The Rise of Exponential Learning and The New Currency of Skills


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In the recently published Global C-Suite Study by the IBM Institute for Business Value, 2139 CHROs were interviewed on a range of topics that they considered most pressing to the HR profession. A part of this paper explored the impact of ‘Exponential Learning’, and its upcoming changes for Learning & Development (L&D) practices within organizations.

What was immediately striking, was the extent to which many HR leaders now consider skills as a competitive currency. Over the last few years, senior business leaders have noted that desired employee skill sets are shifting, and this is going to have a huge impact on remaining competitive in the long term. Of course, this is not to say that the development of similar skills was less important in the past, but in the current business environment heavily invested into rapidly advancing technologies and new organizational management models, the types of skill combinations and learning requirements organizations are looking for have evolved.

“People skills rose from fifth to third place as a force the entire C-suite expects to affect their organizations. Moreover, when asked what could accelerate organizational performance, CEOs rank an investment in people as number one”

What types of skills are we talking about?

The survey indicated that digital skills are the number one priority for 6 out of 10 CHROs, however, only 11 percent of CHROs reported that their organizations were staffed with employees who possessed the requisite skills in data science, machine learning, and AI. Despite the prominence of this gap, it’s also increasingly evident that tech skills alone are not going to be enough for organizations to navigate the new strategic changes in their environment. The reason for this is that many adaptive and interpersonal skills such as teamwork, autonomy, and emotional intelligence are now sought after in conjunction with technological skills. Due to the rapid pace of change, there’s simply a shortage in candidates with skills in both areas. In the study, over half of all respondents thought that having the ‘ability to communicate effectively in a business context’, being ‘willing to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change’, and ‘possessing the ability to work effectively in team environments’ were critical workforce capabilities.

Square pegs and round holes

If technological or adaptive skills alone are not enough for large portions of the workforce and continued learning is a core part of workforce development, what does this mean for modern organizational L&D? With adaptability and personal responsibility for growth a core aspect of the ideal exponential learner, many established L&D practices designed for mass implementation are now not only outdated, but might actually be counterproductive. With the advent of new technologies that facilitate learning, employees and the technological organization are now better placed than ever before to get the best out of each other as both functionally evolve.

“An exponential learning culture emphasizes ultra-rapid skills development and the intentional design of interactions to advance up-to-the-minute knowledge sharing.”

What this means is that learning programs are going to become personalized and adaptive. In the same sense that the machine learning process will grow and adapt at its own effective pace (gathering pace as data accumulates and deepens), employees will be able to navigate a personal growth program that intelligently plots, plans, and executes individual strategies. To, therefore, keep on top of hiring qualified technicians with great interpersonal skills, HR leaders will need to both focus on the initial hire, and hiring those who can grow and adapt within the environment. As the current pace of skill development is very high, it’s simply imperative that continuous learning is prioritized within HR.

While personalized learning isn’t easy to adopt (think of all the different types of content, personalities, variables that need to be taken into consideration), AI and cognitive technologies are becoming more readily available. This provides HR with the potential for greater processing power; which means more avenues for growth, more content options, and optimized content delivery. The adoption of greater analytics processes will also assist in this process, as it will enable HR to learn more about the unique needs of the individual, and change learning programs dynamically.

“Ultimately, the biggest challenges CHROs could confront in creating mass personalized learning experiences may be similar to those faced by Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) in designing a personalized customer experience. Personalized learning should be dynamic, continuously aligning and realigning with employee personal objectives, as well as employer needs.”

How does this potentially impact HR and the business?

What all these changes feed into (among many things) is the emergence of a learning culture and a personalized employee experience. It also begins to augment the customer experience of HR (CXHR). The competition for skilled hires is driving a shift in focus for HR professionals. HR itself must be customer focused, in the sense that it sources and trains the employees who are going to increase the overall market experience and competitiveness of the company. Throughout this process, HR’s own internal interactions will have to transform and mirror what both the employees and customer see. Through adaptive learning, agility, cognitive/AI technologies and a focus on emotional intelligence, HR’s somewhat dour reputation will be gradually replaced. After all, an intelligent learning process will change HR too – enabling it to become a more agile, accurate, and personable partner to its employees, and by proxy – business customers too.

If you haven’t already done so, I highly recommend that you head over to IBM and download the full CHRO C-suite report. It covers this topic and several others in great detail.


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