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Optimizing human potential in the digital age

While automation and digitization are transforming business activities and processes, it naturally also transforms our way of working and the requirements in our jobs. It seems that lifelong learning will be the key element in helping us continually adapt to the changing market needs we are facing.

Optimizing human potential in the digital age
Optimizing human potential in the digital age

We spoke with Associate Professor in the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School, Elizabeth Solberg, to get her viewpoints on the importance of learning and development in today’s ever-changing business climate. One of her studies suggests that training is imperative for employees’ ability to adapt to changes, especially for those less open to change. Moreover, managers who are supportive of learning and development practices are rewarded with more adaptive employees (Solberg, 2017).

The career today – cycles and learning

The concept of having a “career” is moving more and more away from “the hierarchical ladder”, and rather becoming a non-linear journey to increasing knowledge. The knowledge we acquire today has shorter expiration dates than ever. The key competencies in the future will be the ability to learn, develop and change, rather than the mastery of one skill or task, as before.

The perception of a career is still very individual, but according to Solberg, it is even more apparent that we have career cycles where people are changing roles, occupations and industries – as an endless learning journey.

– When we define a career that way it becomes a pattern of unique experiences that could be related to work, education or things you do in your spare time to develop new skills or interests, Solberg says.

– Experiences, both in and outside of the workplace, can lead to professional development, and hence, non-linear career paths.

It is the nature of business today that is driving the need for a more agile and flexible workforce, consisting of skills that can be shaped as competition and meet new market demands. To be able to respond to changes in job requirements triggered by automation and digitalization, all of us will probably have to engage in lifelong learning – or even lifelong employability (Deloitte, 2017, McKinsey, 2019).

Solberg explains that we are not necessarily learning to improve or better ourselves – we are learning to keep up with changes. Learning is vital to maintaining our level of performance.

Intended, actual and perceived opportunities

According to Solberg, learning opportunities are often promised by companies as intended practices, but is unfortunately not always the reality. There might be intentional paths on paper, but they are not clearly visible or understood by employees, leading to a gap between the perceptions of the employee and the employer

– It’s not only about having development opportunities available, but also making sure that employees recognize and perceive these opportunities. Companies can have great practices, but if you there is lack of management support you will not get very far, Solberg says.

– Companies can have great practices, but if there is lack of management support you will not get very far.

A cross-sectional survey among 238 employees in a Norwegian IT and management consulting firm shows that perceived investment in employee development relates positively to employees’ openness to develop themselves and adapt to changing work requirements.  It also positively influence their active pursuit of new competencies and paths within the organization (Solberg & Dysvik, 2017).

The managerial role in developmental support

One piece of research Solberg is working on right now is investigating the supervisor’s role in being able to provide developmental support, and in that way also signalling to employees that they are being developed and have opportunities. The level of developmental support from a supervisor has a positive influence on the extent to which employees feel that their developmental promises have been fulfilled.

– It is interesting to see how vital the developmental support from the supervisor contributes – like giving feedback on performance, getting to know what employee’s personal development goals are and helping them meet those goals. It also pays off in terms of how flexible employees are to changes in the workplace, Solberg says.

Solberg highlights the importance of identifying individuals who depend upon developmental support to learn and adapt, versus those that are more autonomous. Managers must ask themselves: “What can I do to understand the reasons behind why some employees are resistant to change, and help these individuals to be able to learn and adapt?”

Learn. Adapt. Repeat

In the end, it is important that we learn and develop to be able to adapt, which in turn makes us better equipped to keep up with the changes today and in the future business landscape.

Learn. Adapt. Repeat.

Learn. Adapt. Repeat.

It seems that learning will be the key element in helping us continually adapt to the changing needs of the market, to remain employable in the future.

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