6 Pathways for Lifelong learning in a VUCA World.

Lifelong Learning is essential in a VUCA World. The @weforum has published a white paper on it. Here are 6 Pathways for lifelong learning for individuals.
Lifelong Learning

Learning Does not Stop When the School Finishes

Learning does not stop when school finishes. That’s the sentence the OECD PIAAC video ends with. The video shows how the skill acquisition (maths and reading) is changing in the world. The US and the UK seem to bellowing ground. Countries like Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and South Korea are either maintaining their level or they are progressing.

Skills are important to an economy. Talent is the raw material for future economies. In a digital world we need to invest both in education of young people and in retraining ageing people. If not there will be a divide between the educated and the non-educated.

Arguments for Lifelong Learning

To build a sustainable society we must make sure that people get education. They should be able and willing to learn and develop throughout their life-span. This is not new in itself. But there are two fundamental reasons why this has become more pressing than ever:

  1. the rate of change, and digital change in particular is dazzling.
    Industries are disrupted and new ways of working and living appear. The changes are challenging the traditional industrial way of working. We seem to be returning – maybe slowly – towards a talent market that is no longer solely based on employment contracts and job tenure, but on entrepreneurship and agility.
    The value of a degree is quite limited. Skills and especially knowledge have the tendency to become obsolete very fast. Jobs that we know today, will not exist in the future. They will disappear faster than in the past. So we have a choice. We can all become Luddites and try and stop these changes. Or, we can embrace them and tackle them through lifelong learning.
  2. We will live longer.
    So we will have to provide for ourselves longer than ever before. If the 100 year Life is to become a reality, we need to increase the productive hours. There are two reasons for this.
    First, pension schemes are under financed and cannot support pensions of 30-40 years.
    Second, we might see careers of 50 to 60 years. Are we able to do the same job during 6 decades? I don’t think so. We are not the Rolling Stones. The social, emotional, physical and mental challenges that we will have are tremendous. Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton have given us these insights in their splendid book ‘The 100 year Life‘.This means that we will have to learn and unlearn continuous. It also means that we might have to develop 2 or 3 career orientations in our lifetime.

Is Lifelong Learning a Fact or a Desire?

Having multiple career orientations requires lifelong learning. But today I fear there is no common understanding of the need to engage in lifelong learning behaviour.
When I ask people if they have a plan B, an alternative route towards the future, most people reply that they don’t. But if you ask people what they would like to do when they would have to leave their current job, they do have an idea.
Most people do not invest (personal) time in learning. They do follow courses, but usually in the context of their current job. They want to keep up or become better in what they do today. In itself that is very honourable. But it might be not enough if digitization and longevity force us to reinvent ourselves continuously.
The World Economic Forum states in its recent report on Accelerating Workforce Reskilling for the Fourth Industrial Revolution that

Despite the growing need for adult reskilling, opportunities for broad-based and inclusive reskilling are currently not available at the appropriate levels of access, quality and scale of supply in most countries.

Progress has been made in the access to greater amounts of low-cost digital training across many countries; but a cohesive system which addresses the diverse needs of learners, dedicates sufficient resources, and brings together the right stakeholders in providing applied learning opportunities is still lacking.

These are harsh words. Especially the difficulty that low-skilled and elderly people have to pursue a path of continuous learning is troublesome. Like it’s often  the case, programs of reskilling do not reach those who need it the most. People who have the habit of learning will find their way faster towards new and old learning platforms. MOOCS provide a tremendous source for learning, but are not reaching all levels and segments of the talent market.
But there is no excuse for not knowing and not learning. In a VUCA world only the ones who are able to learn and apply their skills in a creative and connected way will succeed. The future is bright for those who can evolve throughout their entire career and life.

Pathways for Change

Should we then be pessimistic? The WEF report says that the coming (or arriving?) 4th industrial revolution brings also opportunities. It identifies 10 pathways for change.

  1. Take Stock and Recognise Existing Skills
  2. Understand Skills Demand
  3. Adopt the Right Mix of Financing Instruments
  4. Build and sustain motivation for adult learning through active labour market policies and accessible resources
  5. Create shorter learning modules that foster continued learning
  6. Determine the role of different stakeholders
  7. Recognize and promote on-the-job training opportunities and maximize informal learning opportunities
  8. Reach those that need it most—SMEs, lower-skilled workers and older workers
  9. Customized teaching for adults
  10. Harness the power and scalability of blended off-line and online learning, enhanced with virtual and augmented reality when relevant

These pathways have been identified on country level. And the report provides examples of actions for governments, companies, unions and institutions. But if you look at them, you can apply some of them on individual level. So I’d like to add some ideas for individuals to increase their employability through lifelong learning. Here are the 6 pathways for Lifelong Learning.
Lifelong Learning

Shared Responsibility

Fact is that lifelong learning is not common enough. It is a shared responsibility. Governments and organizations should create contexts where learning is easy, affordable and safe. Schools should focus on learning skills. Individuals should spend personal time in learning and be proactive.
In a VUCA World, learning is the greatest skill to have. And the increasing digitization offers opportunities to embed learning in daily life. Maybe, it’s now or never for lifelong learning. These 6 Pathways might help people to create their personal lifelong learning strategy. I will come back to these 6 Pathways in a next blog.

10 Defects of the Talent Market

Talent market

An Imperfect Talent Market

The talent market isn’t perfect. There are imperfections, paradoxes and dogmas both on the supply side and on the demand side. They pollute our thinking about talent. There are at least 10 talent market defects that make the talent market somewhat exclusive, limited and maybe toxic. It’s time to review them and think about how to deal with them.

Talent Market Defects

Here are the 10 defects. Each defect has different origins, different impacts and different solutions.

Talent Market Defect 1:
Labour Market Thinking

I use the word talent market instead of the more commonly used term labour market. If we talk about the labour market we focus too much on the work (labour) at hand. The demand for labour lies with the employees, freelancers, the people. The supply of labour is coming from the employers. As if the raw material of that market were the jobs, functions, the work.
The true raw material is the skills, attitudes, motivation, … that people bring to work. I wonder how that labour economic thinking came about. Probably labour markets have been dominantly seller’s markets, where the talent was abundant and the jobs (supply of labour) were scarce. And so the focus was on the work and not the talent. And the thinking got twisted around.
But today, Talent is not abundant. It’s becoming a seller’s market. Supply of Talent is dwindling. Demographics help us to understand the shortage in the markets. But increasingly organisations are fishing in a limited pool of that shrinking talent supply.
So let’s reverse thinking and argue that the supply of talent is what matters strategically.

Talent Market Defect 2:
Experience to Get Experience.

Young people who are looking for a job lack experience. That’s a fact. But many job profiles demand earlier experience. This is a vicious circle. How are people without experience to gain experience if experience is a barrier to entry?
The answer is of course that young people should acquire some experience as early as possible through student jobs, internships, dual learning, study projects. It’s about creating dots as Steve Jobs called them, as early as possible. But it’s more about life experience and maturity than it is about the acquisition of specific job-related skills.
For organisations it could be beneficiary to open up to young people more. Internships are the best way of doing that, provided that this channel is also used as a recruitment channel (and not only as a source of cheap labour).
When organisations stress the need for experience, they contribute to the tightness of the talent market. And yes, chances are that young people leave the company after a couple of years. And one could regret the “wasted investment”. But this kind of thinking is obsolete. The investment is only wasted when the talent of youngsters has been restricted. Young people can be a source of innovation, organisational learning, reverse mentoring, … Only when we treat young people like we did in the past, the investment in their talent will be wasted.
So let’s lower the barrier to entry and allow young people to yield returns.

Talent Market Defect 3:
Perfection Exists?

Reading certain job descriptions and their related profiles, I can only conclude that organisations are still looking for the perfect employee. Companies want experience, knowledge of multiple languages, a degree, a strong personality, the right attitude and immediate deployability.
Also in my company it’s a daily battle to convince hiring managers that there aren’t instant ready and perfect people in the current talent market. And the question is if there has ever been. If talent is scarce, perfect talent is even more scarce. And by focussing on perfection, we exclude people with potential for the job, but without all the specs.
This also means that all companies are looking in the same, small and shrinking pool of talent. Looking for the highest standards in a market that is demographically challenged is not the best idea. Companies must distinguish between the “must haves” and the “need to acquires”. Attitudes and values, but also intelligence and social competency are must-haves in all or at least most jobs. For some jobs a (technical degree) is a must-have, but in a lot of jobs companies could let go of that.
So let’s focus on the essential criteria.

Talent Market Defect 4:
The Degree Fetish

The degree is still an important decision criterion in the process of matching talent to jobs. It is in fact overrated. I will never tell someone a degree is not important. The main reason for this is that a degree is still an entry ticket to the conservative talent market. However, it is not a residence permit. The degree loses its value very fast. The value of the knowledge or skills acquired during studies is limited.
We cannot assume that the value of a degree comes from the mere transfer of knowledge. It’s much more important to look at the way the degree has been obtained. People can get a degree (the paper) by focussing on the minimal effort. They comply to the demands of the institution that hands out the degree as a proof of academic or technical knowledge.
But, a degree can also prove that someone is engaged, persevering, creative. So unless there are legal requirements to hold a degree in a job (you need a medical degree to be a physician), organisations should drop the degree spec from their job profiles. That makes those jobs more accessible for people who do not have the right degree. The fetish of the diploma is too exclusive and organisations miss opportunities to hire excellent people.

Talent Market Defect 5:
the Hole in the Cheese.

For many hiring managers it’s almost unthinkable to hire some one who has made a mistake. That’s probably because they’ve never made a mistake (irony). It’s remarkable how recruiters search for the holes in the curriculum. Recruiters typically do not like twists, bumps and holes in a career. Holes in the cheese are not that interesting. But I would argue otherwise.
We all make mistakes. Without mistakes there is no learning. People build careers by the grace of the learning by mistakes. So the holes in the cheese are interesting, but not to disproof qualities. The holes in the cheese are sources of information about how people learn, how they deal with setbacks, how fast they bounce up.
Everything has a story, both perfection and imperfection.

Talent Market Defect 6:
The Love for the Ideal Competency vs. the Fear for Bad Attitude.

We fall in love with people with a track record. The fact that they might not bring the right attitude is too often of secondary importance. Nevertheless in my experience more people are fired because of bad attitude than because of bad performance. I haven’t found statistics on it (only many blog posts).
And the old adage of any HR professional is that bad attitude should lead to immediate dismissal. There’s more hope when bad performance is due to lack of competence. There is no remedy for bad attitude.
But when we meet someone who has the right experience, we tend to forget about attitude. Our love for competency perfection is far greater than our fear for bad attitude. And that’s because hiring managers think they can compensate for the bad attitude. They tend to overestimate the capacity for people to control their bad attitude and they underestimate the damage bad attitude causes.
The cost of a dismissal because of a bad attitude is higher than a dismissal for lack of competence. And that’s because the collateral damage of bad attitude is far greater. Bad attitude is like a venom. It slowly poisons the relationships at work.

Talent Market Defect 7:
Harvest now. Invest later.

Our view of careers is still linear: study, work, retirement. Put differently: invest, exploit and live on the proceeds of work. Who invests? The person, families, the government. Organisations are looking for people who are trained for the job. That is called “train to place”. The reluctance to invest in people, reduces the pool of talent which we can recruit from.
Can we do something else? We can place and train. And this is often more efficient. Put someone with potential on a mission, and they will learn exponentially. Put someone who is trained on a mission and chances are that they will have to unlearn.

Talent Market Defect 8:
Adaptability above Employability.

Organisations hire people for who they are and what they can do. But once hired, there’s too often a pressure to become someone else. We expect people to adapt, to blend in. “Here we do it like this. It’s not right to change it.” In many organisations resistance is futile. And people who do not get assimilated will be removed.
And so we destroy value. Every time we hire someone, there’s an opportunity for the organisation to learn and evolve. And hiring someone always causes friction. Everyone comes on with new ideas, other ways of doing things. And so every new hire should make the status quo tremble at least. This takes energy but adds value.
The focus should not be on adaptability of a person (how well do they fit?) but on employability. And to make people employable, we need to give them the space to be who they are. That’s why we hired them in the first place. It’s a kind of psychological contract. And maybe it would not be wrong to make that psychological contract explicit and to customise the job as far as possible.

Talent Market Defect 9:
The Quest for the Active Components of People.

Much of what HR does is based on the concept of competency. A competency is a characteristic (skill, trait, attitude, …) that enables someone to be successful. It discriminates between high and low performers. I call that the active components of people. Companies have developed competency dictionaries to guide recruitment, career development, employee appraisals, etc. They focus on a couple of competencies that make a difference. Very often these are generic: customer orientation, coöperation, accountability, initiative, …
Not only competency profiles are interchangeable, they are also reductionist. They give us the illusion that we can measure the active components of people and that we only need to focus on these elements.
But a person comes to work as a hole. So we need a holistic approach. The best overall question to ask during a selection process is “Who are you?”. But we ask “What can you do?”. If we hire people not only for what they can do, but also for who they are we can focus on creating a more diverse workforce. The interaction of personality and competency is much more interesting than the reductionist view on competencies. Hiring interesting people who can create value, is much richer than the quest for competencies.

Talent Market Defect 10:
Look Like Me. Conformation.

People discriminate. Let me rephrase that, they have biases. And one of those biases is that we are looking for people who look like us. I call the the conformation bias. It’s easy to hire someone who looks like me, thinks like me, works like me. But it’s rubbish. Instead we should hire people who do not look like us.
Have you ever hired someone you do not like? I have. And it is not easy. But you should not hire people because they are easy. You should hire people who can make a difference. And so you need to hire people who are different from you.
Corporate cloning is not a good idea. Hiring managers should build a diverse team. And I am not talking about diversity in terms of gender and origin. I am talking about diversity of ideas, thinking, looking at the world. Yeah yeah, you’ll say. That’s valid for creative teams, management teams. But in a factory diversity is a nuisance.
Let me tell you this. Most probably you’ll find the greatest diversity on the shop floor. The shop floor most probably reflects society the most. Only, we do not use that diversity enough. We underestimate too often the value of bringing different views together to create a meaningful value. Diversity leads to creativity, in my humble opinion.
Diversity is not easy to handle. But if you hire the same people all the time, you will never change anything. You get stuck in a fixed trail. That’s never a good idea in a disruptive world.

No Illusions

I have no illusions. The talent market is drenched in assumptions and biases. It’s very difficult to break through dogmas. But unless we adopt another view of the talent market, it will remain normative and exclusive. And that won’t help us. So a first step is to understand how these dogmas influence the dynamics of the talent market and our own behaviour.
If you are led by these dogmas, you might want to reconsider them and experiment. To me the business case of a more open approach towards talent is clear: a bigger pool, access to more talented and engaged people, a diversity of ideas. Think about it.
An earlier version of this blog was published in Dutch and French on www.securexblog.be. This is a reworked version.