Book review: The Expertise Economy – How the Smartest Companies Use Learning to Engage, Compete and Succeed


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Today, the vital skill for success includes learning agility – the ability to learn new things quickly. Companies need to create an environment where employees are continuously learning new skills, since learning should be built into the work that they already have, not something that they need to do separate from work.

The main principles outlined on this book written by Kelly Palmer, formerly Chief Learning Officer at LinkedIn, and David Blake, cofounder of Degreed, are: 1) make learning a competitive advantage; 2) embrace personalized learning; 3) Combat content overload; 4) understand the power of peers; 5) succeed with the right technology; 6) analyze your employees’ skills with data and insights; and 7) make skills and expertise count.

The ten takeaways I would highlight out of this book are:

  1. How we really learn – to help people become experts, gain knowledge, build skills, and become lifelong learners, it is critical to understand how adults learn best. Cognition and motivation need to be taken into account – adults need to know why they have to learn something; and many employees want to see their work connected to a larger purpose (first purpose orientation; second serving others; followed by achieving status, advancement and of course, income). We are capable of learning throughout our lives, and we all have an unlimited capacity to learn. Mindset matters – if we have a growth mindset, we believe we can learn new things. Focused attention is highly impactful to learning (multitasking is discouraged). We learn best when we have desire. Positive feedback accelerates the learning journey.
  2. In several companies today, there is generally no distinction made between knowledge and skills – everything is thrown into a bucket called “training”. Just because you know something it does not mean you can actually do it. Even if you can do something doesn’t mean you can actually do it. Even if you do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are good at it. Providing training to an entire group of people to solve a specific problem is like taking away privileges for everyone when only one person is at fault. We often train to the “average” person when in reality there is no “average” person – this one-size-fits-all approach is simply not effective.
  3. Make learning a competitive advantage – a strong learning culture needs to be a component of an overall healthy company culture – organizations known for their innovative corporate cultures include Apple, Google, Netflix, GE, Southwest Airlines, and Zappos, to name just a few. Company culture is becoming so important that employees often make employment decisions based on it. There are four types of learning cultures within an organization: a) a culture of compliance training (just ensuring that employees adhere to regulations and requirements necessary to do business); b) a culture of necessary training (teaching employees about highly job-specific tools and processes); c) a culture of learning (goes beyond compliance and necessary training while aligning employee development with organizational goals); and d) a culture of continuous learning (where learning becomes part of people’s everyday work and a regular part of their day). In the later one, employees can learn in their own way through accessing all types of both formal and informal learning including videos, articles, podcasts, books, and even attending events.
  4. Managers impact a learning culture – as a manager, when you see an employee watching a YouTube video, do you assume they are going off? Do you think they are wasting time? You need to avoid being a Control Manager and turn into a Power Manager, who is an approachable person with whom employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas. The workplace of the future is more self-directed and autonomous, meaning people can work where, when, and how they want – the same concept applies to learning: people cannot be ‘controlled’ into learning what someone else (HR or those ‘Talent and Culture’ fancy units) tells them to do. You can make them sit in a mandatory class or make them click through an online compliance course, but you cannot force them to learn. Autonomy and flexibility are crucial, and both will only work if managers frequently connect with their employees too discuss tasks, set goals, set expectations, and provide feedback.
  5. How to create a culture of continuous learning – think about the type of learning your organization wants; communicate several times; provide your employees with the learning resources they need; understand your employees’ career goals; relate learning goals to the bigger picture; and make sure to follow-up.
  6. Embrace personalized learning – if the goal in corporate education is to move away from a one-size-fits-all mentality, then we, too, must embrace personalization in learning. We have to adopt a mindset that trusts the intelligence and potential of our employees and puts them at the center – you must think of them as your learning ‘customer’. Companies need to rethink the idea that they can control the career path of their employees because there is no such thing as a standard career path. A well-designed  and executed personalized learning model can enhance teacher-student interaction – in personalized learning, the student is the leader and the professor is the activator and advisor. The foundation of personalized learning always requires some human touch. If you ask most people what they learned last year, not many could answer that question – that is where personalized learning records and profiles come in to help people keep track of all the valuable training they do everyday.
  7. Learning agility – today, companies need agile learners to solve the problems they haven’t even figured out they have yet. So, learning agility is, and will continue to be, one of the most desirable skills of the future. A good example on this vein is presented by eBay through four important components on their learning strategy: career exploration; learning and skill building; applying new skills on the job; and communicating success stories.
  8. Combat content overload – most experts predict that the size of the digital universe is at least doubling every year, so we spend so much time trying to sift through information that only a fraction of a typical working working week is left over for learning. When it comes to online learning content, video tutorials and MOOCs are only the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of subscription-based paid online learning libraries on the market today (OpenSesame, Pluralsight, Safari, Lynda.com, Skillsoft, Creative Live, Treehouse, Udemy, etc.) Instead of sitting for eight hours in a classroom, microlearning serves bite-sized learning content, usually lasting only a few minutes and easily accesible by mobile phone. Curating content is a great strategy for helping employees find what they need just when they need it – and Machine Learning will allow this in a greater and better manner in the near future.
  9. Measure what matters with a Learning Analytics Model – the smartest companies succeed using data and insights to tell a compelling story. Many companies apply the principles of the learning analytics model (LAM) to acquire information. This model shows you to: collect the right learning data; analyze the data to find powerful insights; tell a compelling story about learning at your company to help gain a competitive advantage; and provide actionable outcomes using data.
  10. Make expertise count – if you were to ask someone about their health and they told you that they ran a marathon 20 years ago, what would you think? Similarly, when someone asks you, “tell me about your education”, how do you answer? You don’t stop learning once you finish school – we learn the entirety of our lives.

Learning is complicated and messy. It is not enough to offer support to your employees on their learning journey; you also have to create the right environment for employees to take ownership of what and how they learn. This is crucial if we consider that, as presented on a McKinsey study, sixty-two percent of executives believe they will need to retrain or replace more than a quarter of their workforce between now and 2023 due to advancing automation and digitalization. So, reskilling and upskilling the workforce is a mater of staying relevant.

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