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What Is Learnability Anyway And Why Should You Care?
What Is Learnability Anyway And Why Should You Care?

Thanks to advances in science and technology, we have added more years to our life expectancy in the past century than in all of human evolution. That’s good news but it means we need to consider changing our life, work and learning patterns to accommodate our longer lifespans.  We’re all going to need (and want) to be productive, healthy and happy even longer than we previously thought!

Too many of us—even though “lifelong learning” has been a term since the 1970’s—leave learning behind in our 20s, except for Facebook reading list recommendations, a few blogs per week, and an occasional company training class. We hear about lifelong learning, performance improvement, and the need to “use it or lose it,” but are we actually following through for ourselves, and, if we are managers, are we making it happen for our team?
 
The first step is to recognize that the old model of being spoon-fed learning is no longer sufficient to help us manage the dynamic forces affecting our professional lives, including career mobility, changing job requirements, and technological advances in the workplace.  The only answer (besides a smart brain chip planted in your head) is to hone our skills and interest, and hit the learnability button. 
 
What Is Learnability Anyway And Why Should You Care? 
 
Learnability – or the desire and capability to develop in-demand skills to be employable for the long-term – is fueled by an individual's eagerness to learn and capacity to change based on acquiring and acting on new learnings. Some of us are born with it, some of us acquire it, and all of us are capable of it. 
 
To find success on our terms and live a rewarding life requires learnability. Without it, we risk becoming obsolete and losing our way in our fast-paced, changing world. Here’s how learnability impacts all of us at different stages of life
 
1. If you’re a woman born in 1995, the US government estimates you’ll live to 86. The longer you live, the more you will want to be productive and contributing whether in paying or non-paying work.  You will likely live and work longer than your parents just as they likely lived and worked longer than your grandparents and great grandparents. 
 
Globally, over half of Millennials expect to work past age 65, and 12 percent in the U.S. say they’ll work till they die. But they won’t necessarily stay with one company. Today’s “career for me” professional expects to work in as many as nine organizations. And they will move not only for money but for growth and advancement—the opportunity to learn—to increase their value.
 
2. If you’re a woman born in 1971 and plan to retire at 67, you can expect to live another 22 years after retirement. In your lifetime, you’re going to have many job changes that will require new learning. As academic reviews have pointed out, people’s employability—their ability to gain and maintain a desired job—no longer depends on what they already know, but on what they are likely to learn. Greater career security is a function of employability, and that depends on learnability. Organizations need to become aware of the benefits of giving employees more learnability opportunities. Studies show companies that focus on career and development significantly increase employee engagement and satisfaction—and even increase revenue. In addition to individual development, employees in a career-savvy culture can build their learnability by sharing information across teams—a fast, effective means of knowledge transfer. TED Talks exemplifies this through their “Ideas Worth Spreading” videos, which are seen by over a million viewers a day. 
 
3. If you’re a female born in 1961 and retiring in the next few years, your estimated life expectancy of 86 years means you could spend almost as much time in retirement as you spent working.  Here’s where that long life/shorter working career imbalance is a wake-up call. You may not have worked long enough to support the lengthy retirement you will have to fund.  Plus 70 is the new 50 and what will you do with your time? Maybe pursue a second master’s program in your late 50s so you can update your skills and offer the innovation of a 30 year old but with even more experience? Maybe evolve your crafting so you can open an Etsy shop? Maybe move from full-time employment to the growing number of opportunities available to a ‘contract’ or ‘project’ employee? 
 
Life expectancy and awareness of your life span is a driver for learnability.  Being open to new skills and knowledge for decades and decades must become the new norm as many of the babies born since 2000 are likely to celebrate their 100th birthdays!
 
Are You A Learning Catalyst Or A Learning Blocker?
 
Everything will change in accordance with today’s longer lifespans: education, work, family cycles and relationship, financial needs and markets, and retirement. And learnability will be key. How can managers do a better job of fostering learnability in the workplace? A recent Harvard Business Review article, “It’s the Company’s Job to Help Employees Learn,” suggests starting with three things: 
  • Select for it. Focus on employees with higher learnability—curious and inquisitive individuals who are genuinely interested in acquiring new knowledge.
  • Nurture it. Managers who want their employees to learn new things will encourage that behavior by doing it themselves. Be a catalyst not a blocker of employee learning- career long.
  • Reward it. If you want to change people’s behavior, you should show them that you mean it. It is not enough to hire curious people and hope they display as much learnability as you do. 
 As organizations, we can do a better job of developing leaders for the future if we focus efforts on individuals who embody the following four ‘leader learnability’ characteristics, based on extensive Right Management research into optimizing leadership effectiveness:  
  • Adaptability to learning new things throughout life 
  • Drive to want to learn something new
  • Endurance to stick with it until the skill is mastered
  • Brightness with the intellectual prowess to grasp new ideas and integrate them into what you know
 From an individual standpoint, learnability is enhanced when you:
  • Find areas of interest. Go long, go broad, go differently.
  • Stretch yourself. Convert your coffee habit into a learning habit.
  • Learn that one thing you have been putting off 
  • Find a friend/ buddy/ partner to learn with, sharing the investment and the community of learning. 
  • Make it social. Online learning communities abound.
  • Reward yourself. Seek increased pay or monetary rewards if it’s a vocation as much as an exploration.
  • Nurture yourself through new knowledge, new skills and the accomplishment of positive change.
 
In the Human Age, it is important for companies to encourage learnability for their leadership team and individual employees. As your workforce lives longer, we need to redesign human culture to accommodate long lives, and businesses will need to encourage upskilling and ongoing development to ensure your workforce can meet the changing needs of your business. The good news is we don’t have to wait for society to catch up; we can drive these changes through our active pursuit—individually and as leaders—of learnability.
 
Authors:
Lory Antonucci, M.Ed., GPHR,
Senior Talent Management Consultant
Right Management
 
Suzanne Saxe-Roux, Ed.D.,
Senior Talent Management Consultant
Right Management
 
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