Learning is a lifelong process. But NZ is not making that investment (with The Spinoff)

This article was written by Frances Valintine for The Spinoff. You can view the original article on The Spinoff website.

Now is an essential moment for New Zealand to reconsider how it prioritises ongoing formal education, writes The Mind Lab’s Frances Valintine.

In 2021, “status quo” sounds like a euphoric state where predictability can be guaranteed and knowledge and skills remain static. But if 2020 taught us anything it’s that nothing is forever, and adversity is the catalyst that pushes innovation and progress. While Covid was the main event, devastating extreme weather events, the breakdown of the British monarchy and the arrival of non-fungible tokens are just a few examples of developments that emerged in the last 12 months and will soon be shaping our future.

Technology is not a driver of change in its own right. It is an enabler that supports the needs and wishes of the marketplace. No technology or software successfully lands in the market without a clear problem to solve. For every productivity app we download or hardware we purchase, there is the promise of tangible benefits that may include efficiency gains, customer service improvements, more personalised communications or the ability to save money.

But as the need for digital skills moves from the early adopters such as the tech industry to mainstream utilisation, the focus shifts from technical integration by the experts to the needs of the everyday users who must adapt and learn.

This is where things get complicated. We are, for the most part, creatures of habit. We like our routines and the ability to get the most out of our pre-existing, pre-loaded knowledge. But when you evaluate the return on investment from time spent learning, it becomes clear that education provides significant returns. 

AS THE NEED FOR DIGITAL SKILLS MOVES FROM THE EARLY ADOPTERS TO MAINSTREAM UTILISATION, THE FOCUS SHIFTS FROM TECHNICAL INTEGRATION BY  EXPERTS TO EVERYDAY USERS WHO MUST ADAPT AND LEARN.(ILLUSTRATION: GARY VENN)

Today, more than ever, knowledge needs to be constantly replenished as better data, research and technology provide us with new ways of approaching problems. In 2020 our world of work was agitated by the rapid escalation and deployment of workarounds to navigate Covid lockdowns. As businesses were forced to move critical functions online the adoption rate of digital services exploded, and the line between analogue and digital was blurred. As New Zealand businesses quietly celebrated the return of business as usual, the rest of the world further invested in digital technologies and new business practices to avoid financial collapse.

For many, the rapid deployment of digital tools, systems and processes arrived like an unexpected tsunami on the horizon. The 30 years of technological advancement since the birth of the internet seems controlled and manageable compared with the rapid onslaught of change that is occurring today.

The launch of the internet in the 1990s kick-started the decentralisation of knowledge and information and triggered the start of a new era shaped by shared data. By 2007, when the first iPhone was released, technologists, entrepreneurs and investors could foresee how people in the future would consume information, connect and communicate. Fourteen years on, and that imagined future is here. We are now at the frontier of mass adoption of artificial intelligence, distributed networks, advanced financial systems built on the blockchain, and digitisation of everything supported by the Internet of Things.

IN 2020 COVID LOCKDOWNS FORCED BUSINESSES TO MOVE CRITICAL FUNCTIONS ONLINE (ILLUSTRATION: GARY VENN)

But mass change doesn’t happen in isolation. We are also facing climate change, the rise of conscious capitalism and the needs of multi-generational workforces – from the digitally advanced Generation Z to the Boomers leaving the workforce for retirement.

Understanding the big picture when there are so many moving parts is challenging. Staying abreast of new knowledge and global best-practice within any sector takes a serious commitment to learning. For most of us, any new learning journey will require stepping back into a classroom (either real or virtual) to engage with new information, advanced data and research.

For the most part, knowledge is intangible. We can’t see it or measure how well-informed a person is by looking at them. We can’t evaluate how current their skills are or how many biases or out of date assumptions are being drawn upon to inform their decisions.  

When we hire new staff and offer an employment contract it is based on the evaluation of that person’s existing skills and experiences. For employees to further advance and to meaningfully contribute to an organisation requires the input of new knowledge, the development of new skills and the ability to adapt as the world responds to change. There is no substitute for learning, having hard conversations, or developing new understanding. The ability to be open and responsive to learning and new ideas is a thousand times more valuable than having a person who insists on being “right” regardless of changing knowledge.

In a small range of industries, the need to commit to ongoing professional development is mandatory as a process of continued registration. However, the vast majority of employees experience very little formal learning from the time they enter the workforce. Simply put, we don’t put significant value on the need for individuals to continue formal education once they have pre-loaded in the first part of their lives.

SUCCESSFUL LEADERS OF THE FUTURE WILL BE WELL-READ, GLOBALLY CONNECTED AND COMMITTED TO LEARNING TO LEAD THROUGH CHANGE. (ILLUSTRATION: GARY VENN)

New Zealand’s statistically low rates of ongoing professional and personal development will increasingly become a risk for business. In the absence of active learning, our ability to forecast and respond to change will be limited by what we already know. At the executive level or in the boardroom, decisions are being made that will greatly impact the future success of businesses and our country’s economy. If decision-makers have not fully grasped the inter-relationship and convergence of technologies and the impact of change, we will face a very uncertain future. 

Successful leaders of the future will be well-read, globally connected and committed to learning to lead through change. They will build networks of diverse collaborators and be actively involved with personalised learning journeys that allow for constant reframing of their perspective in light of new inputs and knowledge. They will relearn, unlearn and understand global macro themes and local contexts.

The percentage of mature New Zealand adults who are formally learning in any given year is in the single digits. For every lucky executive who is able to take a short sabbatical at Stanford or Harvard, hundreds of thousands of business owners and decision-makers are simply “winging it”.

I have spent the past two decades teaching adults who are looking for new ways to solve problems. These adults are curious and committed to understanding their blind spots. Many are driven by a sense of pride and the need to stay relevant, and many say they learn to disrupt themselves rather than be disrupted.

Over the past 12 months, with our borders closed, New Zealanders have become home-renovation experts, skilled bakers and gardening fanatics. But investment and time committed to formal learning over the same period was light. 

The knowledge we will all need to make informed decisions in our work, for our families and for our communities requires a step-change in how we see learning as an adult. Without change, the challenge we face will not be about having a society of uneducated adults. It will be that too many people lack the knowledge to realise that what they once knew to be true is no longer the case.

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