It’s no wonder that Amazon recently announced it will spend $700 million to “upskill” much of its U.S. workforce by 2025. All over the world, leaders of corporations are worried about whether they’ll have employees with the skills to carry their businesses into the future.
They’re right to be concerned. The pace of change in business is unprecedented, with new technologies constantly altering the landscape. “Finding and hiring employees with the key skills they need to succeed in the digital world continues to keep CEOs awake at night,” PricewaterhouseCoopers has reported. Eighty percent of CEOs say they’re worried—up from 56 percent in 2011.
This concern becomes more acute as long established companies keep seeing startups suddenly come along with new ideas and new skills, and gobble up market share in their industries. It’s a big reason that a company’s average longevity on the S&P 500 dropped from dropped from 33 years in 1964 to 24 years in 2016, and is predicted to plummet down to just 12 years by 2027. (At this rate, about half of current S&P companies will be replaced on the index within the next decade.)
To build the workforce of the future, businesses need to be evolving constantly. They need to focus on workforce agility, with employees engaged in learning new skills all the time. They need thriving cultures of learning. As AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson put it, workers who don’t spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning “will obsolete themselves with the technology.”
To face this challenge, companies are steadily updating their workplace learning programs. Unfortunately, far too few are building these with an understanding of how people learn best.
For our book The Expertise Economy, my co-author David Blake and I explored the latest findings from the science of learning and the related science of motivation. We found that current corporate approaches to learning fly in the face of established scientific research.
Here are two of the biggest changes businesses should make.
Less lecturing, more doing
For decades, most corporate learning has consisted of people being forced to sit through lectures and PowerPoint presentations. Even when courses are made available online, they still often consist largely of an expert talking “at” listeners, who may then be asked to answer a few questions at the end just to make sure they were listening. According to the Association for Talent Development, two-thirds (67 percent) of all formal corporate learning hours are still led by instructors.
Most of the time, this old-style approach simply is not how people learn best, whether in schools or workplaces.
We’ve found that the best method to help employees pick up new skills is to follow a four-stage “Learning Loop.”
The first step is to obtain knowledge through consuming content. Let employees choose from a vast array of sources for this—whether reading articles, watching a TED Talk, listening to podcasts, or participating in a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Next, have the employee practice the skill, either at home or with a peer. Make sure it’s a non-intimidating scenario in which the employee feels free to try something new and make mistakes along the way.
Stage three is feedback. The employee tries to perform the new skill for a peer or manager who has expertise in, or for a group of people all of whom share this expertise. They then provide constructive, helpful, thoughtful feedback. Finally, the employee engages in reflection, taking time to consider the feedback and how to do better.
The process then repeats until the employee achieves both competence and comfort with the new skill.
Let employees choose learning paths
Traditional development programs have been designed top-down, through a focus on compliance (required) training. These days, it’s much better to put workers in the driver’s seat and let them decide which skills they’re going to learn.
To some people, this sounds counterintuitive. If you want employees to build the skills of the future, why not dictate the skills they should be learning? The answer is quite simple: often, employees are the first to know about new, emerging technologies and the skills required to carry them out. Also, employees who choose their own learning paths are much more excited about the prospect of learning, and therefore motivated to devote the time and energy to it.
Business leaders should let their staff know about the kinds of skills they’re looking for at any given time. Employees usually want to learn the kinds of skills to build flourishing careers inside their companies. But when people are given latitude to make their own choices, they spend more time learning and remain more engaged.
The benefits to making these changes are tremendous, even in the short term. Today’s employees, particularly millennials, want their jobs to be development opportunities. With a modern learning operation in place, businesses can compete for talent—and face a much stronger future.