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Lifelong Learning in Business and Leadership


Posted November 08, 2017 by Tom Robinson - President and CEO - AACSB International

The future of work is changing. Many companies and jobs that exist today did not exist a decade ago. Similarly, the so-called blue-chip companies of the past, in addition to some occupations, have largely disappeared. Rapid technological advances and the continued development of new products and services will cause this trend to continue. We do not know with any certainty what jobs will look like in the future; the only thing that seems certain is that they will likely look different, and the knowledge (understanding of concepts), skills (application of knowledge), and abilities (innate or developed capacity to perform tasks), needed to function in these roles will also change. Individuals will need to continue to refresh themselves, creating an increasing need for lifelong learning to provide them with the breadth and depth of knowledge, skills, and abilities they will need.

Technological Advances

Advances in computing and storage power over the past decades have led to vast amounts of data availability. Across many jobs today there is a need to understand, analyze, interpret, and communicate about this data. Take auditing for example. I started my career as an auditor at an accounting firm in the 1980s. We learned all about statistical sampling to select accounts to be investigated. Today, auditors are able to analyze the entire population of data. Knowledge and application of statistical sampling has been replaced by a need for auditors to understand data analytics. Accounting firms are partnering with business schools to create new graduate programs combining auditing and data analytics.

Some jobs will disappear or change due to automation and artificial intelligence. A 2013 article by scholars at Oxford estimated the probability for each of over 700 job classifications to be computerized. For example, they estimate a 99 percent probability that the job function of tax preparers could be automated. On the other hand, they estimate that mental health workers have less than a 1 percent chance of being automated out of existence. A similar analysis by McKinsey estimates that 5 percent of occupations consist of activities that are 100 percent automatable, while 60 percent of occupations consist of activities that are at least 30 percent automatable. While everything that we do as humans cannot be automated, it is clear that the totality of what we do will change. The good news is that, as in prior technological revolutions, today’s automation era could lead to both increases in productivity and a higher level of engaging work, eliminating more routine tasks such as filling out tax forms or reviewing loan files.

Innovation in Products, Services, and the Workforce

We live in an entrepreneurial age. New products and services are being created every day—from drones to home-delivery meal kits to the ability to hail a ride with an app on your phone. New types of jobs are being created along with these products and services, such as drone pilots, app developers, and Uber drivers. The nature of the workforce is also changing. Gone are the days when an individual spent 100 percent of their work life at a single company. When I started my career in public accounting there was a well-defined hierarchical structure—pretty much a pyramid. You started at the bottom as a staff accountant and worked your way up to senior accountant, manager, and then partner, with many dropping off along the way to pursue other opportunities. It was up or out. If you did not make partner, you had to leave.

Today, the workforce at a major international accounting firm looks much different. You still have the traditional workforce, but you also have a virtual workforce that works from a distance: a contingent workforce that you contract with when needed (the gig economy), and a digital workforce (bots). The many folks working the gig economy likely will work many different gigs over their lifetime, each requiring different knowledge, skills, and abilities.

What Are Employers Looking for Now?

A 2014 study by the Economist and the Lumina Foundation examining companies’ skills needs found the following as the most important (in order of importance):

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Communication
  • Technical skills associated with the job
  • Adaptability/managing multiple priorities
  • Professionalism
  • Planning and organizational
  • Reading for information
  • Locating information
  • Networking
  • Applied mathematics

Similarly, a 2016 study by the Business Council of Canada and AON Hewitt found similar needs for entry-level candidates. Interestingly, this study found that, for entry-level candidates, companies are also looking for functional knowledge (ranked No. 3) as well as industry-specific knowledge and experience (ranked No. 9). This study also surveyed the capabilities companies are looking for in mid-level candidates (in order of importance):

  • Leadership skills
  • People skills/relationship building
  • Collaboration/teamwork skills
  • Industry specific knowledge and experience
  • Problem solving skills
  • Communication skills
  • Creative/innovative thinking
  • Functional knowledge
  • Analytical capabilities
  • Project management skills
  • Customer service skills
  • Technological literacy
  • Sales skills

It is important to note that, for mid-level staff, industry-specific knowledge has moved up to the No. 4 slot, while general functional knowledge has moved down (but is still important). As one might expect, at the middle level, leadership and people skills appear at the top of the list.

Lifelong Learning Framework

Given the pace of change in business, technology, and jobs, it is critical that individuals become lifelong learners. They must evolve their education and training (with the assistance of business schools and employers) to reinvent and re-prepare themselves with new knowledge, skills, and abilities every few years. Figure 1 presents an infographic on what lifelong learning in business and leadership looks like.

Lifelong learning infographic - career and business education trajectory

Core Undergraduate Learning

Before entering the workforce, an individual should acquire a broad set of knowledge, skills, and abilities with an emphasis on business fundamentals. This includes critical thinking, communication, and teamwork skills. Many feel that exposure to a broad education, including subjects such as liberal arts and technology in addition to business subjects, is important for developing skills that can be applied in a variety of contexts. This core learning should focus on both knowledge and skills, making experiential learning opportunities critical.

Early Career

Early in one’s career, it is important to have functional knowledge, and in some areas, such as accounting, finance, or data analytics, this must be deep, specialized functional knowledge. Certain knowledge can be acquired on the job, while other jobs will require that the candidate pursue a specialized degree, certificate, or certification before starting work—or concurrently.

Team Leadership

As individuals move up in their career (which can occur quite quickly today), they will need to acquire team leadership skills and will need further education in managing people and teams. This can occur through generalist master’s degree programs, executive education, or corporate training programs.

Organizational Leadership

For individuals who aspire to lead organizations, additional learning will be needed to refresh and refine leadership skills and broaden their knowledge to other areas of an organization where they might have less experience. This can occur in generalist master’s, executive education, executive doctoral, or other formal or informal leadership development programs.

Throughout Career

In addition, lifelong professional development is important throughout one’s career (or careers!). It is important to stay current on functional, industry, management, and leadership knowledge and skills. This can be formal or informal and might involve continuing education programs, executive education, or professional development programs.

Parting Thoughts

At some stages of one’s career, a broad set of knowledge, skills, and abilities is needed, while at other times a depth of knowledge, skills, and abilities is necessary. This idea is represented by the Education “T” in the infographic, signifying the importance of both breadth and depth of learning. The path one takes over a career may move between these levels, and education over one’s lifetime might look like an “M” or a “W” or take other shapes. Periodic learning may be needed in other deeply specialized areas. For example, someone who began their career as an accountant a decade ago and received specialty education in accounting and then moved into team leadership may need to go back to learn deep functional knowledge and skills in data analytics to be competitive today.

In today’s workforce, higher education is no longer “one and done.” You do not earn a degree once and stop learning. Learning must continue throughout your career.


Tom Robinson is on Twitter @TomRobinsonPhd.

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