Guest Blog: Forget Culture, We Need an Infrastructure for Lifelong Learning

Anand Chopra-McGowan Headshot2In recent years, three significant forces have come together to create a dramatically different landscape for skills and the global workforce.

First, technology-driven automation is profoundly changing the way in which organisations allocate their human talent, and even how much of that human talent they need in the first place. Second, the impact of technology is driving higher demand for digital skills, not just from the early adopters like banks and media companies, but from industrials, professional services, retail, FMCGs, and more. And third, the supply of this skilled labour is not increasing at nearly the pace at which it needs to.

Lifelong learning to the rescue?

Against this backdrop, organisations have made much about the need to foster a culture of lifelong learning – the idea that in response to these forces, employees must regularly train themselves in the new skills, tools, and technologies that employers require.

This is easier said than done.

Employees today are busier than ever before. Adding an expectation for lifelong learning can seem like a daunting challenge to take on in the context of fast moving deadlines and quarterly performance reviews. What’s more, building culture is hard. Culture, especially in larger organisations, is built over years and decades, supported by the vision and behavior of executives and senior managers and the people they hire.

Four pillars supporting an infrastructure for lifelong learning

Instead, let’s focus on building an infrastructure for lifelong learning. As compared to the ethereal concept of culture, infrastructure is scalable, measureable, and real.

I believe there are four crucial pillars supporting this infrastructure:

  1. Government
    Government’s role here is twofold: funding to ensure anyone who needs training can get it, and quality control to ensure that money is spent effectively. In the UK, the Apprenticeship Levy provides for mandated spending on hiring and training apprentices and in some cases reskilling existing employees. What’s more, organisations receiving funding from the Levy must adhere to standards governing the skills that apprentices need to learn. Further, the recently announced National Retraining Scheme has bold ambitions for supporting reskilling projects across the country.

  2. Employers
    Organisations must create transparent and accessible pathways for employees to access opportunities to build new skills. When faced with the challenges and pace of day-to-day responsibility, training and education is often easy to deprioritise. Instead, managers must actively require their team members to attend training, safe in the knowledge that their investment will pay off. Leaders can set the example. For example, recently as part of an ambitious transition to becoming a “digital bank”, Lloyds Banking Group CEO António Horta Osório announced an investment of £3 billion with a significant focus on developing skills.

  3. Schools, Colleges, and Education Startups
    As the skills required for success evolve, so too must the offerings of learning providers. It is not enough to offer multi-year degree programs built off five-year curriculum review cycles. Companies like mine need to continually invest in fresh, current curricula and innovative learning formats. For example, we recently announced the creation of industry standards boards governing the job profiles of modern roles like data scientist, business analyst, and digital marketer. We also partnered with WhiteHat, an innovative new UK company that’s reinventing what it means to be an apprentice. And finally, we’re proud to partner with Oxford University’s Saïd Business School to complement their curriculum.

  4. Employees
    Finally, employees must bear some responsibility, and expected to invest meaningful amounts of time to learn new skills. In our experience, the single most important determinant of someone’s ability to succeed in a demanding learning experience (our courses are 420 hours of classroom time – not including projects and homework crammed into 12 weeks) is their level of motivation. Other factors – age, income, work experience – have nowhere near the influence on whether someone can learn new skills.

There’s much more to this infrastructure. Credentials, performance evaluations, skills assessments, and more are all part of the ecosystem that will support lifelong learning. To begin, however, if government, industry, services, and individuals can come together to play their roles, we’ll have a great foundation from which to start.

The author is a member of the techUK Skills & Diversity Committee, and is an executive at General Assembly, a global education company that works with individuals and large companies to build the skills they need to succeed in the digital age.

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