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Gepubliceerd op: 8 augustus 2006
Functie: Associate Director, Global Executive OneMBA
Organisatie: RSM Erasmus University

Lifelong Learning – the Key to Self-Improvement

The demand for new skills and the evolution of our existing ones is perhaps more pertinent than ever in this ever-changing modern world.

Lifelong Learning – the Key to Self-Improvement

"Lifelong learning" may be a fashionable term at the moment, but it is not a recent concept. In the leisurely squares of ancient Greece, Plato would argue to anyone who would stop to listen that "the unexamined life is not worth living". In other words: when we stop learning, we stop living in any meaningful sense - and certainly cease to evolve and progress in our lives. Is his dictum still relevant in the modern world? Consider the ever-accelerating pace of change in business and society, including the emergence of the information age, the new knowledge economies and the increasing globalisation of markets. The demand for new skills and the evolution of our existing ones is perhaps more pertinent than ever.

Recognising the importance of learning is the first step. The next step is developing an understanding of what lifelong learning really means, and finding the right avenues through which you can develop these new skills and knowledge. All too often, articles and discussions on lifelong learning, particularly within the context of the corporate world, quickly focus on the narrow concept of 'training'. Yet maintenance learning is only part of a much broader learning agenda that can - in the literal sense - be life-changing.

Training providers and universities often take very different perspectives on the delivery of lifelong learning programmes. Training providers often adopt a more focused, pragmatic view that concentrates mainly on the practical application of new skills. By contrast, universities are likely to address the theory and context surrounding the skill, providing guidance on its proper usage and application. A university business school is, in many ways, ideally placed to combine both approaches: the emphasis on theoretical understanding one would expect from a higher education institution, and the "real world" pragmatism that comes from many years of working closely with major corporate organisations and an understanding of their practical requirements.

With the right teacher or facilitator, lifelong learning becomes a much richer and broader experience than merely maintenance learning, with the real pleasure of acquiring new insights and perspectives that broaden one's horizons. The difference that lifelong learning can make is clearly demonstrated through the lives and careers of many of our most respected business leaders and professional academics: through continual questioning, they constantly broaden their knowledge base at every stage of their careers. Even after retirement, when financial and external motivation to learn has been removed, many continue to reflect upon and contribute to business and society for their own satisfaction and self-respect - embodying lifelong learning in the truest sense of the term.

Of course, this satisfaction is by no means confined to the famous amongst us - for all business professionals, it comes from achieving far more than merely topping up one's knowledge and replacing skills that have become rusty over time. For executives in mid-career, it is a way to stimulate personal and professional growth - rekindling the excitement for learning that can so easily be lost in the workplace and creating a thirst for knowledge and an enquiring, open mind that brings a whole new perspective to bear on every kind of life challenge.

Lifelong learning is a way to stimulate personal and professional growth

"Behavioural transformation" might appear a pretentious term, but it sums up the inspired mindset that one can gain through lifelong learning. The ability to stimulate this process of personal behavioural change is a considerable skill, and requires a particularly inspiring and involving environment.

As centres that work every day with a high proportion of mature executives, management schools are well aware of the complex resourcing issues surrounding the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge. Enhancing the knowledge base of current and future business leaders requires particularly capable academics who are not only sound practitioners in their disciplines but, even more so, inspiring personalities who can stimulate passion for learning and self-development in their students.

At the same time, many leading academics are adamant that development should come from a strong research base that is firmly rooted in real-world practice - a perspective that is far removed from the popularly held view of a traditional "ivory tower" university approach. Whether narrowly defined or broadly based, research provides a framework for questioning, investigating and reflecting on business activity that encourages real enthusiasm for critical and creative thinking.

Research provides a framework for questioning, investigating and reflecting on business activity

This approach is ideally coupled with the philosophy that in an ever-changing world, no-one's knowledge base can ever be truly complete. The solution is to develop the right "learning attitude", empowering lifelong learners to manage their own learning process and constantly redefine their goals. In particular, it is vital to "learn to learn" - developing a mindset where the acquisition of knowledge is an enjoyable goal as much as it is a means to an end.

The increased emphasis on lifelong learning means that more and more adults with significant work experience, many of whom hold senior positions, are turning to universities in growing numbers to upgrade their business knowledge and enhance their managerial and leadership capacity. Today, employers expect staff to invest more time and energy into pursuing learning opportunities that will make them more confident and flexible employees, capable of adding significantly enhanced value to the organisation. They are expecting leadership skills, a strong knowledge base, communication skills, the ability to implement decisions made - and are becoming more demanding in their right to employ individuals who foster these skills.

Considering the changing job market with reductions in lifelong employment, it is important that business schools produce individuals with marketable inter-organisational skills as much as intra-organisational skills. Individuals empowered in this way are not reliant on any particular employer to achieve their career goals - and this in turn places them in a strong bargaining position, in which they are bolstered by their newly-found skills and confidence.

Ironically, this can entail an increased focus on some of the traditional principles of academia: particularly the development of strong powers in critical thinking and self-monitoring. A top-class business school must aim for graduates who think critically, have decision-making abilities and have the capacity for decisive implementation. To this end, business schools need to ensure that alongside knowledge of technical and functional business basics, their graduates have gained effective learning skills as an ongoing basis for continued career development.

True lifelong learners stand out due to their passion for enquiry and their energy in searching for creative solutions to business problems. These individuals are often better able to anticipate change and make plans to address changing commercial situations and the possibility of redeployment or redundancy. In other words, they take control of their life in the midst of all societal and business changes.

Ultimately, one has indeed the choice between relying one one's current knowledge and act accordingly, or following in Plato's footsteps and permanently seek to acquire new knowledge and experience. The decision is ultimately personal; the ramifications can be far-reaching.

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