Learning at work is work, and we must make space for it.
The event was running over, the car was waiting, but the keynote speaker did not seem to mind. He was enjoying fielding questions from a large auditorium packed to the rafters with executives, aspiring entrepreneurs, and management students. “Get ready for an age in which we are all in tech,” he had told them, “whether you work in the tech industry or not.” The moderator called for one last question. “What’s the best way to get ready?” a woman asked. “Be great at learning,” he said without hesitation. “The moment you stop learning is the moment you begin to die.”
Calls for learning have long been common at corporate retreats, professional conferences, and similar gatherings. But with the furious pace of change that technology has brought to business and society, they have become more urgent.1 Leaders in every sector seem to agree: Learning is an imperative, not a cliché. Without it, careers derail and companies fail. Talented people flock to employers that promise to invest in their development whether they will stay at the company or not.2 And companies spend heavily on it. By one estimate, in 2018, corporate outlays on learning and development initiatives topped $200 billion.3
Despite the lofty statements and steep investments, however, learning at work remains complicated. People are ambivalent about it, if not outright resistant. We want to learn, but we worry that we might not like what we learn. Or that learning will cost us too much. Or that we will have to give up cherished ideas.4 There is often some shame involved in learning something new as an adult, a mentor told me at the start of my career. What if, in the process, we’re found lacking? What if we simply cannot pick up the knowledge and skills we need? I have spent two decades studying adult learning, helping companies design and deploy learning initiatives, and teaching and coaching thousands of high potentials and executives all over the world. And I have found that mentor’s words to be wise: Nothing truly novel, nothing that matters, is ever learned with ease.
Furthermore, most organizations are not as hospitable to learning as their rhetoric suggests.