EPISODE #31: Could Implementing New Learning Models be Key to Sustaining Competitive Advantages Generated by Digital Transformation?

Guy Nadivi
16 min readApr 20, 2020

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Traditionally, learning & work have been viewed as mutually exclusive domains in our lives. Each took place in its own chronologically segregated time, often sequentially, but occasionally overlapping each other. However, organizational digital transformation obliges us to re-examine that approach, as perpetual reskilling & upskilling become prominent fixtures in the future of work. Is it time to integrate learning & work to the point they’re indistinguishably co-mingled in one’s job description? Will doing so bolster a digitally transformed organization’s competitiveness, particularly in attracting & retaining talent? And how should responsibility for continuously refreshing people’s skills be allotted between individuals, organizations, academia, & government?

At the dawn of the 4th Industrial Revolution, & against a backdrop of ever-lengthening lifespans, these questions have begun taking center stage. Those entering today’s workforce can expect to be employed for 6 decades. Or more. Given the recent pace of technological change, it’s a sure bet the skills they inaugurated their careers with won’t be the same ones they’ll need to maintain, much less, advance them. For insight on how people & organizations should realign their expectations of and bearings towards this new paradigm, we consult with Caroline Styr, Sr. Executive at the Center for the Future of Work. Caroline’s recently published study “Cycling Through the 21st Century Career, Putting Learning in its Rightful Place”, highlights this critical, yet lamentably under-discussed issue. We’ll learn about some startling findings her study uncovered, her prescription for how organizations can initiate the shift towards a modern career model, and the one surprising thing she believes individuals should focus on in order to adopt a continuous learning mindset.

Guy Nadivi: Welcome everyone. My name is Guy Nadivi and I’m the host of Intelligent Automation Radio. Our guest on today’s episode is Caroline Styr, Senior Executive at Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. Caroline recently published a paper which got our attention. It’s titled “Cycling Through the 21st Century Career, Putting Learning in its Rightful Place”. Now the reason this paper got our attention is because on this podcast, we often talk about how automation, AI, and machine learning will create amazing new opportunities not only for forward thinking organizations, but also for forward thinking professionals.

However, the key for people wanting to take advantage of these amazing new opportunities, will be to up-skill and/or re-skill themselves, and that will require adopting a new mindset of continuous lifelong learning. So we wanted to devote an episode of the podcast to that topic, and in order to really sink our teeth into the subject, we invited Caroline to come onto the show. She’s here with us today to share some of the really intriguing findings published in her paper, and what the implications are for people and organizations looking to succeed in this era of digital transformation. Caroline, welcome to Intelligent Automation Radio.

Caroline Styr: Thank you so much for having me, Guy. Looking forward to the conversation.

Guy Nadivi: Caroline, I want to provide some context for everyone by quoting or paraphrasing some really eye-opening figures and statements published in your paper. Careers are extending as expected lifespans rise resulting in an even greater need for a continuous skills refresh over 60 plus years of learning and work. “The digital age is creating demand for continuously emerging new skills. While not every employee will need to build advanced algorithms, most jobs, 75% of them, according to your recent research, will be augmented by automation and AI, and 13% of new jobs in the future will be created by these technologies. So it’s vital that workers gain at least a high level understanding of these new technologies and how to work alongside them. Despite this, workers are struggling to find a connection between learning and work, making it very easy for them to deprioritize learning.43% of your respondents believe their learning has only a moderate impact on their work, and 34% go so far as to say there’s limited impact or none at all on work. Therefore, not surprisingly, most workers approach learning as a must do, not a want to do. Here’s perhaps your most astonishing finding. Most respondents to your survey think they’re exempt from up-skilling, with 65% expressing confidence that their current skillset will sustain them throughout their career. Wow! This confidence actually increases with the length of the career ahead, with millennials scoring above average results for “very” or “extremely” confident. Caroline, there’s clearly a major disconnect going on right now in the workforce. A cursory glance at the better paying job ads on Monster.com, ZipRecruiter, or any job board, reveals that there’s obviously a growing need for emerging new skills. All of us, or most of us anyway, know people who are working well past traditional ages of retirement, usually because they have to due to a variety of often unforeseen reasons. It should be plainly evident, especially when so many people had difficulty finding jobs during the great recession not too long ago, that you really shouldn’t allow your skills to grow stagnant. Yet despite all this empirical evidence, you still uncovered what I think can fairly be called some abysmal findings. How do you explain this?

Caroline Styr: Absolutely, Guy. The findings were incredibly surprising. We surveyed over a thousand knowledge workers and as you mentioned, 65% believe their skill sets would last, that they’re exempt from up-skilling. I think it’s unsurprising then that this translates into a pretty serious disinterest with learning. So we categorized over half of these learners, over half of those that we surveyed as compliant, which means that people who learn because they have to, because it’s mandated for compliance reasons, or to meet annual appraisal targets. This really isn’t a finger pointing exercise. This isn’t blaming the workforce and saying, “Oh, they just can’t be bothered to learn”. You have to ask yourself the question, “Why would the workforce focus on learning if the majority don’t think there’s a significant impact on the work that they do?” As you highlighted, Guy, over 1/3 say there’s limited impact or none at all on work. So I think it’s far too easy to shrug and say, well, this won’t impact me and carrying on doing the same old, same old. Of course, this has to change. Organizations and individuals alike have some serious work to do to get out of this learning funk. In order to answer the question, “Why should you adopt a continuous learning mindset?”, I really believe that business leaders need to focus on better integrating learning and work.

Guy Nadivi: Caroline, in your paper you write something that I think all our listeners will immediately recognize as intrinsically true, and I’m going to quote here. “Traditional career models promote a learn-work-retire cadence, encouraging workers to give up any meaningful learning as soon as they step through the office door. This might’ve made sense when the pace of change was slow enough for one set of skills to last a lifetime, but that’s not the case today.” You then proceed to talk about an alternative approach you call the “Modern Career Model”, which seems to be based at least somewhat on Agile methodology, which will be very familiar to our listeners in IT. Can you please break down for us how the Modern Career Model works and why it might be better than what most organizations are currently doing?

Caroline Styr: Absolutely. So nice to be quoted, Guy, makes me feel so special. So, at the Modern Career Model, this model that we put forward focuses above all else on integrating learning and work. It focuses on reprioritizing learning so that each worker considers his or her career not as a series of projects on the one hand and learning goals on the other, but as a series of cycles in which the two are intertwined and interrelated. So the cyclical relationship between learning and work really signals that the impact of learning on work is just as important and demands just as much attention as the impact that new types of work have on learning. So if we just think about that for a second and break that down for a second. I think most of us learn in the workplace because something comes up, a task, something that we have to do and we have to work out how to do it really quickly. That kind of classic case of quick — How do I do a pivot table in my Excel spreadsheet? and then quick — Google and you get it done. But maintaining a curious and creative mindset in the work place, putting learning and growth first and making it part of the daily routine, whether that’s a tricky task, whether that’s for a tricky task on the horizon or not, reaps huge rewards. You’re far more likely to say mentally fit, focused, and engaged with every task at hand. But employees have to be empowered to prioritize learning by their organizations. The top reason for not learning, according to our research is that workers simply don’t have enough time. There’s a shedload more research out there that confirms this and that’s why we’re reimagining the career module, rethinking it so that there’s more time baked in, and there’s more focus on what’s important in the digital age. If you’ll allow me to talk on this thread for a little bit longer, Guy. Another reason why I find this idea of reinventing career models so urgent, is that our current traditional career models, they don’t just deprioritize learning. They’re not built for 60 plus year careers like you pointed out in your introduction, and they’re not even built with half of the workforce in mind. What I mean by this is that our traditional career model was built over a hundred years ago by and for men. In fact, in the early 1900s men made up about 72% of the workforce, and so it’s not really surprising that the career model was invented without considering traditionally female duties, especially a hundred years ago like childcare. But the impact of this is still being felt today. So women, especially in the US and Europe, are far more likely to choose self-employment or part-time employment rather than full-time employment because of these restricted, outdated career models that just don’t fit. So it’s just another little reason to consider modern current model fit for the 21st century.

Guy Nadivi: An excellent point I don’t think a lot of people would normally think about. It reminds me that my wife is a product manager for a mid-sized global firm of about a thousand employees. Her firm is undergoing a digital transformation. At the start of this year, virtually everyone in her company underwent Agile training. So I’m curious, Caroline, would you advocate organization-wide Agile training as a first step for enterprises implementing a Modern Career Model approach or is there a better way to initiate this paradigm shift?

Caroline Styr: There are certainly principles from Agile methodology that are well reflected in the cyclical approach to careers in the Modern Career Model. Managing progress, sustainable development, delivering frequent new things like that. I think the way in the paper that we suggest organizations initiate the shift is through a framework that we refer to as the “Three M Methodology”. Three M’s being Measurements, Motivation, and Mobility. So I’ll rattle through these really quickly. Measurement is to think about how we measure learning in the workplace. So when business leaders effectively collect and process employee performance data, learning can be measured in terms of how it impacts work outcomes. Instead of this kind of obsessive focus on how many hours have you spent learning or how many courses have you completed, which is the most common way of measuring learning today. Actually, the most common way of measuring learning today is to not measure it at all, according to our research. So I think organizations need to really get into a place where they’re measuring learning effectively by looking at things like how is it making you do your work more efficiently or faster? The ultimate goal really is to create real time employee profiles encompassing skills, work performance, and engagement. The second is motivation. That’s all about personalizing the career experience for the individual. So what does a worker want out of their career and how can continuous learning support that? So it goes back to that really grim statistic about 51% of people learning because they have to. By connecting learning to career growth transparently and emphatically, employers can convert those compliant learners into the achievers who are learning for the sake of job growth and job performance. Then those people are far more better prepared to survive and thrive in the digital age. The final M being mobility. In this new career model, we talk a lot about fluidity and flexibility and movement across the organization, across job roles, departments and teams. About 45% of those surveyed said that their organization doesn’t support internal mobility. Or if it did, it wasn’t well understood by employees. But internal mobility really opens up opportunities for workers to find work that’s better suited for them, that it’s more satisfying and that really promotes learning. So instead of being stuck in the same career silo, executing the same old tasks, workers are motivated to learn to make sure that they make that move into a new role. So yes, three M’s, measurement, motivation, and mobility to nail the Modern Career Model.

Guy Nadivi: Let’s talk dollars and cents. I’m the CEO of a company undergoing a digital transformation. I know that I need to start up-skilling and re-skilling my workforce. Tell me in broad terms, what’s it going to cost me to implement a Modern Career Model that gets my people to learn and adapt versus outsourcing parts of their work or even replacing my staff altogether with people who have the skills and experience I need.

Caroline Styr: Yeah, absolutely, Guy. An important question. Instead of talking about what this is going to cost, let’s talk about what the cost is if you don’t do this. So as I alluded to earlier, organizations are missing out on top talent by sticking to these outdated career models. By sticking to these models that were built by and for men that, for example, are encouraging women to favor different types of employment. So first off, you’ve got an issue with attracting talent. If organizations don’t do this, they aren’t cultivating the talent that they need for the digital age. They will lose their competitive edge because the talent will be stuck five, 10 years behind the curve, unable to keep up with the pace of change. Then you’ve got a big issue with delivering products and services that meet the needs of the consumer in the digital age. Thirdly, if organizations think that they can simply hire in and retain talent with the skills that they need, they’re sorely mistaken because that talent is committed to up-skilling. They’re not going to stick around at an employer who can’t offer them the infrastructure that they need to continue up-skilling. So the majority of workers in our survey said, well, it’s about 73%, said that they depend on their employer for support in preparing for the future of work. But despite that fact, over half are concerned about their employer’s ability to do so. So then you’ve got this huge issue with retention because people are simply going to walk if you can’t help prepare them for the future of their work. So it’s my firm belief that it’s going to cost organizations a lot more to not rethink career modules for the 21st century than it will to actually implement that new career model. Because the question of having the right talent quite frankly, is a question of surviving the digital age or getting wiped out.

Guy Nadivi: Okay, that’s compelling. So let me ask you this — inevitably some IT executives hearing today’s discussion might wonder if making the investment in the kind of learning shift you’re advocating might just end up making their personnel more appealing to competitors seeking to poach staff. What would you say to convince them otherwise?

Caroline Styr: Yeah, I mean not to be really contrary, but I’m going to invert again and say instead of worrying about whether your talent is appealing to others, you should be worrying about whether your organization is appealing to talent. So it’s the same message, if you don’t do this, you’re not going to attract and retain modern talent and your company won’t be fit and agile enough to compete in the digital age.

Guy Nadivi: Okay. Point well taken. So as vital as adapting may be to staying competitive in the fourth industrial revolution that we’re undergoing here in the 21st century, the fact remains that not all organizations will be able to adapt due to resource constraints. So with that in mind, Caroline, what role do you think government should play in helping all people and organizations adopt a continuous learning mindset? Or should that all stay in private hands?

Caroline Styr: It’s a great question, Guy. I absolutely don’t think that it should all stay in private hands. I think the crucial player in this game is academic institutions. After all, they’re responsible for that first stage of this outdated, learn, work, retire cadence that we’re talking about that we’re a bit stuck in. So, in another paper that we’ve published at the Center, it’s called “Relearning How We Learn, From the Campus to the Workplace”. We interviewed and surveyed academic leaders and business leaders to understand who they think is responsible for up-skilling the workforce. About 84% of higher education institutions expressed concern about meeting the challenge of preparing the future workforce, compared to about 58% of business respondents. So there’s a lot of work to be done in this space as well. So one little, innovative idea that we put forward in our paper at “21 More Jobs of the Future” was this idea of a uni for life coordinator. I think that’s my British-ism a little bit, making it university for life, but you get the picture. This is a job for someone who will support graduates and alumni to continue up-skilling throughout their career with the help of university resources. So it’s kind of like a learning professional, but coming out of the academic institution as opposed to the work, as opposed to the organizational institution or the private institution. This way we’re starting to, by doing things like this, we’re starting to break down that learn, work, retire model from the very beginning, not just in the middle in the work portion.

Guy Nadivi: There’s a famous Chinese proverb that you’re no doubt familiar with, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. For career-minded listeners embracing the message you’re advocating, what do you think should be the first step in their thousand mile journey of continuous lifelong learning to remain relevant and further their career?

Caroline Styr: Yeah, I can talk about that stuff forever. So it’s going to be good to focus on one thing. It’s a big challenge. So one thing — our Chief Learning Officer at Cognizant says something a lot about continuous learning that I completely agree with. It’s the idea that to adopt a continuous learning mindset, you have to focus on self-reflection, which I think means that you have to take assess an amount of responsibility for your learning. So one way to do this that we talk about in the paper is to think about your current list of tasks. This is just a short way to rethink your attitude towards learning. So think about your current list of tasks and whether you’re doing any learning to support those tasks. So it’s not just thinking about learning for learning’s sake, but baking it into the work that you’re already doing. So it doesn’t matter if you’ve been doing these tasks for years and years and years, there’s always something new to learn. So for example, I had to write a certain amount of articles a month, and despite the fact that I’ve been doing that for years and it’s a very dependable part of my routine, I still try to match learning to it on a regular basis. So how are people consuming content on LinkedIn in 2019 for example? What can I learn there? How can I adjust my writing style to meet their needs? How can I perfect that punchy little tweet that brings people to my article? How can I integrate more multimedia into my articles to engage the reader? These are all things that are new, that I can learn, that I can be learning day in, day out, even though they’re related to a task that I’ve been doing for years and years and years. I think devoting time to reflecting on your learning like that, means that you’re taking responsibility for baking learning as best as you can into the day to day of your career.

Guy Nadivi: One final question, Caroline. For the corporate presidents, CEOs, or any IT executives listening in, what is the one big, must have piece of advice you’d like them to take away from our discussion with regards to improving their competitiveness by facilitating continuous learning for their staff?

Caroline Styr: So I think the one really key message here is that a new career model isn’t a nice to have. It’s a must have. What worked a hundred years ago does not work today. If you want to get the best out of your talent in the 21st century, then you have to ensure that they’re ready to pivot with the next new thing, you have to ingratiate a mindset of continuous learning. I really think, and I think the research shows this as well, that you’re not going to do this by pouring your money into new learning platforms or solutions if the structure at the end of the day, if the structure of the career doesn’t empower the workforce to learn, doesn’t integrate learning into work. That’s why this career model is an absolute must have. I think to get there, to get to that new career model, start with measurements, make sure that you’re measuring the impact of learning your work, and then I think you’ll be well on your way.

Guy Nadivi: We’re in a new age and that definitely requires new thinking. I’m going to give your excellent paper another quick plug here for those listeners who want to get their hands on it. Caroline Styr’s paper is titled “Cycling Through the 21st Century Career, Putting Learning in its Rightful Place”. You can download it from www.cognizant.com/futureofwork, and I highly recommend it for the valuable insights it provides about continuous learning both for organizations and individuals. All right. Looks like that’s all the time we have for on this episode of Intelligent Automation Radio. Caroline, it’s been great having you on the podcast and helping us gain your perspectives about how continuous learning will impact the future of work. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Caroline Styr: Guy, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Guy Nadivi: Caroline Styr, Senior Executive at Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. Thank you for listening, everyone, and remember — don’t hesitate, automate!


Senior Executive at Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work

Caroline is a thought-leader and speaker in Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. The Center has a charter to examine how work is changing, and will change, in response to the emergence of new technologies, new business practices, and new workers.

In this role, Caroline develops cutting-edge thought leadership to challenge perceptions of the Future of Work, in collaboration with leading technology and business thinkers, academics and policy makers. Above all, she is dedicated to demystifying what the individual needs to succeed in the modern organization. She has also written extensively about Diversity and Inclusion in the Future of Work.

Prior to joining the CFoW, Caroline worked in international digital services and transformation across the retail and healthcare industries. She has a BA (Hons.) in German from the University of Bristol, alongside which she certified in Theatre and Performance from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Caroline can be reached at:

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/caroline-styr-3a137b103/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/carolinestyr