Two education experts and business coaches, Leenamaija Otala (left) and Heli Väre (right), tell us why it is time for organisations and companies to wake up to the call of lifelong learning. They were met at the Dare to Learn learning festival event in Helsinki on September 19th, at a discussion “When work becomes continuous learning”, hosted by Demos Helsinki.

Ditching lifelong learning at work is a leadership problem

Interview. What is the role of continuous education in answering a global megatrend, the revolution in working life? How to make workplaces value lifelong learning? Two education experts share their thoughts on why all organisations should grab the bull by the horns and start sending their staff – and their managers – to training.

Karoliina Knuuti Photo Karoliina Knuuti

25.10.2019

The so-called revolution in working life can mean many different ongoing changes that are happening due to rapid technological developments. For several decades already, digitalisation and automation have been putting pressure on skills development in workplaces. Now robotisation and artificial intelligence too are transforming industries in ways that are hard to predict.

According to the negative vision of the future, the revolution may lead to whole professions and even industries becoming obsolete. According to the positive vision on the other hand, the technological developments will introduce many unseen opportunities and may create new jobs, professions and industries that are out of the reach of our imagination.

Whether we focus on the positive or the negative aspects, change is on its way at an accelerating pace.

What does it mean for workplace culture to really embrace continuous learning? How can we guarantee that as many people as possible will see learning as a core part of their everyday lives?

Two education experts and business coaches, Heli Väre and Leenamaija Otala, tell us why it is time for organisations and companies to wake up to the call of lifelong learning.

Heli Väre, why do you think that public sector is not keeping up with lifelong learning?

“I think that this is a leadership problem. Public sector organisations are traditionally hierarchical. The attitude is that knowledge is power.

Take schools and teaching work as an example. It was quite shocking for me to move from the business world to the academic world. Teachers have, in principle, autonomy, but the problem at most education institutes is that teachers are not trained continuously.

Traditionally, when a teacher comes to work, they can work in the same school for 20-30 years. What is their willingness, ability or motivation to develop their skills if the employer does not encourage or support learning in any way?

Hierarchical leadership is no longer appropriate in today’s world: young people cannot be managed in the same way as people in their fifties.

It is entirely up to the teachers themselves whether they are motivated, willing or have time to participate in training after the working day.

In the corporate world, workers are sent for training. Sometimes you must go and learn something, or you will lose the job. The public sector must wake up to this. Now the situation in public education sector is that the shoemaker’s children go barefoot.

In most organisations, I see this as a middle management issue. That is, employees may have the desire to learn, but their immediate manager does not have the ability or desire to encourage it. Top management, on the other hand, may have its finger on the pulse and recognise the need.

Workplaces are undergoing a major transformation as new generations enter the workforce. Young people want a job that is fun and meaningful. Hierarchical leadership is no longer appropriate in today’s world: young people cannot be managed in the same way as people in their fifties.

The managers should start to motivate people, for example by offering carrots to staff willing to developing themselves and their skills. There could be, for example, a bonus salary system, even in the public sector.

Managers also need to develop their own skills, as leadership also requires continuous learning. A manager can never be good enough.”

“The problem at most education institutes is that teachers are not trained continuously,” says Heli Väre, M.Sc., HR, Business Coach and account Manager at Levón Institute, University of Vaasa. She has worked in both private and public sectors.

Leenamaija Otala, what kind of message would you like to send to companies to help them to understand how to invest in the lifelong learning and well-being of their employees?

“What are the only resources companies have today? I would say money and people. Anyone with a good business idea can get money. That’s not the problem. The true resource for a company is its employees.

Problems that companies face are not always solved with information and facts. Sometimes it’s more about intuition. Leadership should therefore think about how to get people excited, energised and motivated enough to use all their skills and their subconscious mind to work on the solutions they need at work.

Do people bring their minds and hearts to work? Do they think “I want to solve that customer’s problem”, or “This is so interesting, I want to find out more about this”? Or do they work from nine to five, and then expect to live a “real life” afterwards?

Experts do not put their souls into the work if they are constantly being watched or told how exactly to do their job, or if they are strictly expected to report on that and that exact day.

The answer to that has an awful lot to do with leadership. Of course, it is also influenced by other employees, because good guys attract other good guys to workplaces.

The reason for not succeeding in this is fear: the fear of failure felt by the managers.

It takes courage to trust one’s subordinates and let them solve problems and innovate themselves. Fear prevents managers from seeing that they will succeed as a manager when they trust their subordinates and help them to succeed. Instead, fear makes superiors want to be on constant watch, to micromanage and to control.

Nowadays, there are many workplaces with only expert-level jobs. Experts do not put their souls into the work if they are constantly being watched or told how exactly to do their job, or if they are strictly expected to report on that and that exact day. Creative work is such that it does not happen just when it is demanded. Sometimes it takes more time and sometimes something is created in an instant.

The opposite of fear is to trust one’s subordinates and let them try different things. It is like coaching – and asking rather than telling.”

Fear of failure makes managers want to be on constant watch, to micromanage and to control their subordinates. Unfortunately, according to Leenamaija Otala, these old-fashioned methods work rather badly with experts.

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