Future of work: Why the new learning economy plus development equity is a successful formula

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Stephen Bailey, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, ExecOnline


  • The world of work has been massively disrupted by COVID-19, sociopolitical unrest and employees leaving for a better work-life balance.
  • Business leaders should recognize change is the new normal and that they must embrace the new learning economy to be successful.
  • Development equity is also vital to ensure that employees have equal access to opportunities to leverage all their staff’s full potential.

Most of our current conversations related to the economy focus on what you would expect: continued uncertainty as we grapple with COVID-19 fallout; the potential impact of prolonged sociopolitical unrest; and, in many countries, the effect of workplace attrition as employees seek better opportunities for personal growth and wellbeing.

Even with these factors already under consideration, a recent New York Times article predicts that “the worst is yet to come”. But, as dire as that sounds, there are areas of opportunity. These same destabilizing factors have laid the groundwork for us to enter what I call the ‘new learning economy’.

The past couple of years have highlighted those with the ability to quickly pivot and transform how they operate. Most business leaders have come to realize that change is the new normal.

What they may not realize is what – and who – they’re overlooking in attempts to best position themselves in the ever-changing landscape that fosters the new learning economy and defines the future of work.

What is the new learning economy?

The new learning economy recognizes the greatest opportunity exists in the space between the pace of learning and the pace of change, which has significant implications for the importance of professional development.

Most importantly, how a company is able to leverage technology to deliver high-quality employee training and development in ways that are more impactful and equitable than ever before will determine how well positioned it is for competitive success.

In the new learning economy, if you can consistently learn faster than the pace of change, you have the advantage. And like any economic model, the new learning economy works toward multiple goals:

Growth: Growth is about how well a company contributes to employee professional advancement in order for those employees to contribute to the company’s increasing agility and adaptability needs.

Employment: Meeting market demand for development helps employers save costs by retaining existing employees and attracting new talent who want their growth goals to be valued and supported.

Stability: Development opportunities are often de-prioritized in an economic downturn, but establishing frameworks that cost-effectively democratize and scale access leads to long-term sustainability.

What is development equity and why is it so critical?

When I worked as a lawyer and later transitioned into the corporate world, I learned the power of the ‘tap on the shoulder’. That seemingly simple gesture was the expedited path to becoming a partner or member of the C-suite, respectively.

Yet the people being tapped for leadership training, stretch projects or facetime with senior executives tended to look just like those senior executives.

Business leaders often bemoan a “pipeline problem” when recruiting or promoting candidates from diverse backgrounds. Instead, they need to look at how well they support and empower those candidates through clear and objective means for professional growth.

This lack of development equity – equitable access for underrepresented groups to formalized, career-enhancing development opportunities – means organizations aren’t leveraging the full potential of their people or their own place in the new learning economy.

Numerous studies highlight the benefits of having diverse teams and leaders – increases in innovation, market share, and revenue are just a few. But there are other reasons, rooted in the human-centric shift we’ve seen since spring 2020, and most can be summarized with one word: representation.

Leaders and teams should, at a minimum, reflect the people the organization is trying to reach. Our population is changing, and global organizations, in particular, need to be mindful of diversity across race/ethnicity, gender, and age as well as cultural foundations, languages and belief systems.

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Leaders with vision are finding ways to achieve development equity and creating workplace cultures that are inclusive and enable the advancement of leaders of all backgrounds from all levels in an organization. Empathetic leadership, with intentional nurturing toward a safe and supportive work environment, is foundational to building a resilient and responsive workforce.

How can companies adequately prepare for the future of work?

If change is the new normal, then the future of work requires leadership with new perspectives, experiences and capacity for agility. It goes back to the humanist shift in how we view and prioritize ourselves and others and points to the need for continual learning and development opportunities.

There are three specific areas where an organization can be more strategic about its approach:

Means: Create a learning culture that not only invests appropriate resources in the system and tools needed for professional development, but emphasizes these experiences as a means to an end – equipping workers with what they need to be more successful in their own right as professionals.

Modalities: People learn and retain information differently, so provide a mix of live and on-demand courses, traditional and experiential formats, and access to coaching. In the spirit of inclusion, it’s also important to have multiple options for the instruction language for development experiences.

Measurements: You can’t manage what you don’t measure, so establish a baseline, set goals and track progress toward milestones in both development equity and overall leadership development.

The pace of change is accelerating. Soon the status quo will no longer be about survival –it will mean you’re a step or more behind. Similarly, providing someform of learning and development experiences for somesubset of employees makes you a participant in the new learning economy.

But until you prioritize development equity, and make the changes needed to fully support agility and ability across your entire organization, you’re missing out on the full potential of your organization’s success in the future of work.

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