Uncertainty — it’s the one thing in our future that is certain. Look to our politics and financial markets for affirmation. But what does it mean for learning? And what are the issues learning leaders need to address to set priorities in the face of growing uncertainty?
The driver is a darling of our contemporary world: innovation.
Innovation is not new. It has always been a part of life in America. Agriculture at the time of our nation’s founding was more than 90 percent of the U.S. economy. Today it is less than 2 percent. That massive shift is compelling evidence that something big has been going on for a very long time. Now change is accelerating.
The shift from 90 percent to 2 percent occurred over more than two centuries. Today huge changes take mere years. The other driver is the scope of change. Entire industries are being wiped out in less than a decade.
The behemoth of innovation today is the digitizing of nearly everything. Learning is no exception. Let’s begin with training for specific skills.
In the 20th century, most assets were built by trained artisans working with their hands. Highly experienced craft persons built buildings, roads and factories. They were the steel workers, the pipe fitters, the bricklayers, the electricians, the roofers and the welders with the skills needed to put complex things together. Creation of things required additional skills, including detailed planning, financing and project management, to name a few. The resulting physical assets often took years, even decades, to complete. They were designed to last decades. We could see, touch and feel what they built. All this made for a more certain world.
In the digital world, the builders are the software engineers and the programmers. Coders are the craft persons creating and assembling the digital assets of today and tomorrow. It increases uncertainty when we cannot actually see, touch or feel what they are building. The assets are literally all around us, yet invisible. One implication for learning is the need to train more coders and software engineers — and fast.
The result will be an even more invisible world. In financial markets that day has already arrived. Algorithmic trading programs trade the stocks of companies in our 401(k) retirement accounts, all without ever being touched by a human hand. The results are both invisible and uncertain. The fear is of bots of the future.
These forces are causing skills acquired over a lifetime of experience to become obsolete. This rapid obsolescence of our valuable human capital is one of the major uncertainties of the new order. There is much anguish over the destruction of jobs. All the while the learning community is challenged to train more and do it faster. We must rebuild our human capital to address the unknowable changes already in motion.
There are many other shifts going on in learning. In the past, to learn we went to a library, took a course or attended a conference. What do we do today? Google a search phrase or search for a video on YouTube. We learn on demand while sitting at a desk or interacting with our smartphones. It is change in both what we learn and how we learn it.
YouTube is functioning like a huge, largely unmanaged LMS, and it’s not just about content and its delivery modality. The role of credentials in learning has changed. The credentials of the teacher used to be important. When is the last time you even reviewed the credentials of a presenter in a YouTube video? My guess is never. We click on the search results, open the video and, if not satisfied, move on to the next search result. Because it is free, massive in content and extremely easy to use, trial-and-error learning has become common. The reduction in the value of credentials introduces even more uncertainty for those in the learning community.
But this massive new LMS is only one example of a new order in learning. There are critically important universal skills needed for both innovation and the reaction to innovation. Critical thinking and problem-solving are enduring capabilities, more so now than ever in this world of rapid change and uncertainty. However, I would argue we do not currently have a very good strategy for developing these critically important capabilities.