Think Big, Start Small: Foster A Learning Ecosystem
As machines become increasingly accurate and intelligent, we humans will need to sharpen our cognitive skills. One of your primary responsibilities as a Learning and Development leader is to ensure that you empower the workforce to develop the four sets of skills that are critical to thriving in 2030. A series of articles titled “eLearning Skills 2030” explores all the skills to make your job easier. This article explores embracing lifelong learning, why it is a critical skill, and how to sharpen it.
What Is Lifelong Learning?
According to Dictionary.com, lifelong learning is “the provision or use of both formal and informal learning opportunities throughout people’s lives to foster the continuous development and improvement of the knowledge and skills needed for employment and personal fulfillment.” It is the notion and practice of continuous learning throughout our lifetime, long after our formal education ends. Every time you pull up a YouTube or TikTok video to learn how to change the filter in your air conditioning or bake bread, you are practicing a form of lifelong learning. You are learning something new on the spot in a few minutes from a video. Reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, practicing a new skill, or learning a new language are also examples of lifelong learning.
Why Is Lifelong Learning Important?
As renowned author Peter Drucker said, “the only skill that will be important in the 21st century is the skill of learning new skills. Everything else will become obsolete over time.” Lifelong learning is critical because it is the key—if not the only tool—we have that will enable us to keep up with the volume, velocity, and complexity of change.
How Can You Practice Lifelong Learning?
While there are many approaches to practicing lifelong learning, you need these three ingredients: embracing a growth mindset, thinking big/starting small, and fostering a learning ecosystem in your organization.
Embrace A Growth Mindset
As discussed in my relevant article, Stanford professor Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success , points out that people with a growth mindset can trust their abilities, embrace challenges, persist when crises and setbacks occur, and keep succeeding in their efforts. A growth mindset can make you smarter. Relevant research from the University of Massachusetts Global discusses how new advances in neuroscience research demonstrate that our brain neuroplasticity expands with new experiences and learnings. Brain neurons can grow new connections and fire up faster when we embrace challenges and new learnings as part of the learning journey, as discussed by Dweck. A growth mindset is not essential only in the classroom, but also at work and in everyday life.
Think Big, Start Small
To practice lifelong learning, you need to do two things. First, you need to think big by setting a clear goal of the learning you would like to achieve with a set time frame in mind. Second, you have to commit to your journey towards your goal by taking a small step each day towards that goal. For example, let’s say your big goal is to become more conversant about Artificial Intelligence by the end of three months. Your daily goal can include one or more of these actions: finding a book on AI (for example, T-Minus AI by US Air Force Captain Michael Kanaan) and reading two pages every day; asking your smart player to read to you two pages every day; listening to a TED talk on AI; reading a blog post or article on AI; signing up and attending a webcast on AI; taking an online learning course on AI; joining an association, or forming a group to discuss AI. If you follow this simple recipe every day, I assure you that, by day 90, you will be very well versed in AI.
Foster A Learning Ecosystem In Your Organization
In his Harvard Business Review article , John Hagel III argues that organizations must focus on encouraging their employees to embrace the explorer’s mindset because lifelong learning is not only about transferring existing knowledge but also about creating new knowledge. What Hagel fails to expand on is the notion of fostering a learning ecosystem within an organization to support such knowledge growth. In the book Forward-Focused Learning, I wrote chapter four on defining a learning ecosystem, why leaders must focus on fostering a learning ecosystem in their organizations, and how to do it. A learning ecosystem is a symbiotic environment where employees interact with each other and with the knowledge content, data, and technologies surrounding them to facilitate, develop, deliver, and share learning experiences based on the governance guardrails set by the broader organization. A learning ecosystem can be open, broad, and organization-agnostic (think Linkedin and how much you learn, connect, and engage with people and knowledge daily). It can be specific, closed, and organization-centric.
The growth and longevity of a learning ecosystem depend on the variety and diversity of the people, the learning content in it, the breadth and depth of psychological safety leaders create to embrace learning and failure, and the ease of access. The more diverse and easier it is to access the ecosystem, the more curiosity and innovation will flourish. A great example of this approach to fostering a learning ecosystem based on curiosity and innovation is the Tactical Advancement for the Next Generation (TANG), a US Navy Program at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. In its tenth year now, TANG hires talent from various disciplines, including art, history, geography, and STEM, trains them in design thinking, and turns them loose to explore new solutions to old problems to support sailors and marines. One successful outcome of this learning ecosystem is the creation and installation in US Navy submarines of a Microsoft Xbox-inspired submarine periscope controller.
Lifelong learning is not a panacea; it is quite powerful when it compounds day by day in helping you and your team tackle both routine and unprecedented change. As a Learning and Development leader, you have a dual responsibility to sharpen your own lifelong learning skills and encourage the same for your team by fostering a learning ecosystem in your organization to drive innovation and performance today, in 2030, and beyond.