Learning to unlearn

Apr 28, 2024

In the AEC industry today, the most innovative organizations will not be those with the greatest capacity to learn but those with the greatest capacity to unlearn.

Today’s workplace has changed more in the last several years than in the preceding quarter-century. Driven by a mix of deliberate business choices and broader industry trends such as AI and automation, the “future of work” is no longer an imaginary time in the future. It’s here. It’s now.

Although technology is nothing new to modern workplaces, the rapid evolution of what defines specific technical skills and the rate at which new skills emerge for nearly every role in a company is unique to this moment. These new workforce demands underscore the importance of professional development as organizations respond to change in a way that fuels innovation for long-term success.

Innovation through professional development. Embracing this opportunity, Bowman’s professional development strategy centers around the simple philosophy of connecting those who know with those who need. Although the latest technical skills are crucial for an employee’s success, so is a growth mindset founded on the principles of continuous learning.

Unless paired with business skills to manage their career, technical learning alone can unintentionally diminish an organization’s innovation potential. Often, with a focus on tactical skills alone, the comfort and desirability bias embedded in existing workflows yields the opportunity offered by new and more efficient technologies.

The disruption of voicemail. An example of this was the introduction of voicemail technology to the workplace in the 1970s. With an early name of the technology being the “electronic secretary,” it’s no surprise that many secretaries saw the technology as a threat and feared it would render them obsolete.

Focused on the task that consumed the most significant amount of time in a typical workday, many resisted the change by arguing that voicemail was impersonal, inefficient, or unreliable and that human interaction was essential for effective communication. On the other hand, those who embraced the new technology discovered voicemail didn’t diminish their roles but evolved them.

Crucially, we automate tasks, not people. While some see automation as a force that eliminates jobs, innovators, like the secretaries who embraced, instead of resisting, voicemail technology, leverage it as an opportunity for individual growth. While Bowman’s learning programs include many tactical skills, its core mission is personal growth fueled by a mix of technical and business skills.

The paradox of contemporary disruptors. Today, technical disruptions like automation and AI are more pervasive than voicemail, but challenges and pathways forward are no different. Capturing this idea, futurist Alvin Toffler poignantly said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

In the “future of work” where we now live, the most innovative organizations will not be those with the greatest capacity to learn but those with the greatest capacity to unlearn. As more technologies disrupt ordinary workflows, teams will face the challenge of learning new skills that no one else knows and will likely change the nature of their job.

Succeeding through a culture of learning. For organizations to succeed, they must find ways to shorten the distance between acquiring and applying a new skill. While there are many tactical approaches to achieving this goal, an organization’s learning culture is the most pervasive predictor of success.

If people don’t want to change, no amount of content will convince them to change. However, in a culture of learning, content alone is not the star of the show.

Instead, a culture of learning focuses on both connections and content. It shortens the distance between acquiring and applying a skill by establishing onramps to the new opportunities created by adopting new technology. While a learning asset may help an employee develop a new skill, connections with fellow employees are the seeds of your organization’s innovative ideas for tomorrow.

Define your future of work. New automation and AI technologies may soon displace entire task categories within your company. While these changes can be unsettling, past technical transitions like the adoption of voicemail remind us that the challenges we’re facing are not insurmountable.

Packed within each change is an opportunity for growth and innovation. The key to realizing those opportunities rests in our willingness to learn, unlearn, and relearn as we develop new skills. Organizationally, this journey is not just about empowering employees with new skills; it’s about cultivating a culture of continuous learning. By fostering an environment prioritizing connections and content, you can prepare your workforce to shape the future through innovation. 

Donnie Gladfelter is senior manager of technical learning and development at Bowman. Contact him at dgladfelter@bowman.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.