‘Learning Workers’ and The Need to Learn Continuously

It is the barely perceptible decline in the importance of the ‘knowledge worker’ and the growing importance of workers who know how to continue learning throughout their careers.

The Gradual Eclipse of the Knowledge Worker

The world of work is changing quickly. Not long ago workers were categorized into two broad groups: ‘manual workers’ who worked with their hands or with machines, and ‘knowledge workers’ who processed or manipulated information. Today, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, knowledge has become a commodity: all we need to obtain knowledge is access to a computer or a smart phone. The critical new skill is the ability to learn quickly and continuously, and to apply that learning to new situations and environments. These are the ‘learning workers’, and their importance will only grow as we move deeper into the Digital Age.

What sets ‘learning workers’ apart is knowing how to learn. Rather than rely on a static set of skills or a finite body of knowledge, they have the capacity to learn new things ‘on the run’, adapting new knowledge and insights to evolving situations and new opportunities. This capacity to learn continuously makes them ever more valuable to their organizations because they adapt readily to a changing workplace and buttress creativity and innovation.

What are some concrete steps that we can take to become better learners? We need to recognize that simply knowing things is no longer enough: executives and leaders also need to become continuous learners, to keep up with constant change and to model the behavior for those they lead. Here are four tips for more effective, continuous learning:

· Ask questions and be willing to ask for help when you don’t understand something. Our egos and concerns about ‘status’ may make this difficult, but good learners ask questions. This requires a degree of humility, and that is usually a very good thing.

· Learn from people who are more experienced or knowledgeable than you. One popular and practical example of this approach is ‘reverse mentoring’, wherein young, tech-savvy collaborators help older executives learn about technology.

· Pursue knowledge and new perspectives through training courses, on-line seminars, or self-study away from the office. Opening our minds to new ideas and interacting with new people is enriching, encourages tolerance, and may help us to live longer as well.

· Be willing to try new ways of doing things. Habit, age and inertia make it tempting to find a ‘comfort zone’ and do things basically the same way, every time. There may be efficiency in that in some cases, but it doesn’t encourage learning or adaptability.