Learning agility and curiosity: the way we future-proof our industry

The past twelve months have called for adaptation like never before. As society has looked to the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries to meet the ever-evolving needs of patients, it’s essential that we future-proof ourselves by knowing how to adapt at pace. I believe that the most fundamental way we do that is through teaching our workforces how to learn, relearn and even unlearn skills every day.

Fortunately, learning offerings are evolving alongside the world around us. COVID-19 has – in some cases – been a catalyst for companies moving to a digital-first talent and development approach. At AstraZeneca, for instance, we accelerated plans and fully pivoted development programmes to be offered virtually within six weeks of the pandemic hitting to avoid stalling our people’s growth. Regrettably, a McKinsey study carried out in March last year suggests that this wasn’t a universal response taken by other organisations. The report revealed that, as a result of the pandemic, some 50% of learning and development plans were postponed or cancelled in the US as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with that figure closing in on 100% in parts of Asia and Europe.

In order to continue to deliver groundbreaking innovation, we as leaders must ensure that learning remains a priority by transforming our businesses into learning organisations. Places where our people – with brilliant and curious minds – are empowered to continually challenge convention and explore new possibilities because they’re able to develop themselves every day. The World Economic Forum reported the need for a ‘reskilling revolution’ since 54% of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling by 2022.

So how do we make that happen in our industries? For me, the crux of this challenge is how we make learning appealing, inclusive and timely.

Let’s start with the inclusive aspect. With the technology available to us today, people are looking to work at organisations that offer tailored development anytime, anywhere and on any device. That’s how we make sure that nobody gets left behind, whether that’s the working parent trying to juggle home-schooling or the shift worker on a manufacturing site. I’m hugely excited about the advances we’re seeing in technology that are enabling an inclusive, differentiated learning offering. Global learning experience platforms that offer single point of entry with multiple-language capabilities are now at our fingertips. I believe that giving people freedom over how, where, what and when they learn is inherently fairer and more effective than a rigid and selective approach to developing talent. Democratising learning in this way empowers people to build lifelong learning habits with regular, bite-sized learning moments. Those small changes add up to big differences over time.

Furthermore, artificial intelligence (AI) gives us all the opportunity to anticipate and respond to capability requirements in our businesses. If colleagues are searching for content on building personal effectiveness and resilience, talent and development teams are now able to consciously answer that by enhancing offerings in those areas and making them more visible – on a home page of a content library for example – to help people in the areas they need it most. AI can also help platforms to learn how individuals are using them and react by suggesting complementary content it thinks people will find useful and be interested in. Taking advantage of data and AI means that a user-driven approach with some targeted adaptive learning activity can be combined to help achieve business objectives. Knowing that digital capability is going to be increasingly important for commercial teams, for instance, you could target those departments with relevant courses to make sure they’re ready for future developments in the way they work. When you factor in the use of adaptive learning technology, you can take that a step further and tailor the learning content to individuals’ existing knowledge or skill levels. This allows organisations to maximise productive learning time and speed to mastery.

Providing the resources and tools for people to learn is arguably the easy part. The second challenge is how you instil an intrinsic desire to learn. That’s where the culture element comes into play. By taking the same science-led approach used in labs, we can nurture curiosity and proactivity amongst our people to want to continuously develop their skills. We human beings are, by nature, social. Some learning platforms now provide the opportunity to join groups and communities, which helps to turn learning into a shared experience. Seeing peers and leaders being active in their own development can be infectious and motivating.

This kind of behavioural science can go one step further. Reinforcing behaviours conducive to learning, such as bravery, curiosity and collaboration, can make employees more likely to grasp development opportunities. And by encouraging people to recognise everyday learning moments at work and making these a fixed part of their daily routine can have a powerful effect. A ‘learning trial’ we carried out at AstraZeneca last year showed that 70% of the trial group who participated in this behavioural work recorded higher levels of willingness to apply learning to their day-to-day jobs than our control group.

For me, this suggests that we must broaden the traditional definition and perception of development. Learning doesn’t only occur in classroom environments; we learn through experience on the job, from exposure to our colleagues and network, and from new knowledge and education. When people recognise that they are, in fact, learning every day, they’re more motivated to apply the results of that learning and have more self-belief in their impact at work.

You can also nurture an environment of lifelong learning by making sure that personal growth and development is part of your everyday language and seen to be just as important as revenue growth. This is closely linked to progressive shifts within organisations towards continuous coaching and a modern approach to reward and recognition. One where managers support a learning culture and future-focused view of performance development, rather than a backward-looking annual review process. Recognising and rewarding people for proactive self-development is important, as well as ensuring that opportunities are provided for endless growth – whether that’s through secondments, new projects, mentoring or development programmes.

Fostering a learning culture also transpires from making learning part of natural, regular conversation. Dr Paul J Zak’s research – laid out in his book, The Business of Story – highlights the power of storytelling in modifying behaviour. This would suggest that sharing stories and examples of how colleagues are learning, as well as encouraging others to share their own experiences, can drive people to be more active in their personal development at work. Getting leaders to take part in the dialogue is important in role-modelling the behaviour we want to see within our workforce. And our learning programmes should be prominent, visible and accessible to employees, no matter what stage of their career they’re in.

So, what’s your measure of success? How do you know you’re adequately providing opportunities and the drive for lifelong learning among your people, thereby future-proofing your organisation? Not losing employees to competitors is a good indication. Look at your retention rate, as well as your internal promotion rate. Are you supporting people to grow within their roles and take the next step up?

Valuing and nurturing people’s capability to constantly stretch, grow and learn is – in my view – the best way to future-proof our organisations and wider industries. By doing this, we can all instil an underlying confidence and competence to thrive in change, challenge convention and explore new possibilities. This is how we’ll continue to fulfil our purpose in the world.

Marc Howells is vice president Global Talent & Development, AstraZeneca