The future of learning is not in the classroom. It’s in the field—finding ways to do better while doing the work. This won’t happen by chance. You need to model learning behaviors and invest in the development of learning processes and tools. You need to take an appropriately humble stand about the challenges ahead—for you as a leader and for your organization. There is simply no room for arrogance in a highly dynamic and uncertain world. You also need to create a psychologically safe environment in which people feel comfortable taking the risks that come with experimentation and practice; giving and receiving candid feedback; asking questions; and acknowledging failures. Learning must be built into every aspect of the organization.
Another inconvenient truth is that the education and training sector, historically, has not done well in terms of implementing evidence-based, iterative improvements in the learning processes and outcomes it emphasizes. Learning science does exist. It’s just not always, or even often, applied in the workplace. There is very little “learning engineering.”
As a senior leader, then, you have to rethink how to continuously improve the skills of your employees beyond conventional training and education. You need to insist on experimenting with new learning methods and look for approaches that are based on good evidence. And you need to identify and support learning leaders who are deeply connected to learning science and who can make the case for implementing the right measures.
When we talk about learning, the emphasis is often on “hard” skills, such as coding, analytics, and data science. While these skills will be critical, they are only part of the story. The dynamics we described at the outset, in which information-rich tools become ubiquitous and people are a differentiator, paradoxically, increase the importance of such “soft” attributes as collaboration, empathy, and meaning making.
In most organizations, teamwork will be more important and valuable than ever. In both scientific discovery and commercial innovation, for example, the size of innovating teams has grown larger and the skills brought together are more diverse than ever. This is because, as knowledge expands, expertise both deepens and narrows—necessitating collaboration across fields to produce great results.
In a way that would have seemed far-fetched 20 years ago, building a car requires integrating cross-disciplinary expertise in artificial intelligence, computer science, advanced lighting, and materials, in addition to the classic automotive-engineering disciplines of design and manufacturing. Or consider the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010. The miners themselves formed an extraordinary team to support their mutual survival. But they also needed the cross-disciplinary expertise of the team of above-ground rescuers who integrated expertise from geologists, engineers, physicians, and naval special forces.
Teamwork doesn’t necessarily mean collaborating within teams in the classic sense of bounded groups of people working together on specific tasks. Instead, it’s often about teaming—communicating and collaborating with people across boundaries, such as expertise or distance, spontaneously and continuously. Your people need to have, or develop, the skills for effective teamwork.
Global marketplaces can threaten the ability to spontaneously empathize, especially when we cannot see other people’s faces—for example, in geographically dispersed workforces or through remote service encounters. Genuine human connections can be made, and broken, quickly. Customers and employees alike feel deep loyalty to organizations that treat them with respect.
To some extent, empathy can be taught—through perspective-taking exercises and through quick but profound exchanges between people. For that to happen, leaders at all levels of your organization have to be engaged and model the right behavior. This can start with something as simple as asking your managers to put themselves in the shoes of others in a given situation. Offer experiences where you can succeed only by practicing empathy. Some companies encourage this by requiring managers to work on the front lines—at the retail counter or on the factory floor—before putting on the white collar.
You also should monitor feedback blogs. Praise your staff, in public, when they get things right. Observe your customers and how they interact with your company. Use design-thinking tools such as empathy maps as a starting point for conceiving new products and features and for identifying customer pain points. In an era of customization, empathy matters more because it requires putting yourself in the minds of many different kinds of customers, not just the familiar ones for whom a product or service was designed.
Meaning making in the AI era starts with an appreciation of what machines can and cannot do. It may be possible, for example, for a machine to make certain kinds of diagnoses more accurately than a person can. But it will be up to nurses, doctors, and therapists to help patients understand the implications and manage the consequences. It’s the difference between knowledge and meaning.
The search for meaning informs many kinds of decisions: it could be a work challenge overcome, a way to advance a career, a resolution to a personal issue, or matters related to health and wellness. As information-rich tools help provide better solutions to complex situations, organizations will need to understand what matters for each person. Meaningfully connecting decisions, even those made by algorithms, to individual circumstances is likely to be the work of skilled people for a long time to come—if we prepare our organizations to think like this.
You, and your people, can all be meaning seekers and meaning makers. Tapping into this fundamental human quality is your best strategy for winning hearts and minds, within and without. And it’s also good for business. People who come to work believing that what they do matters—that in some small way it contributes to making the world a better place—are more committed to their organizations, more passionate about serving customers, and more resilient in the face of challenges. Good leaders have always played this role; when they don’t, people are more apt to act in ways that maximize self-interest and minimize effort. We would assert, though, that articulating the purpose of your organization (and evolving that message as technology and customer needs change) is about to become an even more crucial part of your job.