Think Piece: The Only Competency That Will Matter Is Continuous Learning

“In a chaotic world, the only competency that matters is continuous learning.”

To improve and extend your career, you need to ponder what the near future holds. While predicting the distant future is tough, looking out a few short years using recent history as your foundation isn’t nearly as difficult. The last two decades have been marked by the radical adoption of technology in nearly every aspect of conducting business. The adoption of technology has eliminated once formidable barriers to entry, brought unrivaled transparency to reality, and accelerated productivity (particularly in the areas of product development and distribution). Given all of the change you have witnessed in the last 20 years, does it really make sense that the same competencies organizations sought out three decades ago will be those most of value moving forward?

I argue NOT!

Characterizing the Last 20 Years

While the adoption of technology has certainly been a major driver of change, there are ultimately four characteristics that define the business environment of the last two decades. Those characteristics are:

  1. Continuous churn — frequent cycles of both rapid economic growth and contraction that forced organizations to acquire and shed both talent and entire businesses. Many global organizations were forced to deal with both rapid growth and contraction simultaneously, i.e. churn.
  2. Intense global competition — as barriers to entry and competition fell, every firm, even those servicing once tightly defined regional markets, was thrust into a state of unrelenting and intense global competition. In a race for differentiation, technology was leveraged to accelerate product development and innovative delivery, kicking off a never-ending battle that has shortened product development lifecycles and forced innovation throughout all business functions.
  3. Rapid obsolescence — with product lifecycles getting shorter and new ways to deliver goods and services arriving daily, information, tools, practices, products, and skills are becoming obsolete at an insane pace. In some industries the knowledge required to produce a product is obsolete by the time the product hits the market. This characteristic impacts not only individuals and organizations, but also entire industries (print publication, photographic technology, communications infrastructure, etc.)
  4. Unpredictability foils planning — all of the above characteristics combine to create the fourth: the complexity that volatility in the business environment brings to planning. For industries that make long-term investments (airlines, heavy manufacturing, materials mining, etc.) long-term planning has become largely ineffectual.

The two words that best describe our current state: continuous obsolescence. Years ago, management guru Tom Peters predicted our current state. He called it “managing under chaos.”

Established Competencies No Longer Apply

Evolution and change are not new, but the rate at which the business environment is changing is unprecedented. During most of the last century, economic cycles, product lifecycles, and the knowledge, skills, tools, and approaches used to produce products lasted longer. Not only did change occur slower, it occurred in predictable patterns. This stability and consistency enabled organizations to create organizational models that governed how work was broken up into tasks, who would accomplish those tasks, what tools would be used, and to predict how long work would take. A few years into the industrial era, the concept of competencies emerged and organizations started hiring to a target competency profile that has hasn’t changed much in 60 years; that is, until now!

The era of long-lasting competencies is gone, and I am predicting that it will never return. Chaos and rapid change are the new norm and will be for decades to come. In the chaotic environment that is today, one thing is clear: the approaches developed for organizing labor and accomplishing work in the industrial era have become barriers to productivity today. No longer do organizations need indefinite access to narrowly skilled talent; instead, they need medium-term access to versatile talent and short-term access to specialized talent.

The Only Competency that Will Matter: Continuous Learning

It should be clear to everyone in HR that in a world of constant obsolescence, knowledge, skills, tools, and practices have an extremely limited shelf life. Instead of relying on past experience, training, or education, employees will be required to continually “unlearn” yesterday’s obsolete practices and solutions and to seek out completely new ones using the social trends and technology of the day. In that environment, the only key competency that can effectively counter continuous obsolescence is the ability to continuously learn and apply knowledge.

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The continuous learning competency is the foundation behind building a “learning organization,” a concept firms like Google, Nike, Netflix, and Apple have championed since inception.

The key characteristics of the continuous learning competency include:

  1. Endless learning — unlike traditional training and development, there is no endpoint for individuals or organizations that exhibit this competency.
  2. Relative speed — while continuous learners never stop, the speed at which they seek out, absorb, and leverage new knowledge is relative to the rate of innovation or speed of change called for by the market.
  3. Bleeding-edge — continuous learners are never playing catch up, but rather are learning from the leading or bleeding edge of knowledge. As such, their trusted sources don’t include more mainstream channels of information dissemination.
  4. Self-directed — remaining on the bleeding edge of knowledge requires direction that cannot come from systems designed to coordinate the masses. As a result, continuous learners are self-motivated and self-directed learners.
  5. Immediate application — it is possible to continuously acquire knowledge and never apply it, but continuous learners are never satisfied with theoretical or abstract knowledge. They instead seek out learning that can be directly applied to current and “near future” problems and opportunities.
  6. Broad scope — to further enable application of knowledge, continuous learners seek out information on a broad range of skills and capabilities that better enable immediate application of core knowledge. The expanded scope of learning often includes potential problems, leading experts, the best information sources, next practices, metrics, and trends.
  7. Agile — continuous learners can quickly recognize and accept that previously attained knowledge is no longer relevant, and stop defending past practices and long-held beliefs.
  8. Sharing — both individuals and organizations that master the continuous learning competency develop systems that actually get used to maximize the speed and quality of information that gets shared throughout the organization, eliminating excessive duplication in discovery. These systems also help pinpoint how and where continuous learners are uncovering information of value.
  9. Performance criteria — individuals who are continuous learners assess their own performance based on their ability to remain on the “bleeding edge,” even when others do not. Organizations seeking to develop a learning organization also establish continuous learning behaviors as primary assessment factors in hiring, promotion decisions, and performance appraisals.
  10. Data-based decision-making — non-continuous learners are comfortable using historical data and examples out of context, while continuous learners and learning organizations demand time-sensitive information to justify decisions.

Final Thoughts

Stop reading for a second and ask yourself: “has my organization experienced unpredictable change in recent years, are we growing in some areas but contracting in others, and does the way we have always done things seem to be a barrier moving forward?” If you answered yes to any of those phrases, is it really likely that you can lead or dominate your industry without addressing those issues?

Accepting obsolescence of knowledge and experience is hard, but if you are going to be successful in a world of chaos, innovation, and constant obsolescence, you need to realize that “yesterday’s answers” are not only rapidly losing their value, but reliance upon them may be a liability. If as an individual you desire to be successful and enjoy job security, you need to become a “learning machine.” If you want to make your organization successful in a chaotic world, declare “continuous learning” to be your organization’s No. 1 core competency.

No Excuses

A while back I was attending a formal meeting at Google. Demonstrating my total attention (in stark contrast to the Googlers in attendance) I left all of my technology packed away. Immediately following the meeting I was asked to discuss the ramifications of a major industry event that had occurred during the meeting. I excused my lack of knowledge and awareness of the event using my dedicated attention to the meeting with executives. Much to my dismay, the employee responded with a scowl, dismissing my excuse, and proceeded to walk away mumbling to himself and shaking his head in disbelief. I learned that day that the cost of not knowing “everything immediately” at Google is extremely high. Don’t let my excuse be yours. Learning cannot stop because you are otherwise engaged!

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



8 Comments on “Think Piece: The Only Competency That Will Matter Is Continuous Learning

  1. Hmmm…
    The financial cost of learning is high.

    Yes, we bring our grade schoolers and high schoolers through publicly funded educational systems financed by federal, state, and local policies (mostly via tax revenues) – why can’t we bring ALL learning the same way?

    The financial cost of not learning is even higher.

    Yes, it may require competency modeling but so what – isn’t that a good thing?

    Here’s how some countries educate their populations:

  2. Agree that for most jobs learning is #1. Would put interpersonal skills at #2 (e.g., working effectively on a team). Depends somewhat on your measure of success, but in most cases it will be quality of product/service and customer satisfaction; learning is critical to both.

    Its also worth noting that there may be a distinction between line work and leaders. While learning ability is also essential for leaders, personality factors play a large role in motivating followers.

  3. Dr. Sullivan- Great article… I appreciate your time and attention to detail…

    ( and = Free learning)

    “#5) Immediate application” Learning DOES NOT WORK, unless it is “applied”, which is what I believe is the most important skill set now/future “the application of knowledge/learning”

    Thanks for your passion surrounding your work..

    Best to ALL, Brian-

  4. Thank you, Dr. Sullivan. IMHO, the one competency that matters most in a corporate setting is learning to “ride a winning horse, and to jump quickly and easily to a better one if/when that first horse starts to stumble”. Technology comes and goes, but office politics remains.


  5. I held a meeting last week after which a long-time employee commented, “Itn’t it amazing how the things we learned 20 years ago apply today…you know, nothing in our business really changes.” And I agreed with her!

    YIKES, John! What a mistake…I’m having another meeting this week and before that meeting begins I’m going to insist that every person in attendance, read a copy of this article. We will then discuss how things are CHANGING and what we can do to accept the obsolescence of our knowledge and begin to become a company of continuous learning.

    Thanks John, we need to have those cobwebs of performance based on past experience blown away…

  6. I guess then my favorite business book of all time
    “The Fifth Discipline” remains en vogue.

    Continuous Learning is like becoming the Great White Shark always swimming, sensing and adjusting in real time.

    Yes, the cutting edge information to stay ahead of the curve is not found in the “normal channels” hence the even greater emphasis on your intellectual knowledge network.

  7. In general, I agree that the ossified thinking and practices are the death of organizations. People who are stuck in their ways need to be shaken up one way or another.

    That said, as with everything, there needs to be balance. Skills I learned 20 years ago still matter significantly:

    1) Keep your eye on the ball. Organizations and people need to know their value-add in a context that isn’t based on the latest technology. For those who think it’s all Twitter, I’d remind them that it used to be corporate blogs, tag clouds, mash-ups, extranets, push technology, WAP and dozens of other “game changers” that are forgotten. For most start-ups, keeping up to date on technology distracts from developing a real competitive advantage. It feels good to have a tag cloud on your home page, but does it really make your product better?

    2) Enough with the multi-tasking. Study after study shows that multi-tasking kills productivity and produces a crummy work product. I’m glad when I see people multitasking in meetings only if I don’t actually want their input, and the neeting is pro-forma. It’s better to get everyone in a room, focus on the issue, and develop consensus and resolution. No one reading TechCrunch on their iPhone in a meeting is going to have a valuable contribution, because they can’t get their brain past the obvious.

    3) The Great White Shark metaphor is the right one. Sharks evolved their abilities millions of years ago, and have stuck with a winning program as the oceans around them have changed. For people, like sharks, it’s about sharp teeth, the ability to move (think) fast, and the ability to identify and dominate an opportunity. That never changes.

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