As automation, AI and new job models reconfigure the business world, lifelong learning has become accepted as an economic imperative. Eighty per cent of CEO’s now believe the need for new skills is the biggest business challenge. For employees, research now shows that opportunities for development have become the second most important factor in workplace happiness (after the nature of the work itself). At the most fundamental level, we are a neotenic species, born with an instinct to learn throughout our lives. However, it makes sense that at work we are constantly looking for ways to do things better; indeed, the growth mindset movement is based on this human need. Recruitment is an expensive, zero-sum game (if company A gets the star, company B does not), learning is a rising tide that lifts all boats.
Yet the urgency of work invariably trumps the luxury of learning. A study we recently ran with LinkedIn found that employees waste one-third of their day on emails that have little or nothing to do with their jobs. The traditional corporate learning portal (the learning management system) is rarely used (other than for mandatory compliance training) and it often takes many clicks to find what you need. Learning, therefore, ends up being relegated — consciously and subconsciously — to the important-but-not-urgent quadrant of Eisenhower’s 2×2 matrix. On average, knowledge workers carve out just five minutes for formal learning each day. We’re all just too caught up in the inexorable flow of work.
The question then becomes – How can we make learning part of our daily workflow? What exactly is the flow of work?
Everyone’s experience at work differs of course, but there are some broad commonalities among knowledge workers – there are 780 million of them, and they sit in front of a computer for at least 6.5 hours every day. In particular, they spend 28% of their time on email, 19% of their time gathering information (searching for data), and 14% of their time communicating internally (in formal and informal meetings). Those three activities combined constitute 61% of the total time at work for this vast population.
It makes sense that knowledge workers should spend so much time absorbing and disseminating information. Finding data, facts, information, and insights, and then sharing it with others is a daily activity for most of us. In fact, 38% of the content that’s shared online is either educational or informational.
Learning in the flow of work is a new idea. It recognises that for learning to really happen, it must fit around and align itself to working days and working lives. Rather than think of corporate learning as a destination, it’s now becoming something that comes to us. Through good design thinking and cutting-edge technology, we can build solutions and experiences that make learning almost invisible in our jobs. One could argue that Google and YouTube are two of the earliest “learning in the flow” platforms, which we now take for granted.
So, how can we use the flow of work to drive learning? We’ll first look at this from the perspective of the individual (bottom-up) and then from the perspective of the corporate (top-down).
What might you as an individual with an appetite for learning do to learn in the flow of work? Here are some practical measures you could implement today.
Practice metacognition and mindfulness. Be aware and be present as you go about your daily job. There are many benefits to this, one of which is an increased ability to develop and learn. For example, don’t just sit in on that negotiation with a procurement expert; notice and learn her tactics and techniques as you engage with her. Ask product managers about product features; ask salespeople about industry trends and get feedback from your peers on your presentation skills. These kinds of inquiries are learning experiences and most peers love to tell you what they know.
Maintain a to-learn list. You experience many learning opportunities every day, and with a degree of metacognition, you’ll notice more of them. You often have to let them pass at the moment because you’re busy doing something else. However, that doesn’t mean you should waste the opportunity. Write down a list of concepts, thoughts, practices, and vocabulary you want to explore, bookmark them in your browser, and add them to your list. You can later explore them when you have a few moments to reflect.
Use tech-enabled tips as you work. Technical tips from the likes of Google’s Explore within Google Docs can help with context-relevant research or suggestions for formatting or analysis. This type of online advice has improved significantly since the first days of the infamous Microsoft Office assistant, the animated paper clip, “Clippy”. Always keep an open mind to such recommendations to learn anything from them. There are many more coming, as tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack become more common at work.
Dedicate learning time in your calendar/work schedule. Let colleagues know how important learning is to you. Agree with your manager on a sensible proportion of your work week that can be devoted to learning (for example, an hour). Then, timebox it and stick to it!
Subscribe to a small number of high-quality, hyper-relevant newsletters. Choose them with care, to suit your role, industry and personality. There won’t be many, in the end, that is both excellent and relevant to you – unsubscribe from the rest.
Contribute actively, expertly, and kindly to a learning channel where work actually happens. Work happens in different places for different companies, but the examples we hear most are from people using SharePoint, Slack, and Teams. If your company doesn’t have a learning channel, create one. When you share something new and interesting with colleagues on these platforms, don’t just paste a URL. Help people understand why you’re sharing it, unpacking the what-it’s-about and why-it-matters aspects of a content piece. The who-it’s-for is even more important – tag those and only those who will really derive benefit from your share. This will not only helps others, and benefits you, it accelerates your own learning.
Learning in the flow of work is one of the most powerful levers available to leaders today. We believe every organisation can benefit from this new paradigm. It’s an exciting next wave of innovation, which has been a long time coming. Stay on top of your game by adopting a positive learning attitude at work!