The American workplace has become a blur of change. There are now more knowledge creators producing more new ideas and insights than at any other time in human history. Their prodigious output is fundamentally altering what working men and women need to know to be effective on-the-job. And, that new and more demanding imperative has opened a new era in American society – the era of continuous learning.
Historically, workers have been told that the key to career success is “lifelong learning.” The concept correctly recognized that we must keep up with the inexorable advancement of human knowledge or risk becoming obsolete in the workplace. Its application, however, was colored by a perception of change that is no longer accurate.
Lifelong learning was an episodic journey. Because knowledge advanced at a moderate rate in most career fields, people enrolled in training and educational programs at a similarly measured pace. Taking a course every year or so was sufficient to keep them close enough to the state-of-the-art that they could meet their employer’s expectations on-the-job.
Today, that’s no longer the case. Knowledge is now advancing at warp speed. For example:
• In 2008, humankind created a total of 4 terabytes – that’s 4 followed by 20 zeros – of new knowledge. There were more new facts and figures produced in that one year than in the previous 5,000 years of human history.
• If a young man or woman goes to college in a technical field today, 50 percent of what they learn in their freshman year will be obsolete by the time they reach their junior year. In effect, the half-life of their expertise is now down to less than 24 months.
This frenetic advancement of learning is already reshaping the competitive landscape in the global economy. American companies no longer contend with cheaper labor overseas; they face the challenge of smarter labor. Increasingly, employers outside the U.S. have workers with more up-to-date skills and knowledge than do employers based here.
In such an environment, lifelong learning at relatively leisurely pace inevitably weakens and potentially destroys a career. What’s the alternative? As I explore in my new book, A Multitude of Hope: A Novel About Rediscovering the American Dream, the only truly safe course is continuous learning. Regardless of our profession, craft or trade, no matter how much experience we have or how senior we are in our field, we must now commit ourselves to acquiring new knowledge all of the time.
Staying a Student On-the-Job
Continuous learning is a strategy for non-stop knowledge acquisition in the workplace. It transforms education from an external adjunct to a person’s career to an integral and constant presence within it. Personal development is now as much a worker’s “job” as the tasks they perform at their desk or on the assembly line. It is, in essence, a core competency of success in a modern economy.
This re-imagination of the educational experience requires both employers and individual workers to reset their workplace roles and responsibilities. If employers want their workers to have state-of-the-art skills and knowledge, they must build the acquisition of such expertise into every job description. In order for that requirement to be credible, however, they must also give learning the necessary time, resources and priority for it to occur on-the-job and make it a factor that is explicitly evaluated during performance appraisals and salary reviews.
Workers also have to be proactive in their knowledge acquisition. It’s up to them to ensure they can perform at their peak in the present and have the options they want in the future. To do that, they must supplement the training provided by their employer with additional education – online and in the classroom – that will expand as well as deepen their expertise, and they must commit to doing so incessantly.
Continuous learning is not education for education’s sake, but the forthright acknowledgement that the American economy no longer operates at an industrial era pace. It is, instead, propelled by a technology-fueled explosion of knowledge that provides only two options for working men and women. We can either keep up or we can be left behind. And, continuous learning is the only viable strategy for keeping up.