Opinion by Bart Perkins

Lifelong learning is no longer optional

Organizations need to encourage employees to continue acquiring new skills throughout their careers

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Credit: Pixabay

Years ago, a college degree virtually guaranteed the holder a good job and a good income. Times have changed. As the velocity of business and technology change continues to accelerate, the value of a college degree has shifted. Today, a college degree only helps new graduates enter the workforce; it is no longer sufficient for long-term career success. Soon, individuals will need to embrace lifelong learning to remain relevant in virtually every field.

Some of the best-known technology firms understand this challenge. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is famous for establishing personal learning goals each year. Google searches for “learning animals” as part of its recruiting process. United Technologies’ Employee Scholar Program helps employees “pursue lifelong learning.” The list continues to grow.

Unfortunately, while a number of high-profile companies are investing in lifelong learning, others are cutting back. The percentage of employees receiving employer-sponsored training decreased by over 40% from 1996 to 2008, according to the 2015 report of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics demand that employees in technology-replaceable jobs add breadth or depth to their current capabilities. In 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University asserted that 47% of existing U.S. jobs are susceptible to automation. Even if their estimate is high, automation continues to change the skills required to perform a large number of jobs. To remain employable, individuals will need to master new skills as jobs change.

If your company already supports lifelong learning, the IT leadership team must tailor it to the needs of the IT organization and encourage staff to use it. If your organization doesn’t have a formal lifelong learning program, lobby executive management to create one.

Whether or not your organization actively supports lifelong learning, use the following guidelines to make lifelong learning a centerpiece of IT’s workforce management program:

  • Recruit individuals who enjoy learning. While most IT leaders recognize the importance of personal growth, most job descriptions are static and rarely require the individual to learn new things. Update your job descriptions to acknowledge that new skill requirements are constantly emerging. Then make it clear during the recruiting process that your organization believes that the most successful IT staff enjoy learning new things and accepting new challenges.
  • Identify interdisciplinary skill requirements. The need for new interdisciplinary skill combinations is increasingly common. For example, it is becoming more important for employees to increase their emotional intelligence (EQ) in order to be able to build rapport and solve problems as part of a team. Most mechanical engineers now need programming skills. Data scientists have extensive knowledge of mathematics but need good business analysis skills necessary to understand how to apply the insights gleaned from the math. And the list goes on, growing longer with each shift in the marketplace. Recognizing these new needs is not always straightforward; it was not immediately obvious to one grocery chain that its best data scientists also had strong marketing backgrounds. Look at your organization’s needs from an interdisciplinary perspective.
  • Identify training sources. Employees can take traditional or online courses directly from many colleges and universities. In addition, massive open online courses (MOOC) have passed through the initial hype phase to become a viable way to deliver education. Coursera, edX, Udacity and other MOOC providers offer a wide variety of courses from major universities. Many MOOCs are free, charging only if the student wants a certificate of completion or access to forums and instructors.

Recently, Udacity has begun partnering with technology companies to create nano-degree programs on leading-edge technology environments. Working with Mercedes-Benz and NVidia, Udacity created a course on self-driving car technology. Currently, it is working with Google VR, Vive and the Upload Collective to create a virtual-reality nano-degree. Sources for continuous learning are expanding dramatically. The challenge for IT leaders is to determine which of the available opportunities are most relevant and to explore the enterprise’s ability to provide partial to full tuition reimbursement.

At the very least, encourage employees to take advantage of organizations dedicated to shedding light on leading-edge ideas. TED, IdeaFestival and the Aspen Institute sponsor presentations from creative thinkers around the globe. Although these forums don’t offer certifications or certificates of completion, they provide wonderful opportunities to explore current research, expert opinions, and emerging business endeavors. Encourage staff to expand their thinking to include new perspectives, new ideas, and new possibilities.

  • Keep abreast of market trends. New disciplines emerge frequently, often with explosive demand. According to Burning Glass Technologies, demand for data analysts has grown by 372% over the past five years, while data-visualization demand has increased by 2,574%. In addition, 20% of entry-level finance jobs ask for either SAP or Oracle Financials skills. IT leaders need to listen carefully to customers, suppliers, competitors, industry publications, regulators, etc. to understand industry trends and the new skills that will likely be required to address those trends.
  • Include ongoing learning in annual performance plans. Expect everyone to upgrade some skills each year. Then reward staff who do. In addition to financial rewards, offer staff with new skills opportunities to utilize those skills. Over time, individuals who do not make the effort to learn new things will realize that people who consistently upgrade their skills are getting more interesting assignments and better career advancement.
  • Rotate staff among departments. The best employees have both breadth and depth, as well as a user and/or business perspective. Someone working on financial systems could benefit from a rotation in manufacturing systems, the service desk, or even computer operations. If you can make it work, offer employees an opportunity to work in an environment outside IT. When they return to IT, they will be even more valuable than they were before. If they choose not to return, the employee will probably think of you as a great boss who gave them an opportunity to jump-start their new career.
  • Solicit HR support. In 1998, Dave Ulrich recommended transforming HR into a business partner that helps executive management execute the firm’s strategy. HR organizations that have adopted this model should be eager to help IT promote a lifelong learning program. Unfortunately, if your HR organization does not subscribe to the Ulrich model and still sees its primary role as the policy police and the regulatory watchdog, you may not get much help.

Lifelong learning benefits the enterprise as well as its employees. Employees receive the opportunity to expand their career opportunities, boost their earnings, and become more intellectually engaged. The enterprise gets employees better able to meet the needs of a constantly shifting marketplace. Solid lifelong learning programs also serve as powerful recruiting and retention tools. Lifelong learning is essential to the future success of the enterprise. Leverage a lifelong learning program into the knowledge, agility, creativity and capabilities to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

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