeds the practice of continuous learning. Next Gens spend about nine hours a day on their screens. Granted some of it is coursework, but the majority is a near addiction to social platforms. Young people are masters of search; we have a generation that believes it doesn’t have to know anything if they can find the answers online. That mentality could be attributed to technological determinism: the theory that a society’s technology determines its cultural values, social structure, and history (Middlebury U). According to the theory, social progress follows an inevitable course that is driven by technological innovation.
So, it’s no surprise that a whole generation looks at learning differently. Check out our book, The Truth About Transformation, for a deeper dive into behavioral change that technology is prompting. We are not advocating throwing higher education under the bus, but attitudinal and lifestyle shifts beg the question how to educate a generation of young people who live in soundbites. I can say this with confidence, as teaching 20-year-olds requires bridging the past to the future with an alternative teaching method. Being present in the moment of a challenge or investigation supported by iterative learning serves as a bridge to a new approach to learning.
As a cautionary note, the basic skills that form an ability to reason and solve problems are as critical as ever. Living in a technological age has made a dent on some of the basics: reading, comprehension, math, science, and reasoning. When the power goes out, we may face a generation that has limited survival skills and abilities to think their way out of a problem.
Apprenticeships are on the rise. Organizations are stepping in to offer apprenticeship programs coupled with continuous learning that is appealing to Next Gens who are looking for work experience plus education and less debt. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, “In the past decade, the number of apprentices has increased by more than 50%, according to federal data and Robert Lerman, a labor economist at the Urban Institute and co-founder of Apprenticeships for America. Additionally, “The gap between the number of students going to college and those selecting apprenticeships is closing as many employers are struggling to find workers in the tightest job market in half a century. Meanwhile, more students say they are wary of enrolling in college for fear it will leave them in debt and holding a degree that hasn’t prepared them for a good job in a fast-changing labor market.”
There is an emerging movement afoot to eliminate a four-year degree as a prerequisite for all employment. Rachel Cohen reports for Vox Media that this trend is “backed by staggering research and a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign, to educate employers on broken hiring practices that have needlessly locked two-thirds of the workforce out of higher-paying American jobs. For decades, more and more job postings have reflexively required college degrees. Now it’s finally being recognized this was a mistake.”
Harvard Business School research reported “employer surveys showed workers without college degrees were often considered just as productive on the job as their college-educated counterparts. They were also less likely to turnover and less expensive for companies to hire.”
The Business Case for Continuous Learning
Continuous learning in an organization can be interpreted in a range of ways. Workramp defines it as “a culture that encourages employees to prioritize ongoing learning and improvement. Continuous learning can happen through various formats, including formal courses, informal learning, shadowing teammates, training programs, one-on-one and group coaching, and casual interactions.” To make the case even more compelling, continuous learning allows organizations to maintain higher levels of employee knowledge and skills through consistent reinforcement. The mentorship/Socrates model plays a role as employees appreciate being taught about their roles and responsibilities from their seniors as well as deciding among themselves what skills they want to master.
Technology offers a set of tools that enables a workforce as a smart extension to help individuals and teams be more productive and efficient. If individuals and teams do not have the necessary knowledge, nor are they continuing to expand their knowledge, and gain new skills, the organization will struggle to get a healthy return on workforce investment. Without continuous learning, an organization can get stuck. Changes aren’t adopted, innovations don’t happen, and transformation will surely fail to meet desired goals.
The fundamental shifts in society must be a guide for organizational management. A Gen Z and Alpha workforce, your future leaders, comes to the workplace with fundamentally different behaviors as a result of technology and social immersion. They also come with a set of expectations from leadership and the organization.
We have already experienced the side effects of the lack of loyalty that millenials and Gen Z have to an organization. If they believe they aren’t fast tracking and getting a direct benefit from their participation and contributions, they are likely to leave. We also know that professional development and training, along with marketing, are the first line items that get cut in times of economic uncertainty. Typically, the focus (right or wrong) is on short-term gain. This short-term thinking does not consider the long tail impact to the organization, workforce retention, and sustained productivity. Next Gens want to learn. They want to be mentored. They want wisdom to be shared so they can benefit. These are not shortcut education strategies. The desire for continuous learning is table stakes.
Practicing Continuous Education in the Workplace
There is value in inter-generational continuous learning within an organization. According to TechTarget, continuous learning can be formal or informal and structured or unstructured. Activities can include taking a formal course, observing and learning from more experienced employees, asking for assistance with an unfamiliar topic, exploring new and alternative work methods, studying, casual conversation and practicing the use of a skill. In short, it is the Greek agora.
Another way to think about it is as iterative learning. The iterative process is the practice of building, refining, and improving a project, product, or initiative. Teams that use the iterative development process create, test, and revise until they’re satisfied with the end result, according to Asana.
The benefits of continuous learning have been well documented. According to both e-learning and TechTarget, and augmented by our experience, the impact can be profound. Continuous learning enhances workforce performance by helping it make sound decisions and deliver better products, services, and experiences. A workforce in an organization with a culture of continuous learning can expect:
- Improved responsiveness and adaptability
- Increased innovation
- Improved performance
- Higher achievement of career development goals
- Staying current with professional licenses or certifications
- Maintaining marketable professional skillsets
To stay competitive, organizations must continually adapt to ever-changing social and economic environments. As an organization’s success depends on its people, so it is important for employee skillsets to evolve to meet the demands of the business climate, states TechTarget. The benefits can be profound:
- Operating as a forward-thinking innovation culture
- Making employees feel valuable
- Reinforcing investments in individual development
- Greater employee retention
- Reduced costs
- Alignment with shared purpose
At 2040 Digital we work with clients on continuous learning to start with a plan. We advise them that the organization needs to invest in continuous learning and map out a course of action on individual employee, team, department, and organizational levels. Everyone can benefit from continuous learning. Providing the necessary resources is essential and management needs to communicate their full support by participating in the process.
We need to face the reality that being human in a digital age is a journey as we adapt to emerging economic, political, social, and technological changes. We must recognize the influences of technology, immediate social connection and the ability to leverage any search tool to find an answer. A quick answer from search is not a skill. Knowledge enables a skill. And the practice of iterative learning feeds knowledge that in turn enhances perfection of skills. End note: Iterative, continuous learning is more than a strategy, it’s a survival plan.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.