Lifelong learning can be seen as an extension to traditional corporate learning and development. This means you will likely still run up against many of the same challenges. There are some additional unique challenges however, given the fact that lifelong learning requires more self-motivation as it can occur outside the workplace and is self-directed. In order to successfully implement this change you will need to overcome challenges involving each individual learner, how you structure and present learning and how you manage the process.
Implementing lifelong learning as a one size fits all solution across the organization will likely fail. As each learner is an individual with their own unique backgrounds, they will all have their own set of challenges which must be taken into account. Their learning ability, mindset, engagement and day to day emotional states play key roles in determining how effective and open they will be to learning opportunities.
Aside from access, one of the biggest barriers to learning comes in the form of the learner’s mindset. This is best illustrated by Carol Dweck’s work on the fixed and growth mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset will typically believe that intelligence cannot be improved and will lack the motivation to do so. They may have anxiety about learning in the academic sense and even see it as ‘work’ instead of self improvement. Alternatively, learners with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable and take a more positive and engaged approach to learning. They are likely to be full of curiosity and see difficult challenges as exciting opportunities for growth.
The problem in the workplace is that you as the employer are inheriting each person’s baggage – this includes their learning experiences. Likely, some would have had a bad experience and come into work with a fixed mindset. They will be resistant to your learning schemes which could cause a spiral of other problems such as reduced morale or productivity. In addition, there may also be individuals who feel that they know all there is to know about their field. This could occur in senior staff members or individuals who are excellent at their job and represents another aspect of the fixed mindset.
A little stress at work can keep employees on their toes, but too much can negatively affect all aspects of work. Learning is no exception, with studies showing that when learners are stressed they are not able to learn as effectively.
This stress can come in a few forms. First, it can exist before the learning initiative – that is from their daily work, co-worker relations or professional ambitions. It can also come from outside of work such as from family life, health or their financial situation. Stress can also come from the lifelong learning initiative you are undertaking. The other factors in this section such as mindset and learning ability all affect how one engages with learning. If they are not in the right state, it could have the inverse effect of what you intended.
It is one of the main challenges of the 21st century to increase workplace engagement. It is hard enough as it is to have employees feel that their work is purposeful and has meaning. So adding self-directed learning on top of this will prove to be a challenge. You are trying to achieve the world class standard of employee – someone who is engaged, productive and self-improving.
The engagement problem starts well before learning is added into the mix, which means you will have to find the root of the problem which could be leadership, culture or a variety of factors. A lack of engagement means that any educational experiences are likely to lack stickiness and be seen as a chore that’s being forced onto them. This in turn makes learning less effective as retention and understanding will drop.
Aside from attitude, there may be issues with individuals in regards to their academic aptitude. Some professions naturally connect with lifelong learning such as programming or writing, as each of these require continuous research. However, some of your employees may be in roles that are more static and haven’t done much learning in a while.
There may also be employees who may not have come from an academic background but have excellent people’s skills such as some client facing professionals. Regardless of their role, everybody in the organization needs to be learning so you have the challenge of also giving people a learning ability and mindset that they may have never developed.
Lifelong learning is a continuous lifestyle which inevitably demands time. Even 5 hours a week dedicated to learning can seem like a lot to professionals who are busy both inside and outside of work. Balancing different projects, family, social and personal life means that most people don’t have the time or energy to even watch a documentary. Although learning can be pleasurable, there is still an amount of mental and attention bandwidth that is needed.
Making decisions about when learning can occur in your organization will affect outcomes. You will need to think about what is the right proportion between work and learning engagements, when it occurs and who gets to decide what is being learned. In the case of lifelong learning, it is likely that this process will have to be owned by the employee themselves which means there will have to be an element of trust from leadership.
This flexibility can also challenge your culture if you are traditionally results focused and drive your employees for productivity. Learning doesn’t produce immediate ROI’s, so having your people take time out to study what may seem like an unrelated subject can concern some managers.
As lifelong learning isn’t confined to traditional classroom settings, many of the learning opportunities will take place in the employee’s own time. This could take place during their commute, in the evenings or during weekends in the case of travel and retreats. This is where the rubber truly hits the road and you get a picture into how engaged your employees are. True lifelong learning is happening at all times, through books they listen to on the way to work, problems they think about over breakfast and networking events they attend.
These learning opportunities can’t easily be quantified and are unlikely to be financially compensated for. You are relying on the individual’s disposition, sense of purpose and passion for your company for them to continuously invest in becoming their best self. This is in no way easy and requires charismatic leadership and organizational design at the highest level.
Like with all endeavours, after implementation the biggest challenge is consistency. This of course is the core part of lifelong learning. Unlike corporate training and structured learning, skills and traits such as self-motivation and time management are critical for consistency as many of the learning will be voluntary. For extracurricular learning, individuals are also giving up their free time which is a sacrifice that some will struggle with. There is also the fact that some may simply become bored or too challenged by the learning which can also lead to drop off rates. This is affected by both their mentality and the delivery of the learning which we discuss below.
As seen in school settings, how children learn is affected by the delivery style of education. How passionate the teacher is, what tools they have to use and how the curriculum is designed all play a part in whether students take to learning. The same is true for adults – education has to be delivered in the right way.
When thinking about learning, particularly if you are implementing structure, you need to consider cultural factors. The first of which is the difference between generations. Older learners may be more inclined to classroom settings at set periods during work hours. They may be less open to learning outside of work due to family concerns and may be less willing to travel to conferences or retreats. Younger workers may be the opposite as they have more time and may be more eager to advance their careers. There is also a difference in how generational groups use technology and different learning techniques. Young employees may be more keen on video, animation and even VR as opposed to textbooks or lectures.
Lifelong learning creates a new challenge compared to traditional corporate learning in the form of who directs it – the employee or the employer. On the one hand, you have your own higher level perspective to determine which skills each employee and department needs to meet the objectives of the company. But by dictating the curriculum you may sacrifice the employees internal curiosity, autonomy and motivation. Furthermore, there may be skills and knowledge that they want to learn that is relevant specifically to them that you can’t see. Finding a balance here between leader and employee dictation is key.
As companies slowly integrate and become one with educational institutions, getting ahead of these challenges will set your company up to be a learning organization. Now that you have an understanding of the problems to solve, let’s begin to take a look at how to implement this change and the solutions to the key problems.
Stefan Soellner is an expert in scaling for companies, experienced consultant for business model and product innovation, and coach in the field of innovation management.