Throughout my career in government and the private sector — as an economist, statistician, policy maker and senior executive — I consistently found that lifelong learning is critical to the success of any workplace. Given my breadth of experiences, I made some observations on what employees and employers might do better in this regard.
First, to provide some context: at one point in my executive career, I was responsible for implementing, measuring and assessing the progress of some 50 government departments. Theirs and my task was to successfully incorporate a new audit policy and methodology into their business operations. At that time, the government had gone through a number of publicly embarrassing control failures involving millions of dollars either inappropriately or illegally spent, and an alleged cover-up of misdeeds. A tough, new audit policy was one of several measures introduced to ensure these kinds of failures would be unlikely to occur again.
The new policy meant the then-current, experienced and adult generation of auditors needed to head back to school to learn new, complex and stringent professional audit standards and methods and rapidly deploy them in their jobs. Expectations of significant progress and change were high, coming from both inside and outside government. Yet, existing operational demands for results had to be simultaneously met. Very limited new human and financial resources were provided to get this done.
We worked out new Canadian audit standards and measures with an international governing body and set about to execute the proverbial “changing of the tires while driving fast on the road.” Partnerships were established with other organizational units to deal with some of the existing, less complex work, and that freed up enough time for our employees and I to participate in a tailored, yet thorough, learning program to increase our knowledge and skills commensurate with the new standards.
This took real commitment; limited time was made available during regular working hours, but often employees spent extra hours to accomplish this task. We were fortunate to have access to a specialized auditor recruitment program that took young students graduating in a range of disciplines (and who were interested in a career in audit) and to cycle them through a form of cooperative education-work assignment program. An additional complexity we had to address was often a degree of ambiguity around what a particular new requirement meant in a practical work context, so we found ourselves both learning and practicing at the same time, if not influencing the future interpretation of policy requirements. We were also careful to stratify the learning requirements; not everyone needed to learn the same skills and knowledge and, where needed, common knowledge was shared. Another key element of the change strategy was distance and online learning methods.
Thus armed, we were able to equip departmental employees with this new knowledge so they in turn could use it in their day-to-day operations. Subsequent independent evaluations have, overall, confirmed that the expected results for the new approach are being achieved.
From this experience, I gained important insights that should guide major training endeavors such as the one we undertook:
1. Personalized Programs are Critical
As valuable as content or meeting standards for accreditation may be in education, it is equally important that the experience of applying it via personalized techniques, along with the questioning, exchange of ideas, encouragement and active support from colleagues and employers, be recognized as part of what makes education valuable, particularly in a workplace setting.
2. Ongoing Learning is Central to Organizational Success
We have long been at a point where most working adults are willing to learn new ideas and approaches to their work (and lives), and it is now up to employers and managers to recognize this need and invest both time and money in innovative and cost-effective approaches to lifelong learning. Investment in learning and training programs is rising, but could stand to be significantly improved.
3. The Conventional Degree Process is Irrelevant to Today’s Workforce
We need to re-think the conventional model of undergraduate/graduate/doctoral/post-doctoral higher education, along with the attendant expectations that most new entrants to the workforce must be “over-ready” to contribute. I would argue that this is often an expensive and inefficient model that burdens both the student and society. Rather, we need to adopt a “some assembly required” model that builds on the educational attainments of students, but also allows for targeted, employer-sponsored learning and practical implementation of theoretical concepts — not in every job, but where it best applies. In practical terms, more structured co-op and (paid) internship programs could be of significant benefit to both learners and employers.
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