Learning Agility: 5 Strategies for the Future of Work

Are you prepared for the robot apocalypse? No, I’m not talking about hoarding tins of beans as we hide from Terminator-style killing machines. I’m talking about the future of work.

I’m using “robots” in loose terms as a broad catch-all for the rise of automation; increased pervasiveness of digital ecosystems, including the Internet of Things; and advances in cognitive computing, including AI and machine learning.

Now we’ve clarified that, do you think the “apocalypse” reference is alarmist?

It might be—the jury is still out. Most studies on the topic agree that automation will replace existing jobs, the main point of debate remains how many new jobs will be created in the process.

My go-to reference here is the MIT Technological Review, which tracks studies on the topic and recently concluded that “we have no idea how many jobs will be lost in the march to technological progress.”    

So, let’s focus on what we do know, starting with the simple fact that robots are better than us.

At least, robots are better than us at countless fields that demand rapid information recall, repetitive tasks, and predictable rule-based problem solving. Ironically, by superseding us in those areas, the rise of technology provides huge opportunities for us to truly embrace what we’re good at … being human!

I previously shared this summary of future-proofing skills to survive the robot apocalypse in the my first “Learning Agility” column.

Key skills for the future of work

Figure 1: Key skills for the future of work 

The centerpiece of the diagram is about embracing what makes us human—empathy, collaboration, and complex applied critical thinking.

Learning agility, or learning to learn, develops those skills and ultimately empowers us to work with and within change. Specifically, it empowers us to engage with change in three aspects that are captured in the following diagram.

The three aspects of learning agility

Figure 2: Learning agility as learning for a change 

So what strategies can we use to future-proof ourselves, our audiences, and our organizations against technologically-driven and accelerated change?

Here are my top five picks to get started.

Top five performance strategies

Figure 3: Top strategies for performance in an era of accelerated change

These strategies combine three areas of development and two to “augment” and support performance. Each of these warrant its own article and is explored in some detail in Learn2Learn but, for now, here’s a brief overview of each.

Developing higher-order thinking

This is a huge topic so I’m going to focus on one aspect—developing mental models.

I’m using the term mental models in its broadest definition to encompass generalizations, concepts, heuristics, and frameworks. They’re shortcuts and cognitive tools that we use to understand ourselves and the world, and to take action as a result.

It’s a term first popularized by Peter Senge in his seminal work around learning organizations, and I’ll definitely be exploring them further in future articles.

Bringing conscious awareness to mental models not only supports overcoming unconscious bias, but also helps us to methodically develop what entrepreneur and investor Charles Munger called “a latticework of mental models.”

As Warren Buffett's business partner, Munger is a wonderful case-in-point of somebody who continues to develop and apply this latticework to great impact.

Again, I’ll deep dive into this in a future article, so for now I’ll leave you with a simple yet powerful technique, which is to shop for mental models from diverse disciplines. Taking the key ideas from other fields and combining them with your existing expertise and mental models helps drive innovation.

For me, this has involved embracing disciplines such as design thinking, marketing, and behavioral economics in a learning and development context.

Developing mindset

You’re probably familiar with Carol Dweck’s work around growth mindset, which has been an important contribution in popularizing metacognition and self-awareness in learning. Other mindset issues worth highlighting are the need for curiosity and the ability to be optimistic in the face of ambiguity.

Developing and shifting mindset is no small thing. It’s a complex process of taking action and bringing awareness to your inner voice. Skilled coaching and an environment of psychological safety (which was explored in my “Learning Agility: Failing to Learn” column) can particularly help this process.

Five-step process for developing mindset

Figure 4: Developing mindset

Developing soft and complex skills

Calling them “soft skills” just doesn’t do them justice. Whether you call them human, permanent, employable, or priority skills, today, they’re the ones to focus on. They’re also challenging to embed.

In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell argued that it takes 10,000 hours to develop expertise in an area. Since then, Anders Ericsson, the researcher behind that claim and author of Peak, has taken pained efforts to explain that expertise isn’t just created by turning up, it’s developed through deliberate practice.

Deliberate practice process

Figure 5: Cycle of deliberate practice  

In addition to the conscious attention, expert feedback, and targeted action that is deliberate practice, other strategies to develop complex skills include developing deep pattern recognition through experience, mentors, observation, and stories (with reflection).

Experiences and stretch projects should particularly be scaffolded with coaching, teams, and just-in-time resources.

Augmenting with systems and habits

Rather than fighting the tide of automation, ask yourself what part of your job you actually want automated? Importantly, consider how that might free you up to be more human and add value to your work elsewhere?

Systems include technological infrastructure and ecosystems but might also be low-tech strategies around habit formation—identifying external triggers, and embedding positive routines with rewards. Even better, it might combine leveraging systems and habits.  

For example, here’s my current personal technological ecosystem.

Personal performance and learning tech ecosystem elements

Figure 6: A snapshot of my personal performance and learning technical ecosystem

I use the systems above in conjunction with habits to help prioritize and embed impactful learning. For example, I’m constantly extending my “outsourced-brain” via Pocket, saving and tagging any article of interest from my extended network.

I’m particularly on the lookout for useful mental models and capture them in Evernote. I use a spaced-recall app to help embed them into my memory and give them six months to be used or discarded.

Of course, I’m not advocating specific software. The point is to establish what works for you and your audience—use Jane Hart’s wonderful Top Tools for Learning list to help.

This is an area to watch as the conversation is shifting from how do we support ourselves and people with simple performance tools to how do we leverage technology to support true “augmented workers”?

Augmenting with people and networks

Last but not least is consciously expanding “know who.” Effectively doing this will inherently help us to develop, particularly expanding mental models and mindset. But, more than that, it’s another way to develop capability by extending our “outsourced brains.”

Quite simply, investing in developing meaningful and reciprocally beneficial relationships in the teams and people around us is a massive competitive advantage.

A key technique here is to show your work or work out loud, which entails sharing your unfinished work and intention with people who you are also looking to contribute to and support.

Final word—it’s about you

This has been a crash course in surviving the human apocalypse. There’s much, much more to it, but developing these five areas will be a great start to further develop our own humanity and relevance in an era of robots.

Future “Learning Agility” columns will continue to explore how to enable others in this area but, before focusing on that, consider what it looks like for you.

Today, learning and development professionals have a huge opportunity to help enable learning agility. To do that, we have to become visible champions of these techniques. So yes, use these strategies in your organization but first be sure you’re applying them in your own work and life.

Please share your personal experiences in these areas in the comments below or with me via LinkedIn. How are you developing those three areas? How do you augment yourself, particularly with technological systems? I look forward to reading and learning from your experiences.

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