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How Continuous Learning Improves Business Outcomes

Lifelong learning in organizations helps companies innovate, grow their own talent pool, maximize efficiency and develop a stronger culture. Like other aspects of company culture, it can be hard to measure its effects but we instinctively know about the power of learning and its historic ability to transform every aspect of our lives.


Lifelong learning vs corporate training


Traditionally, the vast majority of companies have invested in some from of education for their employees. This has typically come in the form of corporate training programs. But these programs are quite different to the concept of lifelong learning. The main difference being that the former can be seen as one aspect of the latter which is a more holistic approach. The two concepts aren’t opposed but instead represent an evolution in the space which adds additional layers when it comes to employee education.


Corporate training


Learning and training in an organization usually happens at fixed events during an employees tenure. Typically corporate learning experiences occur at the following times:


  • Onboarding – When a person is hired, they typically undergo a few weeks of training which involves learning about their particular role and the company as a whole. Depending on the role, this could be an extended period of time or even act as an apprenticeship before being converted into the full job.

  • Promotions – Like with a joining a new company, being promoted entails a new set of responsibilities that typically requires training. This is typically in the form of leadership and management training.

  • Company initiatives –  Companies may have certain objectives such as adopting agile methodologies or increasing diversity which may warrant certain employees to undergo training.

  • Reskilling/upskilling – For fast changing industries such as programming, companies may sponsor employees to undergo formal education while working to ensure they stay relevant. The MBA is a prominent example of this.


Corporate training typically has the following attributes which distinguish it from lifelong learning:


  • Fixed in length – Training programs or educational experiences usually have a start and end date. Once the learning happens the person becomes accredited and likely moves on to another topic.

  • Classroom setting – Corporate learning typically follows the playbook of academic learning. There is an instructor, powerpoint presentations, videos and workbooks.

  • Prompted by an eventAs described above, it is usually events that trigger the need for corporate training. It occurs usually in response to something.

  • Potentially non-voluntaryMost of the learning in this model is compulsory for the employee. It is not through their own initiative or direction.


What is lifelong learning


Lifelong learning represents a fundamental change in the learning paradigm. It is more of a philosophy than a learning approach, initiative or program, as compared to corporate training or formal education. This learning philosophy is about making learning a core part of who we are as opposed to a means to an end. It recognizes that learning is a cumulative, on going process of which it’s best effects are seen the longer we do it. Given the information explosion and the rapid change of industries it is also becoming the only sensible way to approach work and education.


What it looks like:


  • Online education – Lifelong learners use the power of the internet to access information wherever they are – through laptop, tablets or mobile.

  • Experimentation – Instead of being passive learners, lifelong learning brings the philosophy of science into the mix. Observing, creating hypothesis and running experiments to discover knowledge is part of being a lifelong learner.

  • MentorshipTapping into the wisdom of those who have been there and done it allows lifelong learners to collect insights, make better decisions and refine their skills – learning experiences which can’t easily be drawn from a book.

  • CommunitiesBecoming part of associations and networks and learning and collaborating with peers keeps lifelong learners at the front of their field.


The qualities of lifelong learning:


  • Continuous – As the name implies, lifelong learning is an ongoing process. It is a lifestyle, mentality and identity that integrates learning into the routine as opposed to set durations or events.

  • Self-directed – The learner creates their own curriculum based on their goals and desired learning outcomes. It is also voluntary and may be curiosity driven as opposed to purely pragmatic.

  • Cross disciplinaryLifelong learning does away with the rigid structures of disciplines. A programmer can learn about human behavior and a marketer can learn about the history of design. Although some subjects may not be directly related, expanding perspectives increase the quality of an individual’s ideas.

  • HolisticAlthough structured programs may be a part of lifelong learning, it doesn’t stop there. It encompasses many other aspects such as online, experimentation, peers and mentors.


The 3 key benefits of lifelong learning


Benefit 1: Innovation


Innovation is driven by creative ideation. This process involves the researching and accumulation of information that can be used as the raw material which gives birth to a new idea. At the core of innovation then lies the process of learning. As corporate innovation is a continuous process that needs constant ideas, the only logical learning approach is that of lifelong learning. There is already an existing body of information out there that can provide millions of new ideas, not to mention the rapid increase on a daily basis. To access this opportunity, everybody in your organization needs to be scouring this sea of information and looking for insights that can be combined in novel ways.


As technology also becomes more sophisticated, so does the level of innovation. Increasingly, we are seeing the need for a cross-disciplinary approach as a means to problem solving. In one case, it may be simply borrowing a concept from one field to another, for instance the marketplace or data driven business model. In others, it may be that a new way of thinking is necessary to increase breakthroughs. For instance, bringing an engineering or design mindset to a non-technical field, or how psychology and philosophy is informing AI development.


Benefit 2: Talent


With the challenge of AI displacing jobs, you may find that some of your best and loyal employees may become redundant. These are people who may know a lot about your organization and play an important role both culturally and operationally at present. But there is no stopping automation and it may be necessary for you to remain competitive in your market. Lifelong learning in addition to structured programs can be a way for you to start transitioning at risk employees to other roles in the company. Otherwise, it would be a waste of company knowledge and loyalty to simply let these people go.


Maximizing skills and efficiency across the organization is also an outcome of lifelong learning. Imagine the situation where your sales, design, product and marketing teams are all at the top of their class. They know the latest trends, have the most refined skills and they are able to problem solve in different ways thanks to the continuous flow of knowledge and ideas in their teams. As a result, operational efficiency in each department will go up as you maximise the human and intellectual capital in your organization.


As employers report that universities aren’t able to supply well prepared graduates, it may be necessary for companies to create their own home grown talent pool. Traditionally this has taken place in the form of apprenticeships, but they usually come up short in the academic rigour and thinking needed for higher level position. Lifelong learning in the form of online courses can be used in addition to apprenticeships to give employer grown talent both the skills and intellectual sophistication to become effective players in the company. As you are also in control of the educational direction, you can help mold your young hires to how you want them to be.


Benefit 3: Stronger culture


Lifelong learning can enhance a company’s culture in a number of ways:


  • Employee satisfaction – As an employee improves their skills and knowledge, it is likely that they will be able to do their job more efficiently. As they are also growing on the job, they are more likely to also feel that they are gaining a return from their job as they are building the skills and knowledge that will help them in the future.

  • Empathy – As learning increases one’s understanding of the world, they are more likely to have a better understanding of how to deal with both themselves and others. This increased empathy from being a constant learner can then enhance collaboration and workplace relations.

  • Proactive problem solvingThe process of self-directed, lifelong learning also contributes to other traits such as initiative, grit and critical thinking. These traits will in turn affect the culture as a whole, leading to a more engaged workforce.


The essence of lifelong learning


As mentioned earlier, lifelong learning is a holistic approach which encompasses and enhances other aspects such as corporate training, apprenticeships and formal education. A combination of all these learning experiences will likely yield the best outcome and ensure that your organization can meet the challenges ahead. In the next part, we will take a look at the challenges of lifelong learning in the organization which include mentality, time management and prioritization.

About the author

Stefan Soellner

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.

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