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One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the promotion of lifelong learning. In the report ‘Preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’ by Deloitte, the skills required for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are not just technical brilliance and basic education, they are also an investment into ongoing personal learning and development. The soft skills of critical thinking, collaboration, emotional learning, and adaptability are essential for 4IR compatibility, as are industry-specific and technology skills. According to Mandla Mbonambi, CEO of Africonology, continuous learning is the hook upon which sustainable business success will hang as organisations shift their focus towards the future.

“It is important to build a company culture that inspires an ethos of constant learning in your employees,” he says. “This has multiple advantages that extend far beyond the much-hyped demands of 4IR. For one, an environment that engages with employees and allows for ongoing personal and professional development will help mitigate employee churn – people want to feel valued and inspired and learning is a powerful tool that helps them feel just that.”

The need to engage with employees and provide them with an environment that inspires them to go further and do more has never been greater than it is today. The marketplace for skilled individuals who understand concepts such as testing, quality assurance, the Internet of Things (IoT), automation, DevOps and DevSecOps are rare and thin on the ground. The competition for their attention is fierce and expensive.

“Leaders have to understand that these skilled individuals have the power to hop from one company to the next, driving up their cost to the company with each hop,” says Mbonambi. “In theory, this sounds like a wonderful way to build income and career stability, but the truth is that most people would like to feel as if they are part of something more than just a box-ticking day job. They want to work in environments that do more than just recognise their skills, they want to work with companies that recognise who they are and what they are still capable of achieving.”

A culture of continuous learning allows individuals to explore new ways of developing their skill sets and their potential. To embed it, there needs to be recognition for learning, achievements, and skills development alongside the opportunity to flex these skills in new areas of the company and employee roles. That said, the rate of change in the industry today is such that most employees must undergo continuous learning just to stay ahead of the curve.

“Many employers feel that the industry is changing so rapidly that their employees are hard-pressed to keep up,” says Mbonambi. “The technology is constantly evolving, the skills required to adapt to this technology are constantly changing – today’s business is defined by flux and this puts enormous pressure on individuals to perform. This can shift the learning dynamic, making people feel that learning is mandatory and complicated. This isn’t inspirational and it certainly won’t get people leaping up and into new learning opportunities.”

This can be alleviated by allowing for a more open and flexible company approach to learning. If the culture is already focused on continuous education, then the ways in which people learn through the company should be adaptable and flexible. Employees shouldn’t feel that all the learning they undertake is above and beyond their full-time roles.

“Enforcing learning and then insisting that this take place outside of company time is not conducive to a culture that inspires people to learn,” adds Mbonambi. “This will only foster resentment and frustration as people struggle to manage the pressures of their full working days alongside their personal lives. A truly inspirational culture is one that offers learning opportunities onsite, that provides training for employees at specialised organisations, and that recognises how this learning forms part of the employee’s mandate.”

Over and above the benefits of engagement and skills development, continuous learning plays a significant role in building an agile and innovative work culture. It creates a platform from which employees can leverage technology and change to business advantage and ensures that the entire company remains relevant in its market. In short, it builds a workplace that’s more responsive to the rapidly changing 4IR landscape than the one that’s not open to education and skills development.

“To foster this culture, the business can introduce in-house and external training opportunities, recognise those who invest time and effort into their skills development, pay attention to individual achievements, and allow for people to use these skills in new and interesting areas,” concludes Mbonambi. “Done well, people will constantly be learning new and relevant skills that can be applied throughout the company, fostering innovation and engagement across the board. It’s an inspirational outcome but one that can only be achieved if learning is recognised as a resource, one that requires ongoing investment.”