How can we create a workforce full of lifelong learners? 

Ready to learn.
Ready to learn.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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We all agree that the world we work in today is so different from the world that was when our current learning systems were designed. Everything around us—our workplaces, our workforce, and entire industries. And learning—continuous, lifelong learning—is a bare essential for us to keep up.

The people who will flourish in this new world are those who can a) learn to learn, b) learn to unlearn, and c) learn to relearn. Yet, in a recent global survey of 1,000 business leaders, conducted by Infosys Knowledge Institute, these skills received short shrift. Respondents were far more likely to list teamwork, leadership, and communication when asked which skills they considered to be important now. While this thinking limits the tremendous potential in the talent market, the finding itself points to the huge latent competitive advantage for companies that actually nurture learnability and embrace lifelong learning.

But, what goals do we want lifelong learning to achieve?

Most managers concur that their workforces must be well-versed in the hard skills they need to get the job done. Soft skills have become just as important, with business leaders ranking creativity and critical thinking near the top of their list of the most-desired skills. This makes perfect sense, given that solving problems will get easier and easier as technology gets smarter. The rigor and discipline for forward-thinking companies must instead  be steered into problem-finding.

The business of framing a problem, solving it, then going back to see if it can be reframed in a better way, and re-solving it until the solution can no longer be improved remains a human endeavor. And we need to get our people to get better at this. The process is often well-supported by on-demand learning to guide the execution of the new task. Just-in-time training augments the just-in-case learning, from our schooling, that sought to prepare us with sundry skills just in case we needed them at work. But is that enough to motivate and truly prepare the legions of problem-finders we now need to nurture?

Here are three points to ponder as we try to help the workforce learn better.

1. There’s value in negative expertise

Conditioning teaches us to think of experts as people who know how to do something really well. What we tend to gloss over is the expert’s ability to know what not to do, and when not to do it. It’s an understanding of the pitfalls to avoid, and the ability to recognize the anomalies and exceptions to the rules. Experts have evolved skills in simulating “virtual worlds” in their minds, where they try to predict the sequences of possible outcomes before they take action. This is crucial to both problem-solving and problem-finding. Wicked new problems often need the problem-finding expert to make several attempts at defining and cracking the puzzle before the expert finds a way out. Real-world trial and error enriches the expert’s virtual world. That’s why it’s important to recognize the strategic value of earlier “failed” attempts before giving credit to the latest success.

At Amazon, for example, for four years, a 1,000-strong team spent more than  $100 million developing the company’s first smartphone. But when the Amazon Fire Phone was released, in 2014, it flopped. The phone, notably, had voice-recognition technology that had been licensed from another firm but didn’t exactly align with Amazon’s vision. The same team later hired speech scientists and artificial-intelligence experts to create new voice-recognition software that vastly improved on the earlier version. Four months after the Fire Phone fiasco, Amazon unveiled Echo, the voice-activated speaker that sits in  50 million homes today.

2. Feedback—done the right way—can be motivating

Criticism can be hard to swallow. Our discomfort with it can discourage us from pushing boundaries and learning new things.

But feedback, when it’s done right, should have the opposite effect. When presented as merely an indicator of the difference between the situation as it stands and the desirable future-state we want to be in, on whatever problem we are tackling, it comes across less as a verdict and more as a prompt to help people decide which actions are more likely to help them in achieving the goal. The tighter these feedback loops, the more agile and iterative the responses can be—which means being able to quickly bridge the difference that the feedback points to.

We are no strangers to the world of instant feedback, and the learning that comes with it. Think of how quickly you learned to adjust the narrative on your social media posts based simply on those instant retweets and likes!  What also mattered was that the feedback came from the people who matter most to you— your followers, or perhaps even your toughest critics or competitors.

3. It’s smart to doubt your idea

Argue like you’re right, but listen like you are wrong. So says Adam Grant, the Wharton psychologist and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Being able to doubt your own idea is an essential skill for any problem-finder. It’s very different from debilitating self-doubt. While doubting yourself can be paralyzing, doubting your idea can energize you to test new hypotheses, experiment with possible outcomes, and refine your approach. The process may not always feel comfortable. It’s rarely easy to discard a favored technique or a soundly researched hypothesis that just seems right. But few things at work are more thrilling than the moment we conceive of new ways to look at a problem—because the solution is suddenly that much closer.

It’s clear that some people are better at these skills than others, and that some companies are better in the way they nurture these tribes of problem-finders. These are the businesses with the culture and infrastructure to support grassroots innovation. They might encourage role rotation, so people learn to thrive in the discomfort of the unknown. They might even invest in an operating model that allows for cost and course variability, as the rhythms of work continually change. They are the companies that give me hope that we will provide more people with the tools to become lifelong learners and enthused problem-finders.