How Learning Can Catch Up With Technological Change

August 27, 2019, 10:00 AM UTC
African Leadership University founder Fred Swaniker speaks with students.
African Leadership University founder Fred Swaniker speaks with students. (Courtesy of African Leadership University)
Courtesy of African Leadership University

As I meet with senior executives around the globe, one concern haunts them more than any other: the deficit in the leadership talent necessary for their companies to compete in today’s highly dynamic, uncertain, and volatile world. Organizations of all stripes are increasingly realizing that the education system that propelled their success in the past is failing to produce the entrepreneurial and collaborative problem-solving talent necessary to thrive in the future. 

Ten years ago, who would have imagined that jobs like “drone operator,” “virtual reality producer,” or “machine learning engineer” would have existed? The growing influence and efficacy of artificial intelligence, digitization, and automation means that the pace of such change is getting faster and faster. 

Unfortunately, conventional universities are not keeping pace with this rapidly evolving future of work. Many are based on traditions that were established almost a thousand years ago, when universities were first created. A lot has changed since then.

We need a new breed of learning institution that is designed for the 21st century. This type of institution must focus on what I call “just-in-time learning.”

A just-in-time learning institution is designed around three key principles.

First, it starts but never ends. Just imagine entering the institution at the age of 18 but never “graduating” from it. For the first three to four years, you spend eight months learning and four months working. Then, for the rest of your professional life, you spend one month learning and 11 months working. This institution equips you with continuous, real-time feedback from your colleagues to give you a sense of the skills you’re mastering and the gaps you need to address. This adaptive road map is the basis for your personalized learning at the lifelong institution.

Second, success is not measured by your ability to recall facts and figures, but by how well you “learn how to learn.” In our rapidly changing world, where, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, about 50% of current work tasks could be automated, the ability to rapidly learn new skills enables you to reinvent yourself and remain productive as the world changes.

Third, you learn from multiple methods, not just from the classroom. This is because according to research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, only 10% of skills are developed in a classroom. Roughly 20% come from developmental relationships with peers and mentors, and a whopping 70% come from experience.

Simply put, we learn best by doing. At a just-in-time learning institution, your performance is not assessed by exams, but by actual projects you implement and by feedback from your peers and managers. You build prototypes, conduct experiments, interview experts, and perform research. You apprentice under professionals. 

This is why medical university education is one of the more conventional university education models that actually still works. Doctors will tell you that the most powerful aspects of medical school are their clinical rotations. They learn surgery by doing surgery. They learn how to engage with patients by engaging with them.

One of the most exciting trends approaching this model of learning today can be seen in training providers like General Assembly, which offer short courses in scarce technology skills like data science. Or look at online programs like Udacity, which deliver “badges” and “nano-degrees” in intense bursts of a few weeks. The downside of offerings like these is that they are overly focused on technology and data science, and many of them are only offered online—lacking the developmental relationships with peers and mentors that are so crucial to growth.  

We need just-in-time learning in all disciplines—not just in technology—and at every stage of life. That was the inspiration for the lifelong leadership development platform we have been building over the past 15 years—from our pre-university African Leadership Academy to our African Leadership University undergraduate and MBA programs to the new, large-scale, lifelong learning institution we launched last year, ALX.

The success of these experiential-focused endeavors is encouraging. For example, earlier this year we took 100 mid-level managers through a six-month, applied leadership development program which blended interactive, peer-based learning with immediate, real-world application of new skills to their teams at work. Fifteen of these managers were promoted before they even completed the program, and one of them even became CEO at his organization. 

The lines are blurring between the “university” and the “real world.” Companies must be willing to let their employees pivot between work and learning if they want them to have the skills necessary to remain relevant. Conventional universities were never designed with this in mind. New vehicles are needed.

The organizations and executives that are courageous enough to break with convention and rethink learning are those who will thrive in the coming tsunami of technological disruption. 

Fred Swaniker is the founder and CEO of African Leadership Group. He has no investments in or associations with the companies mentioned in this article.

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