Why Learning Is The Future Of Work

The performance of entire organizations often hinges on whether they can adapt to fast-paced changes in the world of information technology. Yet, most businesses are hard-pressed to keep employees up to speed on the latest technology and help them acquire newly emerging skills.

As the future of work continues to evolve and technology continues to accelerate the pace of change, the value of learning – and further, the value of continuous learning – becomes more important than ever before. So how do leaders not only encourage learning across their teams, but instill a culture of learning that serves as the foundation of the entire organization?

To explore this topic and how to address this problem, I recently spoke with Shelley Osborne, vice president of learning at Udemy, the company behind an online learning platform offering 130,000-and-counting courses to students all over the world.

Osborne is also author of The Upskilling Imperative, a newly released book in which she shares key steps companies can take to promote a culture of learning within their organizations. Embracing that culture is a prerequisite for organizations that want employees to keep acquiring new skills for their own sakes as well as for the organization’s. And there’s no better time than now– the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have only reinforced the importance of building agility into an organization. Throughout the conversation, Shelley’s passion for instilling a culture of continuous learning in all organizations shone through – it’s evident that she’s deeply committed to the cause.

Here are some highlights of our discussion.

Learning is a process, not an endpoint

Many people feel that once they attain a degree or two, they’ve done what it takes to find and keep a job. But, if that were ever true (doubtful), it is definitely no longer the case. The reality is that to progress in any career, people need to continually learn and adapt to never-ending shifts in job requirements and newly emerging skills.

“Lifelong learning isn’t a new concept, but actual acceptance and adoption of the notion that education runs from childhood to end-of-life isn’t embedded yet,” Osborne says.

Yes, individuals must get on board, but organizations definitely need to step up their game.

“The mindset of learning culture needs to be rooted in the foundation of a business and prioritized in order for organizations to succeed and innovate,” she notes. And, leaders at all levels of the organization—including but not limited to Chief Learning Officers—must ensure that employees not only have the resources to acquire new skills but are actively encouraged to use those resources.

“People are usually open to learning, but the challenge is that they don’t realize they have to keep being open to learning,” Osborne says. She is very focused on the need for what she calls “change agility” —the skills people need to successfully adapt to evolving or fast-moving shifts.

Change is coming at us faster than ever

Prior to this year, people were already anxious about adoption of AI, robotics, and other technologies that they viewed as threats to their livelihoods.

Now add to that the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. In July, Pew Research found that one in four U.S. adults has either relocated or knows someone who has done so, since the pandemic hit. That is just one facet of the disruption the virus has caused in how people work–or more dramatically—are not working as job losses mount. Add to that the rising death toll, and you see why living with existential threat is the new normal.

All of this change has caused agility to be our number one job-related attribute and has pushed online education to go mainstream. “COVID-19 has placed online learning as a non-negotiable for organizations worldwide,” Osborne says. “It has made it clear that learning has to be flexible, accessible, and global.”

For organizations, this is a significant opportunity to encourage their teams to embrace a learning mentality and lean into upskilling as a way to get through these challenges. Business leaders need to encourage and adopt a growth mindset in order to build this culture among their teams. And again, it all starts with teaching skills related to change agility.

Viewing change as an opportunity as well as a threat is one thing people can do to preserve their equilibrium. Toward that end, companies must focus on understanding how people respond to change and furnish tools needed to add new capabilities, whether that be acclimating to remote work, or learning a new programming language or software program.

“We can provide resources to help people thrive as they navigate changing waters. No one can learn anything if they are always in panic, fight-or-flight, mode,” Osborne notes.

Getting ready for a new future of learning

The future of learning is not only going to transform the future of work, but the conventional way of learning and education as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the world of education with many schools adopting new distance and online learning practices. Osborne believes we’ll see online learning as a permanent part of school life, and hopes that in the future – both in the classroom and in the office – we’ll come together with more intent, when it’s relevant and needed to be together in person.

I agree with her that this blended model of both learning and work has the potential to drive meaningful change. Recruiting people that value continuous learning is one thing, but building a true culture of learning within an organization is what will make the biggest impact. Osborne is hoping that, with the help of her new book, organizations will start to think differently about learning.

As she notes, “Traditional learning was built for a world that we don’t live in anymore.” The transformation in learning and the future of work is needed, and it’s happening now.

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