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CTDO Magazine

It's Time to Co-Evolve People and Technology

Friday, October 15, 2021

CLOs need to take up the mission to influence the future of learning in a high-tech world.

In the 1970s, my then 10-year-old son introduced me to scuba diving. From then on, I dove around the world, only retiring my fins several years ago.


What I saw in the ocean changed over time—the many pristine corals I saw during my early dives developed increasingly bigger bleached spots. Initially, it was gradual; the corals evolved with environmental conditions.

Today, sudden local increases in water temperature are too much for them—the corals cannot adapt quickly on their own. Marine biologists are coming to the rescue, nurturing super reefs that are better able to evolve with conditions. They are assisting evolution.

Learning professionals face similar challenges. Technology-driven changes, like rising sea temperatures, are occurring gradually, but humans are on a precipice.

It’s been possible to change incrementally, such as with the assistance of better training methods and tools, process improvements, and more engagement. But the tacit agreement between technology and people that technology will do the routine and computational work while people use superior cognitive and creative intelligence to run the show is about to break. 

Machine intelligence (such as artificial intelligence), like warming sea waters, is reaching a tipping point where it will encroach on many areas we thought defined us as humans—including our ability to learn, create, and strategize.

A tectonic shift is in the making that will quake cultures and tear apart traditional power and relationship strangleholds. Think, gradually, then suddenly.

This change in the relationship between people and technology is on the brink of a state-changing boiling point similar to the one the proverbial frog faced. Technology is on a fast roll, but what about people in future scenarios where technology evolves exponentially?

Will people merge biologically with machines? Will we cede power to an increasingly higher intelligence? Will we find new ways to evolve at the pace of our creations?

A current technologist’s answer is “Full speed ahead with technology. If it can be created, it should be created.” 

Where is an equivalent powerful voice for the human side of the equation? Who will ask the philosophical (Who are we?), ethical (What should we …?), and human co-evolution (How can we …?) questions?

Learning professionals, whose role is to help people evolve, must keep those questions on the table. There is no one else with the professional knowledge or mission.

Foresight required

Futurists project that AI will advance through stages. First, artificial narrow intelligence (ANI) brings massive pattern-sensing, analytical, and prescriptive power to specific task areas.

Search engines, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, and intelligent manufacturing lines are examples. So are the smart apps on our mobile devices.

People set the algorithms and constraints governing ANI, which sometimes physically connects people and technology, such as implants for seizures or heart rhythm stabilization or diagnostic bots.

Then comes artificial general intelligence, which is projected to be a broad intelligence like ours. It will operate across task areas, monitor and adjust its own “thinking,” learn laterally as well as logically, and continually adjust to changing conditions.

Technology optimist Ray Kurzweil calls the point where technology is as smart as us “the singularity.” He anticipates that will happen around 2050.

Artificial super intelligence (ASI) is a machine intelligence and consciousness so much smarter than humans that it becomes a new species on the planet. Some ASI enthusiasts welcome that, saying that consciousness, intelligence, and communication will finally be free from biological constraints, inefficiencies, and decay.

A fourth possibility is super symbiotic intelligence, an intelligence that emerges as a powerful symbiosis of people and machines. That could take several forms.

Technology could use and limit us, or we could use and limit it. Or both could mutually evolve, spurred on by the other, which is my choice. 

Humans are in charge of technology today. But are we creating a Frankenstein monster that will ultimately control us?

Will our future be dystopian or utopian, where the well-being of living things determines the values and ethics by which technology operates and evolves?


The World Economic Forum sees the world entering a new industrial era: Industry 4.0. In the article “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means, How to Respond,” Klaus Schwab describes it as “unlike anything humankind has experienced before.”

Businesses and the world are at an inflection point. And chief learning officers will be critical to the outcomes. 

What CLOs face is not a traditional skill or relationship development challenge. We are being called on to be the major voice for evolving the human side of the business and—I believe—the planet. I think of it as helping people and enterprises move into the era of Learning 4.0.

Here are four action areas where you can help people and learning co-evolve with the accelerating changes.

Teach people how to learn for Industry 4.0. Most people’s learning skills and mindsets were barely adequate for the past century.

That is a tragedy in a 21st century where we know so much more about learning from neuroscience, biology, and developmental psychology. Every person in your business needs the advanced practices and mindsets for continuous personal development and change at a pace and with metaskills never required before.

For example, they need to know how to find the best information for their needs in an exploding information world, use technology as a personal evolution driver, stoke imagination, recognize and manage bias, enlist their whole body in their learning process, get into flow learning, tailor learning methods to the resources they are using, pursue and succeed in achieving (and evolving) longer-term learning goals, be a learning force in teams, help others learn, tune themselves for learning in the moment, and be learning transfer agents.

Access to great formal learning support is not enough. People need to be learning during the 95 percent of the time they are not in your programs. 


Learning skills developed in school and the dependency mindsets that linger—which lead to individuals thinking that the company is responsible for their learning—need a big upgrade so people can co-evolve with our fast-changing world and workplace. Everyone needs advanced learning training and a mindset of lifelong learning as an employment requirement.

Ensure the learning programs you provide are learnable and help participants become better learners. Continue to provide more learnable programs focused on work-related skills.

But also view every contact with learners—every course, learning tool, and coaching session—as an opportunity to evolve learning super skills. For every learning experience, teach people how 4.0 smart learners would approach it.

For example, when smart learners read something, they take an overview, understand main points first, and often read in the order their curiosity takes them. When they participate in a case study or simulation, they take the most personally difficult role, not the role where they will look good. When they listen to a podcast, they check the speaker's credentials, stop for quick recalls, and even increase the audio speed, knowing that they can listen at faster-than-speaking rates.

Ask course participants to evaluate themselves as learners, including rating their participation, their intention to use their learning, and the help they provide others. Help them see that they are critical to the program’s success.

They are not the dependent learners they may have been in school. Rather, they are active agents for changes at work and in their lives. Their learning savvy matters.

Participate in planning for and implementing every technological change that affects learners. Ask them:

  • What will this technology do that people now do?
  • How can people help train this technology? What exceptions and problems may occur during the use of this technology?
  • How can we prepare people to solve these problems and anticipate their broader implications for the business or customers?
  • Are there metaskills—such as communication, problem solving, decision making, strategic thinking, and learning—to strengthen while people adjust to technology changes?

See every technology change as an opportunity to help people become smarter, more resilient, and more self-managing and innovative—beyond just operating technology.

Be actively involved in strategic and operational decisions about how technology will be designed, developed, and supported. Be a shaping voice in technology strategy discussions.

Speak out about the values embedded in machine algorithms, ethical issues, potential misuses, and more. Bring important questions to the table that technologists often don’t ask:

  • What are the potential negative effects of this technology or how it is used, such as addiction, security, and privacy?
  • How will this affect our people (Remove jobs? Require upskilling? Lower skills?), and what will we do in response?
  • What are potential short- and long-term implications for our customers?
  • Will this invention disadvantage any racial, gender, age, or economic status groups?
  • How does the technology reflect or contradict our values?
  • Should we develop this?

Smart technologies are in their early stages. What is created today will affect what happens in the future. Complexity scientists call that “path dependency.” Now is time to establish review committees focused on those questions. 

Wield your influence

Technology is reaching a tipping point where changes, like temperature increases in the ocean, will occur too fast for us to only react. Humans are not good at preparing for sudden changes (think, the COVID-19 pandemic).

CLOs can and must help change that. Like the biologists assisting the evolution of corals, you can play a vital part, assisting and shaping the human response to technology.

You are in position to influence both how the company uses technology and what technology is ultimately brought to the market. You have the skills. You have the mission.

If not you, then whom? There’s work to do to assist human evolution.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Pat McLagan has participated in the evolution of the culture/technology relationship in large businesses in the US and globally since the 1970s. She keeps up with business transformation, adult development, and brain research and monitors strategic challenges across industries that are driving culture and business transformation. A major focus today is on how technology changes in the supply chain are requiring organizations to recreate themselves for the age of AI. Her recent book, Unstoppable You: Adopt the New Learning 4.0 Mindset and Change Your Life, is published by ATD Press. [email protected]

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