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Independent Learners in the Knowledge Economy

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

In the knowledge economy, people must take responsibility for their own learning. They need to learn independently and learn what they need to know when they need to know it. The world of work is changing too fast for any worker to remain a passive learner. John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, leading thinkers in technology and learning, write in an article for Harvard Business Review titled “Help Employees Create Knowledge—Not Just Share It":

When we recognize that the environment around us is rapidly changing, skills have a shorter and shorter half-life. While skills are still necessary for success, the focus should shift to cultivating the underlying capabilities that can accelerate learning so that new skills can be more rapidly acquired. These capabilities include curiosity, critical thinking, willingness to take risk, imagination, creativity, and social and emotional intelligence. If we can develop those learning capabilities, we should be able to rapidly evolve our skill sets in ways that keep us ahead of the game.

A good example of what they are saying is R&D. Not long ago, product prototypes took months to produce, often by an outside fabricator. Now, a skilled worker using a 3-D printer can make that prototype in hours. The implications for a company’s innovation and competitiveness are profound. And 3-D printers are only going to get better and better. Operators of these advanced 3-D printers need to be curious, think critically, be willing to take risks, be creative, and work well with others.

Jane Hart calls this person the “modern professional learner.” She writes:


For modern professional learners, learning is not something that happens just in education or training, but happens in many different ways every day both at work and on the web. Hence modern learning skills are not just about how to study or take a course online, but how to make the most of all the different experiences and opportunities they seek out and encounter.

However, employees can’t become modern professional learners unless their organizations are supportive of independent learning. Support from training and HR departments is necessary but insufficient. L&D professionals can’t keep up with the pace of learning that has to occur on the job and in the flow of work. And they can’t continue to support and reinforce that learning over time. The organization as a whole must have an environment that is conducive to independent learning. The major characteristics and actions of that environment include the following:

  • Leaders and managers communicate the value that they place on learning.
  • Managers prioritize employee development and see this as an important part of their role (we call this "managing minds").
  • It is OK to take risks. Failure is an opportunity to learn, and people shouldn’t be criticized or punished for trying something that might not have a positive outcome.
  • There is open, honest, transparent communication throughout the organization.
  • Knowledge isn’t hoarded by individuals and departments; knowledge is shared so that everyone is learning.
  • All stakeholders are involved in identifying performance goals for individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole.
  • Learning and performance feedback and reflection are part of the normal course of work so that everyone is continuously learning from what they do.
  • Opportunities for social learning in-person and via social media are embedded in the workday; the physical environment facilitates co-workers connecting and sharing their knowledge and skills.
  • Learning is considered work and work is considered learning; work and learning are not separated in the minds of employees and their managers.

Yes, workers today need to learn independently and continuously. However, even with individual ability, this won’t happen unless the culture of the organization removes barriers to learning and supports learning in every aspect of how the organization does its work.

For more on this topic, see my new book Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy, published by ATD Press, and available now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on The Performance Improvement Blog.

About the Author
Stephen is the co-owner of, a marketplace for organizational learning tools, and also owner and principal of Stephen J. Gill Consulting. Steve's expertise is in creating learning cultures in organizations and measuring the impact of learning and performance improvement interventions. He has done this work for more than 25 years, since leaving the faculty of the University of Michigan, School of Education. He has written extensively about these topics. His most recent books are Getting More From Your Investment in Training: The 5As Framework, published by RealTime Performance in 2009, Developing a Learning Culture in Nonprofit Organizations, published by Sage Publications in 2010, and Communication in High Performance Organizations: Principles and Best Practices, published as Kindle ebook in 2011. Steve also posts regularly on The Performance Improvement Blog. He serves his community as an elected trustee of Washtenaw Community College.  
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