Competitive advantage with a human dimension: From lifelong learning to lifelong employability


Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Beth Davies, Connor Diemand-Yauman, and Nick van Dam for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.

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Competitive advantage with a human dimension: From lifelong learning to lifelong employability

As AI-enabled automation advances, organizations should embrace “lifelong employability,” which stretches traditional notions of learning and development and can inspire workers to adapt, more routinely, to the evolving economy.

As robots and algorithms continue to become more central to the workplace, workers and employers face the enormous task of figuring out how to cope. No longer is automation a thing of the future: the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that half of today’s work activities coordinated by humans could be automated with present-day technology.

If recent experience is any indicator, few organizations or individuals are prepared for such a transition. Already, there’s a significant gap, brought on by digitization and advanced data analytics, between the skills people have and the skills companies need. And existing skill mismatches are nowhere near as significant as the ones automation and artificial intelligence will bring. Demographic changes will also contribute to the challenge. Life expectancy is rising in many countries, along with the retirement age. According to one estimate, half the people born after 1997 in developed countries could live to 100, meaning they will likely spend many more years working—and learning new skills.

The formal learning that companies now offer is unlikely to be enough to prepare people for this dynamic and confusing future. Instead, people and companies need to embrace a new imperative. It’s not enough to think or talk about “retraining” and “reskilling.” These terms sound episodic, as if they’re something that happens after a layoff or when a process or piece of equipment is installed. “Lifelong learning,” too, is problematic. While it is certainly a beneficial mind-set,1 it tends to appeal primarily to the highly educated and is likely to be much less exciting for those who didn’t like school in the first place.

Instead, employers, employees, educational institutions, and public-sector leaders need to start talking about “lifelong employability”: helping people continually and successfully adapt as the economy evolves. Rather than focusing on retraining and reskilling as ends to themselves, we must reframe these topics as a means to the specific end of remaining employable for as long as one desires to be a part of the workforce. Mid-career assistance, in particular, is a major focal point of such a system, and this is an area, MGI pointed out, of particular weakness. Embracing the idea of lifelong employability will help workers remain relevant and ensure that employers have the flow of skilled workers they need and could even improve retention by exciting employees about their career prospects and potential.\

In this article, we offer CEOs and senior executives a set of principles and practices that we hope will spur the management conversations and hands-on oversight necessary to make lifelong employability a workplace reality. Given the potential for stronger learning and development to enhance organizational effectiveness, these practices should benefit both workers and their companies.

Learn about learning

Many companies approach learning and development (L&D) much as they did 30 years ago. That is, they rely on classrooms for training and take a one-size-fits-all approach. It shouldn’t be this way. Organizations should take advantage of the solid research, grounded in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, and pedagogy, about what works in learning in general and adult learning in particular. For example:

  • Studies show that relationships help learning by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. Study groups can therefore help people process new ideas and learn more than when they work alone.
  • Training courses are most effective when they are tailored for specific roles and at identifiable career inflection points, as opposed to being offered episodically, according to the calendar, or when HR secures resources for new learning initiatives.
  • Microlearning—presenting information in short, 15- to 30-minute bursts—is more effective than longer sessions. Companies can experiment with digital technologies such as virtual or augmented reality to take advantage of this. They can also explore other digital options, such as self-directed online learning and artificial intelligence, to make the provision of training more flexible.
  • Big data can help customize and measure learning experiences. Few L&D departments have invested in data analytics the way other departments have. Marketers, for example, know what time of day people open their messages most frequently, how long they engage, and what methods capture them most. L&D courses and programs should be no different.

What doesn’t work? Avoid terms such as “remedial,” which imply the learner is broken in some way. Research indicates that fear or risk of failure can shut down neural pathways crucial to learning. Similarly, organizations should be thoughtful about the use of assessments: tests can be stressful and may contribute to people dropping out. The best learning environments support employees—and don’t stress them out.

Finally, senior executives will play a major role in a company’s attitude toward learning. They can start making the case for lifelong employability by sharing what they know about the changing work and economic landscape. A first principle of learning is that people learn what they want to learn. Leaders, therefore, need to communicate the imperative to inspire employees toward a mind-set of continuous skill improvement. As is so often the case, inspiration starts at the top: leaders need to be role models and show that they value learning themselves.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Beth Davies is the founder and principal consultant of HR Reimagined. Connor Diemand-Yauman is the cofounder and CEO of Philanthropy University. Nick van Dam is an alumnus of McKinsey’s Amsterdam office and a senior adviser to the firm; a professor at IE University and at the University of Pennsylvania; and the editor of Elevating Learning & Development: Insights and Practical Guidance from the FieldThe authors are members of the Consortium for Advancing Adult Learning & Development (CAALD), convened by McKinsey & Company, whose members include researchers, corporate and nonprofit leaders, and McKinsey experts.


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