Feature Story

Relearning the Art of Learning

Heather McGowan

In the Future of Work, agile thinking may be the biggest business advantage.

“Our systems of education have not changed very much from the Industrial Revolution,” said Heather McGowan, a thought leader at the intersection of education, business, and technology.

The problem, she added, is that we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, a time in which digital technologies like AI, analytics, robotics, and mobility are changing how we live and work in radical ways.

They are also changing how we need to learn.

“The organizations that are learning and adapting are going to win,” McGowan believes.

Heather McGowan

In the Future of Work, creative thinking will be essential for the student preparing for a rapidly changing marketplace in which their skills could be obsolete soon after graduation. And equally essential for the worker who must constantly upskill, evolve, and manage uncertainty.

“Technology can do almost anything mentally routine and predictable,” McGowan stressed. “We need people who are adaptable, agile, and nimble, and who work in flows of knowledge.”

Leaders, whether in education or business, are not doing enough to change their cultures, McGowan argues. That means fostering creative, challenging, and collaborative learning environments — where constant growth is a way of life.

“Humans are superior at things that are difficult, like judgment,” said McGowan. “It’s hard to codify judgment into an algorithm. Creativity, communication, empathy, social and emotional intelligence — frankly, all of the things that we’ve cut out of the schools in favor of standardized testing.”

Business leaders must build a spirit of continuous learning into the fabric of the organization, along with the digital tools that support human ingenuity.

“One of the things they can do is be intentional about encouraging learning,” McGowan said. “So, learning is not something that takes place down the hall when you go to a class after work or a webinar at lunch. Learning is something that happens as part of work. It happens throughout the day.”

What Do You Want To Be Passionate About When You Grow Up?

We still ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, while expecting adults to identify what they do. McGowan argues that such phrases imply a fixed state of being — preparing for a life in which a four-year degree prepares workers to do pretty much the same thing for 30-odd years. That life had its advantages in terms of security, but it no longer exists.

“Now, you may have upwards of 16 or 17 different careers across five different industries,” she said, “which is the best research I’ve seen on it.”

The Future of Work can be a more dynamic and creative — albeit challenging — place. But it demands a significant shift to unlock the true potential of human ingenuity and creativity.

“Our educational systems need to focus a lot more on inquiry-based learning, project-based learning,” McGowan explained, “helping people uncover what their superpowers are, what their purpose is, what their passion is, how they work on teams, what kind of other humans and technologies they need to augment their gaps as to extend their own human potential.”

Digital natives are already outpacing the capacity of educational institutions to align with their learning styles. And they expect to have all the digital tools that enable their success.

Though McGowan argues that digital tools are a means to an end, not the end itself, schools and businesses need to make the right investments in collaboration, mobility, data analysis and other tools.

“We need to integrate digital technologies into the classroom,” she said. “So, they’re used to working with these technology tools and they’re used to working in flows of knowledge.”

Diversity of Gender, Race, and Thought

To create products or services that resonate with diverse customers, companies need many different perspectives.

“There’s been enough studies out there,” McGowan stressed, “that when you have more diversity, whether it be gender, race, sexual orientation, income, what have you, in a company you have better longevity, better profitability.”Get that [job] applicant who pushes you back on your heels, questioning the question you asked.Neuro-diversity, accommodating different ways of thinking, learning, and problem solving, is equally important — if a company is to challenge assumptions that can put them squarely into a rut. And it begins with the hiring process.

“Instead of looking for that applicant who is going to give you the right answers,” she asserted, “get that applicant who pushes you back on your heels, questioning the question you asked.”

Rotating staff members into different areas of a company is another low-cost, no-risk way to sow diversity of thought.

“Intentionally moving people around to positively affect the organization with different types of thinking and learning is one way of doing it,” she said.

Renaissance Redux

McGowan cites IT as an area undergoing rapid, challenging change. As their responsibilities evolve beyond configuring devices and “keeping the lights on” into supporting innovation across the organization, IT needs new skills — including human skills like empathy, communication, and collaboration.

“The IT worker used to be responsible for the tools,” McGowan explained, “and if the tools worked, then the IT person’s job was done. I think now we’ve come to the realization that those tools are only as good as the humans who use them. Because if the people on the human side are not adapting and using those tools, then IT can’t be successful.”

All of which got McGowan thinking of the Renaissance. The key is getting the right balance of left and right brain skills, not unlike a Renaissance Man (or Woman!).

“If you look back on when we had some of our biggest breakthroughs,” McGowan said, “it was when we didn’t have disciplinary silos. Those are artificial things we created to manage people.”

“I think the killer undergraduate degree or the core capabilities of a worker today,” she added, “would be something like business models, some sort of behavior, sociology, ethnography, anthropology, and then some form of technology upon which you can apply all that.

"Because in the future — which is actually today — every business is going to be making people adapt to change while using technology tools to create value.”

Responsibility for that growth falls on the individual and the organization. And smart businesses will know that top talent seeks out opportunities to grow. (Read more on this topic in How Sun Life Recruits Diverse Tech Talent.)

“The organization just can’t hire skills because many of the things they are going to be asking people to do have never been done before,” she said. “So, they have to collaborate on learning. But the individual has to understand how they create value, what their superpowers are. They have to be willing to learn, but the company has to support them because it’s in their best interest.”

In the end, McGowan concluded, “your future value is not necessarily about how much money you make. It’s about what you’re going to learn that’s going to make you more valuable … the future of work is learning.”