I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of David Epstein’s Range, his 2019 counter punch to the drive for specialization, often represented by the 10,000 hour rule, as the best path for achieving future success. In his book, Epstein pushes back against the idea that deeper and deeper specialization is the best way to achieve success, especially in rapidly changing and unpredictably complex environments. “We are often taught that the more competitive and complicated the world gets, the more specialized we must get,” Epstein notes, but according to his research, given that most business environments today are not governed by standard rules and predictable patterns, maintaining a competitive edge will require organizations to hire or train generalists who are often more willing and better able to find solutions to novel challenges.
According to Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends, many business leaders see the trend towards needing more employees who are capable of taking on diverse and varied job tasks. According to the report, a vast majority of respondents expect that the increased adoption and use of technology will mean that jobs in the future are far more multi-disciplinary than they have been. And that as artificial intelligence, cognitive technologies, and robotic process automation take hold, there will be a trend towards “superjobs”, or jobs that combine parts of different traditional jobs into integrated roles – these jobs will span the hyper-specialized areas of expertise of many current workers.
These same leaders are keenly aware that their current approach to learning isn’t well suited to training the generalists that will drive their business in the future, with 86% of respondents reporting they must reinvent the way their organization learns to maintain a competitive advantage. If you are charged with reinventing the way your organization learns, here are three key features that should be part of your new learning strategy:
- Create learning environments where it’s safe to fail – While generalists are often the source for innovation, their application of novel mental models to solving emerging challenges means that failure will always be a part of the path to success. Corporate learning & development functions must drive cultures where failure is seen first as a learning experience and find ways to encourage failure that’s in alignment with the risk tolerance of the organization.
- Provide ample opportunities for employees to explore new disciplines – In Range, Epstein notes that elite scientists are much more likely to have hobbies in the performing arts than their “average” counterparts. He argues that having an avocation that exercises different ways of thinking and being than their vocation provides the high performing scientists with the opportunity to see new patterns, develop new schemas, and expand the solution sets they bring to their core discipline. So, while offering a class in acting or modern dance may be a bridge too far in the corporate world, L&D leaders need to look for ways to expand the horizons of their staff beyond building the traditional technical skills that are seen as essential for job performance.
- Aggressively promote learning in all its forms – The success of your L&D function and, arguably, of the organization overall relies on continuous learning through both formal and informal means. Whether your encouraging generalists to continually broaden their horizons or helping specialists deepen their expertise, your primary role as an L&D practitioner should be to drive a culture where all employees see themselves as lifelong learners – consistently working to build whatever capabilities they need to create value for the organization. So, along with building programs and learning opportunities that drive progress toward organizational goals, L&D professionals need to constantly look for ways to promote and incentivize all employees to transform themselves as a path for transforming the organization.
The cost of ineffective training is high. In fact, Grovo, a division of learning management system provider Cornerstone, estimates that ineffective training costs organizations $13.5M per year per 1,000 employees. But the cost to organizations that fail to adapt their learning & development approach to meet the changing demands of the workforce will be much higher. What are you doing to transform your corporate learning function today to deliver the resilient workforce you’ll need to thrive tomorrow?