Learning & Development

The Rise and Fall (and Future) of Lifelong Learning

Guest Author: Mike Larsen

While the term “lifelong learning” may be a recent buzzword, the concept has been around for centuries. Medieval guilds were among the earliest examples of continuing education, with formal apprenticeship programs and training opportunities for guild members to learn new techniques and tools. Apprentices learned a complex craft that changed slowly over time, knowing that what they learned would directly help them build their independent business. 

However, corporate training has evolved significantly since then, especially with the fluid job roles, rapidly changing businesses, and endless shift in technologies that workers face today. With many organizations having as many unique jobs as there are employees, preparing them for the future is no longer about top-down curation of learning needs but rather fostering a culture of lifelong learning that empowers individuals to direct their own learning. 

Few people are against learning, although time is a crucial commodity one can never get back. Below are two questions to that can be used to evaluate the relevance of any given training activity: 

  • Did the trainee learn something that they didn’t know before? 
  • Did the trainee learn something that is valuable to the organization? 

Applied to a Training Value Matrix, the results show the different permutations of answers to these questions. 

Unfortunately, all four scenarios above occur with some frequency, and three of them are wasteful. As such, the challenge is to fill the need for lifelong learning without overwhelming learners with irrelevant content. Here are some ways that Learner, Manager, and SME-led learning can improve the overall value/time-spent ratio for learning: 

Peer-to-Peer Collaboration: Provide a platform where learners can ask questions or share new discoveries and solutions. By encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing, learners can learn from each other’s experiences and avoid reinventing the wheel. 

Communication channels between learners and SMEs: While some content may be generic, learners need practical advice on how new principles apply to their specific context. Offering a way to dig deeper and glean insights can help new concepts take root and make learning more relevant. 

Mentor-to-Mentor Collaboration: Mentors can share what’s working and not working with other mentors, guiding them to improve their mentoring skills and provide better support to their learners. 

Value Timely Information over Format: Just-in-time learning is more critical than ever, and learners need access to new procedures, tools, or workflows right away. Providing well-organized information sheets that can be easily found, shared, and referenced later can be more valuable than offering a course a month from now. Empowering employees to create and share content can also help to keep up with changing needs. 

AI Curation and Recommendations: Learning systems are ingesting more data and can make more relevant recommendations to individual learners based on previous training, current job, career goals, and more. Machines can also curate entire learning paths and curriculums, even mapping content to desired skills with minimal human intervention. 

Dynamic Learning Paths: There’s a time and place where longer, formal training courses are necessary. What’s not necessary is making learners take 4 hours of content to learn 10 minutes of information that’s new to them. The ability to assess and track objective-level data (a great application of xAPI), gives course authors the ability to let learners skip entire sections if they have already demonstrated mastery of the subject.   

Although the Industrial Revolution has ended, its legacy continues as we persist in our efforts to mechanize the workforce with standardized training. This “one-size-fits-all” approach may appear efficient but ultimately falls short in developing employees’ potential. We must shift our focus to teaching employees how to fish for knowledge, rather than simply distributing fish. It’s time to equip learners with the necessary tools and resources to direct their own learning, empowering and supporting them on their career journey. By doing so, we can eliminate unnecessary training and invest in our employees’ growth and development. So be innovative, resourceful, and let your employees go fish for their own success. 


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