Q&A: Becoming a learning company

Q: How has the internet transformed the way people learn?

A: In the digital age, lifelong learning is more important than ever. Twenty years ago, most of the knowledge in the world was in books. The internet was still in its early stages and there were no blogs or social media channels. In certain parts of the world, where access to books was limited, people had very little opportunity for education beyond what they were taught at school. The rapid advancement of the internet since then has transformed learning. Suddenly, endless sources of information are easily accessible. However, few of them can be trusted unconditionally. In the age of fake news, it is increasingly difficult to ensure a neutral account of the facts. Meanwhile, many people don’t have the time to concentrate on long reads. This has placed a premium on relevant, summarised and objectively verified information from reliable sources.

Q: What impact has this had on learning strategies within companies?

A: Knowledge puts us in a position to make better decisions and to solve business challenges, but the amount needed to make a real impact is growing constantly. This makes it crucial in any company that employees are able to upgrade their skills and stay informed about relevant business trends. In a fast-paced digital workplace, abstracts are a great way to acquire knowledge efficiently. They enable employees to capture relevant content easily and quickly. Hundreds of global companies train and develop executives and managers using getAbstract because our online library helps them align relevant knowledge to their strategic business competencies. They empower their employees to support the company to stay agile and innovative in a competitive environment.

Q: In a fast-moving, competitive landscape, how can companies ensure employees are kept informed about business trends?

A: Peter Drucker famously coined the term “knowledge work” in 1959, anticipating the future demand for workers whose main capital is knowledge. Now, however, it’s no longer knowledge workers who businesses need to grow but “learning workers”. When Satya Nadella took over as chief executive of Microsoft six years ago, the company’s share price had been more or less flat for 15 years. He said we have to change from being a know-it-all company to being a learn-it-all company. Since then, Microsoft’s share price has multiplied. Business is moving so fast that what you study today is no longer relevant a year from now. The value of that knowledge has already deprecated. Instead, what is really valuable is a constant evolution of learning. To achieve this, companies need to facilitate learning at the speed of business, which means integrating learning objectives within the flow of work, rather than disrupting the flow of work.

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Q: What is your advice to companies that want to build a culture to enable this approach to learning?

A: Mindset is vital to building a learning culture. You have to create a mindset that allows your people to understand they can and they should develop themselves. They also need to know they’re allowed to make mistakes. In Enron, the US energy giant that went bankrupt in 2001, it was forbidden to make mistakes. All that counted was titles and how senior you were. If you create a culture where people are fearful about making mistakes, it means they only stick to what they know works. Nothing ever changes and that means nothing really improves because learning also means experimenting. You have to try things you haven’t tried before. If you look at companies that have really succeeded in recent years, such as Microsoft and SAP, they have recognised their employees need to know it’s OK to sometimes make mistakes. They encourage their people to take small steps, try new things and fail fast. This not only helps them to evolve as people, but also enables the company to evolve by becoming more innovative and agile. They have succeeded by becoming learning organisations, rather than knowledge organisations. It’s also important that this is supported from the top. Human resources can’t just send an email and say, “We want to become a learning company”. You have to live it from the boardroom all of the way down. Finally, you have to provide the digital tools that enable people to learn.

Q: Have the topics that people within companies need to learn about evolved too?

A: Absolutely. Traditionally people think about learning within companies as focusing on management training and hard technical skills, but the corporate world is evolving and it’s becoming increasingly important that bigger-picture themes, such as diversity and inclusion, are integrated into learning objectives. How do you deal with remote workers who you don’t physically see every day? How can you maintain a culture across distances using only virtual tools? You also need to understand about how macro-trends are impacting your business, such as politics and science, and how other countries are working. Changes in government or political events like Brexit can have a huge impact on how you do business. It’s not just about your everyday tasks; you have to open up your horizon and overall mindset. This includes soft skills and emotional intelligence.

Q: As companies embark on digital transformation, how important is it to ensure people understand it is going to benefit, rather than threaten, their future?

A: It’s vital. People often think digitalisation equates to artificial intelligence robots taking their job. However, digitalisation is actually about people and maximising their value to the business by removing low-value, monotonous tasks from their responsibilities. Companies need to ensure, as part of their learning strategy, they are giving their employees the psychological security that they will be able to do other things technology can’t. It may not be what they’re doing today, but actually it’ll be something that is more interesting and will enable them to advance. But to do this, people need to develop themselves. They have to be prepared to learn and grow, and the company needs to support that by educating them on the real value and opportunities associated with digital transformation. We’re living in super-exciting times and companies need to ensure they are translating this effectively to their employees.

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