The Future of Learning: Keeping Up with the Digital Economy

Learning is perhaps the only area still largely untouched by digital transformation.

It’s not just that curriculums aren’t keeping up with the skills required for a future of exponential change in which skills learned today can be obsolete in years or even months. Our entire standard approach to education — top-down, one-size-fits-most, heavily biased against collaboration, and generally ending in young adulthood at the latest — has barely changed since the industrial revolution. No wonder the status quo is a poor match for an imminent future in which entire groups of people within specific job types and industries will be made redundant by automation and will desperately need new skills to adapt to the changing workplace.

Granted, it’s now possible to download smartphone apps that turn foreign language learning into a game, squeeze bite-sized lessons in everything from history to coding into ten-minute blocks of free time, or quantify various non-classroom activities as work-related training. But while these technologies can be efficient tools to help individuals acquire specific new skills and prove what they already know, they ignore the much more pressing and universal issue: the future is digital, and anyone whose skills are insufficient, inadequate, or outmoded will be left behind. If we hope to have a real impact and avert the potential disaster of massive, permanent global unemployment, we must also radically rethink learning at the societal level.

Technology is Not Enough

Researchers at the University of Southern California are working to develop a cognitive neural prosthesis they hope will allow people with traumatic brain injuries to literally download muscle memory and motor function. If it works, we may in the future be able to buy or rent knowledge as we need it and import it into our minds in minutes, Matrix-style.

That’s an enormous “if,” though, and it’s not going to come soon enough.

USC research notwithstanding, a true learning revolution seems unlikely to arise in the near future. Indeed, our fundamental models of acquiring knowledge have changed very little in the last 15 years. Yet in the same timeframe, the digital economy has convulsed the workplace.

Large global organizations are already struggling with the inability to find or train enough employees with the right types of skills to keep them competitive. At the same time, digitization is affecting entire industries in ways so rapid and profound that it could be described as an extinction event. We are, for example, probably no more than a decade away from a wrenching dislocation in trucking, taxis, delivery services, and other transportation-based businesses as truly autonomous vehicles make human delivery drivers a relic of a bygone era.

These dramatic changes in the workforce are hollowing out the middle class and creating a need that cannot be filled by our current systems of learning. Instead, we must work together to address them at a systemic level.

The True Question for Forward-Thinking Companies

The question we face now, as individuals, as businesses, and as a society, is what we will do when the digital economy ejects vast numbers of people from their jobs, and they lack the skills needed to find new ones. If we hope to address this question, the standard model of learning needs to change — and business needs to take a leading role in driving that change, says Jenny Dearborn, senior vice president and chief learning officer for SAP.

For example, she notes, the 100 largest companies in the United States collectively employ 18 million people, yet the entire country spends only .1 percent of GDP on job retraining, workforce development centers, and adult education subsidies.

Much of that spending is in community or corporate siloes. For example, many organizations are expanding their talent pool by reaching out to local schools and colleges to improve collaboration. SAP is already taking steps in this direction through high school partnerships such as those with Skyline High School in Oakland, California, and Business Technology Early College High School in Queens, New York, where students get hands-on workplace training from SAP employee mentors and graduate with both a high school diploma and a technology-focused associate degree from a local two-year college.

These piecemeal and individual corporate efforts are successful, but they can only go so far. And this issue isn’t limited to the United States; it’s a global economic imperative in which every major employer worldwide has a responsibility to participate.

A Higher Degree of Learning

So what might we do? Dearborn has a few suggestions:

We could create bold programs to educate adults and advance innovation. China is reportedly investing $250 billion a year in young adult education. The US did something similar after World War II by introducing the GI Bill. Why not revisit the idea as a national or even multinational program?

We could invest more in technical and vocational teachers, both to recruit more to the field and to increase the number of students they can serve.

We could revive the apprentice model and implement it at a much broader level in the corporate world. This would give students and new graduates much earlier exposure to the real world of work, while allowing them to earn both experience and a salary in the process. Hilton Worldwide, for example, offers a range of apprenticeship programs in Europe for young people who want to work in the hotel industry.

We could increase tax incentives for investing in proven effective methods of closing skills gaps: internal employee training and development, involvement with local schools and communities, external training and certification programs, and veteran hiring programs.

Most of all, we could break down the geographic and political siloes that hinder adult job and skills training and retraining programs. Imagine the impact the CLOs of those 100 leading US companies could have if they worked together. Now imagine expanding that worldwide. In addition to coordinating among CLOs, employers must work with national, regional, and local programs that target adult learners so we can multiply effectiveness, eliminate redundancies, and share best practices.

Doing this will help every business compete in an increasingly global economy with a tight market for skills, but it will also have a much broader outcome. Since business has helped to create the workplace risks and challenges of the digital economy, we also bear some collective responsibility for mitigating them. In doing so, we will have enormous influence in shaping the future of learning — and the future of business itself.

Dan Wellers is the Digital Futures global lead and senior analyst at SAP Insights. Michael Rander is the global research director for Future of Work at SAP.

This story originally appeared on the Digitalist.