Professional Development In The New Economy

I’ve been following a Youtube channel whereby the speaker Luo talked about lessons learnt from his experience in hosting the channel and applications of how that learning can be translated to real life (unfortunately, the programme discontinued in Mar this year). In this video I am introducing, he talked about learning in the new age.

The video in this episode explores the question of learning in the current age – the age of information explosion. Not only are we in a different era from that of our parents, but the structure of learning that we had inherited was also created for that era.

The current education system was built over the years to manage the exponential increase of information resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Knowledge was segmented so that learners could find it easier to internalise the information; instead of an expert who knows a bit of everything, people are now expected to be an expert in a field they choose to focus on.

Each field thus have experts who are pushing the boundaries further than what their predecessors achieved, by delving deeper and deeper in their field of study. And by working with others from different fields, they helped drive the society to what we are seeing today. Think how computer engineers work with manufactures, miners, sales to develop a distribution channel to push new products into the market speedily; each of them are an expert in their field, with little knowledge of what goes on upstream or downstream, and yet they worked together to achieve an even greater goal.

This form of collective wisdom spurred the latest surge of development we see in the past few decades. As we progress to a new stage of social development, we are faced with a different situation vastly different from that of mere decades ago.

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Everything is vying for our attention. Everyone not only wants to be on social media, they also want to be in the know for news, be at the right place for certain events, be in a group that are in trend etc. In the name of improving productivity, our bosses expect us to be working on multiple projects simultaneously, so that while waiting for one process of a project to be completed, we can work on a second project or even a third. Colleagues are also expecting us to reply them in real time, via whatsapp and what-nots, and bosses send us surprises at 3am local time.

The result of this is that we no longer have the luxury of spending 3 days, much less 3 months, to indulge in learning for professional development.

Similarly, the evolution of the workplace and society has gradually eliminated the idea of “career”. It used to be that we can stay in a job from the day we graduate from school till the day we retire, because what we learned from school was sufficient to last us a lifetime. Unfortunately, companies no longer last that long, jobs are no longer relevant in a decade, and companies need to work more closely with partners and competitors alike to stay afloat.

We are now expected to pick up new skills throughout the duration of our working lives to adapt to the changing employment landscapes, and yet our current education system do not cater to lifelong learning.

Lastly, in order to survive, companies have to work more closely with other organisations, and they can’t afford to have employees who have a narrow field of vision, a.k.a “not my job scope” mentality. Similarly, companies have to constantly evolve to keep up with times. Nokia was was good example (both in the positive and negative way). They moved from making rubber boots to distributing handphones that almost everyone carried back in the late 90s – a fine example of adaption at its best. Yet, they missed the boat of smartphones and ended up having to sell their mobile phone business unit in the span of mere 10 years from its peak in the mobile phone business.

Employers now need workers who have the ability to scan the environment and have intimate knowledge of a market. Experts in a certain field, though they can still drive R&D and product excellence, are no more important than someone who can translate the knowledge to a novice, and to integrate knowledge from multiple fields.

How then, can new-age employees (like my fellow millennial colleagues), keep up with the times by upgrading our skills? Luo suggested 5 ways to achieve that.

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Learn from Experts

First, we should aim to learn from experts; since we no longer have the luxury of spending days in structured learning, we have to adapt by learning through other means. The trainer from a structured class may not have current knowledge (since the industry is progressing too fast now) and the learning materials may not be updated in time, compared to a practicing expert. In addition, experts can also value-add with certain “tips” that are not easy to be included in reference books nor applicable to all sorts of practitioners.

Such learning can be achieved through the simple act of: Asking; and this learning can just take a few minutes over the phone, to an extended discussion over coffee. Luo also suggested that we mingle with people from other fields, which can be achieved also by attending seminars or short courses, so that we can widen our breadth of expertise. We should also aggressively learn from our colleagues, provided they are experts in their own fields.

This also meant that if a company is on the decline because of an exodus of its talents, be sure to leave asap, since we are no longer in an environment where there are experts for us to learn from.

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Establish Framework First

Next, learn by grasping the concepts of the knowledge to be gained first. Understand the framework that supports the rest of the knowledge, so that it would be easier to “slot” the information picked up along the way; the information can also be anecdotes or even snippets of life that fits into the framework and enhances learning.

For example, instead of learning how to operate a particular POS machine, learn how POS works, so that there’s no need to re-learn every time the company changes a POS machine (perhaps due to expiry of contract with the vendor).

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Internalise

Thirdly, which is also something that I always advocate, internalise the learning by expressing the new knowledge outwardly (i.e. transfer of learning). Humans learn best when the knowledge is internalised, and it does not happen by plain reading or viewing of knowledge. Instead, a particular action must be associated to the new knowledge, so as to create a memory hook and allows for easier reference in the future.

That step of transferring of knowledge could be actualised through explaining to another person, or just to identify a single learning point and writing it down. Yes, if this sounds familiar, it’s because all (good) trainers make their learners do this at the end of each training session.

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Bite-Size Learning

The next suggestion has got to do with adapting how our time has been totally segmented. “Bite-size learning” has been a buzzword for a few years, and yet organisations are still struggling with how to implement it. They are struggling because they are trying to squeeze an 8-hour worth of training into 20 minutes, instead of splitting the knowledge into 24 sessions of 20-minute learning. The irony is that, right from the start of humanity, learning has always been bite-size. Subjects that we learn today are actually pieced together by nuggets of information that collectively helps a person achieve his tasks.

This is more relevant at a working level; when we take on a new project that involves working on something we are not familiar with, do we request for our boss to send us on a 1-month crash course (and get thrown out of his office for wasting his time and money), or do we pick up the phone to ask someone who knows something we don’t?

While working on the Rehabilitation Fair for Yellow Ribbon Prison Run, I had to familiarise myself with how the artists for the exhibition work, how carpentry work is done for the panels (so that I can ask for novel presentation without busting the budget) and I even took part in the filming process of a video production, picking up lingo used in the field, so that I could make the production team understand and create the idealogy of the film accurately. Even as a prison officer of 5 years, I still had to make site visits to the bakery and laundry in prison so as to make sure we had an accurate representation of those workshops.

(To add on, Luo also mentioned that bite-size learning does not eliminate the possibility of having to copy other people’s work and improvise on that copied work to suit your own requirements.)

Post Note: I actually learnt the term “Micro-learning” after I drafted this post. While this and “Bite-size learning” may be interchangeable at times, “ML” takes learning to an even more granular level; the learning may just be a 3-min video or an eCoursware, meant to deliver one aspect of a concept (e.g One way of active listening, instead of a suite of methods to demonstrate active listening). The objective is the same: to allow learners to learn whenever they have the time, even if it’s just during an elebvator ride.

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Learn with Objectives

Last but not least, Luo advocated a mindset of “Setting goals, finding solutions and taking actions”.

There are actually 2 types of people. By default, people manage their environment by adopting the mindset of “Taking positions, associate with emotions and formulate an opinion”. This, although widely practised, is not maximised for learning. Information picked up can evoke different positions, emotions and opinions, and opinions can change with differing contexts and as time changes.

The best way to learn is actually to define a goal, look for solutions to achieve that goal, and then take actions to implement the solutions. If picking up a new knowledge or skill is essential in the process, then by all means go learn about it; that new competency now has a purpose and makes learning more meaningful. That learning now solves problems, rather than just describes a problem with opinions. To quote from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”: Begin with the end in mind.

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Of course, my blog post had been mainly regurgitating what Luo had said, peppered with my own opinions and anecdotes. Here’s my interpretation of how we can transfer that in our personal domains.

The idea is first to recognise that workers are no longer expected to apply the same knowledge throughout their careers; Pre-employment training is still required to provide the foundation to enter a field, and most importantly, train one to think critically. We just cannot assume that we can rely on what we learned in pre-employment education to last us through a career.

In fact, we should not expect to be in a single career or that there will be a definite “retirement age”.

To stay relevant, we must adapt to learn on-the-go; we must be clear what we need to learn to complete a task and be prepared to learn from all training avenues, from structured classes to asking experts, to just plain copying of work.

After all, what employers need are workers who can complete tasks.

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