The new normal in lifelong learning
by Johan Roos

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It used to be that a university degree certified that you had enough knowledge to last a lifetime. An occasional book and on-the-job training would fill in the gaps and keep you up-to-date. Now the new normal requires continuous lifelong learning, including regular updating in your knowledge of things you may never have studied, particularly literacy of technology and the humanities. Fortunately, you can obtain all this knowledge in small chunks from a variety of providers — online, face-to-face, or blended learning formats. Here’s why these have become the new normal in lifelong learning.

Technology literacy

This model is required because technology is making the world increasing efficient, complex, and prone to sudden change. Whatever was learned at the university is insufficient, as courses, programs and even professors constantly lag behind the exponential developments in technology. Who can keep abreast with advances in data analytics, blockchains, robotics, machine learning, and nano-technology as well as what is happening in the fin-tech, auto-tech, med-tech, agro-tech and any other industry disrupted by technology? Graduates today have to keep filling their skill gaps simply to maintain employability by topping up their degrees with short courses with or without diplomas.

On the corporate side, CEOs are taken aback when they realize the extent to which activities within so many jobs in their companies can be automated. The prospect of replacing 20% of the workforce with algorithms every year over the next few years is a daunting leadership task and terrifying social project. It is not surprising that rapid upskilling of the workforce is high up on the leadership agenda in many boardrooms, and in governments.

Technology wants what life wants – more of itself, which makes the world more complex. There is no stopping this evolution.1 Higher education, especially older traditional universities, quickly need to adapt to the new circumstances that technology is creating. Some have already argued that the purpose of universities should primarily be “robot-proofing” people.2 Of course, not everyone can be, or needs to be a star coder or gene editing expert, but life will be tough for graduates who are ignorant of basic vocabulary and syntax in the technology fields, especially if they aspire to leadership roles.

Continuous technology literacy is the new normal in life-long learning.

Human literacy

Humans are not robots and neurons are not digital switches. All the brilliant discoveries and inventions from technology will not solve the grand challenges of today’s world — mass-ignorance, poverty, intolerance, famine, and conflict – without knowing how to make the most out of being human. In view of what technology wants and can do, we need to ensure that our precious human potential is valued and used rather than going underused or moved to the aft behind awe-inspiring technology.

If we do not carefully consider how technology can and should be applied to our very humanity, we will end up as dull, ignorant and rather useless automatons in an incredibly complex and fast world, with our humanity lagging behind. That danger is clear and present if or when the current machine-learning algorithms running refrigerators and accident-prone autonomous vehicles finally evolve into artificial superintelligence with an IQ of, say, 20,000 and accelerating, compared to our measly 150.3 When parts of job are replaced by robots, or rather algorithms, we need to learn how to work with and complement what machines can and should do.

Unlike any other species, homo sapiens has ways for individuals who have never met to share strong religious, political, national, and corporate identities. We can make moral choices, persuade and convince, be culturally sensitive, empathetic, globally agile, and able to read and speak body language, imagine, intuit, improvise, and so much more. If technology advances our capacities to perform ever-greater actions, we must also advance our capacities to think ever greater thoughts and co-create, and know how to become masters of machine-human interfacing.4

Continuous human literacy is the new normal in lifelong learning.

A Cambrian explosion of variety of possibilities

Over the last decade, we have witnessed an explosive increase in diversity of institutions offering higher education of all kinds. Yet, although universities think they are delivering, experts are still saying that employers are not happy with university graduates. It is time to sound a few alarm bells; universities cannot stay the same. The ed-tech and tech-ed landscape will become even more complex and dynamic. There will be an enormous need for more on-demand, customised, and stackable courses, milestone degrees, micro-masters, and badges of all kinds. Universities will continue to play important roles, but the ever-changing landscape will see a wider range of suppliers, formats, credentials, and validations.

Universities can participate in this evolution. Within a few years in the early 2000s, there will likely be just one market segment in which providers of all types become partners for lifelong learning, co-creators of knowledge, catalysts of innovation and enablers of individual, organizational and societal prosperity. Expect lifelong education to become the normal for experienced adults, as well as the unemployed, and even retirees reconnecting to help junior workers progress.

Learning to know, to do, to be, and to live together remain the classical pillars of lifelong learning,5 with obvious benefits for individuals, organizations and our shared society. But, the idea and practice of life-long learning is being disrupted. The game is changing and a new normal is emerging that will challenge the status quo of universities and create new opportunities for the illiterate and literate alike.

About the Author:

Johan Roos is a Chief Academic Officer, professor, author, and co-inventor at LEGO Serious Play

This article is one in a series related to the 10th Global Peter Drucker Forum, with the theme management. the human dimension, taking place on November 29 & 30, 2018 in Vienna, Austria #GPDF18

This article was first published in LinkedIn Pulse


1 Kevin Kelly, 2010, What Technology Wants, Viking Press.

2 Joseph E. Aoun, 2018, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, MIT Press.

3 Tim Urban, “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence,” Wait but Why, 22 January 2015.

4 See my short articles “Build STEM Skills, but Don’t Neglect the Humanities,” Harvard Business Review, 24 June 2015 and “Extending Moore’s Law to Claiming Our Humanity,” Drucker Forum Blog, June 8, 2015, and “The Adjacent Possible in Humanistic Thinking,” Vertikals, 12 November 2015.

5 Treasure Within: Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century, 1996.

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