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Stephen Walker

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Lifelong learning: The only way to keep up


Stephen Walker reviews the knowledge revolution and the challenge and opportunities it represents. Technology is both the cause and solution. The rapidly increasing rate of innovation presents challenges to us all.

Lifelong learning is a subject dear to me. One of my heroes is Johnny 5, star of Short Circuit, a 1986 film about an intelligent robot. He demands input – 'give me input' – what better way to live? The 21st century gives us both a challenge and an opportunity to produce and digest information. The pace of change is increasing rapidly. More data will be stored in the cloud in the next two years than exists anywhere today. The explosion of information, the panorama of possibilities is breathtaking.

The pace of change

It was in 'For Your Eyes Only' in 1981 when James Bond had a wristwatch communicator. I suppose before then it was simply unbelievable! There are now roughly enough mobile SIM accounts for every man woman and child on this planet. The fantastical idea that you could carry a small device that let you talk to someone anywhere in the world whenever you wanted would seem like magic to my grandparents: simply unbelievable.

Life spans are lengthening too: both as a result of greatly improved infant mortality rates and also through keeping our creaking bodies going a little longer. Health care is advancing on a broad front but new health problems are arising from our longevity, such as disease mutations. Eight billion people offer a vibrant disease-breeding ground.

No discussion of innovation is complete without the Internet effect. Data storage on the cloud brings huge power to the mobile communications device in your pocket. That revolution has just begun. The Internet of Things is just beginning to coalesce into a discernible system. The forecast for the 21st century is that we will innovate at a pace 1,000 times greater than the previous century. All those primary school children being taught to write software will produce something.

The world of work

My electronic engineering background means I am fairly conversant with modern technology. Actually, was fairly conversant, is more accurate. I no longer understand half of the acronyms, or the job titles in the engineering press. So VLSI was easy, SCSI too, GUI caught me for a while and I don’t even know the acronyms from the last 30 years to be able to write about them. What then is the value of my degree in electronics engineering now?

It is a fact, and always has been, that you can’t stop learning. There is no standing still. You either keep up or you fall behind. An education gives you the platform, and hopefully the skills, to continue learning. I have the privilege to be a school governor and we developed a vision, involving the whole school, children, teaching staff and governors. The vision focused on the skills and qualities of 'our' children when they entered the workforce.

We recognised that these children will still be working in 2070 and we could not guess what they would be doing or the skills they will need. Two of the things we wanted were an ability to learn for themselves and a comfort with using IT. Our hope is that, with those two skills, they can continue to learn throughout their lives.

Social learning

There was discussion a few years ago around knowledge being redundant: you need to know where to find it and you need to know people who can help. Unless you invoke the infinite number of monkeys theory I do believe that some knowledge is a good starting point for doing anything. Unless you know something, how can you begin to find out what you don’t know? Even searching on Google requires a relevant search term.

As I write this I feel slightly uncomfortable that my engineering background, starting from the fundamentals, is showing. I’d be interested in a discussion about free form, unstructured innovation with you. Sticking to my guns, that little knowledge does allow you to connect with other people who have the knowledge and ability you lack. Most people do not have the skills to do anything alone. We need help from a vast array of specialists to do the most straightforward things.

These specialists, put together in a temporary coalition of experts, have huge innovative clout. You do need to know how to find and choose the specialists. Luckily the Internet makes that possible- possible with a plethora of options. You just need to be able to choose the right option...

Sources of learning

The free delivery, global 24/7 market offered by the Internet makes online training courses accessible to all. MOOCs are available on a huge variety of subjects. Naturally they differ in quality and cost, you just have to choose. Blogs are an amazing source of information. There are 15.8bn WordPress blogs alone. I learnt how to lay a hedge from a blog - and it worked. Finally, and of course most importantly, we have publications like TrainingZone. I find the content to be stimulating and most valuable. There is a publication for everything you could want: even two for underground water storage tanks.


Lifelong learning is a necessity. The increasing pace of change makes any body of knowledge obsolete very quickly. The trick is to learn fast enough, and cheaply enough, to keep up and get ahead. This new information hungry world is a great opportunity for experts. You should contribute. On the one hand more people want information: on the other there is a scarcity in your niche. What do you know? Isn’t this the most amazing time to be alive?

Stephen is a co-founder of Motivation Matters, set up in 2004 to develop organisation behaviour to drive greater performance. He has worked for notable organisations such as Corning, De La Rue and Buhler and has been hired to help Philips, Lloyds TSB and a raft of others. A published author of articles and Conference speaker with a book soon to be in print, Stephen delivers workshops across the country. It is all about “making people more effective by more appropriate managerial behaviour” he says. You can follow Stephen on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Blog


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