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A workforce of continuous learners has become a business imperative

By Marni Johnson


The world of work today is a very different place than it was even five years ago, and it is continuing to transform at lightning speed with the impact of digitization. A recent RBC report noted, “More than 25 per cent of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted by technology in the coming decade. Fully half will go through a significant overhaul of the skills required.”

Organizations are under increased pressure to improve their competitiveness, to respond quickly to market changes and adapt to evolving consumer preferences. Many are redesigning their structures and processes and are looking to technological advancements to help drive improvements.


Work to learn

Through artificial intelligence and robotics, many routine, repetitive tasks can be automated, increasing employees’ capacity for higher-level, more value-added work; to the benefit of both the employee and the organization. However, organizations will see productivity gains from new technology only if their employees have the drive and ability to adapt and use the technology effectively. Further, there is an increasing need for uniquely human “soft skills” such as creativity, persuasion and problem-solving.

There is a high level of ambiguity and unpredictability regarding what future tasks will look like. Many jobs that will be critical five years from now are not even defined yet. Work is changing in a way that requires employees to take on tasks they haven’t been able to prepare for, and for which there is no roadmap or procedure manual. This need for comfort with ambiguity and a passion for ongoing learning means that the concept of learning in order to work has been flipped on its head: Now it is about working in order to learn.

Having a workforce of continuous learners who are also driven to make an impact, has become a business imperative. Finding employees with a “can do” attitude that fits the organization’s culture generally trumps technical skill. Technical skill can be taught; attitude is about who you are and is more difficult to influence and change.

As Winston Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” It is important to have at least a baseline level of technical skill; but ultimately it is the combination of attitude and soft skills (empathy, for example) that will determine an employee’s level of success and their impact on the organization.


Growth mindset versus fixed mindset

Arguably, the most important component of a can-do attitude is a “growth mindset,” a term coined by Dr. Carol Dweck. A person with a growth mindset believes that their talents can be developed over time and is always looking to improve. They are less concerned with looking smart than they are about learning. By contrast, a person with a fixed mindset believes their abilities are innate gifts and are set in stone. A person with a fixed mindset may say, “I can’t do it,” whereas a person with a growth mindset will say, “I can’t do it yet.” A person with a growth mindset is more likely to recover from setbacks and see obstacles as challenges to be overcome.

Employee attitudes and values are components that determine fit with an organization’s culture. The benefits of a good cultural fit are many. Alignment of personal values and organizational culture means that people do the right thing without having to be told what to do. This results in a far more productive, pleasant and rewarding working environment. A good fit can elevate a team whereas a poor fit can bring the entire team’s performance down. When there is a good fit, relationships are built more easily, problems are solved more quickly and higher engagement ensues – delivering superior performance, which is the ultimate goal.


How to assess attitude and soft skills

A good place to start recruiting for fit is to tap into current employee and alumni networks; these are people who know what it’s like to work at your organization and will be good judges of who will be a good fit. All employees should be encouraged to be talent scouts in their interactions outside of work. General networking can also provide an opportunity to be exposed to potential candidates in a “natural” setting before they are “on show” in a job interview.

Attitudes can be harder to assess than technical skills, but there are assessment tools that can address traits such as desire to learn. Effective interviewing techniques can include behavioural questions to uncover attitudes and soft skills. For example, when asking a candidate to describe how they responded to a mistake, does their response demonstrate accountability and approach the situation with a growth mindset? One U.S. bank uses group interviews to assess empathy: They ask one candidate to relate an embarrassing situation and then watch how the other candidates react. Extra-curricular activities can also be revealing; playing team sports or participating in community volunteer work can demonstrate collaboration and willingness to work with others to achieve a goal.


A career growth path versus career ladder

Today’s employment “deal” is a partnership in which the employee contributes their passion, discretionary effort and talents to help the organization be successful. In turn, the employer invests in the employee’s development so that when they eventually move on, they have a stronger resume and are more marketable. Once the employee is on board, the organization takes an active role in supporting their employees through development and the employee takes a proactive approach to their own learning.

To keep learning-driven, “can-do” employees engaged, traditional career paths need to be imagined as “growth paths” as described by Jane McConnell in her work on the “gig mindset.” Career advancement is less about moving up a career ladder and more about seeking opportunities to gain more experience and knowledge, whether this is in an employee’s current role or elsewhere in the organization. This requires performance and reward systems that encourage leaders to take a broader view and share top talent with other areas of the organization. Some organizations are creating “skills inventories” to facilitate matching employee skills with project requirements. Cross-functional project teams are an excellent way to develop transferrable skills such as communication and collaboration and provide valuable on-the-job learning that can’t be gained from a classroom course.

This kind of approach may require a more fluid definition of “team” rather than the more traditional definition based on functional area. Performance management and reward systems may need to be revised to support this.

In an environment where the only constant is change, employees who embrace change and adopt a learn-to-work mindset are critical to the success of an organization. Attracting and retaining these employees by providing ongoing learning and development opportunities is a formula HR professionals need to master based on the unique needs of their organization.


Marni Johnson is senior vice president of Human Resources and Corporate Affairs at BlueShore Financial.




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