The workplace is becoming a new centre for learning, where experimenting is the norm

By Margaret Heffernan

Because of the way work is now done, people need to constantly upgrade and update their skills. 


It is enormously in employers’ interests to enable the workforce to build on their existing experience and expertise. This is an infinitely richer model and far better than simply saying ‘we must hire lots more new people’.   


Providing continuous learning opportunities embeds institutional knowledge, creates a richer relationship between employer and employee, and means the learning that's happening is very focused on the current job and work environment.  


In companies I’ve run, I've always been willing to pay for people to learn anything. If someone wanted to learn needlepoint, that was fine with me. If you’re thinking about how to use data and technology more effectively, for example, you’re much better off developing those skills in your existing workforce than by either outsourcing to consultants or replacing people.  


Whether we like it or not, an organisation’s sustainability depends on its capacity to educate the workforce on an ongoing basis. Those that can demonstrate that they invest in people in this way will have a gigantic advantage. Therefore, a significant role of learning and development teams going forward will be supporting that – keeping abreast of the market, identifying opportunities and sourcing that education. 


The value of ‘human’ skills

Uncertainty is here to stay. Where there's complexity, there's uncertainty and where there's uncertainty, you need creativity and imagination to see where the opportunities and threats lie, to be able to design experiments, and start to develop options. 


To do that requires you to recognise there is no one answer. Most disciplines educate people to believe that there is one right answer, but there are very many answers to various questions. Even science is uncertain. So we have to give people an experience of thinking through uncertainty, understanding ambiguity, and knowing what their options are.  


We also need to teach people to be fantastic communicators, to collaborate well, and to have arguments that are articulate enough to be cordial in the pursuit of a better solution than we already have.  


Why experimenting is key for learning  

I believe that if people have two experiences, they'll probably be okay – if they don't, they're going to struggle in the modern workplace. Firstly, they need to experience how exhilarating it is to learn something – ‘I can do something today that I couldn't do yesterday’. Secondly, they need to experience discovering that they can invent things and solve things for themselves.  


Leaders must be prepared to give people the opportunity to experiment and explore, and give them time to figure out what they’ve learned. That way, they’ll have much more valuable employees. 


As an example, multinational firm 3M has a reputation for speedy innovation. But the reality is that 3M is not that fast, they’re just great at learning from experiments. They are brilliant at asking, ‘if this didn't work, why and what would need to change for it to work?’  


The Industrial Revolution aimed to take all uncertainty out of business, which created a passion for guarantees and certainties, and an allergy to experimentation. But we have to completely reverse that now. As a leader, being comfortable with uncertainty and becoming very good at experimentation is the only way you'll get ahead. If you wait for certainty, you're too late. 


Getting comfortable with uncertainty 

We get addicted to prediction like a drug. But there are so many things we neither know nor can control. So when thinking about the future, looking forward at risk, we must ask, ‘if this bad thing were to happen [e.g. a pandemic], what would we look back on and wish we'd been doing at this moment?’ 


Having the courage and imagination to answer those questions and start taking action on issues that are critical is essential in this context of uncertainty. You can't do everything, but you have to make decisions before you have all the information. And get comfortable with doing that. All the time. 


Learning is the future of work

In a complex and ever-changing world of work, in which organisations must constantly reinvent themselves, learning is no longer a function of HR or L&D – but a business imperative.

This requires us to re-evaluate how, why and when we deliver learning. It means investing in new tech and ideas to engage people, fostering creativity, innovation and emotional intelligence. It means acknowledging the strategic value of learning.

Why must we do it now? 

Find out why learning is at the heart of individual, organisational and societal transformation in our 'Why learning is the future of work' whitepaper


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Embed learning in your leadership development

Future Talent Learning can help employees develop the human skills needed to transition from managing to leading. We provide immersive learning experiences for busy professionals at all levels. Our courses focus on the most in-demand human-centred skills that can be applied and practised in the flow of work. 


We offer a range of ready-to-go short courses and 100% virtual mini-MBA that delivers against two management apprenticeships, funded through your Apprenticeship Levy


More about Margaret Heffernan 

Dr Margaret Heffernan's sixth and most recent book, Uncharted: How to map the future was published in 2020. It quickly became a bestseller and was nominated for the Financial Times Best Business Book award, was one of Bloomberg’s Best Books of 2021 and was chosen as the “Medium Best of the Best” business book.


Margaret’s third book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was  named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times. In 2015, she was awarded the Transmission Prize for A Bigger Prize: Why Competition isn’t Everything and How We Do Better,described as “meticulously researched…engagingly written…universally relevant and hard to fault.”


Her TED talks have been seen by over 27 million people and in 2015 TED published Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes.


Learning, uncertainty and transformation

Unpredictability within society, and in workplaces, means that it's important to have a workforce that can respond to uncertainty. 

Radical transformation means that both individuals and organisations must continuously reinvent themselves, developing new abilities and investing in new skills. 

Imbuing people with a love of learning will ensure they can respond to change, enabling businesses to be more agile and resilient. Find out how you can upskill your employees with the most in-demand human-centred skills, which can be applied and practised in the flow of work.





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