Learning uncertainty – and how to cope with it

by | Apr 12, 2017 | Articles, Featured | 0 comments

We are no longer living in a world of change that perhaps L&D can address and even support, but a world of uncertainty, of pure unknowns that could make or break us!

I have co-authored over 50 research reports since 2004 and without exception each one talks about change in learning and development and how to leverage it:

–         In today’s economic climate, business challenges include speed of change, quality, customer retention, revenue growth and cost reduction – Linking Learning to Business (2004)

–         In the pervasive world of technology and change, we need to realign our thinking about learning and business.  – The New Learning Agenda 2013

Over time, the pressure of change has not gone away, it has only increased. In 2017, the one of the biggest challenges facing L&D leaders say they are facing is the pace of change! The additional challenge is that whilst we know that change is all around us,we can’t always predict where it comes from or what its impact will be.

It is clear we are no longer living in a world of change that perhaps we can address and even support, but also a world of uncertainty, of pure unknowns that could make or break us.

What is uncertainty?

When it comes to decision making, the definition of uncertainty involves operating in unknown situations where the consequences are completely unpredictable.

L&D leaders over the last few years have consistently highlighted that the biggest risks to their success are the skills and knowledge of their own learning teams and the poor attitude of learners and managers to new ways of learning. But risk is different to uncertainty!

Risks make us uncomfortable, but overall, we know that they can be modelled, managed & potentially influenced. They are not great ‘unknowns’ and, in fact, many of the risks that L&D leaders identify about about our future success are already being challenged and tackled by high performing L&D teams.

So, where will the genuine unknowns – the learning uncertainties that might impact workplace learning – come from? When faced with uncertainty should we be scared?

Learning uncertainty

Economic and political uncertainty is on the top of the leader’s agenda of the organisations we support. Brexit, global conflicts and the shifting intracacies of global markets mean that we can’t guarantee what our customers will demand, who will work for us or even what our service offering might be. For L&D we can’t be certain about who our audience will be or what our role will be in supporting them!

Technological uncertainty including the the role of robots, of AI, machine learning, block chain, big data and the role of digital developments (as yet unknown) all have an implication on business. They also create uncertainties for people professionals as we seek to understand talent, know what skills are needed in the new world of work, how we build skills and again what our role will be in a digital future.

Workplace uncertainty includes the nature of work and of workers. What defines the nature of work in the future? Will people be working for organisations, for themselves or in an extended ecosystem? Where will they work, when will they work? What will they do? These unknowns provide learning uncertainties about how we equip individuals and society to be agile, flexible and productive in the world of work and beyond.

The trouble is that whilst we can talk about these things, we genuinely don’t know how these issues will impact our organisation or our own job so how do we cope with learning uncertainty?

Learning to tolerate uncertainty

One of the biggest challenges we have in coping with uncertainty is anxiety. Being faced with the unknown is scary, it is uncomfortable because we are not in a space that we know and can control.

I’ve written before about the importance establishing a growth mindset in L&D. Rigidly hanging onto our fixed beliefs about the past in the face of uncertainty might cause us to snap, professionally and mentally, when the unknown overtakes us.

We can also prepare for uncertainty by being more open to the evidence of how organisations have coped with uncertainty. What has equipped L&D for change in the past? How can we apply those lessons today? Our Benchmark programme dynamically changes year on year to reflect the shiftsin our industry but there are some core characteristics that are have surfaced that build inner strength and the ability to adapt. Evidence over the last 14 years has shown that working on these strengths today helps organisations to prepare better for the changes in today and the uncertainty of tomorrow.

Learning to embrace uncertainty

Let’s take artificial intelligence and machine learning – they highlight unknowns for the L&D industry – the most disturbing unknown being ‘will my job even exist in the future?’ Yet these ‘threats’ to our future also help us to embrace uncertainty.

Artificial intelligence is just that – artificial. It focusses on the way that machines mimic human behaviour. Machine learning explores the data to constantly evolve and adapt to the changing situation. Smart learning professionals will not be under threat but will recognise the opportunities to harness the extra help that technology brings and use it to redefine their offering.  Technology is used to mimic the human intelligence and human learning that we – in theory- have access to in abundance.

In my view, uncertainty forces us to apply our ‘real’ intelligence and ability to learn and adapt to changing circumstances.

One example of learning how to adapt is being open to a range of possible futures. In 2011, Willem Manders from Shell worked with the Business Educa participants in Online Educa Berlin to identify 4 potential learning scenarios to help us prepare for the future of learning. Shell’s view is that “Scenarios are stories about the future, but their purpose is to make better decisions in the present”.

Scenario planning, coupled with strong evidence on what works and what doesn’t in our current changing economic climate can help us think positively about how we might embrace the future rather than fear it.

Coping with learning uncertainty

Increased economic and workplace uncertainty provides an incredible opportunity for learning professionals to redefine our roles and establish us a profession that unlocks potential and prepares organisations for the unknown.

We can equip people to learn, to unlearn, to share, to reflect, to adapt, to let go, to maintain balance and set direction despite the gale force winds of change. We live in exciting but unknown times for L&D! It is time to pool our stories, our experience, our evidence to adapt and learn and thrive!

My own experience is that uncertainty does not have to force us to be constantly on the back foot. Embracing uncertainty can in fact keep us on our toes and excited about our role in the times ahead.

What learning uncertainties do you think we are facing? How do we use uncertainty to become our best selves? – Love to hear from you on the my LinkedIn page.

PS – Online Educa Berlin 6-8th December will be dedicated to this critical issue of Learning Uncertainties – and I for one can’t wait to join the discussion about the implications for corporate L&D in the Business Educa strand.

If you have a story to tell, lessons learned to inspire others, why not get involved in shaping the agenda by proposing a talk, topic or session. Deadline for submission is 29th May

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