This past year, I have spoken with a number of career centers in universities. The most common question I get from them is, “How do we best prepare our students for the ‘real world’?” That’s a great question (and one that many fine minds are trying to figure out), but for those of us running large organizations in today’s digital economy, it’s the wrong one.
It’s not about learning a set of skills and then being “prepared” for life. It’s about learning to continuously learn over the course of your whole career. As AT&T CEO and Chair Randall Stephenson, recently told the New York Times, “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop….People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology.”
This is a challenge for corporations as well as educators. The only way for organizations to ensure their workforces are fully productive and able to achieve business goals is to make sure employees are continuously learning, so that they are driving the business forward. So the question we should be asking is, how do we not only embrace this need for learning but provide venues for our employees to take advantage of learning opportunities?
My hypothesis, and Stephenson agrees, is that for organizations to win in the market, they must help their employees stay relevant in their skills. They also need to prepare the workforce to be agile and to adapt quickly to changes in the market.
Here at LinkedIn, we think that this is going to be the number one management issue of our time (and it is part of the motivation for integrating Lynda.com into our company). My colleague Tanya Staples, senior director of content and production for Lynda.com at LinkedIn, and I talk a lot about the ways that leaders can best approach learning in a digital world. Here’s advice based on what we’ve seen work here at LinkedIn and at the many companies who subscribe to Lynda.com:
As a leader, when you’re hiring, look for lifelong learners. Look for talent who has demonstrated the ability to learn new skills to advance their career, which shows they have the ability to learn. It means they can learn new skills — which they will need to do continuously to be successful. If they can’t show their ability to learn something new, they may not have the interest or desire, which means they might have the relevant skills today but won’t be able to acquire the skills they need tomorrow to stay relevant.
Provide access to relevant, up-to-date learning for your employees. Don’t wait for your employees to tell you they need to learn something — by then it’s already too late. Instead, look to services that specialize in providing up-to-date, relevant content on a wide variety of topics.
Once you’ve provided the resources, don’t worry about what your employees are learning and if it directly relates to their work. We often see customers become concerned their employees are learning something not related to their job. Don’t sweat it. Learning is a skill that requires practice, just like anything else. By learning something new, no matter what it is, your employees are practicing the skill of learning, which is invaluable. Plus, you never know how learning an unrelated skill can help down the road.
As department leaders and managers, take an active role in partnering with your employees to figure out the skills they need to develop based on business goals. For example, one of our customers noticed that SEO traffic was down on a major product last year. The manager assigned an SEO course to the product manager responsible for that product. After watching the SEO course and implementing some of the best practices it highlighted, SEO traffic increased over 75%.
Help your people be more agile and adapt quickly to changes by encouraging and rewarding those who demonstrate quick adaptive learning cycles. Hire leaders who provide clarity of goals and freedom for employees to figure out the best way to achieve success, thereby encouraging creativity.
Again, AT&T is a great example. With its new business strategy, by 2020 it should be well on its way to transforming both the company and its workforce. It sees itself as a computing company that manages all sorts of digital things: phones, satellite television, and huge volumes of data, all sorted through software managed in the cloud. It is in the eye of the digital evolution.
To ensure it is an important player in that evolution, AT&T has launched a program that combines online and classroom-based course work in subjects like digital networking and data science, and looks at old skills that can be transferred to new careers. It started this program in 2012. The demand for learning hasn’t stopped, and based on the development life cycle of new digital technologies, which has sped up, the learning cycle will only get faster.
Preparing people for change isn’t only the job of universities. Leaders in today’s organizations now have to figure out the best ways to identify, reward, and motivate top agile talent while supporting the constant need to learn. To atrophy is to lose in the market. As professionals, we also play a role in ensuring we can ride the digital wave while helping our companies succeed. Neither the company nor the employee can stand still. We must both evolve to stay competitive and fulfill our dreams.
About the Author
Pat Wadors is the senior vice president of global talent organization at LinkedIn.