What’s Needed for Innovation: The Enduring Benefits of Hiring Lifelong Learners

Posted on August 15, 2017

Darren Shimkus

Darren Shimkus

VP & GM, Udemy for Business

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What are the two most critical skills in today’s workforce? 1) An appetite for learning; and 2) the ability to adapt and grow in new environments. Why? Because organizations are rapidly implementing new technologies that shift the way we work and will continue to do so. As an example, just think about how consumer AI-powered tools and automation have already conditioned us to expect the same in our workplace. Considering that, the most successful hires will be those that learn, adapt and grow ahead of the pace of change.

Why Organizations Need Lifelong Learners

To put this in a larger context, this shift in how we work with technology now is bigger than we think. We are experiencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To quickly explain, over the past few centuries, our industrial revolutions transitioned from water- and steam-mechanized production to a mass production driven by electric power. Today’s revolution builds on technical developments to evolve the digital world. So, what does that mean for organizations right now? They must be armed with the right talent that can adapt to new workflows while harnessing the latest tools because by 2020, five million jobs will be lost to “smart” technology and 35 percent of core job skills for those that remain will completely change, according to The Future of Jobs report. The bottom line: Organizations and individuals that don’t change with the times set themselves up to fail.

How is this shift affecting hiring? In response to this new landscape, decision makers are on the lookout for lifelong learners who will make a real impact as they adapt and grow with new tools and workflows. But how can organizations evaluate candidates to make sure they find that one who is capable of doing so effectively?

How Organizations Can Find the Right Learners

The same technology — like cloud and automation — that has changed and made workflows more complex has also offered new ways to learn and stay ahead of the curve. What’s left is finding the right people to harness the new tools.

This may seem obvious, but when looking for lifelong learners, organizations should not forget the fact that curiosity is one of the strongest indicators. It’s a sign that someone would be open to understanding new things. This remains true regardless of role or level — even boardroom and C-suite roles have seen more success when they are filled by those who have what we call “learning agility.”

Organizations should also look for those that don’t fear failure. They view new experiences as an opportunity for growth. They take risky actions and use non-traditional tools. Despite eventual success or failure, workers that are confident in their ability will adapt, grow and respond accordingly.

This process of identifying lifelong learnings can start as early as the interview process. Ask a curiosity question, for example, about what a candidate may have taught themselves in the recent past can be a good place to begin. Their answer can reveal that they’re not only curious but also committed to self-improvement and disciplined in doing so. We have also found a lot of success when we assign tasks during the interview process. It allows us to observe how much someone decides to invest in and research a topic, which often indicates their desire to learn. Finally, organizations should take note of what questions the candidates came armed with and asked. For example, a cliché question should raise suspicion. Alternately, questions that inquire about the future of the company, the available growth and learning opportunities or even the prospect of increased responsibility are much more indicative of ideal workers.

How Organizations Can Foster Learners the Right Way

Once organizations have found the right people, the next step is to “develop” them by providing challenging tasks and growth opportunities. This begins by incorporating learning into the goal-setting process and expanding that beyond just the expected goals that focus on quotas or finishing projects. Instead, these alternate goals should be learning-oriented, such as mastering a tool such as Photoshop or Marketo.

Also, organizations should prevent their employees from miring themselves in monotonous routines. They need to consciously manage their teams to remain nimble, adaptive and creative. This can be done by switching roles within teams or even across departments. Allowing workers to voice their opinions and initiate the steps to address problems can also help in cementing the new culture.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, employers must offer their lifelong learners the tools to continuously learn. Whether they involve podcasts, online learning platforms, traditional books, professional and community college or other tools, the goal is to provide options that jive with the workforce. An organization must equate strengthening its workforce with the way it strengthens its technology, policy and product.

Ultimately, finding and fostering lifelong learners could require a cultural shift. But it’s worth it. As lifelong learners improve themselves through their own curiosity and willingness to constantly try new things, they will lead their companies and make them stronger and more successful.

This article was originally published in HR West Magazine.

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