Some thoughts on learning in an uncertain world

“We are in the midst of a sea change – a profound, transformative shift in knowledge, experience and perception. It is a new era defined by technology, globalisation, information and, above all, uncertainty.” – OEB 2017 conference theme


New technologies are changing our habits and thus, our expectations. We expect to find answers in real time, no matter when or where we are, and we get information constantly without even having to search for it. All we have to do is set up alerts according to our preferences.


But new technologies are changing other aspects of life as well. They are also changing the workplace, and at an exponential rate. Countless jobs that exist today will be gone tomorrow, and in other cases human workers will be replaced by robots. Of course, new ones will appear too, requiring skills that we must acquire or else be rendered obsolete—and unemployed! We can’t even imagine what many of these jobs will be, and no front-loaded education completed in our 20s will be able to prepare us—or our children—for a career full of inevitable pivots.


In this context of certain uncertainty, learning must also be adaptive and agile by default. This does not mean adding a dash of gamification or virtual reality to some prebaked learning casserole. Yet most organizations continue to make this very mistake.


Take social networks for example. Those of us who design and deploy corporate learning for a living recognize the value of these networks as a great way to exchange knowledge and experiences. That’s why we haven’t hesitated to incorporate some of their functions into our learning processes or even implement corporate social networks as part of the overall learning strategy. The assumption is that the value lies in the tool. This has led to the creation of internal networks, which most companies have done with very little success.


What if they took a different approach, and occupied an already active social network with spaces for learning? The number of contributions and shared experiences would certainly multiply, generating a much higher engagement rate and an explosion of collective curiosity. (As Elliot Masie said in a recent webinar, “Without curiosity, there ain’t no learning!”).


This would also meet three expectations of the modern learner: personalised content; the ability to learn constantly anywhere, anytime; and a laser-like focus on whatever it is that they need or want to learn—something that, by the way, AI and predictive analytics are making increasingly easy to do.


In short, if we want people to learn more and better, we must not only improve our learning processes, but also tap into the exchange of information that is already occurring within our organisations each and every day. We must apply pedagogical techniques to social interactions and recognize them as a valid part of our learning processes. Considering the current practices of most companies, this in itself is already disruptive.


Another problem is that information has become so abundant, immediate, and accessible that we no longer appreciate its value or truly digest it—and as a result, we are learning less and less. We tend to confuse knowing something with knowing how to obtain the information in question. We must learn, then, to distinguish between what we actually need to absorb and retain, and what we only need to know for the moment. In the case of the former, we can and should embed learning in the process of obtaining this information. Techniques like the use of existing social networks are already available, and they can be applied to facilitate learning that really sticks.


In the VUCA world we live in—and will continue to live in—only one thing will remain constant: the four things that acronym stands for. When it comes to learning, the real challenge is to not only harness technology, but to take advantage of new ways of working, living, and interacting in order to help people assimilate knowledge, generate indispensable knowhow, and secure their professional future.


The very survival of companies will depend on their ability to adjust to this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous reality. Those who fail to do so will be compelled to reinvent themselves (or write their own death sentences), even giants like “Kodak, Atari, and most recently Toys’R’Us”. The good news is that by adopting an agile, adaptive approach to learning, this fate can be averted.


Co-written by Ernesto Barrios and Amanda Nolen 
Ernesto Barrios is Learning Office manager at Repsol. He is an Industrial Engineer with an MBA, and a background of more than 20 years in different business and countries with Repsol.

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