Learning In The Digital Age

Lifelong learning will be the hallmark of the digital age. How can business schools prepare to educate tomorrow’s workforce?
Learning in the Digital Age
This era, marked by constant technological breakthroughs that repeatedly disrupt the business world, has been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum. It’s an era in which only the most nimble companies will survive—and only the workers who constantly re-educate themselves will continue to find jobs.

Two broad trends are shaping the digital age: an acceleration in the rate at which new technologies are adopted, and the ongoing disruption that these new technologies are causing to the economy.

Let’s look at acceleration first. It took 38 years for radio to reach 50 million users globally. That time was 13 years for TV, three years for the internet, one year for Facebook, nine months for Twitter, 35 days for Angry Birds, and 19 days for Pokémon GO.

But it’s not just games, devices, and platforms that are seeing widespread and rapid adoption. Innovations such as mobile computing, cloud technology, and big data already are changing the way business is done, and we’ll see even more upheaval when robotics, artificial intelligence, autonomous transport, and the Internet of Things are incorporated into daily life.

Automation also will reshape business. A 2015 McKinsey Global Institute Study concluded that current technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform; in fact, technology could automate 30 percent or more of the activities in 60 percent of all occupations.

These technological innovations will have a profound impact on the economy—indeed, some already have. In his 2001 book Creative Destruction, Yale professor Richard Foster took Joseph Schumpeter’s famous theory and applied it to prestigious companies listed on the Standard & Poor’s top 500 list. He noticed that their lifespans had dramatically declined from 90 years in 1935 to 18 years in 2011. He predicts that in 2027, the average lifespan of an S&P company will be 13 years or less, as companies fail, split, merge, or are acquired.

One final and nontechnological factor also will shape tomorrow’s workforce: the fact that people will be living much longer than they have in the past. Data suggests that humans—at least, those in developed nations—have seen a three-month increase in life expectancy each year since 1840. And as they live longer, they will be working longer, well into their 70s or 80s.

Taken together, these trends indicate that workers can no longer expect to be employed at one or two firms for their entire careers, using skills they mastered in their 20s. This means that institutions of higher education must be prepared to deliver the skills and experiences that will ensure that tomorrow’s workers are employable for as long as they want to hold jobs.


While 21st-century workers will need to master new hard skills to keep up with advances in technology, they also will need to develop softer practical skills. That’s because tomorrow’s jobs will require workers who can create content or judge the relevance of information. More than one-third of jobs will require workers who can solve complex problems. About one in five jobs will need workers with social skills such as emotional intelligence, a service orientation, and the ability to negotiate and collaborate with others.

In addition, about 15 percent of jobs will require cognitive skills such as creativity and mathematical reasoning. In fact, creativity will become one of the most important skills for the workforce, because creative people will invent new business models, products, ways of working, and customer experiences.

Finally, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a workforce with a wide range of deep knowledge and easily transferrable skills. The World Economic Forum estimates that 65 percent of today’s elementary school students might ultimately work in jobs that don’t exist today. Therefore, it’s essential that tomorrow’s workers not only have a broad range of skills, but understand how to gain new ones. They must become adept at lifelong learning.

In some countries, lifelong learning is already a priority. The European Union has developed an indicator for measuring lifelong learning, which it defines as the percentage of the population aged 25 to 64 that is participating in education and training. In 2014, the best-performing European countries were Denmark (with 32 percent of the population engaged in learning), Sweden (28 percent), and Finland (25 percent). Denmark’s number might be so high because it allocates funding for two weeks of certified training every year for adults; it also emphasizes in-work training.

Learners for Life

Seven practices and mindsets will help tomorrow’s workers become lifelong learners. Individuals can assess their own openness to learning at www.reachingyourpotential.org.
Source: Van Dam 2016.

It will be these lifelong learners who continue to be employable in an economy marked by disruptive technologies and evolving job requirements. But how do people become lifelong learners? Studies show that they employ seven distinctive practices or mindsets that aid them throughout their careers.


    Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who has studied learners intensively, has concluded that the type of mindset set a person has will have a significant impact on how much that person learns. In her 2006 book Mindset, she differentiates between people with fixed mindsets and those with growth mindsets. These two models predict how much effort learners will expend, how much risk they will take, how they will perceive criticism, and whether they will be willing to accept and learn from failures.

    People with fixed mindsets believe their potential is finite, based on their genes, heritages, or socioeconomic backgrounds. They might say, “I’m not a good learner, so I shouldn’t take the courses offered by my company.”

    By contrast, people with growth mindsets believe their true potential is unknown because they can’t foresee what they might achieve when they approach something with passion, effort, and practice. They perceive challenges as opportunities for personal growth.

    Other studies suggest that intelligence is not fixed at birth but can be developed over time. For instance, in a 2012 paper, psychologist Jesper Mogensen writes that “our brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use, and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections.”

    One fascinating study began in 1932, when the entire population of Scotland’s 11 year-olds—87,498 of them—took IQ tests. More than 60 years later, the test was repeated, with 500 of the original individuals participating. The results showed a .66 positive correlation between advancing age and improved IQ.

    That is, it showed that the average individual IQ scores at age 80 were much higher than scores at age 11.

    A completely different perspective on IQ came in 2008, when researchers administered tests to the ten best chess players in the world and discovered that three had below-average IQs. How was this possible? Researchers found that those three individuals had mastered the game by playing between 10,000 and 50,000 hours of chess. Many studies have confirmed that it’s not necessarily intelligence that makes people experts, but effort and practice.

    The most successful people practice for the greatest number of hours to push themselves beyond their current levels of competence and comfort. They also are lifelong learners who are committed to growth mindsets and believe they have an endless capacity to learn. It’s that attitude that makes them valuable workers who can constantly master the new skills they need in the changing job market.


    To stay employable, workers will need to develop deep expertise in multiple areas over the lifespan of their careers. In her book The Shift, London Business School professor Lynda Gratton argues that we’ve seen the end of the “shallow generalist” who knows a little about a lot of different topics. In a world of Wikipedia and instantly accessible information, surface-level knowledge is useless. Workers in the 21st century will depend on their intellectual capital to bring value.

    For many years, people have followed a T-shaped profile of knowledge mastery, developing deep expertise in one discipline early in their careers and supplementing this with broad competencies gained on the job. But this model is no longer sustainable; today they must develop M-shaped profiles of knowledge.

    More specifically, workers will need to develop deep expertise in a number of different areas over the course of their careers. They’ll combine that deep expertise with broader knowledge they acquire on the job.

    For instance, a journalist might enter the workforce with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. As she specializes in business reporting, she might pursue a master’s degree in business economics. As economics becomes more complex over the next decade, she might enroll in classes on related topics such as digitization. She will need to constantly evaluate the sell-by date of her current skills and add new ones that might be more useful. That’s the only way she—and workers like her—will continue to create value and stay employed.


    Because tomorrow’s workers are unlikely to stay at one job for their entire careers, they can no longer expect a single employer to direct them along their career development paths. What’s more, as the century wears on, more and more of them will be self-employed.

    Currently, about 50,656,000 people—about one-third of all U.S. workers—are freelancers or contractors. A 2016 report from the McKinsey Global Institute concluded that between 20 percent and 30 percent of the working-age population in Europe and the U.S. engage in some kind of independent work. Many U.S. employers have indicated that they plan to increase their numbers of contingent or part-time workers in the coming years.

    This means that both company employees and contract workers will need to make their own investments in their development and education. To do so, they should follow these critical steps:

    Create and execute learning goals. They should ask themselves, “How can I ensure that I’m more valuable at the end of the year than I was at the beginning?” They should assess their competency gaps and focus relentlessly on their most important learning objectives, writes strategy consultant Dorie Clark in a January 7, 2016, article in the Harvard Business Review. As she notes, too many people focus only on achieving quick wins instead of on gaining long-term competitive advantage.

    Work with mentors and seek feedback. They should look inside and outside their companies to find mentors who will offer guidance and model positive behaviors. They always should make it clear to various stake-holders—supervisors, peers, direct reports, and clients—that they are open to feedback that will help them improve their performance.

    Measure progress. They should use learning journals or logs to track what they’ve learned that has been particularly valuable.

    Make personal investments of time and money. In their book Immunity to Change, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey suggest that people who take ownership of their development will be able to answer the question, “What is the one thing you are working on that will require that you grow to accomplish it?” They also will be able to explain how they are working on it, who else knows and cares about it, and why this competency matters to them.


    Many researchers, including Andy Molinsky of Brandeis International Business School, have suggested learning only takes place when people move beyond their comfort zones and into learning zones where they acquire new knowledge and practice new skills. After they develop proficiency in these new areas, their learning zone becomes part of their comfort zone—and they can stretch themselves into a new learning zone once again.

    When people are engaged in tasks within the learning zone, they are exposed to risk and stress. Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson have proposed the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which finds a strong relationship between an increase in stress and the enhancement of performance—but only to a point. Beyond a certain level, an increase in stress can cause anxiety and have a negative impact on performance. Therefore, it is important for people to expand their comfort zones with the right new tasks and at the right pace.

    One helpful tool is the S-curve model of growth and development. In business terms, the S-curve explains how ideas and products spread through society— slowly at first, until the adoption rate reaches a tipping point, and then with mounting swiftness. The S-curve business model was developed in the 1960s, but in a September 3, 2012, Harvard Business Review article, authors Whitney Johnson and Juan Carlos Méndez-García explore how human learning follows a similar pattern.

    Whenever people start new jobs or take on new responsibilities, they launch their own S-curves. At the beginning—as they learn about colleagues, stakeholders, processes, information systems, and organizational cultures—progress is slow and they have limited impact in their jobs. Then they reach an inflection point, gaining competence and confidence in their new roles, quickly accelerating their abilities, and having a progressively greater impact on the business. After they’ve been in their roles for a certain amount of time, they reach the upper flat part of the S-curve, losing the sense of excitement in the role, stalling out in their personal development, and reducing their impact on the business.

    At McKinsey, we use the S-curve model to support our learning and development agenda, as well as the career progression of consultants and partners globally. We know that if people continue to stay in roles where they are no longer emotionally charged and motivated, their performance will stall.

    We also know that a number of barriers might hinder them from stretching, thus preventing them from unlocking their full potential. For example, a low level of self-confidence can have a huge negative impact on a person’s ability to grow or learn. In his book The Confidence Gap, Russ Harris writes that low self-confidence can be caused by a combination of harsh self-judgment, excessive expectations, a preoccupation with fear, and a lack of experience.

    To help workers build what we call “authentic professional confidence,” McKinsey uses an emotional flexibility model in which we encourage people to practice mindfulness, define their purpose and values, commit to action, practice self-compassion, defuse tension, and learn acceptance. Armed with confidence, they can continue to stretch and grow throughout their careers.


    We all create our own personal brands that differentiate us from co-workers and competitors. Key elements of a personal brand include a clear value proposition, a personal story, authenticity, expertise, consistency, visibility, and connections.

    In their book Leadership Brand, authors Dave Ulrich and Norm Smallwood describe five steps people should take to shape their brands: Determine the results they want to achieve in the next year, decide what they wish to be known for, define their identities, construct and test their personal brand statements, and make their brand identities real.

    In the future, people will need to re-brand themselves multiple times during their careers as they develop different skill sets and play new professional roles. Many will earn additional credentials from online vendors such as Coursera, edX, Lynda.com, and Udemy—all of whom offer digital badges that individuals can post on their social media sites. Thus, these badges become part of each individual’s brand, and social networks become a way for workers to extend their brand reach.

    Social networks also can be useful when workers are looking for jobs. In an August 21, 2015, article in the Financial Times, John Gurskey of Melbourne Business School suggests that hiring managers often reach out to their professional networks before they even advertise a job opening.

    In addition, social networks are valuable because they help individuals stay informed, make them more innovative, encourage them to learn new things, and act as sounding boards, says INSEAD’s Herminia Ibarra in an April 18, 2016, piece in the Harvard Business Review. The most useful networks, write Karie Willyerd and Barbara Mistick in the book Stretch, are diverse ones filled with people who can provide different connections, insights, and career opportunities.


    Apple visionary Steve Jobs once said, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. …And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

    People will spend eight or more hours a day at work for the 40 or 50 years of their careers. It is essential that they do what they love, because work has such a huge impact on their health and well-being. In his book What Makes Life Worth Living?, Gordon Mathews of the Chinese University of Hong Kong describes the Japanese concept of ikigai, which translates to “a reason for being” or “a life worth living.” It encompasses all elements of life, including work, hobbies, relationships, and spiritual beliefs. Mathews believes that when people discover their ikigai, they find satisfaction and meaning in life.

    But ikigai can be even more powerful. In a 2008 article in Psychosomatic Medicine, Toshimasa Sone and co-authors studied more than 43,000 Japanese adults and found that the risk from all-cause mortality was significantly higher among those who did not find a sense of ikigai.

    The Japanese believe that people can achieve ikigai by answering four questions, which can be found in the book ikigai by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles: What do you love? What does the world need? What can you be paid for? What are you good at? Individuals will identify their ikigai at the intersection of these insights.


    Not everyone will find ikigai at the workplace. For instance, one person might see work simply as a job; he is motivated by financial rewards and has the goal of buying material objects. A second person is seeking a career; she is motivated by the desire for success, and her objective is to achieve tangible milestones. But the person who considers work his calling will find it brings him ikigai. This person is motivated by the work itself, because it brings him deep personal satisfaction.

    Although organizations have a great responsibility to provide a context for meaning, those who want to be satisfied in their jobs need to take steps to create a calling for themselves. Lifelong learners will constantly refine their skills as they look for new ways to stay engaged in and passionate about their work.


    Finally, the most successful individuals will be those who make it a priority to stay healthy by paying attention to exercise, nutrition, relaxation, and sleep. Sleep is much more important for learning than many people realize. It has a huge impact on our ability to acquire and retain knowledge, and it also can affect attention, concentration, creativity, development of insight, pattern recognition, decision making, emotional reactivity, socio-emotional procession, and the ability to develop relationships of trust. All of these abilities are necessary for tomorrow’s workers.


If lifelong education becomes standard operating procedure for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, business schools will have a tremendous opportunity to serve a wide variety of learners.

Undergraduates and graduates will need to develop solid digital and business analytics competencies, and they will expect to find the relevant courses as core parts of the business school curriculum. But in addition to polishing the skills that will help them work with machines, they will need to develop the competencies that are unique to humans, such as creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork, and the ability to influence others. Just as important, they will need to learn how to learn so they can continue to master new skills as needed.

Alumni will return to their alma maters when they want to upgrade their skills or acquire the expertise that will enable them to transition to new fields and stay employable throughout their careers. As the shelf-life of knowledge continues to decline, alumni will look for courses on the latest business knowledge.

Organizations will partner with institutions that can deliver the skills their employees need and want. In the future, organizations are likely to find that they can only keep the best employees if they create “learning cultures” that offer workers ongoing development opportunities.

Not all learners will be looking for two-year or four-year degrees. Some will want quick, just-in-time courses; others will gravitate toward short, stackable certificate programs; and others will look for convenient online or blended courses.

But every type of student will expect business schools to deliver learning excellence. One way schools can achieve this is by designing programs that draw on insights from the field of neuroscience, which examines how people learn and change behavior. For instance, we know that all learning has an emotional base; focused attention is key; spacing, repetition, and sequencing of knowledge accelerate memorization; active engagement of the learner is a necessary condition for learning; and a person’s ability to learn is improved by sufficient sleep, healthy nutrition, and mindful practices. Other learning research suggests that students learn best in flipped classrooms where they collaborate in teams, process new knowledge, and practice skills. We also know that learning excellence is facilitated by faculty who create stimulating learning environments, provide personalized mentoring, and deliver inspirational classes.

If business schools don’t offer the environment and the opportunities that learners want, all of these learners will look for alternate educational providers. Like corporations and like workers themselves, business schools must be prepared to adopt rapidly changing technology, adapt to economic disruptions, and reinvent themselves as needed if they want to prosper during the 21st century of work.

Nick van Dam is partner, the Global Chief Learning Officer, and a client advisor at McKinsey & Company; he is based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is an adjunct professor in the executive doctoral program for chief learning officers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; he is also a full professor of corporate learning and development at Nyenrode Business University in Breukelen, the Netherlands. He serves on the corporate advisory board of edX and is a board member of AACSB and ICEDR, a nonprofit network organization of corporations and universities.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's March/April 2018 print issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].