- IMD Business School
News Stories · Competitiveness - Digital - Organizational Culture

Nurturing a culture of lifelong learning in firms will meet demands of digital age and drive competitiveness

October 2020

Nations, individuals and organizations have been called upon to create and nurture a culture of lifelong learning to meet the demands of the digital age and drive competitiveness. This was the closing message of a two-day virtual summit hosted by IMD and Swedish EdTech company Collegial.

The second day of the summit — the first having been on October 6 — emphasized the importance of providing resources and support for lifelong learning to occur. In addition, nations, organizations and individuals would need to develop the resilience, agility and critical knowledge needed to meet the high-speed demands of the digital age, the experts said.

In her keynote address on lifelong learning at the event, Kristina Persdotter, State Secretary, Ministry of Education and Research, Sweden, stressed that a significant national skills shortage predated the global pandemic.

However, the economic destruction wrought by COVID-19 had, she said, intensified the need for the government to construct a multi-agency response to address both the skills gap and the inevitable loss of livelihoods caused by the pandemic.

Persdotter emphasized the importance of encouraging lifelong learning as a daily habit in order to ensure that continuous reskilling met the evolving needs of the job market.

For this to occur organizations must give employees time to learn and, for their part, employees had to engage in learning and development. Digital offered a prime learning medium that presented both inclusivity and scalability, she said.

“Today we see that continuous learning is unevenly distributed and that the more education you have on entering the labor market, the more you will receive during your working life,” she said.

However, echoing comments made by Jean-François Manzoni, President and Nestlé-chaired Professor, IMD, on October 6 during day 1 of the same event, she said continuous learning needed to be part of the working week for the entire workforce. This, in turn, meant that “it is not just the higher education institutions that need to develop but also those in higher adult and higher vocational education.”

Leveraging a knowledge-based economy

Persdotter outlined the Swedish government’s commitment to continuing vocational training for adults. Higher vocational training places would be more flexible, to encourage working adults to reskill; changes in the higher education act would clarify the role of educational institutions in lifelong learning; and universities would increase the number of professional courses they offered.

Finally, Persdotter said, a multi-stakeholder commitment to four strategic cooperation programs on climate change, health and life sciences, skills supply and lifelong learning would play a role in Sweden remaining a knowledge-based economy in the future.

Creating the right organizational culture for the future

By empowering their people now, organizations could build skills in-house to impact creativity and innovation in the future. So said Zahed Kamathia, Head of Leadership & Organizational Development at LEGO Group in his address to delegates.

Kamathia described a cross-organizational methodology employed by LEGO to simplify and refresh its approach to leadership and drive a shift in culture following a period of change in the toy manufacturer’s fortunes. The process would gather input and review existing models of leadership in the 90-year-old company’s history in order to create a new leadership framework aimed at the whole organization and geared to “energise everybody everyday”.

“To remain innovative is not only about product development but also about our people. In 2018 we focused on augmenting our organizational culture at LEGO by building creativity from the inside out,” he said.

A critical feature of the program was that it be constructed, rolled out and owned by employees rather than led by senior leadership. A call-out for volunteers from across the organization resulted in more than 1,000 applicants from which a core working group made up of diverse backgrounds and perspectives was chosen to lead the process.

Through a structured process facilitated by Susan Goldsworthy, Affiliate Professor at IMD and John Weeks, Professor at IMD, the working group was asked to co-create a new leadership model for LEGO Group. Titled The Leadership Playground, the new model had to be grounded in the LEGO brand framework and reflect the brand voice. Most importantly, The Leadership Playground would be a model for all LEGO employees and not solely the organization’s people leaders.

Built around the three core behaviors of curiosity, focus and bravery and aimed to “create the space so that everybody feels energized every day”, the process led to the creation of a new leadership model called The Leadership Playground. Encouraging “leadership for all”, the program aimed to create “a trusted space where people and communities connect. A space where there is challenge and development. Where we can have fun and be creative together. We do our best work here and we succeed together. We care enough for one another to give feedback with candour. And we strive to achieve the best for The LEGO Group.”

“LEGO allowed change to occur from the ground up. For an established organization to let go of the past and allow new things to emerge is risky but valuable. You create a spark that turns into a movement that releases an energy for your business,” said Goldsworthy.

Supported by 1,000 Playground Builders from every division of the group, teams are encouraged to experiment with short ‘missions’ in which new ways of working and leading are explored and reflected upon by all involved. Kamathia is encouraged by the level of employee engagement in the program and the grassroots shift in organizational culture that The Leadership Playground has seeded.

Building a learning nation

“It is incredibly powerful to see the Swedish government, its agencies, industry representatives and learning providers uniting to address not only the skills gap but offering a way for Swedish business to think about where they want to be in five years time,” said Ronald Bernette, Founder and CEO of Collegial.

In a joint initiative with the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) and the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries, Collegial is to launch new online courses curated to meet the specific needs of industry. The effort aims to address the skills shortage and help individuals access relevant learning content.

Ulf Savbäck, Director, Skills Development and Digitalization for the Swedish Agency for Economic and Regional Growth (Tillväxtverket) said that research had shown a need for continuous learning programs for some years and had led to the joint initiative.

“We saw a marked difference between larger and smaller companies in the way they coped with digitalization and felt this needed to be addressed across the board. No doubt the knowledge and skills set-up in the smaller companies was a hindrance to growth and had been for several years from our studies. This provided the background that led to our initiative to inspire a learning culture,” he said.

Although the initiative took shape well before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for such interventions more pressing. According to Maria Rosendahl, Head of Unit Skills and Digitalization for the Association of Swedish Engineering Industries, the pandemic created the required urgency for this initiative to happen as quickly as it has.

“The need for this type of initiative was clear ahead of 2020, but it was not until the spring of 2020 that this public-private partnership around life-long learning was formed,” said Rosendahl.

Bernette agreed, adding that the behavioral adaptation to digital environments forced by the pandemic had also created more user ease.

“Lifelong learning is about consistency and an increased comfort with using digital tools will be beneficial to the continuous learning movement,” he said.

The new courses will launch in November and its organizers intend to continue to build courses according to evolving industry needs. It is hoped the initiative will grow to become a key learning resource for both businesses and vocational learners.

“The initial reactions are positive and companies are interested in using the platform and supplying content. We intend that the platform will be an aggregate of where to find a wide range of courses,” said Savbäck.

With the pandemic set to create considerable job losses and change the face of entire industries, Sweden’s responsiveness in leveraging the continuous education movement to support the labor market and its businesses through the COVID crisis offers a model to other nations and industries.

Empowering learning across the organization

For those organizations at the forefront of digital, a strong learning culture is an existential imperative. With competitors hot on their heels, innovative and creative agility is key to growth. So said Johanna Bolin Tingvall, Global Head of GreenHouse at Spotify.

Bolin Tingvall defined Spotify’s learning strategy as being built in to the organizational culture. “Learning is not a perk. It is essential for us to be able to do our jobs,” she said.

By emphasizing a growth mindset culture, which champions innovation and experimentation, Bolin Tingvall said the organization has built knowledge building into everything it does, learning from its failures as well as its successes. Leadership who model learning culture by sharing their recent resources, books, podcasts also sets an expectation.

Performance is not managed at the company but instead is developed, said Bolin Tingvall. Employees, called ‘band members’ by the organization, drive their own development goals and their Performance Development approach is built on motivational drivers, such as autonomy, mastery and purpose. This, said Bolin Tingvall, empowers Spotify’s band members to determine their own learning.

“Our performance development approach help band members drive their own learning. We do not expect them to put their futures in someone else’s hands,” she said.

Regular cross-organizational hack days/weeks have led to the highly successful Discover Weekly playlist and other innovations by the company and the organizational hierarchy is set at a low enough level to encourage a constant ideas exchange across report structures.

“Change is constant and demands resilience and agility,” said Bolin Tingvall. “We encourage and nurture the ability to know what to do when you don’t know what to do.”