Is there such a thing as an optimal learner?

If there is one thing that the modern worker needs to be able to do it is to keep learning. The skill of learnability is very highly prized in today’s world, with employers being increasingly interested in a person’s future capability rather than just their current capability. After all, what we all know today could be completely irrelevant in two to three years’ time because skills and knowledge date so quickly now.

Our recent Human to Hybrid research looked at what it means to be an optimal worker and how the concept of the optimal learner fits into that. One of the key findings to emerge from the research is that leaders consider only 52% of their workforce to be optimal workers.  A concerning statistic for HR and L&D, clearly a lot more needs to be done to improve workforce capabilities.

In order to be an optimal worker, employees have to have learnability. The good news is that employers and employees alike can work on improving this. It’s not a case of you have it or you don’t, although some people demonstrate a stronger propensity towards learning than others and are more receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking and doing.

Organisations that want to improve the learnability of employees need to think about what characteristics are displayed by an optimal learner. Is it someone who signs up to every course that is on offer? That may indicate a keen desire to get on, but it does not necessarily mean that someone knows how to learn or what they need to learn in order to do their job better.

Optimal learners tend to display certain characteristics:

  • They tend to be curious and inquisitive.
  • They are people that ask lots of questions, rather than being people who always give definitive answers.
  • They are good listeners and collaborators, willing to take on board the opinions of other people and to have their own opinions and knowledge challenged.
  • They are not afraid to take on a new challenge, recognising that failure is always a possibility and is sometimes necessary in order to succeed.

It is important that organisations have a clear idea of what they think constitutes good learnability because once you have identified the characteristics you would like employees to have, you can then work on developing them. Only then can you ensure the right culture, tools and processes are in place to enable learnability to thrive.

Employees need to be signposted towards learning and encouraged to take control of their learning. Think about the  interventions that you offer as an organisation – do you run courses that adhere to old school thinking and train people up to do one thing one way? Or do you design learning so it encourages people to learn for themselves and to consider the possibility that there are multiple ways to address a problem?

You need to make sure managers understand the concept of learnability and support employees in learning not only what they need to do their jobs now, but also what they'll need to do their jobs tomorrow.

Managers need to consider the different learning needs of a multi-generational workforce and not assume that people over a certain age are done with learning. People can learn new skills and new attitudes at any age. By encouraging older workers to keep learning and ensuring they have access to learning, employers are not just developing and enhancing the skills and performance of older workers, they are also developing and enhancing the overall skills and performance of the organisation.

The different generations  have a lot to learn from each other so cross generational learning and working should be encouraged. When all generations collaborate together it leads to a much richer, more effective learning and working experience and learning is shared, rather than lost.

Individuals and organisations need to be flexible and agile in their approach to learning. We all have to learn, unlearn and relearn throughout our working lives now. There is no longer such thing as a career or a set of skills that will last a person throughout their working lives. That’s why everyone needs to keep learning and keep moving forward. The optimal worker and learner understands that and will always make sure they have the right skills for the future.

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