Reimagine Organizational Learning in Times of Crisis

January 19, 2021 by Mugur Tolici, Harry Meintassis

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. Alvin Toffler

2020 – a year we will never forget. The Covid crisis has fast-forwarded the future and has unleashed dramatic changes with unbelievable speed.

Throughout history, human evolution has always been an extraordinary story of change and adaptation. Learning has been the key: from surviving to thriving, and turning adversity to advantage. Learning fuels resilience. It drives transformation.

As we are living one of the biggest disruptions in human history, we are realizing that learning faster and better will drive reinvention in the new normal. Yet, we are still approaching learning with 20th-century tools, rather than a 21st century mindset. We need to reimagine learning.

#1. From reskilling to reinvention

By 2022, 42% of the core skills required to perform the existing jobs will become obsolete. 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet (World Economic Forum). Whilst reskilling is a tactical necessity, it is not a sufficient path forward by itself. What we need is a development approach that considers both the dynamic nature of jobs and the dynamic potential of people to reinvent themselves.

We need to shift from training skills to building learning agility. This is the ability to learn from experience, see the world in new ways, find solutions to novel problems, and manage ambiguity. Our ability to learn how to learn (and constantly acquire new skills) will be the superpower of the 21st century (the shelf-life of technical skills is now less than 3 years).

Whilst there is a focus on digital skills to expand employees’ abilities to operate in a fully digital environment, the real demand is for soft skills (or human skills), such as empathy, communication, collaboration, strategic sense making and critical thinking.

In this new world, learning touches the whole person, more than just the professional skills – it covers cultivating positive behaviors, mindsets and values. It is tailored to the unique needs of the individuals: their aspirations (who they want to become), capabilities (what skills they need to develop), and engagement (what drives their motivation).

The expert of the future will combine the depth of know-how in their craft, with breadth and cognitive flexibility for effective problem solving.

Paradoxically, unlearning will be as important as learning, i.e., being open, flexible and courageous to challenge ourselves and to accept that what worked in the past might not work in the future, or what brought us here, will not take us there.

#2. Building learning cultures

We need to see learning as a whole human experience. More than delivering content through formal trainings, real learning happens through daily experience, experimentation, regular feedback, meaningful dialogues, and personal reflection.

The main shift is from training to learning in the flow of work. The new formula is:
Learning = Education + Exposure + Experience + Environment

We learn in action, by doing, experiencing, being involved, being connected with our hearts and minds. As humans, we cannot learn by just consuming knowledge passively; we need to actively cocreate the learning experience.

And, after months of remote work and digital transformation, we must develop pedagogically friendly experiences that promote engagement, attention and participation – even in virtual environments. We certainly cannot just copy-paste traditional classroom methods.

But why is creating learning cultures difficult?

Whilst humans crave for learning, unless we create the right environments, we may be fearful to go through the learning process. Our status may be threatened. Learning makes us vulnerable (or so we think) as we step outside our zone of comfort – until we master the skill. Before we get to the learning zone, we need to move past the fear zone. Thus, we need the right management systems and incentives to drive learning cultures.

In essence, we need to foster a growth mindset where we embrace challenges, do not give up, persist in adversity, use feedback to improve and are truly devoted to learn. Only then are we deliberate learners.

This culture shifts the focus to growth and development, not just on the end-results. It recognizes effort, progress and learning. It takes the focus away from proving and to improving.

A key manifestation is how organizations treat mistakes or failures. In a learning culture, these are reframed as learning moments that ignite improvement and innovation. For too long, we have only praised success. Probably, it is time to praise also efforts that ended up in failures, and see those failures as, sometimes, the inevitable cost attached to our quest for improvement. The increased organizational tolerance for the trial and error method that has helped in dealing with the uncertainty and crisis multiplied by this pandemic is a good step forward to accept that the road to success is also paved with bumpy mistakes.

#3 Leaders as learners: cracking the code

Learning and leadership are closely intertwined. You cannot have one without the other. Leaders make learning organizations happen. How?

The era of omnipotent leaders has passed. In the age of ambiguity and change, more than ever being humble and putting the team first are the two major differentiators of exceptional leaders, as flagged by Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great”. These leaders help their teams draw lessons from their experiences and turn them into new ideas. They are comfortable with showing vulnerability and admitting their mistakes, acknowledging that there is a lot of wisdom to be gained from failure. They provide psychological safety to their teams, celebrating not just achievements, but also the process of learning. They give regular feedback, and offer autonomy and empowerment over projects and tasks. They encourage mobility and help people move ahead and grow within the organization. And they are trusted mentors to unlock people’s true potential.

The crisis has reminded us that investing in technology and algorithms may be the overarching business priority but having the right people, at the right time, in the right place for all mission critical jobs is crucial for organizations to survive in the times of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity).

Who is responsible for learning?

Ultimately, each individual should take active responsibility for their own learning. We all need to cultivate a growth mindset, driven by curiosity, openness and possibility, instead of judgement, fear or limiting beliefs. Seeking new exposures and experiences, and seeing every day as an opportunity to learn something new. Remember that not only the body but also the mind needs to stay fit. Neuroscience suggests that in each decade of life, our brain needs to work on a great challenge to stay tuned to the fast and complex developments of our times. Assuming responsibility for who we want to become, setting concrete goals and practicing deliberately towards mastery. Perhaps most importantly, redefining our identity and self-image from an expert to a life-long learner – a critical mindshift from “I know” to “I wish to know”.

Learning is transformation. It is how we as individuals, organizations and societies evolve and thrive. Becoming intentional learners will allows us to live our true potential and make the new normal a better normal. We will either ride the wave of transformation or be swept by it. There is no other choice.



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