Science of Learning 101: Learning Sciences and the Changing Nature of Work

Monday, November 23, 2015

Welcome to the new world of work. Do you know anyone who can no longer find work (or do the work they used to do) because their “job” has radically changed?

To emphasize how much jobs are changing, consider the number of jobs that didn’t exist five years ago: data scientist, digital marketing specialist, Android developer, cloud services specialist, API platform engineer, web analyst, and so forth. Indeed, due to the rate of knowledge change in many fields, most jobs are rapidly evolving—with little end of change in sight.

In my June 2015 blog post, “Are We Doing the Right Things,” I discussed the impact of the knowledge-doubling curve on the workplace. This rate of change in knowledge necessitates changes in supporting jobs and work. How could it not, really? Still, many people in the L&D field are still conducting work like it is 1980—or even 1950 (Perhaps, they are using the Internet, but not preparing instruction much differently other than venue.)

Do Workers Have Adequate Skills?

ATD defines a skills gap as a significant breach between an organization’s current capabilities and the skills needed to achieve its goals and meet customer demands. It is the point at which an organization may not be able to grow or remain competitive because it cannot fill critical jobs with employees who have the right knowledge, skills, and abilities. 

Unfortunately, Bridging the Skills Gap reports that 84 percent of respondents to the 2015 ATD Skills Gap Survey said there is a definite skills gap in their organizations, and more than half (56 percent) noted that the skills of the current workforce do not match changes in company strategy, goals, markets, or business models. In addition, a lack of requisite skills when promoting internal candidates for certain types of jobs is a problem for 48 percent of respondents, and 45 percent said there are too few qualified candidates when hiring for certain types of jobs. 


This data concurs with statistics and comparisons from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international forum for comparing economic data. Specifically, OECD Skills Outlook 2013 First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills provides insights into the existing availability of key workplace skills, including literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments. The OEDC report clearly states that skills are one of the largest and most important factors on an individual’s life chances. What’s more, companies without adequately skilled workers can’t compete in the world marketplace.

OECD found that most of the workers in the United States and other countries, such as Germany, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, are below average in the key workplace skills measured (see Figure 0.2 in the report). This is especially troubling as the demands of jobs are increasing. In addition, OECD found that the countries with above average scores not only have more workers with skills, but also those workers have the highest skill levels. What does this mean for countries, companies, and individuals without these key skills and those who fall into lower level proficiencies?

The Survey of Adult Skills also reported that from 7 to 27 percent of adults described very little experience and confidence with computers. They were unable to do simple things like use a mouse, solve problems, and find files. The survey found that Nordic countries and the Netherlands were more successful than other countries in assuring that adults had computer skills.

Using Learning Sciences to Bridge the Skills Gap

Not having adequate work skills are system failures; it means that companies and people are failing. We can continue to do things as we are doing them, knowing that knowledge is increasing at an increasing rate and the bar keeps rising, or we can decide it’s time to be the change our organizations need.

In an upcoming ATD research report, I will discuss how learning science leaders and organizational learning leaders see the situation. Here’s the good news: they see the situation clearly, and they know that we must use the science of learning rather than typical fads to get ahead of this.

Next month, I’ll discuss how the science of learning has some answers for organizations facing this problem. Business as usual isn’t one of them.

About the Author
Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of The Online Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor for Online Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.
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