Lifelong learning will be the bedrock of Industry 4.0

Written by
Nick van Dam
Nyenrode Business Universiteit

14 Nov 2018

14 Nov 2018 • by Nick van Dam

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, between 400 million and 800 million people globally could be displaced by automation and need to find new jobs by 2030.

Because of this, the need for employees to upskill and retrain themselves will likely be the biggest challenge of the coming decade. And with the World Economic Forum predicting that the human share of labour hours will drop from 71% to 48% by just 2025, are we running out of time?

Taking a look back over the past few decades, it is apparent that the baby boomers – and partly Generation X – entered the workforce and corporate life during a very different time in history. Before the internet and email, the working environment was characterised by a slower pace of change, more stable and predictable markets and less pressure from investors. It was harder to disrupt entire industries, or even just business models.

The human resources practices in large 20th century corporations supported being loyal to the company, which was rewarded by rich pension benefits (increased if employees stayed longer) as well as lifelong careers which included multiple assignments or positions within the corporation. The required competencies for distinct roles didn’t change very fast and could be addressed by attending formal training programmes.

Today, we are in a very different economic and company environment which is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. A growing number of people have become contractors and companies often can’t offer lifetime employment anymore. People can only stay in roles as long as they have the right competencies which are required by an organisation.

As the role of the machine continues to grow, people must develop skills that are unique to humans. According to the World Economic Forum, the most desired skills in 2022 include innovation, creativity, design, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and problem solving.

Active learning to obtain new skills

It is no surprise, then, that ‘active learning’ has become incredibly important. Company-sponsored formal learning programmes usually require an average of 34 learning hours per person (depending on organisation, role, level, industry, country, culture etc.). This is simply not sufficient to remain relevant in an existing role, which is why it is crucial that organisations turn the workplace into a learning place.

This can be achieved by implementing a physical environment that encourages people to collaborate, share and learn, such as with open spaces, walls as whiteboards, people from different disciplines sitting together, natural light, health food, etc. As well as this, learning must be user friendly and accessible, including video content, performance support, a network of expertise, knowledge portals and even games and simulations.

In addition to this, organisations must realise that every role holds development opportunity, meaning that all employees must be encouraged to work on new initiatives and step outside their comfort zones. There should be a culture in place to allow people to have regular conversations with their managers and/or career coaches to explore roles which provide opportunities for continuing learning and growth. 

However, significant upskilling or reskilling won’t just happen ‘on-the-job’. This is why it is still very important that employees go back to school at different stages of their career and develop deep expertise in a new domain. The T- career model (one goes to college in their early twenties and learns on the job for the rest of his/her life) will be replaced by the M-career model (one goes back to study multiple times in a 40-50-year career) in order to stay relevant. It is also suggested that the future is more about the specialist versus the generalist. We know that companies only bring on professionals with expertise and experience – not people with limited expertise.

Lifelong learning equals lifelong earning

In order to remain attractive to employers, people need to stay on top of their game and continue to develop competencies that are in demand. As the shelf life of competencies keeps getting shorter, it is critical to continue to invest in one’s development. Organisations must equally provide outstanding and ongoing opportunities for learning and development in order to retain their people. This is why, for example, professional services and consulting firms are making significant investments in people development.

We should be embracing lifelong learning practices and making sure that our workforces continue to develop new capabilities.  Employees must adopt the right mindsets for lifelong learning which include:

  • Focus on growth: one’s potential is unknown and one can continue learn and grow throughout life
  • Become a serial master: master multiple fields of expertise over the lifespan of one’s career
  • Stretch: move into one’s ‘learning zone’. Acquire new knowledge. Develop and practice new skills every day
  • Build your personal brand and network: continue develop and enhance one’s personal brand and build a diverse and large network
  • Own your development: create and execute your learning plans; work with mentors and seek feedback, stay vital, measure progress and make (personal) investments in your development
  • Do what you love: explore what gives you meaning and purpose in life and plays to your strengths

As life expectancy increases around the world, people increasingly work an average of 40-50 years. Conversely, the lifespan of companies has dramatically declined from 90 years in 1935 to 18 years in 2011 – and is still falling.

It is of utmost importance for employees wishing to navigate this new era of working to constantly be listening to the market and arming themselves with the skills needed to make an impact in each role they undertake – especially in the wake of new technologies which will disrupt working practices even further.

Nyenrode Business Universiteit