Rethinking Workplace Learning in the 21st Century

Rethinking Workplace Learning in the 21st Century

Image: Paul Klee, The Light and So Much Else, 1931, Private Collection, [Public Domain] via

For many decades as an educator, I have struggled to describe the kind of lifelong learning that leads to a satisfying and productive life – and the kind of learning that supports institutions and organizations to build a satisfied and productive society. And then this week, a Books@Work participant provided a description that captures what I have attempted to articulate:

“I just think that every employer everywhere [sh]ould say, ‘Wait a minute, I want my employees learning all the time and I don’t care how they’re learning or what they’re learning because eventually that learning will help us.’ As long as you have a workforce that’s learning and growing and expanding their knowledge, it will benefit [everyone]. . . The act of learning is essential to everything we do.”

Goya_I Am Still Learning

Francisco Goya, I Am Still Learning, c. 1824-1828, [Public Domain] via

This insight highlights the process of continuous learning required to manage the overwhelming speed and scope of changes that continue to occur as we move into the 21st century. The contemporary workplace has responded by focusing on training and development to keep employees’ skills in line with new needs and technologies, but often, the results have been inadequate and fleeting. A chief talent officer at a major U.S. corporation recently lamented, “It’s fruitless to maintain traditional, static learning architectures.”

But the tricky word in the participant’s quote is knowledge. Too often we think of knowledge as learning about an area of content or a particular skill. When we train with those things in mind, the results are often disappointing for the individual and the organization. John Seely Brown provides an alternative view of knowledge as learning to be. When we move from learning about something to learning to be something, he writes, we gain more complex and dynamic outcomes:

  •      New ways of seeing
  •      New ways of knowing
  •      An improved sense of what constitutes an interesting problem
  •      Knowing what constitutes a valuable solution
  •      The ability to engage in productive inquiry

When employers describe the learning needs of the workforce, they underscore the lack of critical thinking, the need for collaboration or teamwork, the importance of creativity and innovation and the value of a culture of learning. An overemphasis on learning about, however, undermines the very qualities that employers desire most. The outcomes of learning to be match those workplace needs far more closely than job-specific learning and development programs could ever aspire to do.

Learning to be seems uncannily connected to the long history of adult learning from Plato to the present. Our belief in that approach to learning led to the creation of Books@Work as a way to engage diverse participants and use the discussion of literature as a springboard to growth for individuals and groups. Once again, our participant’s comment says it best:

“I would think that every employer would want Books@Work. It helps. And especially when you get to be of a certain age, learning becomes a little more difficult or a little more stagnant and we forget that we want to learn. And I think [the program] spurs you to want to learn, which is a good thing for [the company]. If you want to learn, you’re going to be paying more attention to not just your job, but the jobs around your job.”

A growing body of evidence suggests that the Books@Work approach to learning to be is vital for rethinking workplace learning in the 21st century. Many participants say that they have experienced satisfying new ways of relating to colleagues and enhancing their interactions in the workplace. Workers from the shop floor to the executive office have expressed surprise at their enhanced sense of teamwork and productivity. When a company embraces continual reading, discussing and learning, new ways of thinking and being emerge – and endure.

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Karen Nestor

Karen Nestor

In more than four decades as an educator, Karen Nestor has taught at every level from early childhood through graduate school. Karen is a member of the Board of Books@Work.