How a South African village helped US companies train smarter employees

Lessons learnt.
Lessons learnt.
Image: EPA/Lindsey Parnaby
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In recent years, a handful of powerful US-based corporations have announced dramatic overhauls to their operations, putting opportunities for employee learning front and center.

At AT&T, it’s part of a reinvention, giving the entire business a new focus.  For Visa, it’s about fending off disruption from new technologies and grabbing market share in the digital space.  HP Inc. considers it a crucial part of building a new identity after a corporate split.  From Qualcomm to T-Mobile to the world’s largest retailer, big businesses are jumping onto this trend.

In all these cases, executives have a remote South African village to thank for the technology they’re using.

In 2011, I traveled to Mabarhule, part of Mpumalanga province in the northeastern part of the country. The village lies just outside of the Kruger National Park, one of South Africa’s largest game reserves, and not far from the border with Mozambique.

I was working on a project to address water scarcity and poor agricultural output.  Trying to put my architecture degree to a useful purpose, I helped design a new water retention system using locally available resources.  We built cisterns and developed a sustainable business.

The educational structures in Mabarhule were very limited.  Books were scarce. But something amazing was happening. The village had just gotten electricity a few years earlier. Smartphone use was taking off—and along with it, education.

People were learning. They were reading and watching videos about all sorts of topics including entrepreneurship. They had access to the world’s best knowledge.

Some of what they were learning had practical value, showing them better ways to get their jobs done and how to build stronger infrastructure.  It was clear: mobile technology had the potential to inject education and opportunity into a struggling community that had been left out for generations.

But there was no central hub.  No place online that they could all visit to learn from each other, discover the best resources for them, or track what they were learning so it could benefit them in the job market.

As a recent college graduate, I began thinking about what I had—and hadn’t—learned during my four years at a prestigious university.  I’d learned about the history of architecture and design, but not actually built anything. I’d learned about great literature, but no life skills. So there I was, the recipient of what is considered a world class education, on my own when it came to going online to learn the skills to have a successful career.  Millions of people in my generation were facing the same predicament, with degrees and heavy debt to show for them, but not enough workplace skills.

Traditional universities aren’t the solution to this problem.  Sure, a push for these schools to introduce more practical classes may help, but it would only scratch the surface.  The traditional university system can’t be “scaled” to reach everyone. And just like my friends in Mabarhule, today’s learners don’t need or want to sit in a classroom and be talked at anyway.  They want to lift up their phones whenever the time is right for them, and pick up the skills that interest them.

It seemed obvious: today’s businesses could solve this problem my generation is facing.  By offering a central hub that allows and encourages workers to learn online, companies could help employees obtain skills that will boost their careers and help the business grow.

So when I came back to the US, I did a deep dive into how big businesses handle employee learning.  I found that many, mistakenly, thought they were already providing the right learning opportunities.  They were using a traditional, top-down structure in which top executives pick and approve specific courses, either taught by teachers in a classroom setting or online via Learning Management Systems.

There are many problems with this.  The frequent reliance on classroom settings is outdated.  And the offerings in LMS’s are too limited, in a way that hurts businesses.  By the time executives come to really understand new, emerging technologies like cryptography, 3D printing, or data science, some startup created by younger workers has already been designed around those technologies and is disrupting—or displacing—traditional corporations.

The key, I found, is to make the central learning hub open—so that employees get to decide what they learn; can add videos, courses and more they find online, and can even create their own content. Workers, especially millennials, gravitate toward learning new, emerging skills that we recognize will become crucial in the marketplace. In fact, this kind of open development opportunity attracts and retains my generation.  “Millennials are not pursuing job satisfaction—they are pursuing development,” Gallup found.

It’s a whole different way of thinking about workplace learning and development.  Carving out time for employees to learn as they wish creates an agile workforce that can adapt to all the new technologies and changes of the digital transformation.  PwC found that when businesses have development programs that increase agility, 86% respond rapidly to changes in the business environment.

Inspired by this, I founded Pathgather in 2012 to serve as a talent development platform for organizations, helping employees grow their careers by developing the skills their organizations need to stay competitive, no matter how fast the world around them continues to change.

I stay in touch with friends in Mabarhule.  It’s thrilling to know that for the first time in human history, learning need no longer be a scarce resource, accessible only to the lucky few. As the world continues to change faster and faster, we all need to become lifelong, continuous learners.

To close a skills gap in the US and much of the world, businesses have every reason to be part of the solution.