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C21st Learning - What's Different?

Nigel Paine, author of The Learning Challenge, highlights the new challenges facing workplace learning in the 21st century.

There is no great break that marks the end of one particular time and the beginning of another unless it is some major catastrophe.  And for most of us the 20th century slid neatly into the 21st century, even the millennium bug failed to destroy civilization, as we know it!  But, nevertheless, our world is becoming increasingly VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous- environmentally, economically and ideologically. Individuals respond to that in many different ways.  On the one hand it is exciting and change creates many opportunities in its wake, but it is also unsettling and threatening.  What has worked for many years is no longer appropriate.  What seems obvious becomes suspect, and we have to fundamentally rethink many of our cherished assumptions from the base up.  What is true of the world must also be true of learning.  Learning models and institutions grew up in response to social, economic and political need and as those factors change, so should the learning models.

So what are the factors?  Uncertainty breeds the need for innovators and people who can respond to a changing environment.  It requires people who can read the patterns of change and make sense of what is going on.  It requires team workers and lifelong learners. Technology offers new business opportunities and new ways to understand and interpret the world.  The volatility of companies changes work patterns; changes the nature of employment, shortens career cycles and speeds up the acquisition of skills. Someone of 27 told me last week that he was desperately worried that he has blown his career and was in a rut because he had been with his current employer for over two years and had not been promoted for 6 months!

So what does it mean for learning and development?  How does the function remain vibrant and connected when expectations change and with that access to budgets? Local priorities take precedence over national, or international then national takes precedence over local or international and so on. It is about encouraging life long learning then it is about focusing on immediate capability issues. We need a both and mentality.

We need to increase flexibility of delivery and speed up response times while still trying to offer high quality and robust learning.  The days of one strategic plan are long gone, but so is the corporate drinks cupboard and even the corporate office and increasingly the corporate space, replaced by hot desks and a ‘fix it yourself’ culture in a ‘have internet access can work’ environment.

We have to explore those changing conditions for work and see what that does to learning. There are three big changes: the need to move from courses to learning communities; from systems to environments; and classes to learning space. In many ways they mirror what is going on in work life so that people are equipped with the skills they need and the values to cope and indeed flourish. It is a great learning challenge. 

Find out more about The Learning Challenge

Download a sample chapter