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ATD Blog

Lifelong Learning Is a Vital Capability for TD Professionals

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Lifelong learning is the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for personal or professional reasons. Association for Talent Development (ATD) research finds that nearly 60 percent of high-performing organizations actively encourage their employees to be lifelong learners, and talent development professionals are leading the way in encouraging, embracing, and creating a culture of self-directed or lifelong learning within organizations.

TD professionals are obligated to model the value of lifelong learning by updating critical knowledge and skills for personal and professional reasons. Taking ownership for your professional development signals to others that they should do the same.

“A culture of learning requires a growth mindset, or the belief that people are able to increase their talent and ability through curiosity and learning,” according to the Talent Development Body of Knowledge. “The growth mindset concept was pioneered by Carol Dweck, and her research shows that employees with a growth mindset have a desire to learn and a tendency to embrace change, learn from criticism, and find inspiration in the success of others.”

A TD professional with capability in lifelong learning or continuous learning will need knowledge of:

  • How a desire to learn can lead to the expansion and development of knowledge and skills over time
  • Resources for career exploration and lifelong learning for themselves and others

Lifelong learning is one of the 23 capabilities in the Talent Development Capability Model and is part of the Building Personal Capability domain. It is marked by traits such as self-motivation, insatiable curiosity, and intelligent risk-taking.

“Keeping pace with a workforce that’s continuing to learn and be adept to understanding shifts in the marketplace, in industries, and in technologies enables businesses to be innovative and to quickly recognize and act on opportunities. That drives competitive advantage,” Loren Heeringa, senior vice president and chief HR officer at Land O’Lakes, said in ATD’s Lifelong Learning: The Path to Personal and Organizational Performance research report.


An effective TD professional will need to have skills in:

  • Acquiring new knowledge through professional development activities for themselves (for example, attending professional conferences, self-directed reading, and monitoring industry trends)
  • Developing, maintaining, and leveraging networks across a range of people and groups inside and outside the organization (for example, influential people and learning and performance experts)

“New technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence, changing work processes, and shifts in customer buying habits make it important for us to help people cultivate that drive to learn,” said Michael Kessler, CLO at BAE Systems, in the ATD report. “We have to have people who are not just able to react to changes, but also who are interested in learning about [the changes] proactively, so we can get ahead of the game. That’s the real strategic differentiator. Because at the end of the day, if we’re not moving ahead, we’re going to be falling behind. There’s no opportunity to sit still when so much is evolving.”

Companies that nurture lifelong learners see improvements in employee engagement, organizational performance, employee retention, and the ability to meet changing business needs. The 2019 ATD BEST Award winners supported lifelong learning through their talent strategies and initiatives. For example, in more than 90 percent of the award-winning companies, employees participate in setting their own annual performance goals, and more than 95 percent of winners create personal development plans for employees.


“BMO U [a mobile learning platform] brings together all the ways in which employees learn—for today’s job, for tomorrow’s career, and as they pursue their personal passions,” Gina Jeneroux, BMO Financial Group’s chief learning officer, said in an October 2019 TD magazine BEST Award article. “It helps them build the learning agility they need to be successful.”

There has never been a greater need for learning professionals to be lifelong learners.

“Learning isn’t simply about earning degrees or attending storied institutions. Books, online courses, MOOCs (massive open online courses), professional development programs, podcasts, and other resources have never been more abundant or accessible, making it easier than ever to make a habit of lifelong learning,” wrote John Coleman, co-author of Passion & Purpose: Stories From the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, in a Harvard Business Review article, “Lifelong Learning Is Good for Your Health, Your Wallet, and Your Social Life”.

About the Author

Paula Ketter is ATD's content strategist. Previously, she served as editor of ATD's periodicals.

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