Continuous Learning During Digital Transformation

A new book explores the need for building a confident, emotionally flexible workforce to keep up with a radical pace of change.

By Paul Boutin

By Paul Boutin January 16 2020

Continuous Learning is a widely embraced career strategy among professionals at all levels in all fields. It’s a broad, vaguely defined concept that makes sense at a time when everything is changing all the time.

For individuals, it means constantly developing familiarity and skills with new tools and techniques as they are adopted within your profession, industry or company. For companies, it means fostering ongoing learning and growth among employees as part of the plan.

Rather than yet another management fad, Continuous Learning is a foundational change in company cultures being driven by the accelerating rate of changes in business—whether they be short-lived fads or long-term shifts in how companies work. Digital transformation, evolving business models, zig-zagging markets and economic turbulence worldwide require that companies keep abreast of new developments across the board. Even success and growth bring challenges, as they may not have been in the roadmap.

“Organizations are becoming aware that from a leadership perspective, they need to develop not just individual but collective capabilities — mindset, leadership and knowledge,” said Jacqueline Brassey, McKinsey’s Director of Enduring Priorities Learning and a researcher at the School of Economics at Vrije University in Amsterdam.

Brassey, Arien Van Witteloostuijn and Nick van Dam co-authored Advancing Authentic Confidence Through Emotional Flexibility, a book that bridges neuroscience and psychology to help people transform confidence from an anticipated feeling into a psychological skill that can be produced at will.

The authors believe a clear path to collective advancement in a time of unprecedented change means empowering individuals. They offer three central pieces of advice: Let employees find their purpose and match it to the company, encourage them to leave their comfort zones, and then,let them make mistakes.

Find and Align Purpose

Companies are increasingly shifting their focus beyond the nuts and bolts of products and services. In a global, digitized market of seemingly infinite options for features and price, they’re promoting experiences and outcomes. Rather than treat work as a trained task or fixed set of rules, van Dam, Professor at IE University, said that employees should be encouraged to find where their sense of purpose aligns with company goals.

“If people have figured out what their purpose is, they have a very clear direction,” he said in an interview with The Forecast. “They know what to do and what not to do. They put more energy in and take more risks in pursuit of their purpose.”

Purpose is a priority, van Dam said.

“We have young people looking to work at McKinsey who ask, ‘What does your firm do to make this world a better place because I want to do something that makes a difference in my life and for the world,’” he said.

Dismissing this as self-centeredness misses the opportunity facing every company.

“Alignment of personal purpose and organizational purpose leads to a level of engagement and risk-taking that’s way higher than when there’s a mismatch,” he said.

Goodbye Comfort Zone

Van Dam said McKinsey estimates that 400 million people worldwide will need to change jobs as a result of digital transformation. This means existing roles inside companies will change regularly, and rather than spend time and money searching for new people, companies will invest in developing new skill sets among their existing workforce at all levels, according to Brassey.

“Starting at the leadership level, there needs to be digital competencies as well as at the individual level,” Brassey told The Forecast.

According to van Dam, people only learn if they do something that they have never done before.

“They need to step out of their comfort zone,” he said.

It’s Fine to Fail

Many companies now encourage people to learn and be agile, to figure things out for themselves, said van Dam said.

“By default, that means that there will be decisions made that aren’t always the best ones,” he said. “A key condition is to have a culture that says, ‘That’s OK. What can we learn from this and do better next time?’”

It’s critical that employees know it’s fine to fail.

“It’s important to create an organizational culture where people feel safe,” Brassey said. “Psychological safety is a term you hear talked about now.”

This means making each member of an increasingly diverse workforce feel truly included and essential. It also means letting them feel confident that failure will not be reflexively judged as incompetence. Instead, failure can point the way to new ways of doing things, better experiences and improved outcomes.

Brassey and van Dam point to a 2017 Georgetown study done with Tupperware Brands, in which more confident workers were measurably better at overcoming workplace challenges. The biggest boost to confidence, the study found, was a sense that it was safe to make an occasional mistake.

As author and social media giant Bryan McGill once said, “A person who makes few mistakes makes little progress.”

Paul Boutin is a contributing writer. Find him on Twitter @paulboutin.

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